A year has passed since the Great East Japan Earthquake took place on March 11, 2011. What has changed in our society and how? What effect did the earthquake have on the way we live and think?
We asked playwright Masakazu Yamazaki for his views.
For many years, Yamazaki, who lives in Hyogo Prefecture, has discussed the state of modern Japan from a historical perspective and in terms of civilizational theory.
Excerpts of his interview with The Asahi Shimbun follow:
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Question: What did the earthquake change about our society and the way we think?
Yamazaki: Let's think about it along a somewhat long timeline. There have been three earthquakes that really impacted our people since Japan modernized. The first was the Great Kanto Earthquake that struck on Sept. 1, 1923. Next was the Great Hanshin Earthquake on Jan. 17, 1995, followed by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 of last year. There have been other large earthquakes and tsunami, but these three earthquakes stand out because the media showed the whole country what these terrible scenes looked like and we all felt that we were a part of these disasters.
If we start with the end results, politically, socially and culturally, the Great Kanto Earthquake before World War II and the two big quakes after the war were very different from each other. Their effects on society differ greatly. This is what I want to highlight.
Q: How are they different?
A: The striking thing about the Great Kanto Earthquake was the climate of exclusion against those who were different. Rumors spread amidst the chaos, leading to atrocities against ethnic Koreans and Chinese, which were also committed by ordinary citizens. The mood also became more unfriendly toward liberalism as well as plentiful and flashy lifestyles and culture. People thought the earthquake was retribution from heaven, in that it was divine punishment for their frivolous, carefree ways, and even liberals like Eiichi Shibusawa went along with them. The emperor even issued an "edict on stirring the spirits of the people." Militaristic ideas began to bud, which was a step toward the totalitarianism that followed.
Even more interesting is how the idea of "disaster prevention" meant to protect society colluded with "national defense," a military concept. After the quake struck, rather than escape from the fires, people in some parts of Tokyo's Kanda district stayed and fought the inferno. An army officer later wrote about the incident in an essay, which people throughout Japanese society admired because it suited the (then popular) idea of fighting, not running away. Textbooks on ethics even used the story.
Q: What about the Great Hanshin Earthquake after the war?
A: It made clear that Japanese society and culture was completely different from prewar Japan. Far from there being anti-foreigner sentiment, there was a volunteer movement in Kobe to help them. An example is when citizens set up a radio station to issue foreign-language broadcasts to non-Japanese in the disaster zone. However, a debate came up over canceling the Spring National Invitational High School Baseball Tournament and there was an uproar calling on people not to give Valentine's Day chocolates. Although The Mainichi Shimbun decided to go ahead with the baseball tournament, when people abstained from giving chocolates, it struck a direct blow to Kobe's confectionery industry.
And now we have experienced the Great East Japan Earthquake. When it comes to how foreign residents behaved and were treated, Kobe doesn't even compare. Managers at companies that suffered damage frantically tried to help Chinese laborers who had come for training. Foreigners who left the towns to return to their countries for a time came back wanting to join in the rebuilding. Wives from other Asian nations are helping the elderly and protecting communities. There are many stories like these.
Q: So what can we say about that?
A: Compared with the Great Kanto Earthquake's aftermath, we found that a fundamental change has occurred in society and individual people's awareness. The exceptional circumstances of the earthquake allow us to see things that we couldn't before. Japan has already internationalized and clearly people have moved beyond intolerant nationalism. After the Hanshin quake, I found it hard to say that culture and sports are also essential. In fact, on the contrary people in stricken areas are willing to agree with me.
One other decisive difference that became obvious was that the phrase "disaster prevention" was replaced with "disaster reduction." Scholars at the government's reconstruction planning committee used this phrase. They publicly stated that the idea of 100-percent disaster prevention is impossible and we should run away if we can't fight.
It goes without saying that a major earthquake is a terribly unfortunate event. However, this one has shown a better side of the Japanese people through our international character, our culture and our pacifism. This is what I want to emphasize.
Q: Why do you think we've become like this?
A: Japanese people have been building it up ever since the war ended. In terms of our civilization's history, the Japanese now feel more "postwar" than "post-earthquake." Rightists tend to speak negatively about postwar democracy, but it has become the real flesh and blood of Japanese citizens. I believe that we showed that to be the truth under the extraordinary circumstances of the earthquake.
