Community Resilience Building: How is It Embedded among Japanese?

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Community Resilience Building: How is It Embedded among Japanese?
Reni Juwitasari
Japan Program Analyst, Asian Research Center for International Development (ARCID),
School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University

The word resilience becomes a trend, especially during this current situation of COVID-19, in which uncertainty exposed people's life significantly. According to a survey by Arianna Huffington, the Thrive Global Founder, the word "resilience" has been the most searched word throughout the year 2020, along with three other words of the pandemic, coronavirus, and quarantine (Forbes, 2020). In an e-newspaper of, Huffington wrote the importance of resilience to encourage mental positivity from a psychological aspect. She explains, "resilience is such a magical word to empower people to overcome with the hardship, constraints, or challenges, unwitting, it has been a part of the people's immune system for life" (Huffington, 2020). Before this phenomenon, in 2017, Bonnano conducted scientific research on resilience and concluded that resilience is a natural part of life influenced by DNA factors (EgonZehnder, 2017). In detail, the Bonnano and researcher team found out that every individual has a couple of genes expressed primarily in adversity that stimulate the coping capacity (EgonZehnder, 2017). Therefore, resilience is naturally gifted for every human, from DNA embedded to coping capacities mentally to deal with hardships and challenges.

As resilience is a natural part of every individual's life, strengthening an individual's resilience as a one-whole nation is vital for the country (CSIS, 2014). Bonnano added that individual resilience should not be underestimated because resilience can give strength, survival capacity, and bounceback to countries where they have repeatedly dealt with natural disasters (Swissre, 2019; EgonZehnder, 2017). Automatically, people who have been through a similar event, e.g., disaster, can have a better coping capacity learning from their repeated experience. It has happened among people living in prone disaster countries and other hazard events, for instance, the Japanese (Shani, 2020).

Japanese are recognized as the most resilient society in the world, reflected from the experience of the 2011 "triple disasters" according to the World Bank in 2019 (World Bank, 2019). In the same year, 2019, Japan was also acclaimed as one of the world's ten most resilient countries together with Switzerland, Canada, the U.S., Finland, Norway, the U.K., Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden. Japan is the only Asian country in this index rank, measured by indicators of the ability to absorb a range of 'shocks,' including natural disasters (Swissre, 2019). Therefore, Japan has recognition for being a prominent country for resilience. 

Prior to that, there are some pieces of evidence on Japan as a good model of resilience. Firstly, from the perspective of a state, Japan has established the National Resilience Act (NRA) in 2013, which aims to build a flexible and robust country in the event of any disasters (Juwitasari, 2021: Cabinet Secretariat, 2018). Continuously, Japan contributed a resilience concept for the international community through two disaster management guidelines; the Hyogo Framework for Action and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (Juwitasari, 2021). Secondly, concerning community participation, Japan was the quickest country to recover from hazards and disruption compared to another prone disaster country, India, reflecting from the Gujarat earthquake disaster and Kobe earthquake in the 1990s (Rees, 2011). Shaw (2014) mentioned that the role of social capital among the Japanese, such as trust, norms, and networking with government and other parties, has performed significantly in the recovery process after the disaster (Shaw, 2014). Thirdly, from the cultural perspective, resilience is also reflected in Japanese art, especially Daruma Doll, as stated by a traveler named Gardiner when she visited Darumaji Temple in Takasaki (BBC, 2020). Daruma doll is a symbol of good-luck charm that philosophically a reminder of 'getting back, after knocking down". Another example of resilience in Japanese culture is the tradition known as kintsugi or 'golden seams' or 'golden repair' on the ceramic bowl glue technique with a golden lacquer (Livni, 2018). This tradition contains the legend's story from a Japanese shogun who broke his favorite rare piece of the bowl. In order to not be disappointed, he sent it to China for repair, but the same broken bowl went back with a unique and valuable crack motif (Tibdewal, 2019). Hence, this story gives a lesson-learn on bounceback from severe adversity. Following that, resilience is also reflected in its epithet as a "bamboo country." For the Japanese people, the bamboo plant symbolizes resilience, strength, luck, and flexibility due to its ability to rise strong and mighty from catastrophe and proliferate (Reynolds, 2010; Shogo, 2021).

