Japan’s massive earthquake has little effect on culture’s impeccable manners

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She was elderly and alone, injured and in pain. When the massive earthquake struck, a heavy bookshelf toppled onto Hiroko Yamashita, pinning her down and shattering her ankle.

When paramedics finally reached her, agonizing hours later, Yamashita did what she said any “normal” person would do, her son-in-law recounted later: She apologized to them for the inconvenience, and asked if there weren’t others they should be attending to first.

The worst earthquake in Japan’s recorded history left a trail of blazing buildings, inundated coastal communities, wrecked roadways and potentially unstable nuclear power plants. But it barely made a dent in the implacably Japanese trait of exhibiting concern for others even in the worst of circumstances.


Photos: Scenes from the earthquake

The Japanese language is full of ritual apologies, uttered so often as to become almost meaningless: I am about to make a nuisance of myself — please excuse me! Some of this is a matter of mere formality. But at a time of crisis, such politesse can be the glue that holds the country together.

Even though Friday’s magnitude 8.9 quake was shocking and discombobulating, few would imagine burdening a stranger with their anxieties.

On a long flight to Tokyo, amid uncertainty almost until the last minute over whether the plane would actually be allowed to land at the capital’s airport, a fiftysomething businessman questioned a seatmate closely about plans and contingencies: Where are you staying? Why there? Well, the next neighborhood over is nicer. Is someone meeting you, taking care of you?

Only at the tail end of a nine-hour flight did he confide, almost as an abashed aside, that a close relative was missing, and that he would be trying to make his way north, into the tsunami-inundation zone, to determine her fate. He fiddled with his seatbelt, looked around distractedly, and all but coughed out his doubt that he would find her alive.

Some resent the stifling conformity that can accompany social mores such as these. Even in modern-day Japan, speaking one’s mind or making an overt demand can lead to ostracization. Young people, in particular, sometimes feel shackled by rigid conventions of behavior that can seem as arcane as a Kabuki drama.


But in a country where people with a case of the sniffles wear surgical masks in public to avoid infecting anyone, most people seemed determined not to let their anxieties show. That particularly included those attending to customers.

“I am trying hard not to let people see how scared I am,” said Masaki Tajima, a hotel clerk in Utsunomiya, north of Tokyo.

Closer to the quake zone, there were cracks in the studied courtesy. At a gas station in Koriyama, about 130 miles north of Tokyo, some customers become anxious and agitated as fuel ran short, attendants said. Kenji Sato, an attendant of 12 years, recited apologies, trying to soothe people. “Sorry, no more gas, very sorry,” he intoned.

Elsewhere, though, the ingrained instinct for orderliness and calm has kept its hold even amid difficult moments. In Tokyo and its suburbs, the quake knocked out much of the usually clockwork-reliable public-transportation system. Yet when trains finally appeared on a few crucial routes, the queue was as orderly as on any mundane commuting day.

Once aboard, people sat quietly, gazing at their cellphones in hope of an elusive signal.

“It would be uncivilized to try to push and shove, and what good would it do anyway?” said Kojo Saeseki, helping his wife onto a crowded train on the city’s outskirts.

In the city itself, those aboard a nearly empty subway car looked surprised and discomfited when they were asked what had happened to them the day before, but if pressed, they would tell their stories: being trapped in an elevator for hours, or crouching under a desk in a tall building as it swayed like a ship at sea, or seeing a thick pane of safety glass suddenly spider-webbing with cracks.


Photos: Scenes from the earthquake

Some were still telling their stories, haltingly, when the train pulled into a station where a small gap presented itself between the door and the platform. And everyone in the car called out to a departing passenger: Kiotsukete! — Be careful!