Sunday, 13 March 2011

Jishin


It is heartbreaking to watch the situation unfolding in north-east Japan and it seems now that the death toll is likely to be in the tens of thousands.

Much has been written about the nature of the disaster but I thought I would write a little about the area that has been affected. Tohoku (the north-east) is an area that culturally has long been on the periphery of Japan. It is a very mountainous region with many hot springs and a beautiful and dramatic coastline. It is a relatively poor and sparsely populated area proud of its history and local culture. Along the coast are (were?) many small and isolated fishing villages where most inhabitants were children or older people as young adults tended to leave to study and work in an urban setting. I lived in the region for two years and when I told Tokyoites this they often seemed to feel somewhat romantically about the region as a repository of good solid traditional values of a Japan that is now harder to find in the big cities. Soon after I met my husband I took him on a road trip through Miyagi and Iwate, an area he hadn't visited before, and he loved the slow pace of life and kind and genuine people.

My first thought when hearing of the earthquake was of possible tsunamis as these are common along this north-eastern coastline. I spent a lot of time visiting those beaches and many had concrete sea walls and tsunami observation towers and several towns had been rebuilt after previous tsunamis had been through them. Finding a way to strengthen concrete with steel without it corroding is big business in Japan as I learned when teaching engineers in Tokyo. We now know that much of the coastline has been completely washed away and it is difficult to imagine what might become of these communities which were already struggling to survive losing population to the cities.

Questions will be asked about whether development practices in the region have been good ones, particularly with the threat now of fallout from the nuclear power stations. It is reasonable to have these discussions but I would remind people that Japanese people in general are very aware of nuclear-related issues given the still strong memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is difficult to imagine whether this region will be able to recover from this. However, Sendai itself was heavily damaged in air raids during World War Two and cities such as Kamaishi on the coastline and throughout the area were also targeted. Images of the devastation from the tsunami reminded me of the war damage and in a perverse way give hope that something may be able to be rebuilt. Obviously other Japanese cities have also suffered in earthquakes with 140 000 people killed in the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and 5000 in the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Earlier today I came across the following (from here) which very much seems to encapsulate the resilience and stoicism needed to survive in a place where devastation regularly seems to come:

When you study classical Japanese, you memorize the opening of the Hojoki. (It’s like reading Caesar in Latin class.) The Japanese often cite these lines in times of disaster:

The flow of the running river is unceasing, yet the waters are not constant. Where it pools, the foam that floats up, now vanishing, now gathering, at no time lasts for any length. Man and his dwellings in this world are in every way the same.

The Japanese have a very moving tradition of awareness of the impermanence of life and of stoicism in the face of loss, as the above shows. But there’s a balancing tradition of jaw-setting discipline and tough-mindedness when there’s work to be done.

(The picture at the beginning of this post shows a boy being tested for radiation exposure. It is from the Al Jazeera website, which has been the best of the mainstream news sources on this disaster).

(Title edited because I realised that some browsers won't be able to display the Japanese characters and that will be annoying. Japanese text also removed from the body of the post for the same reason. "Jishin" means earthquake in Japanese).

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this contribution.

So sad.

reader.

Hugh said...

It is reasonable to have these discussions but I would remind people that Japanese people in general are very aware of nuclear-related issues given the still strong memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One thing I have noticed but haven't really realised until now is that in Japanese people's minds it seems nuclear power and nuclear weapons are not really linked. Japanese public opinion is and remains extremely opposed to nuclear weapons for obvious reasons. But generally they don't seem to see nuclear power stations as akin to nuclear weapons anymore than the average New Zealander would see nuclear medicine as being connected to nuclear weapons.

katy said...

Hugh, not so, there has been long opposition to the nuclear power plants. As this article linked to below shows, however, there is not always a clear link in Japan between public opinion and policy formation.

"...through organized protest, referenda, and opinion surveys the Japanese people have expressed strong doubts about any justification for nuclear energy."

http://www.rice.edu/energy/publications/docs/JES_NuclearEnergyPolicyPublicOpinion.pdf

katy said...

To add...I have been following online discussions of people in Japan and there is intense scepticism over the official line on damage caused in this disaster.

Hugh said...

Katy, I'm not saying that Japanese people are 100% in favour of nuclear power, and I expect they're feeling particularly wary of it right now. But I very rarely see any reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki or their consequences as part of the debate. It may simply be that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are such obvious reference points that they don't need to be acknowledged, but I think it's otherwise.

I agree that there is a great deal of scepticism about government transparency on this issue but I think that has to be seen as part of what are overall extremely high levels of scepticism towards the government's honesty and transparency in general.

But really, all I'm saying is that, whatever Japanese opinion of civilian nuclear power generation is, it's not informed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The paper you've quoted actually seems to support me - it mentions only civilian disasters in formulating Japanese public opinion, not nuclear weapons use.

PS: That link doesn't work, I think you meant it like this: http://www.rice.edu/energy/publications/docs/JES_NuclearEnergyPolicyPublicOpinion.pdf

katy said...

"But really, all I'm saying is that, whatever Japanese opinion of civilian nuclear power generation is, it's not informed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

I would be surprised if Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren't reference points in terms of nuclear devastation and destruction. However, I wonder if invoking them is seen as tasteless? I don't remember addressing this issue directly but I do have a friend from Hiroshima and I stayed with his parents there a few years ago. They were originally from another part of Japan and his mother told me that they moved to Hiroshima in the 1970s because they were deeply concerned about nuclear technology and figured that Hiroshima was the safest place in the world to be because people there would be more conscious of the dangers.

Hugh said...

Katy, I was surprised to, but I think that surprise may be a product of my cultural upbringing where the nuclear weapons <-> nuclear power link was so powerfully emphasised. It initially didn't occur to me that that link wasn't objectively obvious but my conversations with Japanese people have led me to question this. The Hiroshima museum has an extensive section on the implications of Hiroshima which mentions nuclear weapons many times but civilian nuclear power goes entirely without mention.

It might just be that it's seen as tasteless to mention them, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki don't seem to be verboten in most other areas of conversation, so I'm sceptical. I think it really is just a difference in attitude.

katy said...

"Katy, I was surprised to, but I think that surprise may be a product of my cultural upbringing where the nuclear weapons <-> nuclear power link was so powerfully emphasised."

I saw yesterday that my Japanese husband posted a NY Times article on his Facebook page about the workers trying to get the situation in the Fukushima plant under control and made a comment about their courage given memories of the hibakusha (survivors of Hiroshima/Nagasaki). I hadn't mentioned the discussion here on the Hand Mirror but after I saw his comment I asked him if he thinks Japanese anti-nuclear energy thought makes an association between nuclear weapons and nuclear power. His opinion is that that it absolutely does. He wondered though if younger Japanese have the same awareness given that the bombs were dropped 65 years ago.