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The Drama of Trauma in Different Cultures


Cara is a student at Florida Atlantic University working towards a BS in management information systems. She writes in her free time.

Trauma, usually assumed to only exist in direct victims of an event, can also affect the family members and community members nearby and far away. There are key differences in reactions to trauma in different cultures and these differences affect the victims of certain situations and the people around them in various ways. Different cultural backgrounds lead to diverse reactions to trauma. This can be highlighted in primary sources, which depict the experiences of survivors of horrific events such as the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings, the Holocaust, and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Further research could discover if one's upbringing and the values of their parents change the way they see victims (or survivors). Maybe the children and grandchildren of survivors of a tragedy develop a different way of seeing trauma because of their family history. Understanding the processes to move on from trauma in different countries and cultures could provide deeper insights into the social dynamics and even value systems of each one. Conceivably, every ethnic group in the world could have a different way of reacting to and moving on from trauma, each one most likely strange to the others.

In Japan, survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are shamed and socially shunned, until they are driven to hide their secret forever and never speak of it again. Sarah Stillman, a writer for the New Yorker, writes in her essay “Hiroshima and the Inheritance of Trauma” about the lingering effects of trauma on the individuals involved, their families, and their grandchildren (going on for generations). The main person she interviews, known as a hibakusha (aka someone who survived the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) shares stories of being embarrassed of her past and the horrors that she went through (Stillman 443). Her paper hints at the fact that the people related to victims suffer almost as much as the victims themselves in the aftermath of each event. They have to spend their lives hiding secrets about their family members. She refers to trauma as a disease that can be passed from generation to generation. Hibakushas, women who survived the bombings of Hiroshima/Nagasaki, hide their dark secret from their fiancés until they are married, and the men cannot back out anymore (Stillman 445). In the case of Tomiko Shoji, after they found out, the family she married into would “yell at [her]” and her husband “spiraled into a rage that never lifted” (Stillman 445). This is just one example of how these women are forced to suffer even more after severe physical and emotional trauma, all because their society shames survival. Of course, this might not apply to all of Japan or even all Hiroshima/Nagasaki survivors, but when a large number of women feel this way, there tends to be a reason for it. After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018, the people of South Florida were in shock. Tragedies like this one do not happen often (for which everyone is grateful) but when they do, they ruin the sense of security that everyone has created for themselves. This is true of all tragedies, but countries can differ in how they react to them. In Japan, the survivors are seen as ‘damaged’ and unworthy, but in the US survivors of events like the shooting are treated respectfully and often times given special treatment. The day that the MSD students returned to school after two weeks off (after the shooting), there “were some 150 grief counselors on hand… plus lots of therapy dogs” which will remain there “as long as the students need them” ("Classes Resume at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School 2 Weeks After 17 Killed"). This is opposite to the aftermath of Hiroshima where the victims were shunned and ignored. Stillman says in her essay that she assumed that “to be a hibakusha… was to have conferred upon you a certain esteem or deference, not unlike that afforded to the bearer of a Purple Heart” (Stillman 444). Since we Americans are used to our own methods of dealing with trauma, we oftentimes do not realize that other cultures might react differently. Maybe that is an example of ignorance, but it might also be another example of how each culture is different.

A building in Hiroshima, Japan from after the atomic bomb compared to an image from today.

A building in Hiroshima, Japan from after the atomic bomb compared to an image from today.

Many could argue that human instinct, no matter how one is raised, tends to follow similar patterns. While this is partially true, the environment that one grows up in can cause small (or large) variations in emotional processes such as reactions to trauma or mental illness. The acceptance or reaction to mental illness often goes hand-in-hand with that of trauma. “Racial and Ethnic Cultural Factors in the Process of Acceptance of Mental Illness”, written by Lauren Mizock and Zlatka Russinova, goes into detail on the various ways that different ethnic groups accept mental illness. This paper proposed the idea that acceptance of mental illness occurs differently depending on the cultural background of the individuals involved. This study compared participants with similar mental illnesses but opposite cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds to truly compare differences in the processes of acceptance for different ethnic groups and found that there were differences significant enough to consider the creation of culture-specific counseling. It also said that more research is needed to fully explore this idea and discover answers to questions that might not exist yet. One example from the paper was the story of Margaret, a Jewish American woman with severe depression (Mizock 234). Her family, like many other Jewish European Americans, saw mental illness as something permanent that ruined the life of the patient and their family and made her feel bad (and therefore more depressed) about it. This is just one of the many cases studied in the paper, which showed significant effects of the cultural trends on individuals suffering from mental illnesses. One can logically assume that if culture, ethnicity, and race cause a difference in acceptance of mental illness, they could also cause a difference in the acceptance and reaction to trauma (through generations even).

