POINT OF VIEW/ Genichiro Takahashi: Resisting the force of oblivion

April 27, 2013


Philosopher Shunsuke Tsurumi once wrote: "Having been told of the nation's defeat in World War II during the summer holiday of 1945, the hearts of schoolteachers were heavy as they headed to school on September 1, the first day of the autumn term. They now had to teach their pupils the opposite of what they had been teaching.

"It meant having to face their own selves squarely.

"A portrait of such a teacher, standing before his class, would have shown something like a halo around his head. The halo would represent his awareness that he had made a mistake, for which he knew he could not blame the country."

It must have been acutely awkward and embarrassing for the teacher to have to tell his pupils how utterly wrong he had been to teach them that the nation was in a "just" war.

But to Tsurumi's thinking, the teacher's head, bowed in humiliation, glowed with the inner light of a true educator. By letting his pupils know that he could be as wrong as anyone else, he taught them by his own example not to accept everything they hear as true.

But the glow proved ephemeral at best. Very soon, everything reverted to how it was before: Teachers were meant to teach only "the correct answers" endorsed by the powers that be, and students were to only memorize the answers.

When the Fukushima nuclear disaster was unfolding in 2011, sociologist Eiji Oguma interviewed the prime minister, Naoto Kan. In the March issue of Gendai Shiso (Contemporary philosophy) magazine, Oguma repeats what he told Kan: "When people say they are against restarting offline nuclear reactors, they don't mean it in the narrow sense of opposing the restart of specific reactors like the Oi No. 3 and No. 4 reactors. Rather, I have always understood this to mean that they would not allow the 'restart' of 'pre-3/11 Japan.'"

If I may borrow Oguma's expression, our country now appears to be heading straight for the "restart of pre-3/11 Japan."

The Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear disaster that it triggered exposed many dark elements that have always lurked in our society.

Why have we always left rural provinces to their fate? Why did the nuclear disaster happen? Who will take ultimate responsibility, and how, and what sort of future do we envision for our country?

So far, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has given us no answer since he seized the reins of power last December. I have carefully gone through what he has said, including his comments after the last Lower House election and his inaugural address and policy speech before the Diet.

He hasn't said a word that really matters. It is as if sees nothing wrong whatsoever with Japan's pre-3/11 politics.

Oguma begins his above-mentioned interview with Kan as follows: "I would like you to completely lay aside your excuses and party interests, and tell me nothing but the truth. In the United States, anyone testifying under oath would be required to put their hand on the Bible and swear to tell nothing but the truth to the best of their knowledge. Today, I am asking you to be such a 'witness in the court of history' and take an oath in the names of all the people you issued orders to, as well as to all those who perished in the disaster."

Many readers may find Oguma's words bizarrely overblown. That is because we are rarely in a position to be required to tell only "the truth." But, there is no way we can pursue someone's responsibility if telling the truth is not a requirement.

The interview also addresses another important issue, which is that even though nuclear power generation forces someone to order someone else to die when the worst happens, Japan is totally unprepared and unequipped systemically to deal with such an eventuality.

Against this backdrop, the April issue of Sekai (The world) magazine ran a roundtable discussion in which three anonymous workers at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 plant voiced their frank opinions.

Disagreeing vehemently with the government's announcement that the Fukushima disaster has been "brought under control," the workers concurred that there are parties who want to pretend that the disaster is over, and that Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the plant, has reverted to its pre-3/11 ways.

At the end of the roundtable, one participant posed this question to the public at large: "Do you people think the Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear disaster are already things of the past?"

In the spring issue of Shosetsu Torippa (Novel tripper), a quarterly literary magazine published by The Asahi Shimbun, philosopher Kiyokazu Washida discusses ways that creative people involved themselves in post-disaster relief activities.

Many artists entered the areas devastated by the March quake and tsunami because, according to Washida, "music and artistically created objects can appeal directly to the hearts of people and cheer them up." But he notes that some of them must have rushed to disaster areas simply as concerned individuals, while others went for both reasons, or perhaps for neither of these reasons. And one such person was photographer Rieko Shiga, he says.

Shiga's connection to the disaster area in northeastern Japan dates back many years to when she built her workshop in Kitagama. Miyagi Prefecture, and settled there. At the time, Kitagama was a village with about 100 households, and the average age of the residents was over 60.

Shiga's decision to move there eventually evolved into her becoming its "exclusive photographer" and "record keeper." She attended village events and activities, took photos, and listened to stories told by the locals. Her attachment to Kitagama and its history deepened.

Then the March 11 tsunami struck. About one-sixth of the residents perished.

In a book she co-authored last year, Shiga recalls: "One day, men in smart suits suddenly showed up in an expensive car and began regaling us with their reconstruction plans that were beyond anyone's wildest dreams. 'If only these plans could be realized, everything will be just fine for you,' they said. 'In fact, your village will grow more prosperous than ever. There will be jobs for everyone, and all your troubles will be over. We want to help you.' Then the men handed out sumptuous 'bento' box lunches to us all. We were being rushed into accepting comprehensive reconstruction plans drawn up by outsiders, whether we liked the plans or not. It was a most frustrating experience."

Like a "chirei" spirit of Japanese folklore that is said to reside in the ground, Shiga gives utterance to the inner voice of the people of Kitagama. In doing so, she seems to me to be resisting some powerful force that drives the past into oblivion and makes everyone avert their eyes from responsibility and unresolved problems, and talk of a rosy future.

* * *

Genichiro Takahashi is a novelist and professor at Meiji Gakuin University. He was born in 1951.

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Genichiro Takahashi (Toshiyuki Matsumoto)

Genichiro Takahashi (Toshiyuki Matsumoto)

  • Genichiro Takahashi (Toshiyuki Matsumoto)

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