Sleeping Mountains

Reflections on life, literature, and culture.

Category: East Japan Earthquake 2011

The Limits of Perfectionism

(Protests in front of the Parliament in Tokyo on June 29. Source unclear.)

For the first time in 40 years, Japanese are taking to the streets in such numbers that they cannot be ignored. On June 29, 20,000 to 45,000 (Japan Times and NYT). On July 8, music celebrity Sakamoto Ryoichi hosted a music festival that included many mainstream musicians (publicity site), On July 16, Sakamoto Ryoichi was again present at a rally where nobel laureat Oe Kenzaburo spoke to about 170,000 protesters assembled in Yoyogi Park (Asahi and NYT). And again on July 29, protestors broke through police barriers and successfully surrounded the parliament building in Tokyo in a candlelight vigil (Reuters).

Following the disaster at Fukushima, all Japanese nuclear power plants were shut down on May 5th this spring, but even then it was already announced that the Ooi Nuclear Plant would be reactivated to supply electricity to the Kansai region during the summer. At the time, the Japan Times reported that

[T]he government and power companies also have to win approval in the court of public opinion. . . (Japan Times, May 6)

and

Local government leaders near the plant, including the governors of Kyoto and Shiga prefectures and the mayor of Osaka, are reluctant to agree to any restart.(Japan Times, May 6)

As the announced day of the reactivation neared, public opinion found an outlet in a major demonstration in front of parliament on June 29th. Considering the general absence of protest and of civil disobedience of any sort in Japan since the student movements in 1970, the scale of these protests indicates a major change in the population’s tolerance of political developments. [Update on Aug. 5: The people choosing to engage in the protests have been previously unable to find conventional means of expressing their dissatisfaction. Their protest is against nuclear power, but as such they are acting against formal conventions and questioning the status quo.]

It seems to me that Japanese people have lost faith in their nation’s own ability to adapt and improve upon foreign technology. They are very much aware that it has been proven impossible to adapt technology for nuclear power to suit their own natural environment. Since the beginning of recorded Japanese history, they have prided themselves in their ability to learn from foreign cultures and technologies and then to perfect the foreign models by applying a meticulous attention to detail. That perfectionism has reached a limit in its capabilities.

Despite this obvious misjudgment of ability, plans to reactivate the Ooi plant continued due to threats of power shortages in the summer.

After recognizing power shortages were likely to occur this summer, governors and mayors in western Japan backed off from their earlier opposition in late May, and the Union of Kansai Governments effectively gave consent for the reactivation. (Mainichi,  July 2)

There are obvious limits to Japanese perfectionism, but they seem to be ignored by politicians. The government plods along as planned despite a large negative reaction from the general population. A strong dependence on formal procedure and precedent has made the Japanese government incapable of reacting to new circumstances. The politicians’ goal seems to be to maintain the status quo—to keep the electricity flowing despite the dissent. Their focus is not on fundamental problems, but on maintaining appearances. Has Japanese perfectionism become a mere show, an illusion that covers up an underlying fracture?

The government’s actions seem to reflect a formalization in Japanese society that has progressed to a point of near paralysis. Just as the government functions on precedent and formality, so too does the rest of Japanese society, including business and education in all its iterations. Does Japanese formality and hierarchy require rethinking? Might that not threaten to destroy Japanese society as we know and love it?

Of course, these questions are not new. They have been begging to be answered since the beginning of the economic downturn. Alex Kerr’s book Dogs and Demons reveals exactly these fundamental problems. But now they are more explicit and made present in a palpable fear of nuclear fallout among the general population.

In short, a major component of the Japanese “identity” is being publicly questioned. It seems as if Japanese dependence on formal structures is threatening to strangle the freedom necessary to adapt to any given situation. If Japan wants to overcome this threat to their own definition of self, they must rise to meet it. Formality and precedent must be questioned in order to create a balance with creativity. This balancing act is not impossible, but it is difficult to achieve. It will need all the care and attention (a different kind of perfectionism, perhaps) the Japanese are so famous for.

(Thanks to a talk on June 19 by philosopher Yamaguchi Ichiro in Tübingen for problematizing Japanese formality and hierarchy in post-Fukushima Japan.)

