After centuries of natural and human disasters, the nation has learned that what comes down can be rebuilt.
It wasn’t the first time that the writer, politician and current governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, had put his foot in his mouth. The governor called last week’s earthquake a “divine punishment” for the “egoism” of contemporary Japanese. “We need to use the tsunami,” he said, “to wipe out egoism, which has attached itself like rust to the mentality of the Japanese people over a long period of time.”
This has long been a hobbyhorse of the Japanese right—the idea that young Japanese think only of themselves, are too individualistic, and have lost the old collective spirit of the obedient, disciplined Japanese, who supposedly always put the interests of the nation before their own.
Mr. Ishihara did not get away with it. Voices of outrage came instantly, and he had to apologize for his lack of feeling for the still countless victims of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear fallout. Not just that, but Japanese, including the young, have proved over the last week how disciplined, and unselfish, they can still be.
In his callous way, Mr. Ishihara tapped into a primitive but common human reflex, which is to impart meaning to the impersonal forces of nature. In ancient China, earthquakes and other natural disasters were seen as ill omens, signs that imperial dynasties were coming to an end. Japanese, too, have had these tendencies. Traditionally, earthquakes were ascribed to the stirrings of a giant catfish, and this catfish was treated as a deity, to be worshipped and appeased.
How else can vulnerable human beings make sense of living on the side of volcanoes or on top of earthquake faults? One moment you are quietly drinking tea or cooking your lunch, and the next moment everything can be obliterated in a giant convulsion of earth, fire or water. It is senseless, of course, but humans find it hard to live without sense. This is not unique to Japanese or Chinese. Glenn Beck’s reaction to the earthquake was no less zany than Mr. Ishihara’s; he detected in the disaster a “message” from God to follow the Ten Commandments.
Japanese have always had an intimate acquaintance with the destructive power of nature. But the same forces can also be benign. When a fleet carrying almost 16,000 Mongol, Chinese and Korean warriors attempted to attack Japan in 1274, a horrendous typhoon allegedly wrecked the ships and thwarted the invasion. This is the origin of the term “kamikaze,” divine wind. On that occasion, nature came to the rescue of Japan.
When Japan was in equally desperate straits in 1944, using the word kamikaze for the suicide pilots was not for nothing. Mere military efforts were no longer adequate to avoid defeat. Something more spiritual, more sacred, was called for, a sacrifice of Japan’s best and brightest youths. Then the superior American forces might turn back in awe. Or so it was hoped.
That Japan is now facing a nuclear disaster is a terrible irony, since Japan was, of course, the first country to suffer an atom bomb attack. That, too, was seen by some as a divine punishment. To watch Tokyo go up in flames in 1945, after waves of B-29’s dropped incendiary bombs and killed almost 100,000 people in a few nights, was awful, but it was still comprehensible. For an entire city to be wiped out in seconds by one bomb was more like a force of nature.
This was no longer part of “normal” warfare. The enemy was invisible. There was no possible defense, which probably helped even the die-hards in Japan’s military command to agree to an unconditional surrender. The atom bomb, in Emperor Hirohito’s words, was “a new and terrible weapon” that would lead to “the total extinction of human civilization.” It was not regarded as dishonorable to surrender in order to save human civilization.
Apart from the horrible effects of subjecting hundreds of thousands of people to an atomic explosion, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had other unfortunate results. They distorted the question of Japanese responsibility for the war. The bombs made the entire period seem like another natural catastrophe, a kind of giant earthquake rather than a story of human folly in which not only the armed forces but all Japanese were implicated.
Many decent Japanese saw the atom bombs as a punishment from heaven, after which the moral slate was wiped clean. The most famous account of the Nagasaki bomb was written by one of its victims, radiology expert Takashi Nagai, who later died of leukemia. He saw the bomb as a kind of blessing, a catastrophe that would lead mankind to redemption. He was a Catholic, as were many citizens of Nagasaki, but a great number of Japanese believed in his message.
Dr. Nagai’s home in Nagasaki became a kind of shrine. As victims of the atom bombs, the Japanese would now be the saviors of human civilization, forswear war, and pray for eternal peace. In their new pacifist mode, Japanese did what they had always done in the face of nature’s forces; they tried to appease them, by incantations. Responsibility for the war was largely forgotten. Military security was handed over to the old enemy, the United States—and the main guarantor of security was the American nuclear umbrella.
Dr. Nagai was well aware of the destructive power of atomic energy, but he also saw it as a “triumph of physics,” a giant step in human progress. Japanese have long shared his ambivalent feelings about nuclear power. That elements of the U.S. nuclear umbrella pass in and out of Japanese seaports has always been an open (but much detested) secret. And though, as we now know, Japan has been more dependent on nuclear energy than most countries, there are good reasons why the most distrusted institution to emerge from the latest nuclear disaster is Tokyo Electric Power Co., which has a long record of covering up dangerous flaws in its nuclear reactors.
