There’s a phrase that keeps coming to mind as we talk about the Honshu earthquake. It’s a Japanese phrase that goes back to the 11th Century CE and the Tale of Genji: Yamato-damashii (大和魂) or Yamato Gokoro (大和心). Although they both mean basically the same thing — “Japanese spirit” — I prefer “yamato gokoro” for a couple of reasons: yamato damashii was sort of taken over by the Japanese fascists in the 30’s, and because the last character of yamato gokoro, 心, is one of my favorites. It’s usually translated “heart”, but it really pictures the heart, the lungs, and the liver. It means “innards” — or, better, “guts”.
Yamato gokoro is “Japanese guts” — their willingness to suck it up, and endure hardship or sacrifice their individual well-being for the whole of Japan.
It can be, is, a very noble quality — and not unknown to Americans. Every Medal of Honor Winner has had “American guts”. But the Japanese can sometimes go a touch overboard with it. If it weren’t for yamato damashii, the Japanese government would have sued for peace before Hiroshima. As it was, Hiroshima alone wasn’t enough.
We’re going to see a lot of yamato gokoro in the next months and years.