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Japan’s massive earthquake has no effect on culture’s impeccable manners

Mar 14, 2011 12:38:00 AM - thestate.com
She was elderly and alone, injured and in pain. When the massive earthquake struck, a heavy bookshelf toppled onto Hiroko Yamashita, pinning her down and shattering her ankle.

When paramedics finally reached her, agonizing hours later, Yamashita did what she said any “normal” person would do, her son-in-law recounted later: She apologized to them for the inconvenience, and asked if there weren’t others they should be attending to first.

The worst earthquake in Japan’s recorded history left a trail of blazing buildings, inundated coastal communities, wrecked roadways and potentially unstable nuclear power plants. But it barely made a dent in the implacably Japanese trait of exhibiting concern for others even in the worst of circumstances.

The Japanese language is full of ritual apologies, uttered so often as to become almost meaningless: I am about to make a nuisance of myself — please excuse me! Some of this is a matter of mere formality. But at a time of crisis, such politesse can be the glue that holds the country together.

Even though Friday’s magnitude 8.9 quake was shocking and discombobulating, few would imagine burdening a stranger with their anxieties.

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