Japanese Group Mentality?

(Shibuya station of the Inogashira Line on an evening in May 2011.)

One often mentioned cultural characteristic (a stereotype, plainly put) that has been so deeply impressed into theories of Japanese culture is Japan’s so-called “group mentality.” This theory might have become something of a non-issue in Japanese cultural studies of late (except perhaps for scholars of “Nihonjinron,” theories of Japanese uniqueness from a rather Japanese perspective), but it is still perpetuated by international journalism, Western expats living in Japan, and many Japanese nationals, who are also considered experts on the issue. As long as this stereotype is so widespread, I think it requires a closer look.

The standard reason given for the Japanese group mentality is Japan’s tradition of rice agriculture, where close, careful relationships among community members were necessary to ensure the fair division of water resources even when they were scarce. The community, it is said, had to set personal differences aside to survive. But, large parts of Japanese society (fishing communities and the often low-class, mobile groups of society, for example) were never really tied to rice agriculture. It might be argued that these communities were not involved in determining the dominant culture. Do any of these types of social structures actually still influence the fabric of Japanese society today after agriculture has become such an industrialized industry that fewer and fewer people are a part of it and more and more people move to urban areas?

If the memories of major natural disasters persist for no more than three generations, what about major impacts on society that have a far less traumatic impact on most members? The recent major shift from agricultural to urban lifestyles in Japan happened in large part one or two generations ago. Those who started living in urban areas were not those negatively affected by the change. They felt little to no trauma (although there was likely some trauma among those left behind in rural areas). Few people I met in Tokyo ever spoke of agricultural roots. (I met a few more people with rural ties in Kyoto, but I guess I’m focusing on Tokyo culture in this post.)

Certainly, urban, corporate culture has also been changing within the last generation, from conservative models of group structure and hierarchy and so forth to more flexible, smaller, and independent forms of business. This, of course, is only an impression I have after working in a small, newly established company for a while and from friends who are young, creative people in Tokyo. But even among this young generation, there is a kind of group mentality that has grown within the last year.

Even during the earthquake a year ago, Twitter and cell phones connected my community of friends, many students, independent young entrepreneurs, and creative types. One friend called us all “single” people, a bit of an exaggeration if understood in a purely romantic sense. A few have significant others, but these people live relatively free of regulative social institutions. Most of them live alone, have self-delegated schedules, and are critical of conservative family, business, and other social institutions. In that sense, these people are all “single,” independent, and even individualistic.

Despite their perhaps unconventional situations and world-views, these young people formed a community in the weeks following the earthquake. Over our phones, we kept tabs on one another’s whereabouts and needs, and on one another’s mental shape as the death toll rose, aftershocks continued, and more cryptic news stories came from Fukushima. Having collectively looked into the face of our own mortality, we suddenly shared something few other communities share.

And this sense of community went beyond the people represented by entries in my cell-phone address book. Another friend tweeted at that time, she now saw the people around her as she navigated Tokyo as potential teammates, people she would have to cooperate with in the next earthquake.

So, if Japanese society may be charged with having a group mentality, it is not for any historical development from rice agriculture. It is a shared awareness of our own transient nature shaped by a common experience. This is not so very different, perhaps, from the effects of natural disasters on the cultures of other communities throughout the world. But it is very different from the respective cultures of people who see death as something one meets very much alone. . .

Phantom Earthquakes

The castle of Tübingen, which was supposedly damaged in a 1970 earthquake.

It has been far, far too long since I wrote here! A lot has been changing and happening in the world around me. (I moved to southern Germany in March and began studying at the University of Tübingen here.) And with getting used to all the changes, I have not been able to find a perspective on things to be able to write anything interesting on the blog. But that state of affaires can’t last forever. Perspective eventually arises in the chaos, a focus will at some point be found. . . even if its interest dissipates within moments of its having been uttered. The following is about a strange sort of experience I’ve had a few times (so, repeatedly) since coming here.

