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.