Based on the evidence above, resilience is a part of Japanese society cultivated in the mental and psychological aspects. As a result, this article aims to discover how resilience is embedded in Japanese society by using the Community Learning Process (CLP) approach in a multilevel society. Nevertheless, before that, the remarkable events in Japan that construct resilience building in the community are explained below.

The Impetus of the Resilience Building in Japan

There is no specific time identified when resilience has appeared in Japanese society. However, the Japanese's turning point to resilience is indicated from the pre-industrial Edo period (1603-1868) (Genadt, 2019). Following that, resilience building is also derived from massive adversities, as follows 1) the destruction of the 1945 nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 2) the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, and 3) the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown or the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE) (BBC 2020; Spencer, 2013).

Even though a long before Edo Period, Japan built a wooden Temple Pagoda in Nara Prefecture, Horyu-Ji, by Prince Shotoku in 607 (JICA, 2017), resilience remains unpopular among Japanese. During the Edo period under Tokugawa Shogunate, resilience flourished and was institutionalized by establishing Shogun's policies reflected through construction building procedures. As a result, this policy urged the usage of wood for building construction, not only for architectural public edifies, for instance, castle keeps (tenshukaku 天守閣) and wooden pagodas (mokutō木塔), but also for the private home construction (Genadt, 2019). Wood gave the resistance or endurance building structure from any disasters (Tanabashi, 1960). Since then, the wooden building became mainstream, and it has shaped the concept of resilience housing in the Japanese community (Genadt, 2019).

Furthermore, while resilience-building remained prioritized for building design and engineering reliance after World War II, resilience was also shaped in Emperor Hirohito's language production. During the post-war period, every Emperor's speech was always interpolated, an inspirational speech on resilience. It was mentioned "to endure the unendurable and suffer what is not sufferable," the country after the embarrassment of unconditional surrender and economic devastation (BBC, 2020). Besides language production, the Emperor affirmed his faith in efforts to reconstruct the nation (Dower, 1999), but it has not yet influenced the social resilience structure

In addition, the 1995 Kobe Earthquake was a tremendous impetus for resilience building within the community. At this time, resilience evolved into a trend of post-disaster volunteerism. Even the government began to engage the community to make disaster management decisions or policies, called 'inclusion' (Spencer, 2013). The 'inclusion' refers to the concept of a bottom-up approach to shaping the policy involving all levels of society in the vital actions of disaster recovery, disaster preparedness, and other critical occasions (Nakagawa & Suwa, 2010; Marvrodieva, Daramita, Arsono, Yawen & Shaw, 2019). Broadly, inclusion helps bridge the diversity in society to firm the inseparable unity, which is an engaging way to share perspective (Llopis, 2019; Rayman & Varga, 2015). For instance, in the case of the Kobe earthquake, the Japanese community drew the local culture of kinship through sharing and demonstrating original ideas to solve the problems, making a commitment together, and continuing to provide sustainable support for each other to fast recovery (Nakagawa & Suwa, 2010; Rayman & Varga, 2015). Therefore, inclusion is acknowledged as one of the compensatory factors of resilience in leveraging protection for each other to deal with future natural hazards (Rayman & Varga, 2015). Since then, this concept is importantly implemented, and it has led Kobe as the first city to support 'inclusivity' between government and community in promoting a shared planning process (Olivia & Lazzeretti, 2017). From this phenomenon, Spencer (2013) elaborated three primary lessons learned of resilience and inclusion among Japanese society, such as 1) emphasized trust, 2) two-way communication, and 3) recovery in the long-term supported by the local community.

Lastly, the last 2011 Tohoku' triple disasters' or the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE) was a noticeable movement for resilience because the government has institutionalized resilience by establishing actions based on the community-oriented, such as local economic revitalization, community center construction, and reconstructing landscape (Nirattiwongsakorn & Heong, 2016) as well as establishing National Resilience Act as mentioned above. Relating to the 2011 Tohoku "triple disasters" event, the simultaneous disaster occurrences of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear power plant explosion, Japan continuously promotes its long-life commitment to resilience by broadening the scope from disaster recovery in the long term resilience for sustainability (JICA, 2017).

