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Japanese show manners: The calm after the storm

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

After a couple weeks of the Charlie Sheen Freak Show, I’d like to think all of America was ready for a lesson in civility.

Whoever figured it would come in the form of one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the world?

Yet, there it was: Online. On TV. In print. All adding up to 24-hour news feeds covering the aftermath of the epic earthquake that continues to rock Japan.

It’s only human nature that when people lose everything, things can quickly turn ugly because, well, there’s nothing left to lose. But as this island country goes about picking up the pieces of millions of shattered lives, we have witnessed only calmness and courtesy on international display.

So far, no looting. No rioting. Not even a good fight or two. Instead, we get polite, orderly lines, as survivors wait for hours to use pay phones or be handed a gallon of water.

According to incredulous reporters, even after such long waits, when the announcement comes that fresh drinking water has run out, there’s no swearing, no fist-shaking. They simply turn and walk away, hoping patiently the next supply comes sooner rather than later.

Yoshiaki Takei, a professor of biomechanics and kinesiology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, is impressed by what he’s seeing in the news, but he’s not surprised by it.

It is the way the Japanese people are brought up, said Takei, who lived the first 24 years of his life in a city 70 miles outside Tokyo and is now a resident of West Chicago.

In fact, the professor — who came to this country 26 years ago and became an American citizen in 2001, said dotoku — which means virtue and respectability — was part of the school curriculum for generations. And that code of behavior is ingrained young and passed along.

Taylor Atkins, a professor of Japanese history at NIU, agrees. While many believe the Japanese have some sort of DNA for politeness, it is far from natural.

“There’s actually a lot of social training” that goes into it, he noted, that not only occurs in the schools but also the workplace.

To prove his point, the history buff goes back to 1923, when, after an earthquake rocked Tokyo, mobs killed thousands of ethnic Koreans because it was rumored Korean voodoo caused the disaster.

What we are seeing now,” Atkins said, “reflects the (Japanese) success at making civility a virtue.”

Peg Anderson, associate professor of education at Aurora University, saw that firsthand when she lived on the island from 1978-88 while teaching at a Christian camp. In addition to neighborhoods being “very organized,” she said her two children attended Japanese schools until fourth grade, where politeness and discipline were stressed — and where “the group” was emphasized “over the individual.”

When they returned home, Anderson said, her children quickly acclimated to Western culture.

Unfortunately, that’s not always a good thing. Now more than ever, civility in this country — where we torch cars to celebrate sports championships — seems to be a lost art.

Think good ole Charlie — or closer to home, Rod Blagojevich — where behavior is so outrageous, so rewarded, we wonder if we’re seeing mental illness or the new norm.

What’s really unfortunate, Atkins points out, is that we as a society reinforce this bad behavior and are entertained by it. In Japan, he said, it would be shunned.

Still, Japanese are much more exposed to our culture than we are to theirs. As a result, said Atkins, more citizens there are picking up on our bad examples. That, in turn, has led some Japanese leaders to declare this earthquake/tsunami should be a reminder to its citizens of the need to return to a kinder, more gentle way of life.

It’s a shame we can’t export Sheen to Japan to help with the cleanup efforts. Not that I would wish another disaster on the country. But six weeks in the trenches — no cameras, no goddesses — might just teach him a lesson or two.

And that’s saying it politely.

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