Trauma does not only affect the victims and their families but also anybody who views the aftermath or learns of it through art/memorials. The definition of the word trauma is actually a bit of a misconception. Cultural trauma is society’s response to a horrible event. The trauma is not only the tragic and scarring event but also the emotional reaction of the community as a whole and any outsiders who learn of the event and are affected (Khadem 185). In her article “Transmission of Trauma, Identification, and Haunting: A Ghost Story of Hiroshima.” Naono Akiko describes her reaction to seeing images of the destruction and tragedy in Hiroshima. She was a visitor from the US, so her viewpoint is very interesting since the opinions of the Japanese on the survivors is already known (and they are not good). She discusses the transmission of trauma: the idea that the viewer of an image feels the trauma experienced by the creator of said image (Akiko 5). Later on, in the paper, she discusses the existence of post-memory, second-generation memories of a traumatic event that they themselves did not even live through, which makes it a product of transmission of trauma. This means that not only are the direct victims of an event such as this one forced to live affected lives, but their families (including children, grandchildren, etc.) are as well. This could even be a stranger because while she was there, she felt the pain and suffering of the victims. A look into how someone reacts to seeing such tragedy could provide insight into how they were raised and maybe even where they were raised. She was from the United States, so it is plausible that she only felt the trauma of others because of the pattern for responding to trauma here. More research is needed to see if the transmission of trauma is affected by culture or if this was just a coincidence.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, Japan.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, Japan.

Every person has their own way of dealing with their issues. The way that they react to trauma seems to be heavily influenced by their cultural background and the way that they are raised. In Japan, survivors of the Hiroshima bombing are seen as damaged and useless. In the United States, survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting are seen as war heroes (kind of) and are treated with the utmost respect and oftentimes get special treatment. Though it seems like Japan treats victims badly to people living in the United States, one cannot come to that conclusion without having grown up in Japan with those customs and values. Each culture is different and a member of one group cannot judge another since they have not ‘walked in their shoes’. This can also apply to religious traditions. One cannot judge until they have been raised in the situation that they disagree with. Though every cultural group in the world may have different ways of dealing with trauma, none of them are ‘wrong’ because they are emotional responses, and therefore are opinions.

Works Cited:

Akiko, Naono. “Transmission of Trauma, Identification and Haunting: A Ghost Story of Hiroshima.” Intersections: Gender & Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, no. 24, June 2010. EBSCOhost, http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.fau.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=9ad03ab8-c268-4d33-b38d65d6740b320f%40sessionmgr101&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWlwLGNvb2tpZSx1cmwsdWlkJnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#AN=510000911&db=hus

"Classes Resume at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School 2 Weeks After 17 Killed." All Things Considered, 2018. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.fau.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cookie,url,uid&db=edsglr&AN=edsgcl.529573482&site=eds-live.

Khadem, Amir. “Cultural Trauma as a Social Construct: 9/11 Fiction and the Epistemology of Communal Pain.” Intertexts, no. 2, 2014, p. 181. EBSCOhost, http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.fau.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=407b7fee-4a44-4e5d-81c4-a8a39e5ec8d1%40sessionmgr104&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWlwLGNvb2tpZSx1cmwsdWlkJnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#AN=edsgcl.428624747&db=edsglr

Mizock, Lauren and Zlatka Russinova. “Racial and Ethnic Cultural Factors in the Process of Acceptance of Mental Illness.” Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, vol. 56, no. 4, July 2013, p.229. EBSCOhost, http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.fau.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=a85a4eae-042a-4a51-8eafcb266a4c72ad%40sessionmgr103&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPWlwLGNvb2tpZSx1cmwsdWlkJnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#AN=88205847&db=edb

Stillman, Sarah. “Hiroshima and the Inheritance of Trauma” Emerging: Contemporary Readings for Writers, 3rd edition, edited by Barclay Barrios, Bedford/St. Martins, 2016, pp. 442-448.

© 2018 Cara Savoy