Understanding Japan's great wave

One of my many seatmates during my nearly 24 hours of travel this weekend (remind me to tell you about the married woman sitting next to me who spent hours hitting on her 19-year-old colleague sitting next to her) had a copy of the Wall Street Journal. In it was a beautiful essay by Ian Buruma, the Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College. The piece talks about the cultural issues that are affecting how the Japanese respond to disasters. And like any good cultural discussion, the piece deals with religion. Here, for instance, is the lede for "Japan's Shattered Mirror: 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.

The author discounts the view of acts of nature having meaning by calling it "primitive." But apart from expressing that opinion, he goes on to describe how the Japanese have ascribed spiritual meaning to destructive powers. We learn about how a typhoon thwarted an invasion in 1274 of 16,000 Mongol, Chinese and Korean warriors. That's the origin of the term "kamikaze," divine wind. We learn how that word came to describe something altogether different during World War II. The atom bomb is thoroughly discussed. Here's a section:

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.

The piece is so thorough it even ties in the postwar Japanese Godzilla monster movies. There's a nice discussion of Shinto and Buddhism and their relation to the natural world. We learn that Shinto is composed of rituals to appease the forces of nature. Buddhism is also congenial to the Japanese and their risky environment. When discussing the distinctive building standards of Japan, the author is sure to mention how it affects even religious aspects:

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.

The piece ends with a hopeful message about Japan's resilience and an additional thunking of Ishihara. You may not agree with his opinions, but the journalism behind the piece is strong. If you are in any way interested in the role Japanese mores, religious views and general culture are playing in disaster response, this is a must-read essay. It's even accompanied by a great illustration that pays homage to Katsushika Hokusai. Kudos to the Journal for running it.

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