The constant awareness that calamity can strike at any moment has had a marked effect on the country’s culture. One of the most famous products of postwar Japan was the series of Godzilla monster movies. Godzilla was not just conceived as a giant King Kong. He was inspired by a nuclear accident in 1954, when the U.S. exploded a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific that cost the life of a Japanese fisherman, who was contaminated by the blast. Godzilla, the destroyer of Japan, was spawned by undersea nuclear detonations. (Incidentally, the man who created the special effects for the first Godzilla films, Eiji Tsuburaya, had also been responsible for the stunning effects in a very different movie, “Sea Battle from Hawaii to Malaya,” made in 1942 to celebrate the first anniversary of the victory at Pearl Harbor.)
The sense of danger from natural calamities has deep roots in Japanese culture. The country’s earliest native religion, Shinto, literally Way of the Gods, is composed of rituals to appease the forces of nature, which are held to be divine. Since nature can be angry as well as benevolent, these gods must be kept happy with offerings, ceremonies and sacrifices. Unlike the Christian or Jewish God, Shinto gods do not impose laws, moral standards or a dogma. All they want is respect.
Buddhism, with its profound awareness of the fleetingness of life and the endless cycle of death and rebirth, also proved to be congenial to a people forced to live with the constant threat of natural catastrophe. Fatalism is a word often used to describe the common attitude of Japanese. The nation’s literature is suffused with this sentiment. Consider this 15th-century poem by Chikamasa: “One day you are born/you die the next—/today,/at twilight,/autumn breezes blow.”
“There is reason to think that Japan will not only bounce back, yet again, but come out stronger.”
But being resigned to the vagaries of nature and fate does not make life “cheap.” On the contrary, it can make people appreciate their short time on Earth all the more. Others, who live in safer places, cope with the certainty of death by hoping for a kind of immortality—if not for themselves, then for their works. Monuments to man (Manhattan, say, or Chicago) are built to last forever, at least ideally, as are monuments to God, such as the great cathedrals of Europe.
Japanese, living on the slopes of volcanoes and on earthquake faults, don’t build for eternity. Traditional Japanese architecture is made of paper and wood, flexible enough to withstand minor quakes; it is not meant to last forever. The country’s most famous Shinto shrine, so sacred that only members of the imperial family may serve as its high priests, is located in Ise, in central Japan. Founded 1,500 years ago, it is both very ancient and very new, since it is torn down and rebuilt every 20 years. The only permanence is its impermanence.
Tokyo and other Japanese cities now have tall buildings of concrete and glass, constructed to withstand earthquakes, but these are relatively new developments. Although many buildings are no longer made of wood (which is too expensive and hard to maintain), Japanese cities still look a little jerry-built, rather like movie sets, as though in anticipation of impermanence—less like Manhattan, more like Los Angeles.
Tokyo was almost totally demolished twice in the 20th century, once after the devastating earthquake in 1923 and again after being laid waste by U.S. incendiary bombs in 1945. Both times, the people of Tokyo speedily, energetically, even cheerfully, built their capital city up again. When Tokyo was still called Edo, before the late 19th century, Edoites took pride in the stoical acceptance of earthquakes and firestorms, known as “the flowers of Edo.”
This is the other side of fatalism, the ability to bounce back from disaster, wherever it hits, in Tokyo or on the nation’s northeastern coast. Foreign observers have remarked on the discipline and solidarity of Japanese in the face of their current circumstances. No looting, no riots, no violence. This was not always so. In 1923, rumors that Korean residents were poisoning the water supplies led to massacres, as panicked mobs set upon anyone who looked or sounded like a Korean.
Over the past week, the discipline has held. It comes from the social conformity that is imposed on all Japanese from an early age, as well as from the duty to take care of one’s own and the fear of causing trouble to strangers. But it is also the result of an awareness, instilled by centuries of living with disasters, that what comes down can be rebuilt. There is a Japanese expression, “pouring out with the water.” It is a way of forgetting what is past. This can be a weakness (not standing up to past responsibilities) and a strength (getting on with the future).
We do not yet know the full extent of the latest catastrophe, but there is reason to think that Japan will not only bounce back, yet again, but come out stronger. That the government has had no problem accepting help from foreigners, unlike in 1995, after the Kobe earthquake, is a sign that the country is now more open to the world and less touchy about national pride.
For the first time, Koreans and Chinese have come to Japan’s rescue, which will certainly do much to improve relations that have been stained with bloodshed in the past. The mobilization of the Self-Defense Forces, and the extraordinary efforts of Japanese soldiers to help their fellow citizens, will bolster their image and restore some trust to a nation that, after a calamitous war, was no longer trusted to defend itself. The Japanese government itself is still struggling to inspire trust, but it too might emerge stronger from this grueling experience.
Most important of all, however, is the behavior of ordinary Japanese citizens, whose calm resilience has shown that Mr. Ishihara’s words of disdain were not just foolish, and primitive, but wrong. They are taking responsibility seriously, not just for themselves and their own families, but for total strangers, too. If this goes against the Japanese stereotype, it is high time for the stereotype to be broken.
—Mr. Buruma is the Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College. His latest book is “Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.”
(Source: The Wall Street Journal)@2 years ago
#Wsj The saturday essays #wall street journal #IAN BURUMA