A Perspective on Culture and Brand Japan, Post-Tsunami

I came across an article from NPR (Of War and Kisses: How Adversity Shapes Culture) that provides great context for how cultures are shaped and nurtured.  Before I go further, I think it’s important to add ADI’s definition of culture as a back drop for what defines a culture: Patterns of behavior (what we say and do), encouraged or discouraged (purposefully or inadvertently) by people or systems over time.

The article suggests that a culture can be shaped by its experience with major events and how the people of that culture come together collectively to address challenges. There is no better example of this than Japan.

Through the years, we have had the good fortune to develop a strong relationship with our Japanese friends and alliance partners at WILL-PM.  I co-authored a book (written in Japanese) with Jun Ishida-san, CEO of WILL-PM, on workplace stress in Japan. Through this experience, I know that the cultural implications for behavior in Japan may not always be ideal and many cultural mandates or ‘rules of conduct’ can impede a feeling of wellbeing. But, what we have seen, post-tsunami, from the people of Japan paints a picture of a broad set of rules of culture unlike most.

The 10 items listed below came to me from a friend in Singapore who said she got it from someone in Malaysia, but beyond that, the original author is not known. This list states the value and, importantly, provides behaviorally anchored examples. HATS OFF TO BRAND JAPAN: 10 things to learn about the Japanese culture.

  1. THE CALM: Not a single visual of chest-beating or wild grief. Sorrow itself has been elevated [although grief was present and pain was visible; there are many ways to express pain].
  2. THE DIGNITY: Disciplined queues for water and groceries. Not a rough word or a crude gesture.
  3. THE ABILITY: The incredible architects, for instance. Buildings swayed but didn’t fall.
  4. THE GRACE: People bought only what they needed for the present, so everybody could get something.
  5. THE ORDER: No looting in shops. No honking and no overtaking on the roads; just understanding.
  6. THE SACRIFICE: Fifty workers stayed back to pump sea water in the N-reactors. How will they ever be repaid?
  7. THE TENDERNESS: Restaurants cut prices. An unguarded ATM is left alone. The strong cared for the weak.
  8. THE TRAINING: The old and the children, everyone knew exactly what to do. And they did just that.
  9. THE MEDIA: They showed magnificent restraint in the bulletins. No silly reporters. Only calm reportage.
  10. THE CONSCIENCE: When the power went off in a store, people put things back on the shelves and left quietly!

There is much to admire about Brand Japan, and right now we, in America, are talking about lessons we might take as to how to embed certain culturally predictable values in how our people respond to crisis.  It is quite likely you would have seen many of these traits during our own various disasters, but you would also have seen looting and stealing for example and we often highlighted the exceptions.  The Japanese stood out because of the consistent response across a great many, with no fanfare or discussion of how noble people were. The newspapers were not seeking out the rare individual who demonstrated amazing grace. That grace was everywhere.  Lessons can and should also be taken here about how we are designing our workplaces as cultural incubation centers in America. Actionable Values—mission driven and anchored—to what we say and do is essential to creating that amazing brand we all want in our work life and in our culture.


Posted by Darnell Lattal, Ph.D.

For more than 30 years, Darnell has been dedicated to supporting clients in areas such as strategy implementation, behavioral systems redesign, and leadership development.  Her expertise lies in coaching individuals and organizations towards effective behavior change.