Japanese Stiff Upper Lip: Please Avoid Fukinshin

March 15, 2011   By KUMIKO MAKIHARA
Time Magazine

My mother’s golf pro called to tell her he was going home to Canada for two weeks. A server at a restaurant heavily frequented by expatriates told me foreigners were showing up with their suitcases and having one last meal before flying out. Some foreign companies and embassies were advising their staff members to leave. I suppose all of this isn’t surprising with three explosions at a nuclear power plant and predictions of major aftershocks. In fact, as I began to write this, my CD rack started to rattle and the ceiling lamp began to sway. Another temblor.

But my family just canceled an opportunity to get away from our country. Several months ago, my parents arranged for my son and me, along with my brother’s family, which lives in New York, to join them at a friend’s beach house in the Philippines. How lovely it would have been to relax in that oasis, not to mention take a break from the anxiety-raising tremors and fear of radiation exposure.

Such reveries were far from my parents’ mind, however. “I don’t know about the Philippines,” said my mother the night after the earthquake struck, on March 11. Huh? Having spent close to half of my life overseas, I didn’t immediately get the connection between the devastation up north and our holiday plans.

Over the next few days, my mother frequently used the word fukinshin, which roughly translates as “indiscreet” or “inappropriate.” It would not be right for me to wear fancy clothes, like, for example, the kimono I had planned to put on to attend my son’s elementary-school graduation ceremony. We shouldn’t rejoice, and certainly shouldn’t display joy, when others were suffering so much. (The school must have agreed with her mentality, because the event was canceled.)

My mother also didn’t want to inconvenience her neighbors. She said her sister, who lives next door, would not be pleased if she had to deal with any possible earthquake damage to my parents’ home in addition to her own. Along those lines, my mother felt that I, too, should refrain from going away so that I could hold down the fort of my apartment. Her thoughts reminded me of the TV images I saw of female employees in a shop desperately leaning against shelves to keep items from flying off while the building shook wildly and furniture crashed about. I supposed it would be bad if I were not around to clean up a water leak or fallen planter that infringed on someone else’s property.

My father was reluctant to travel too. “The nuclear situation is very serious,” he said. He didn’t mean he was worried about getting radiation sickness. Rather, as a former prominent executive who is respected in the business community, he felt he should be available in case a corporate matter relating to nuclear energy or the power companies arose that he could advise on.

Foreigners might think my parents’ attitude sniffs of the self-importance of a martyr complex. But I believe it is this kind of extreme respect for others that has kept our country so calm during the turmoil. From early on, I was confident that there wouldn’t be any looting. The closest thing to disorderly conduct I’ve seen was a man cutting into a long line to board a commuter train. Of course, everyone around was too polite to protest.

What was our final decision regarding the trip? My brother, who is American in mentality from his many years of residence in the U.S., really wanted to go but pulled out as well. He concluded that it was too much trouble to fly to Japan, where he was supposed to join us, considering the chaos at the airport from all the fleeing expats.