Ayumi Endo remembers the 2011 earthquake and tsunami with exquisite detail. She ran downstairs to screaming coworkers. The phones in Tokyo had stopped working, and the trains outside stopped running. To kill time, she went to a pub, and saw a tsunami chase a car on TV. The drama was seared into Ayumi’s memory. “We all knew how terrible this was,” she said. “It was like a movie scene.”
Years later, 3/11, as it is informally known, has left deep grooves in Japan’s collective psyche. The disaster caused an increase in suicides, PTSD, and stress-related physical ailments like cardiovascular disease. In Fukushima, the number of stress-related deaths—1,656—has topped deaths directly caused by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown combined.
As bad as they were, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami were just the latest chapter in a long, tragic narrative. The Japanese archipelago sits at the nexus of four tectonic plates, subjecting the region to more than 1,500 seismic events each year, including at least two 5.0 magnitude or higher earthquakes. As a result, Tokyo has been destroyed and rebuilt on average, from 1608 to 1945, once every five years.
There’s good reason to think this long history has had a biological effect on the Japanese. In 2010, NYU sociologist Florencia Torche studied the impact of the 2008 Chilean earthquake on mothers with infants then in utero. She found the heightened levels of cortisol—the primary hormone associated with stress—in mothers of infants born in the first trimester of the quake led to lower birth weights, earlier birth rates, and increased cortisol levels in their children. What’s more, those who’d been born in earthquake areas were, after 14 years, at a cognitive and physical disadvantage: They performed worse in school and didn’t boast as a strong a stature.
Torche’s findings show that the effect of an earthquake “can exist over the individual’s entire life—even across generations.”
There is some evidence that the Japanese are being similarly affected. Japanese people of all ages are more likely to carry a gene that predisposes them to react more strongly to stressful events than people outside of Japan. The brains of many Japanese people were found to shrink in response to the tsunami – specifically within the orbitofrontal cortex, a region in the brain associated with emotional regulation, indicating the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder. And in a 2008 study, Japanese infants were found to react to the pain of being inoculated with more cortisol than American infants did, though they also whined less than the Americans.
Stress could also explain Japan’s famously low birth rates: Exposure to stressful environments is correlated with lower sperm counts, ovulation issues, and other issues of reproductive functioning. High levels of chronic stress and cortisol decrease sex drives in women, and in Japan, a full 45 percent of women reported they were “not interested in or despised sexual contact”—and more than 25% of Japanese men feel the same way.
The effects of centuries of natural disaster may be most obvious, though, in Japanese culture. “Being in Japan and part of Japanese psyche is—you don’t fuck with nature,” says Mariko Nagai, a poet and creative writing professor at Temple University in Tokyo. “It’s a lot more powerful than we are, you can’t domesticate it,” she says. “You just have to face it, and if it comes, it comes.”
This stoicism has led to a culture where stress is not frequently discussed. “The Japanese talk about stress a whole lot less than [Americans] talk about stress,” says Bill Tsutsui, a Japanese-American historian and author of Godzilla on My Mind. “And yet, to me, Japanese society is the most stressful on the planet.” Even though only 2.5 percent of Japanese people are diagnosed with depression at any given time, compared with 6.7 percent of Americans, the suicide rate among Japanese people is 20.1 per 100,000, compared to 12.6 for Americans.
Tsutsui thinks these figures can be explained by the stress of a collectivist culture. Since it de-emphasizes the individual and attaches negative attitudes towards expressing emotion, people are less likely to exhibit the “weakness” of asking for help. The stigma surrounding mental health means that for many, the idea of reporting stress is more stressful than simply living—or dying—with it. Another outlet is what Tsutsui calls Japan’s “obsession” with cuteness, avatars, and virtual reality games. People often strike up romantic relationships with cartoon characters and pay-to-play cuddlers because they’d rather not deal with the stress of a real person interaction, he says. “The stress of social interaction has caused a flight from human intimacy. You cannot open your mouth to say a word without considering your relationship with the people around you—your place in the hierarchy. And if you say something wrong you risk grievously offending people.”
Since social interaction is one of the best ways to decrease stress—especially in traditionally collective cultures—the Japanese face a catch-22: Socializing could alleviate stress, but it is too stressful to socialize.
Tsutsui theorizes that this cultural conundrum also explains the Japanese obsession with Godzilla. It is closely associated with the traumatic nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945. Afterwards, it was considered “impolite” to discuss these disasters and Godzilla, released into this vacuum in 1954, became a widely accepted coping mechanism. Japanese audiences watched it in “relative silence, punctuated by periodic weeping,” wrote the New York Times. Over the decades, Godzilla became one of the widest-exported Japanese characters in history, generating spinoffs, sequels and spoofs. Since 1945, it has destroyed Tokyo no less than 28 times onscreen.
“Godzilla is more than just a movie monster,” Tsutsui says. “People had been holding this horror within them, and when they saw it on screen they were able to get it out.”
While Western art focuses on the self, says Jave Yoshimoto, a Japanese-American artist, Japanese art focuses on society. The film provokes a spirit of renewal: Though Tokyo is destroyed time and time again it is always rebuilt.
Reality reflects fiction. In the 2011 earthquake, rescuers lead an elderly couple out of a building where they had been trapped for three days. When asked if he was okay, the man smiled; he lived through the 1960 tsunami, after all. Grinning at the camera, he said, “Let’s rebuild again.”
Susie Neilson is a journalist and filmmaker based in New York City. Her work has appeared on The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vice, Quartz, and other publications.
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WATCH: Rachel Yehuda, director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, on why stress can turn into a disorder.
This classic Facts So Romantic post was originally published in December 2015.