A Country’s Lasting Aftershocks
By SATORU IKEUCHI,, GENICHIRO TAKAHASHI, and MITSUYOSHI NUMANO
Published: March 19, 2011
The physicist Torahiko Terada wrote in 1934, “The more civilization progresses, the greater the violence of nature’s wrath.” Nearly 67 years later, his words appear prescient.
Humans have become increasingly arrogant, believing they have conquered nature. We build ever larger, ever more concentrated, ever more uniform structures. Scientists and engineers think that they are responding to the demands of society, but they have forgotten their larger responsibilities to society, emphasizing only the positive aspects of their endeavors.
The catastrophe facing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant epitomizes this phenomenon. Although earthquakes are so frequent in Japan that it has been described as “a nation lying atop a block of tofu,” we have built some 54 nuclear reactors along the coast, vulnerable to tsunamis. It should have been foreseen that an earthquake of this magnitude might occur, and if the plant could not withstand such an event, it should not have been constructed.
In addition, the failure of power systems fueling the plant’s emergency core cooling system suggests that the models used to design the system were too lax. The decision to pump seawater into the nuclear reactor was late in coming. Each of these problems was foreseeable.
Even now, as workers at the plant continue to do their utmost, I am haunted by a nightmare in which a succession of nuclear meltdowns produces radioactive pollution greater than what was released at Chernobyl.
Until a few years ago, power usage in Japan was such that during the summer Obon holidays, when people typically return to their ancestral homes, it would have been possible to meet demand even if all nuclear power plants were turned off. Now, nuclear energy has come to be indispensable for both industry and for our daily lives. Our excessive consumption of energy has somehow become part of our very character; it is something we no longer think twice about.
Japan reached global prominence through science and technology, but we cannot deny that this has also resulted in an arrogance that has diminished our ability to imagine disaster. We have fallen into the trap of being stupefied by civilization.
— SATORU IKEUCHI, astrophysicist at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies. This article was translated by Matthew Fraleigh from the Japanese.
Hours after the earthquake, the columnist Masahiko Katsuya scrapped the article he had been writing and started over. “Surely, this is a national emergency,” his new column began. “Just when the Japanese nation had hit bottom politically, economically and morally, we suffered a blow so crushing it seemed it might well be the end of us. But we mustn’t let that happen. ... My fellows, let us fight! Fight until our vigor is restored!”
This is the rhetoric of war. And it’s not a metaphor. This disaster is the war that many Japanese have been dreading, and expecting, for a long time.
Four years ago, an article titled “War Is Our Only Hope” appeared in a political magazine. “More than a decade has passed,” the young writer wrote, “since we were set adrift in society as low-wage workers. And yet society, far from extending a helping hand, heaps insults on us, saying we lower the G.D.P., calling us lazy bums. If the peace endures, the current inequality will last until we die. We need something to break this asphyxiating stagnation and set things in motion. War is one possible solution.”
These words jolted Japanese society. It was a rejection of all the country has believed in for over 60 years.
Japan was fundamentally altered by its defeat in World War II. It chose to abjure war and to recreate itself as a wealthy country. But how long, one wonders, did our faith in peace, democracy and economic growth really last? Not long, it seems. Over the past two decades growth has faltered, economic disparity has greatly increased and faith in the political order has eroded. Though they didn’t say it, people could tell that sooner or later some disaster had to happen. That young writer only gave it a name.
Days after the earthquake, supermarket shelves were empty, long lines of cars had formed outside gas stations, parents were taking their children out of Tokyo. The television showed endless images of demolished towns; the numbers of the dead and missing climbed mercilessly upward into five digits; and refugees in dark gymnasiums lay trembling in the freezing cold, waiting for help. These are scenes from a war.
For the first time in his reign, Emperor Akihito made a televised address to the Japanese people. This, too, reminded us of his father’s radio address at the end of World War II, 66 years ago.
And now we are transfixed by the images of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant; they’re emitting flames, exploding. When the first small, brown mushroom cloud rose, memories we had sealed off deep inside suddenly surfaced.
For 66 years, we lived the “postwar” life. Periodically someone would point out that the postwar period must surely be over by now — and yet it wasn’t. We had no other word to describe the present.
We lost many things in those years, chief among them the bond between people. Companies, families and neighbors ceased to work together, and the word kozoku was coined to describe our country: ko meaning “isolated” or “orphaned,” zoku meaning “family” or “tribe.” We were lonely, adrift.
Eiji Oguma, one of the most prominent social historians here, once asked, “How long do we have to go on using this word ‘postwar’?” He answered himself: “Forever. Because we established a new country after the defeat. When we say ‘however many years after the defeat,’ it really means ‘however many years after the founding of the nation.’ ”
“Then again,” Mr. Oguma added, “maybe we’ll only use it until the next war.”
Now, amid the chaos of the battle we are waging, we feel a familiar sense of exhilaration in the air, an intense feeling of solidarity. We can only wonder what the new Japan will look like.
— GENICHIRO TAKAHASHI, author of “Sayonara, Gangsters.” This article was translated by Michael Emmerich from the Japanese.
Many people are wondering why anyone would build nuclear power plants in a country so prone to natural disasters — and that’s a very reasonable question. But the reality is that, having accepted nuclear power as a necessary evil, we have no choice but to go on living with it.
What is hard to accept, however, is that the electrical power companies and government agencies tried to account for the disaster by explaining that the circumstances that led up to it were far outside the bounds of anything that could have been predicted — in their words, “beyond all expectations.” We have heard this phrase repeatedly on television reports.
There is something strange about this line of thinking. It even begins to appear that Japan’s vaunted scientific and technical prowess has taken on the character of a kind of myth, and that myth has deluded the nation’s politicians and business leaders. But it has been obvious all along that science and technology can deal only with things that fall within the range of what can be expected. And also that it is all too likely that some things that happen in our lives will indeed be “beyond all expectations” — and that it is precisely for this reason that we are able to live those lives. What, after all, would be the meaning of a life in which everything that happened was “within expectations”?
Every one of the images of the victims that we have seen on television has been gripping, but the one that has made the deepest impression on my heart is that of a little girl tearfully calling out for her missing mother. I believe in the purity of this girl’s heart more than I believe in the pledges of any politician, no matter how sincere. A cry of despair, to be sure, but also a sign of her unshakable will to face reality in its very harshest form.
And yet, in the end, what else is there for each of us to do but to keep on doing what we have been doing, as long and as hard as we can? From within the daily lives of each one of us, a small light of hope will begin to glow. This is what I want to believe. Would it be too much to say that a person’s ability to harbor such an unlikely belief in the power of hope is also something “beyond all expectation”?
— MITSUYOSHI NUMANO, professor of literature at the University of Tokyo. This article was translated by Joel R. Cohn from the Japanese.