| Apr 12, 2011
Yesterday was the one-month anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami here in Japan. As a sign of respect, the American woman in the home where I’m staying baked some chocolate chip cookies and brought them to her neighbor as a gift.
The neighbor intentionally ignored the cookies for most of their conversation. These two women have known each other for 23 years. Even so, the neighbor was reluctant to accept this modest gift.
Gift-giving is a big thing in Japanese culture. If someone gives you a gift, you are now in debt to this person. That’s why the woman’s neighbor was so reluctant to accept the gift of the cookies. By accepting the gift, she was taking on an obligation.
In disaster situations, the simplest solution is to give things to those who are affected. If someone is hungry, we give them food. If they are thirsty, we give them water. If they are sick, we give them medicines. If they are homeless, we give them shelter.
Here in Japan, our partners tell me that people in the emergency shelters won’t accept help from outsiders. Many have lost everything. Many have no work and no resources. But, the cultural sense of obligation is so powerful that they cannot accept what they perceive as a gift because of the sense of obligation that this gift creates. This is particularly true in situations where the gift comes from people from far away. In these cases, the sense of obligation continues forever because the ability to repay these people is almost impossible.
One way to address this cultural reality is to ask local authorities to help distribute relief assistance. This eliminates any sense of obligation. People are willing to accept this type of help because assistance provided by local authorities is not viewed as a gift.
There are other cultural dynamics that affect the relief response here. Voluntarism, such a strong American response in disasters, is virtually unknown in Japan. People here are concerned first for their families, then their friends, and finally their neighbors. The idea of helping people they don’t know or with whom they are not directly connected is foreign.
At the same time, relationships are everything in this culture. The American culture is a “doing” culture. The Japanese culture is a “being” culture. In a crisis, Americans focus on results. The Japanese focus on relationships.
Every day, our partner sends volunteers into the tsunami zone. The volunteers help to clean out mud and rebuild houses ruined by the tsunami. In the interest of getting the job done, the volunteers can rush into the homes and focus only on removing mud and rebuilding walls, often ignoring the people who are living in the home.
But now the volunteers are spending a lot of time talking with people, building relationships with them. The people receiving help from these volunteers will probably not remember how quickly the volunteers finished their job. But, they will remember that the volunteers took time to listen to their stories and to value them.
For those of you who have supported our efforts in Japan, thank you for opening your hearts to people you may never meet, people who are not part of your family or circle of friends. Please know that we are doing everything we can to transform lives and bring hope in ways that are culturally appropriate and that build relationships with those we serve here in Japan.