Q: How will Japan get back on its feet after this enormous shock and damage?
A: I firmly believe that eastern Japan will recover in 15 years. That's because it took Hanshin 15 years to recover. The Tohoku quake affected a larger area, but people have greater concern about the Tohoku region. In any event, if we wield the power of modern culture, we can recover, although it is impossible to prevent any and all disasters. The society of Japan continues to move slowly but steadily into the future. In that sense I am optimistic.
Note that we have had two major earthquakes in Japan in a space of 17 years that were on a national scale, by which I mean that they shocked our entire citizenry. The psychological impact is huge. I think the result may be that the Japanese have woken up to a sort of sense of impermanence.
Q: What do you mean by sense of impermanence?
A: It's the sense that civilization, which forms the base of our existence, is no absolutely stable, that there are things we cannot overcome despite our incredible scientific and technological advances, and that humans are actually weak. I don’t have any definitive proof, but perhaps we are beginning to reconsider our human arrogance.
This is a distinct difference with modern Western civilization. A great earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal, in the middle of the 18th century that delivered a tremendous shock to Europeans. However, just at that time the Age of Enlightenment was emerging, when people like (Denis) Diderot and Voltaire were preaching humanity's greatness and our shining future. This rationalist thinking led people to forget about such shocks.
But in Japan's case, we have an intriguing tradition of forging onward while holding a sense of our impermanence. You could call it a proactive sense of impermanence. We may have gotten that back.
Q: What exactly is this proactive sense of impermanence?
A: An obvious example is Kamo no Chomei's "Hojoki" (An account of my hut). These essays written during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) cover great fires, famine, earthquakes and the like. It makes for a good textbook on the sense of impermanence. So what does he write at the end? Clinging to a sense of impermanence is also against Buddhist teachings. You mustn't cling to anything at all, so you mustn't cling to a sense of impermanence either. The idea is to live a full life while having a sense of its impermanence.
There's a place in Tokyo called Kiba. In the Edo Period (1603-1867), rich people and landlords would keep a constant and huge stock of lumber here. They couldn't stop fires, but they could rebuild if buildings burned down. Edo was administered under the assumption that big fires would occur and houses would burn down. This also embodies a proactive sense of impermanence.
Q: How is this tradition making a comeback in the modern era?
A: In Tokyo, they are thinking about how people would escape the city (in a disaster) and are practicing drills, exemplified by the city's measures to help people trying to return home. If a big earthquake strikes directly under the capital, then buildings might collapse. You may be trapped underground. Or you could be enveloped by a huge fire. The idea that an earthquake will certainly befall them some time may be lurking in the backs of Tokyoites' minds.
Q: When you put it that way, I feel like it could happen to me, too.
A: Don't you? But despite that, no one is going to just give in to despair and give up. Young people are joining "don't protect, run away" evacuation drills with a serious attitude. In the mood after the Hanshin earthquake, we felt like we shouldn't say, "Don't give up." Now everyone's shouting, "Don't give up, Japan!"
The more civilization and science progress, the greater our sense of impermanence can become. For example, seismology is in a sense a troublesome field of study. The more precise your earthquake predictions, the more anxiety you sow in people. Because it's science, you can't lie. So as a result you release predictions like: "There is a 70 percent chance of an earthquake striking directly below the Tokyo area within four years." It makes people feel a sense of impermanence and anxiety.
Well, (this growing sense of impermanence) alone isn't going to put cultural activity on the decline in Tokyo. And although people are demanding more leadership from our politics, nobody's saying stupid things like we should give society a military structure.
Q: What's going to happen from now?
A: I'm not a proponent of Scientism, but there is no doubt that modern culture is on a steady path of evolution. I don't stand on the side of the ideological view that society has stopped developing and that civilization will no longer make progress. Until recently and still now, research on making carbon fibers superconductive, enhancing wood pellets and securing clean and safe energy has been progressing. The Japanese people will maintain their sense of impermanence while assuming that an earthquake will come. So we will very steadily come up with solutions, one problem at a time, and move forward. That's how I think we'll live.
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Masakazu Yamazaki is a playwright. Born in 1934, he is designated Person of Cultural Merit and serves as vice president of the Suntory Foundation. He survived the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Late last year he published "Sekai Bunmeishi no Kokoromi" (An experiment in the history of world civilizations).
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