To sum up, with every significant event or disaster that hit the country, Japan has gradually re-organized the structure and systems to build its community resilience by applying a participatory mechanism or inclusion. The resilience in Japan is inevitably developed from the bottom community. Although resilience in Japan is prominently developing on the mental aspect, there is also indicated resilience development in terms of physical aspect. The period of the pre-industrial Edo period (1603-1868) and the last 2011 Tohoku' triple disasters', resilience development highlights on physical aspects delineated from disaster-resilient construction, local economic revitalization, community center construction, and reconstructing landscape, while other two events of the destruction of the 1945 nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the 1995 Kobe Earthquake underline on mental aspects elaborating from Emperor’s speech and kindship, respectively.

Community Learning Process of Resilience Building in Japan

Learning from its history, we now understand that resilience is part of the Japanese community's lifetime value, roots, and culture. Japan identifies resilience long before 2020 when the word appeared as one of the most popular ones. It stems from the ancient architectural building during the Edo Period for physical resilience, the value from the 1945 Hiroshima Nagasaki nuclear aggression for mental resilience, and other natural disaster phenomena for both mental and physical resilience. Hence, resilience is reinforced in Japanese daily activity and becomes their culture as mental resilience cultivation (Potutan, 2019). The following parts of the article elaborate on resilience-building activity in the Japanese community using the Community Learning Process (CLP).

The Community Learning Process (CLP) is part of the education process in the community rather than education approaches within the formal education system or called "community learning and development" (NAC, 2018). It plays a significant role in social change and development (Gilchrist, 2013). The CLP is defined as transferring lessons, shared learning of experience-focused reflection, and discussion, which occurs from generation to next generation as part of the collective memory process (International Recovery Platform, 2010b; Gilchrist, 2013). In the CLP, elders are the most prominent element to reinforce social capital among community members of all ages (Kiyato et al., 2015). Moreover, the CLP is divided into multilevel societies: 1) individual, 2) family, and 3) community (Gilchrist, 2013).

In order to highlight the resilience building in Japan, I would like to use three levels of societies as mentioned above. Now let me analyze the Japanese practice of building resilience manifestation in the community.

Firstly, resilience is cultivated at the individual level. Moore (2011) revealed that the Japanese are the most positive people, reflecting their reaction to the post-2011 "triple disasters." She witnessed Japanese people showing a positive attitude of joy, gratitude, and hope. Linking from those positive attitudes, Boonsawad et al. (2016) and Djar'ie & Prasojo (2016) described that they are embedded in the individuals influenced by two critical factors, namely the philosophy and religion (Boonsawad et al., 2016; Djar'ie & Prasojo, 2016). The philosophy of "living harmoniously with nature" and "acceptance" resulted in their resilience development. Besides the philosophy, the religion, especially Shinto and Buddhism, has strongly prejudiced the Japanese life doctrine as both religions' beliefs are inextricably tied to nature (Rees, 2011; Blasiak, Okayasu & Matsumoto, 2012). Hence, positivity, the primary mechanism for resilience, is stimulated by philosophy and religion, configuring the Japanese resilient mentality (Moore, 2011).

Secondly, resilience learning is from the family level. Family is always one of the most fundamental institutions in any society that plays a central role in learning before understanding a larger culture (Kugamai, 1995). According to WalkJapan (n.d.), most Japanese families consisted of three-generation grandparents, parents, and children. As has mentioned above, the elderly has played a vital role in the Community Learning Process (CLP). The elderly, in this case, grandparents, have experienced a long life journey and important moments that became lessons learned survival and resilience from adversity. Kiyato et al. (2015) explained that the "elderly knew how to survive without electricity and water," reflecting from the 2011 Great East Earthquake.

Furthermore, the elders have always taught spirits of resilience through proverbs, legends, moments, and folklore (International Recovery Platform, 2010b). For instance, Japanese elders teach the children the proverb "Nana korobi ya oki," which means fall down seven times, get up eight" (Lewis, 2017). It empowers the youth to be optimistic about the future, not give up on the challenges and constraints (NHK, n.d.). As another example, the word "ganbatte" teaches the Japanese to do their best (BBC, 2020). Like these, the elders can influence the youngers to be wiser and stronger in coping with any challenges, including natural disasters.

