Grief-Stricken Japanese Reluctant To Open Up With the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear crisis, much has been made of Japanese resilience. But some say that it can go too far, and that keeping emotions bottled up doesn't help. One counselor says very few people have wanted to talk about what they're going through.
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Grief-Stricken Japanese Reluctant To Open Up

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Grief-Stricken Japanese Reluctant To Open Up

Grief-Stricken Japanese Reluctant To Open Up

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Japanese resilience to adversity has been on full display in a country that has suffered an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear crisis. NPR's Rob Gifford reports from Northern Japan on how the people there are dealing with their grief.

ROB GIFFORD: Taiji Murai is a tall, efficient local Japanese official. Like almost every other Japanese person encountered by foreign journalists in the wake of the recent tragedies, he's helpful, respectful and hardworking.

Mr. TAIJI MURAI: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: But on finishing an interview at the temporary government office in the fishing town of Kamaishi, and being thanked for his help in difficult circumstances, tears well up in his eyes and flow down his cheeks. He retreats in embarrassment, understandably overwhelmed by his personal, communal or national grief, or perhaps all three.

An American might well do the same in similar circumstances, but it's not unusual in Japan for people to feel ashamed at showing their emotions in public, says Yoshiko Suzuki, the director of a grief counseling center in Tokyo.

Ms. YOSHIKO SUZUKI (Grief Counselor): Japan has a shame culture. We are very much ashamed to behave in an irresponsible way in a public place. That is demonstrated in some way in the way we express our grief. I use term grief. Some 15 years ago I don't even know that kind of term. And if I say grief to quite well-educated people, what are you talking about, you know, what is it?

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: They are well-acquainted with grief, if not necessarily the outward demonstrations of it, at evacuation centers up and down Japan's northeastern coastline. Towns such as Kesennuma and here at RikuzenTakata have been destroyed by the tsunami, and neighbors, friends and relatives lost in an instant. But for this stretch of coastline, there is just one professional counselor, a psychiatrist called So Fujishoro.

Mr. SO FUJISHORO (Psychiatrist): Acute stress disorder.

GIFFORD: Acute stress disorder is one thing he says he's seeing, people in a daze from the trauma. But today he visited five or six evacuation centers, and he says very few people wanted to talk about it at all.

Mr. FUJISHORO: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: There's still a stigma about going to see a psychiatrist or a counselor. People are still very reluctant to do it, he says, while noting that it is also still very soon after the trauma of the tsunami.

In the meantime, people have rallied together to help each other. All around this sports hall in Rikuzen-Takata are signs in Japanese and English saying All for One and One for All, and everyone you speak to ends the conversation with a word that's taken on an almost magical, mystical status: Gambaro, they say, or its variant, Gambare, which translates loosely as: go for it.

Fifty-nine-year-old Yoko Kumagai sits on the floor of the sports hall with her daughter.

Ms. YOKO KUMAGAI: (Through translator) There is no other way that we can survive than we say to each other like a prayer, Gambaro - go for it, go for it, be positive, be positive. That's why we say that a lot. And I actually saw my house is washed away. Everything is lost, and I try not to think (unintelligible) just the big picture, and I just keep this word, Gambare. That's all I can do.

GIFFORD: Grief counselor Yoshiko Suzuki says that's fine, and it's important, and Japanese patience and inner strength are admirable. But she says whatever culture you come from, keeping it all bottled up doesn't help.

Ms. SUZUKI: I don't deny that this Gambaro spirit at all. You know, we all need this. But at the same time, even if you are a very strong personality, we cannot deny that trauma affects people. Whether you like it or not, whether you admit it or not, your brain has been affected and we need some help.

GIFFORD: Victims of these tragedies may reach out for that help in the weeks, months and years ahead. In recent decades, foreign and Japanese observers say Japanese people have already been changing, just as Western people changed, with modernization and globalization. And sometimes the national character is shaped by the triumphs of economic success. And sometimes it's forged on the anvil of deep dark tragedy.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Rikuzen Takata, Northern Japan.

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