Japanese guts

In Japan they have a phrase: Yamato gokoro (大和心). It’s three Japanese ideograms sometimes translated as “Japanese spirit.” The last character, 心 — pronounced “kokoro” when standing alone — is usually translated as “heart,” but the character is a picture of not just the heart, but the heart, the lungs, and the liver — “innards,” or better yet, “guts.”

Yamato gokoro, “Japanese guts,” is the willingness of the Japanese to suck it up, to endure hardships and to give up their individual well-being in favor of their family, their group, their country.

That’s what we’ve seen in the last three weeks: Japanese guts. The example that we see the most in the United States is in Fukushima, and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) workers. Many of these people have lost their homes, their possessions, their family members and their pets to the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the almost unimaginable tsunami that reached as high as 100 feet at some places on the coast.

These people are working 24 hours a day, in immensely difficult conditions, to prevent a possible disaster. And they are by no means alone in this: read the English-language Japanese press, or blogs by people in Japan, and you’ll read a thousand stories — people sharing their hardships, helping their neighbors, working together spontaneously as they begin to rebuild.

Yamato gokoro is perhaps the most noble of human characteristics, and it’s hardly limited to the Japanese. Any time you hear of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his friends, or firefighters going into a burning building, you’re hearing an example of kokoro — not Japanese kokoro, but human kokoro, the guts it takes to press on, to persevere, and finally to conquer.

It’s all too easy to forget this, however, when we look at press reports coming out of Japan.

We hear of Fukushima workers “fleeing” the plant, when what happened is they left for a few hours.

We hear about the appearance of tiny amounts of radioactive iodine in Tokyo tap water — but nothing the next day, when it returns to safe levels.

We hear a thousand commentators mention one measurement that was ten million times normal — but nothing when that turns out to have been a measurement error, made by someone who had little sleep and the weight of the world on his shoulders.

We hear people spinning tales of “worst case scenarios” ten thousand times worse than anything that could plausibly happen — and almost nothing about the fact that the Fukushima reactors endured an earthquake 32 times as forceful as they had been designed for, followed by a tsunami twice as high, and still largely survived.

We hear about “plutonium in the soil” — but not that it’s an amount so tiny that pound for pound, bananas in the grocery store are five thousand times more radioactive.

The London Daily Mail reports that the workers “expect to die,” but not that the worst radiation exposure among all the workers amounts to about as much as 15 CT scans, a dose that not only isn’t fatal, but that has no observable health effects.

A lot of bad reporting seems to come from mere scientific illiteracy.