Thirdly, resilience is embedded at the community level. For Japan, family and communities are two fundamental contributors of learning and cultural preservation out of the formal education system, called "lifelong learning" (Yang & Yorozu, 2015). The learning process in the community is a long-lasting approach to educate Japanese people on social and cultural preservation. Unlike two other learning levels of individual and family that focus on resilience mentality building, the community's learning process highlights physical aspects. The Japanese government has established this level into the institutionalized mechanism, called Kominkan or Community Learning Center (Yamamoto, 2015). Kominkan is first initiated as a public meeting hall after the Second World War and has since evolved into the center of lifelong learning established under the Social Education Act in 1949 (Yang & Yorozu, 2015; Yamamoto, 2015). Under Article 20 of the Social Education Act, Kominkan aims to "provide the people living in specific areas such as a city, town or village with education adapted to meet the demands of actual life and implement academic and cultural activities. Kominkan shall contribute to the cultivation of residents, improve health, develop character or resilience, enliven daily culture, and enhance social welfare (Iwasa, 2010).

According to Yamamoto (2015), in Kominkan, disaster is an important topic to be discussed and taught. As a result, Kominkan is designated to be a base for disaster preparedness education for the entire community. People can obtain disaster training on the immediate response for survival, such as survival when lifelines being cut off, emergency cooking, and simple toilets settings (MEXT, 2009). Besides, Kominkan is used as a hub of connection between individuals and other individuals. Through focus discussion groups, people can share their experiences as lessons learned for each other (Schoo, n.d.)

To pursue the resilience activity in the context of disaster, Kominkan has a network with museums in Japan (Iwasa, 2010). The museum is aligned with Kominkan as a community learning center established under Museum Law in 1951 as a part of the municipalities' reconstruction affected by the disaster (Hayashi, 2016; Arai & Fuse, n.d). It aims to preserve the devastating events and communicate the importance of disaster mitigation in building a resilient society (Nippon, 2020). As a result, the Kominkan and museums have a collaboration to preserve lifelong learning. For example, of learning related to the disaster, the participants will learn from the thematic-disaster museum. Therefore, the presence of Kominkan as a disaster preparedness activity and museum as the disaster awareness learning in Japan can cultivate the resilience-building among Japanese society, which has been organized under the Japanese Social Education Act and Museum Law.


For Japan, resilience is not merely a new trend but has been profoundly rooted in its culture, arts, and daily activities, on the other hand, mental aspect, although it is along with physical resilience development. In the context of culture, resilience is reflected through the Daruma Doll in the temple that symbolizes charm, luck, and refrain of giving up; the Kintsugi legend that symbolizes acceptance and rising; and its epithet as "bamboo country" symbolizing flexibility, strength, and resilience. Moreover, the resilience-building process in Japan has a long history remarked since the Edo period by their architectural building design, communal language production by Emperor's speech after the Second World War, and social inclusion from two massive disaster occurrences.

By using the Community Learning Process (CLP), this article analyzed the resilience-building among Japanese multilevel societies, namely 1) individual, 2) family, and 3) community. In the individual case, both the philosophy and religion of Shinto and Buddhism in Japan have influenced their resilience, especially positivity. Moore witnessed the affected people of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, who showed her joy, gratitude, and hope after the disaster. It is indicated from both religions of Shinto and Buddhism value which are inseparable from nature. Therefore, Japanese people have their philosophy of 'living harmoniously with nature. At the family level, the elderly tell their experiences through proverbs as lessons, e.g., Nana Korobi Ya Oki, ganbatte, which resilience development focus on mentality.

Nevertheless, at the community level, resilience is the configuration of institutionalization. The presence of Kominkan in the community is a long-lasting approach for learning community mechanisms established after the Second World War under the Social Learning Act in 1949. The Kominkan, known as a Community Learning Center, is designated for individuals' connection for sharing their experience towards disaster and a hub for disaster preparedness. Besides, Kominkan has a network with the museum where the community learned the past disaster to enhance their resilience. Therefore, Kominkan establishment is to bolster resilience building in Japan.

Thanks to Dr. Yuki Miyake, the Head of Japan Programs, Asian Research Center for International Development, School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University, for supervising this article.



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