History Is on Japan's Side

Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan came before a press conference over the weekend and made a simple declaration: “I think that the earthquake, tsunami and the situation at our nuclear reactors make up the worst crisis in the 65 years since the war. If the nation works together, we will overcome.”

History, and current research on human resiliency, suggest that he is right. In fact, history and research suggest that Japan will emerge stronger, not weaker, in the years to come.

In recent years, research into post-traumatic stress disorder (P.T.S.D.) has led to a new term and a new area of research: “posttraumatic growth” (P.T.G.). Coined by Dr. Richard Tedeschi, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and coauthor of the “Handbook of Posttraumatic Growth,” P.T.G. research suggests that an encounter with severe trauma can actually lead to highly positive changes in individuals.

It can also increase their resiliency to subsequent adversity. Today, some researchers say that posttraumatic growth is far more common than long-term posttraumatic stress disorder. The norm is to adapt and grow following trauma. That phenomenon is, not coincidentally, Japan’s heritage and cultural norm.

Research with former prisoners of war who spent up to eight years in Vietnam’s infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison confirms two things: Most of them experienced positive growth from the experience (and a P.T.S.D. rate of only 4 percent), and those who experienced the worst trauma — including repeated torture, starvation, solitary confinement and physical injury over many years — reported the most personal growth in the decades since their release. While none of them expressed a desire to go through the experience again, a number have said they are stronger and better men because of it.

In the months and years to come, the world’s third-largest economy, already troubled, will face even more challenges. But Japan’s remarkably well educated, highly productive and uniformly disciplined work force also will have reconstruction projects, recovery and clean-up to unite them. The economic and psychological drive provided by those tasks cannot be underestimated, even as we acknowledge the depth of the tragedy.

Not that long ago, as their cameras showed us the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, television reporters earnestly declared that New Orleans might never return to its previous glory as The Big Easy. A few even declared the city a lost cause.

Today, those predictions seem inane. New Orleans’s centuries of hard living was matched by its hard life — hurricanes, floods, disease and multiple wars, to name a few. Writing off a city with that life experience never seemed a good bet to those who study human resiliency.

After the staggering loss of life (by some estimates, three million deaths) and property in World War II, Japan rebuilt itself into one of the world’s great intellectual, economic and industrial powers.

Without diminishing for a moment the magnitude of the current crisis, or the human tragedies, Japan’s prime minister exhibited one of the hallmarks of leadership in crisis by reminding his countrymen of their heritage.

In invoking Japan’s history of resiliency and determination, Kan tapped into one of the most powerful factors in human resiliency: knowing you have the strength, knowledge and stamina it takes to make it through, because you have made it through other adversity in your life.

In these early stages, it appears that Japan’s cultural norms are providing some of the effective interventions needed following a disaster of this scale.

In 2007, an international panel of experts developed a list of five conditions that need to be created in the early stages of mass trauma: 1. a sense of safety; 2. calm, 3. a sense of self and community efficacy; 4. connectedness; and 5. hope. Watching the videos of Japanese citizens in the aftermath of their calamity, one can observe many of these interventions already at work.

The citizens of Japan have a benchmark for their conduct in the years to come. Ironically, the aging Japanese population may become a strength in the current crisis; the older citizens have the most experience in facing the challenges. Japan should emerge in a few years as a stronger and even more competitive world power.

Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland, co-authors of a forthcoming book on the resiliency and success of Vietnam-era American prisoners of war.

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