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In Japan, Cultural Factors Complicate Giving _ and Receiving

MARI YAMAGUCHIJanuary 20, 1995

TOKYO (AP) _ If charity begins at home, it may end there, too. Japan’s traditions of self-reliance and reluctance to accept outside help could mean less help for survivors of this week’s devastating earthquake.

In times of disaster, ordinary Americans open their pocketbooks _ whether for earthquake victims in Los Angeles or starving people in Somalia.

Japanese demonstrate the same generosity, but it can take very different forms. Handouts are unusual. Even people who are homeless and destitute rarely beg.

On Tuesday, when a devastating quake of magnitude 7.2 struck western Japan, family members and close neighbors helped each other, often with heroic measures, to escape from collapsing houses.

Many of the efforts, though, were confined to the small, familiar circle of family and neighborhood.

While ordinary Japanese responded quickly to neighbors’ needs, they criticized their government for reacting slowly. On Friday, three full days after the quake hit, lawmakers were still discussing how to proceed.

Even in the field, rescuers were sometimes slow to respond to an immediate crisis _ a fact that frustrated quake victims.

Television showed a bystander yelling at a fireman outside a burning building. The firefighters had run out of water, but seemed unsure what to do next.

``What are you doing, standing there doing nothing?″ the man shouted. ``Get to work, get some water!″

Decision-making is a lengthy process in Japan, where consensus is crucial. Japanese tend to be good at long-term planning, but not as good at making quick decisions in a crisis, said Kunihiko Hirai, director of the Urban Safety Research Institute.

That indecision carried over into the government’s response to outside offers of help.

Of the offers of immediate assistance that poured in from nearly 30 countries, Japan accepted only three _ 52,000 blankets from the U.S. military, Swiss rescue specialists and search dogs and Mexican specialists.

A Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government appreciated the offers, but simply wasn’t sure how to react. Wealthy for decades, Japan has rarely needed outside help.

For some Japanese, the urban devastation in Kobe was also an uneasy reminder of the post-war devastation of many Japanese cities. Then, Japan suffered a humiliating U.S.-led occupation _ and was forced to accept help from former enemies to get back on its feet.

``For Japanese, it is appropriate to make their own efforts before turning to outsiders’ help,″ said Kitao Abe, a psychology professor at Sei Gakuin University.

And Japanese traditionally believe a good effort is just as important as success, Abe said. So even an inefficient rescue operation has some merit, as long as those involved are trying hard.

The response of corporations and private charities to the disaster has been relatively muted. No tallies of total aid were immediately available, but help was confined to a handful of companies and organizations.

Certain cultural and social factors discourage charitable activities, says Hirai.

``Japanese feel uncomfortable doing something that is not their specific role,″ Hirai said. ``People don’t like to step in and interfere.″

Japanese companies might be uneasy about joining hands with the government in a relief effort, said Yasumasa Yamamoto, a disaster psychology professor at Komazawa University.

A major theme in the last few years has been the reform push to change the cozy and corrupt relationship of politicians and business. Perhaps because of that, Yamamoto said, companies fear joining in a government-led relief effort could taint their image.

Some companies have come forward with help. Nissan Motor Co. pledged $500,000. All Nippon Airways shipped in emergency food supplies.

The Japan Federation of Economic Organizations, an influential business group, added a pledge of another $1 million.

A few citizens groups began joining aid efforts today. A group from Tokushima prefecture, or state, in southern Japan sent several hundred servings of noodles. Another group promised $10 million for relief efforts.

Still another private group said it planned to donate 1 million meals and 2 million bottles of water over the next 10 days.

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