In an attempt to keep some sort of continuity here, I’d like to address the issue that first comes to the minds of people here in Germany when they hear I recently moved from Japan. They all mention Fukushima. Having been directly affected by power outages and concerns about food contamination, there is certainly something of great concern that I can address in such conversations. It seems, however, that this issue hugely overshadows the destruction that the earthquake and the tsunami wrought. The 15,854 deaths and 3,155 people missing due to the latter have even been mis-attributed by some to the nuclear accident, where no deaths have occurred. Which was the greater disaster? Which still holds the greater threat?

I have no intention to make light of the 6 workers who have received doses of radiation higher than lifetime limits and more than 300 who have received significant radiation (Wikipedia). And the issue of human error (for  which cronyism among government, nuclear regulation, and journalism has been rightfully blamed) is more obvious in the case of Fukushima Dai-ichi, although human error lies also with building cities in areas likely to be flooded by tsunamis.

Many seem to think that the earthquake and tsunami were a natural disaster, which makes them unavoidable, unlike the human disaster at Fukushima. But centuries-old stone markers that can be found throughout the Tohoku region warn about the dangers of building homes in low-lying areas, but few heeded those warnings. If not a faith in technology, at the very least a faith in progress – faith that the present generations knows more than those past – led to heedlessness. Certainly, the blame for this error was not as convoluted or tied to centers of political power as the error at Fukushima, but it is fascinating how the earthquake and tsunami are seen as an almost non-issue here in Germany.

Why are the earthquake and tsunami a non-issue? Is it because, being natural, it is unavoidable? Or is it because older Germans have a clear memory of Chernobyl (memories of disasters, it is said, last for three generations), and the emotional intensity of such memories evoke greater concern? Can Germans not identify with feeling the ground shake or huge waves wash over the land? Germany, particularly the Rhine Valley and the Swabian Albs in the south, has a history of seismic activity, albeit hardly comparable to that of Japan. Along the North and Baltic Seas there is little seismic activity and no great quantity of water as in the Pacific that could cause much of a tsunami. Is it because Germans have never personally felt that fear that they don’t understand the destruction? Whatever that answer, however, it is not a lack of compassion for earthquake victims that I want to address. . .

Life in Germany seems to be, for the most part, without any threat to life in general. No major disaster might suddenly kill thousands. The last great war was two generations ago and education about its horrors make memories present enough to prevent a reoccurrence. The economic crisis may have had its effects (although limited in this part of Europe), but none life-threatening that I am aware of. And so little to nothing threatens to cut the lives of the general population short. Few people here could imagine the occasional fear that rips through me when the floor shakes before my own reason reassures me that it must be a household appliance of some sort or someone bouncing their leg during class and no more. They don’t see the people around them as the people they would have to cooperate with should a natural disaster strike or as the people they might die with.

But a lack of fear is, in this and in most cases, something to be desired. (I certainly would feel less silly if I didn’t feel these phantom earthquakes.) What might be of value, though, is the reason for fear and a thorough knowledge of transience, an eventual end to everything that we know and rely on. Such a knowledge brings with it an urgency in people’s actions, a consistency and reliability in creativity (in a wider sense that includes more than just art, but rather all of human activity). Such urgency in creativity, in turn, brings meaning to life, for meaning, as I understand it, is the constant search for and creation of meaning.

Charity Noh

I recently posted about charity in the history of Noh and other Japanese traditional performing arts. Well, charity Noh have begun! The Kongo school is putting on a performance today in Kyoto. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to be there, because I didn’t hear about it until late last night. . .

For a list (in Japanese) of upcoming (and past) charity Noh, see the list on the Nohgaku Performers Association.

Caring for Children’s Hearts

This story by NPR Morning Edition brought me to tears again.

This news story doesn’t directly address an issue that worries me, although it comes very close. Because the earthquake and tsunami happened in the middle of the day when families were separated at school, work, home, etc., a large number of children were orphaned by the disaster.

(An article I posted recently mentions a woman who used to be a dance instructor. Since the disaster, she has taken a number of orphaned children into her care.)

But, how can we help these young survivors, the next generation find their voice? How can we help them express not only their pain, but all the emotional challenges that come with being alive?

To begin with, they must be told that they are not alone. Their communities are not alone, either. People all over Japan and all over the world want to help. To help, however, we need to learn how to express our concern and how to listen to the children.

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