I’ve been asked many times the past few days whether to approach and what to say to Japanese colleagues in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake and tsunami.
As with anything so intensely personal, one solution will not fit all and cultural generalizations become even more dangerous, but I am pretty confident of a couple of points. I’m basing it on my own gut instinct, born from having lived in Tokyo during the Kobe earthquake when my team and I had friends and family in the Kansai area – and then this was followed by the Aum terrorist attacks in Tokyo itself. For those of you that are wondering, I do not know anyone directly affected by the Tohoku earthquake, although I did live in Sendai for several years as a child. I do wonder what has happened to all the schoolmates I have lost touch with.
The first thing I would say is do not hesitate to approach your Japanese colleagues, either in person or by email. All you need to say is that you hope their family, friends and colleagues are OK. However you have to bear in mind that all might not be OK, so it is best, if you are approaching them face to face, to ask when there are not so many people around. They may only just have managed to pull themselves together and your question might tip them back over the edge again, causing loss of face.
Do not underestimate how emotional and stressful the situation is even for people who are not directly affected. There have been so many comments in the Western media about how resilient, gaman zuyoi and calm Japanese people are, and it is true overall, but this does not mean there is not a lot of hurt inside, and plenty of emotion being expressed openly as well as through quiet anguish. The TV coverage in Japan is horribly distracting and mesmerising and is now available over the internet too, making work very hard to concentrate on.
Telling your colleagues that you are thinking of them will help though, as not only does it remind Japanese friends that people in the rest of the world do care about Japan, and understand how serious the situation is, but it also gives them a chance to talk with you about how they are feeling. I sense that being “foreign” might even help in this respect, as they can say things they might hesitate to say to a fellow Japanese.
Beware of the Western tendency to want to “do” something and over-communicate however. Listening, and quietly donating money or other practical help are more effective. Otherwise it can look like grandstanding on someone else’s tragedy for self publicity, or to make oneself feel better, more than helping the actual victims.
Right now of course what most people in Japan need is food, fuel and communications, and unfortunately that is very hard to provide long distance.
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