Consul General Takuji Hanatani, left, speaks with Gov. Nathan Deal as he prepares to sign the consulate's condolence book on March 22.

This story is part of GlobalAtlanta’s exclusive Japan special issue. Click here to read more.

When Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a condolence book at Atlanta‘s Japanese consulate Tuesday, he showed the state’s solidarity with the country at the highest levels of government.

The U.S. has also voiced its sympathy for the victims of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis that slammed the country unexpectedly on March 11.

But as Japan’s diplomatic offices around the country close their sympathy books to well-wishers this week, ordinary citizens will still be trying to strike a tone of care and sensitivity in dealing with Japanese friends, family and co-workers.

With the death toll approaching 10,000, aftershocks still rattling the country and the threat of radiation leaks looming, the disaster’s wounds are still raw. So is it too early to send bright messages of encouragement? After so much has happened, is it too late? And how will such messages be received?

Experts say it’s good to consider cultural differences, but not enough to defer action.

Words are important, but Americans shouldn’t fret over finding the perfect phrases, said Dianne Hofner Saphiere, principal of Cultural Detective, which provides a process for intercultural training and specialized courses on many countries and cultures.

A simple note goes a long way, especially if it offers help, shows concern for family and illustrates a basic understanding of how the crisis has affected the region where the recipient lives, she said.

“In Japan, it’s relationship-oriented, so most Japanese people are going to be really happy that someone overseas expresses care and concern for their families,” said Ms. Saphiere, who lived in Japan for 14 years and co-authored Cultural Detective’s Japan guide. 

Sachiko Kogure, a Japanese teacher in Roswell, said the most touching messages she’s received after the disaster have come from former students who have unwittingly followed Ms. Saphiere’s advice.

“Without worrying or thinking too much about ‘Are the words in my email right in Japanese culture?’ please just send a two-line message to express your encouragement or sadness or sympathy…” Ms. Kogure said, “because all the people living in Japan now hold sadness and fear as well as braveness and hope in their hearts, and any words from your heart will reach them.”

Though some might think writing the message in Japanese adds a note of sincerity, Ms. Kogure advised against it. The language varies widely depending on the relationship between the parties conversing. Also, there are many ways to express regret in Japanese, and even experienced speakers don’t always capture the nuances correctly.

“A message with your real words in English is the best. There is always someone who understands English and translates for the one who does not understand English,” she said.

Motoe Haller, a Nagoya native and marketing manager at the Atlanta office of InSpec Group LLC, was vacationing near her hometown after a business trip to Tokyo when the earthquake hit. Luckily, she was at a hot-springs resort on the western coast of Honshu, across the island from northeast, where the tsunami pummeled the coast.

Though they were worried about their countrymen, no one panicked at the resort; instead people went to their rooms and watched the news, Ms. Haller said.

When crafting their messages, Americans should consider the Japanese reluctance to show outward emotion, Ms. Haller said. Sympathy should be conveyed subtly without piling on too many words.

“Sometimes when you overreact too much, it doesn’t look so real or sincere,” said Ms. Haller, who has lived in Atlanta for a decade.

Seeing the supposed stoicism of Japanese who have endured personal tragedy, Americans shouldn’t mistake their calm demeanor for callousness, said Sue Shinomiya, founder of Business Passport, a Portland, Ore.-based company that trains businesses to work cross-culturally.

“Don’t be too surprised even if there is a great loss for the reaction to be more reserved than expected,” since the Japanese value the ability to endure hardship – and experience joy – with muted outward expression, said Ms. Shinomiya.

Even for those who have studied the culture for years, that the Japanese impulse to focus on others has persisted amid great personal loss has been astonishing, she said.

“I have friends in Japan sending me messages about Oregon,” Ms. Shinomiya said. “It was interesting that they even thought about someone else’s situation.”

Still, fear and apprehension are bubbling beneath the surface as uncertainties mount in a country that was facing serious problems even before the one-two-three punch of the disaster, experts said.

“I feel that the Japanese are some of the most emotional people on the planet,” Ms. Saphiere said. “I think that their emotions are so powerful, but it’s not expressed in ways that Westerners can recognize.”

Even taking the cultural hurdles into account, longstanding relationships between Georgia and Japan have meant that some companies have had no problem expressing their concern.

Daniel Amos, CEO of Aflac Inc., defied U.S. government travel warnings to visit Tokyo last weekend to show his support for the insurance giant’s policyholders and its more than 5,000 employees in the country. After operating for 37 years in Japan, about three quarters of Aflac’s business is there.

Tony Coalson, who has spent more than 30 years with Murata Electronics North America, has simply focused on being considerate and expressing sincere feelings on phone calls between his Smyrna office and the parent company in Japan.

“You’re constantly in contact with a lot of people, asking them how they’re doing, expressing your sympathies, condolences or best wishes through tough times like this,” said Mr. Coalson, the company’s senior vice president for sales in the Americas. “Japanese culture puts a lot of emphasis and a lot of value on that.”

The Japan-America Society of Georgia is collecting donations for the victims. As of March 18, the organization had raised $50,000. Below is a list of upcoming fundraising activities in Georgia:

-March 16 – 25, 2011 – 9:00 am – 5:00 pm : Condolence and Encouragement Book Opening at the Consulate General of Japan –

-March 26-27 – Donation Collections at Conyers Cherry Blossom Festival (please visit JASG and CGJ booths) –

-March 27 – 3 p.m. – Benefit Concert at Spivey Hall. Click here.

-March 27 & 31, 2011 – Westminster Elementary Girl Scout Troop Fundraiser –

-March 29 – 4pm : Georgia State University Japan Crisis Panel Presentation & Discussion at Urban Life Auditorium, Room 220 –

-March 29-30 – Donation Collections at Atlanta Braves Pre-Season Games at Turner Field. Please contact the JASG office for volunteer opportunities.

-March 31 – 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. – GSU Asian Studies Center Earthquake/Tsunami Bake Sale at GSU Library Plaza. Contact or -April 2-3, 2011 – Charity Fundraising Bazaar. Click here.

For more information on the Japan-America Society of Georgia or to donate online, click here

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...