Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Awaitings (I).

It is the 11th day after the quake, and the grim reality continues to penetrate our existence.

Natural disasters are always bad enough. Loss of life is intolerable, no matter on what scale. Having said that, this particular earthquake has been simply too devastating. Nobody yet knows for sure how many lives have been lost. Some communities have been wiped away in their entireties, leaving no one to report the missing, or deplore and weep for the deceased.

As of this morning, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the number of confirmed death is now 9199, with another 18456 missing. This appalling arithmetic of death is most probably an "underestimate" for the true nature of damage. We can only imagine, shudder and pray at this stage. In such a tragedy, deepening as things unfold, grief finds no end. Ultimately, there would be no soothing for a calamity of this scale. One could only hope for the beneficial effects of the passage of time.

In and around Tokyo, shortage of power is predicted to continue through the summer, when heavy and widespread use of air conditioning would inevitably result in peak power consumption levels. Scheduled power outage is actually likely to continue well into the winter of 2011/2012. If this forecast by those in charge proves to be the case (and all indications are that it probably will turn out to be the case), the very foundation of society as we have known it might be compromised. Termination of electricity even for a few hours, if prolonged, would seriously disrupt activities in the capital. Through the dense network of influence and interdependence in today's economical systems, the effects will be eventually felt here, there, and everywhere. And I am not talking just about Japan.

We already hear small businesses cornered to the rim of bankruptcy. Big companies are also affected, finding impossible to carry on business as usual. The entertainment and restaurant industries are clearly the worst affected. In a central Tokyo hotel I visited this Tuesday, half of the restaurants were announced closed.

In the publishing sector, with which I am involved myself, people talk about paper shortage, resulting in postponed magazine publications and cancelation of book launches. Friends of mine who work as freelancers have had their assignments cancelled at a very short notice. If this wave of cancellations prolongs, many lives will be seriously affected.

The damaging ripples this disaster has wrought upon the people is widespread, deep, and unprecedented. And yet, for many Japanese, this particular disaster has a certain element of the "deja vu." Although the damage exceeded almost any alarmist's expectations, the fact that a major earthquake would strike any given part of Japan some day or other has been buried in the Japanese psyche for all those years.

Anticipation of a disaster to come has been in this writer's mind, too. Ever since infancy, for as long as I can recollect, as a matter of fact. The expectation of a tremor to come has been in my subconscious mind, influencing in often unexpected ways my world view and personality. I suspect this is the case for many people here.

My grandfather Shichiro Mogi experienced the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, in which more than 100000 people were killed. The epicenter was off Kanagawa, close enough to cause severe damage in Tokyo. Shichiro was living in downtown Tokyo at that time. When I was small, Shichiro often told me, his first grandson, about the traumatic experience, especially around the 1st of September each year, the date the earthquake hit. Although the details of his descriptions now escape me, I vividly remember the way Shichiro narrated the great fire caused by the earthquake. "When I made an escape up the hills at Ueno Park", he would often tell me, "I could see an ocean of fire from the hills towards the Tokyo Bay" On the way back home on the morning after, Shichiro would keep telling me, he saw many dead bodies in and around the river, many of them burned, too numerous and quite uncountable. The calm demeanor with which Shichiro conveyed these words to the then small me was in a marked contrast to the graphic scene described. Maybe he did not want to frighten the grandson too much.

Looking back, I suspect that it was those narratives of my grandpa Shichiro as well as the information that I got from television, books, etc. that formed my impression that life-threatening earthquake could happen any time where I live, in a nation called "Nippon" or "Nihon". Even as a child, I understood the vulnerabilities involved in living in the country of Mount Fuji.

When I was 5 or 6, I started to have dreams. It was the same dream again and again, and would invariably leave me sweating in bed as I awoke. In it, I am watching a mountain, not in such a great distance, but far enough from town so that I can only dimly see its rather ominous shadow against the sky. All of a sudden, the mountain splits into two, and a white, gigantic monster emerges from the schism. Silently, but with clear and malicious intent, the monster drifts, towards the town, towards me.

I panic. I know for sure that if the monster ever gets me, it would afflict on me an agonizing death, or something much worse, although I could not tell exactly what would happen. So I run. I dash though the streets, never looking back, but always feeling the presence of the white gigantic monster behind me. Sure it is coming onto me.

Finally I take refuge in a house in town, belonging to somebody I don't know, with a very large glass pane facing the street. Once crouching in the cozy darkness of the house, I feel relieved, although I am aware that the escape might be only temporary and illusory. However, I do say to myself: Here, even if the white monster comes, it would not be able to see me, as I am so tiny and down below. From the monster's point of view, I am just one of the millions of people being chased, and would therefore hardly count. I think it was in these dreams that I learned to rebel in the comforting knowledge of being insignificant.

Still crouching, I hear a radio playing aloud somewhere. A man's voice is giving the latest news about the monster. The grownups are also afraid, as I can acutely sense from the tone of his words. The tension within me also gets higher. I don't lose my mind, however, managing to reassure myself in this state of anonymity.

I invariably woke up at this point. The moment I came to myself, I realized that it had been that dream again. I found much solace in the fact that I was safe in bed, in my house, which was not ostensibly destroyed. As I recall, I can see that the "white gigantic monster" most probably symbolized the natural disasters that might strike me one day. The earthquake was first and foremost on the agenda of my little imagination.

I don't think mine was an oddball case. Many people in Japan grow up with a vivid awareness of earthquake vulnerabilities. In this process, the fear of the earthquake gets tightly woven into the makeup of people. The sensitivity and preparedness to something, something that might strike us at any moment, anywhere, in any context. This particular way of feeling probably helps us Japanese get prepared for the eventualities, while admittedly having certain side effects.

As I grew up, my earthquake-related dreams became more specific. I dreamed often, for example, about the damage a big earthquake inflicts on house. I am in my parents' house, and the whole structure suddenly shakes. I fear for my life, and take shelter under the table, as every child is taught to do in this country. However, it is not my house that gets crushed. Instead, my neighbor's house, which was taller than my parents', would be bent in the middle by the quake like a sheet of paper, and the upper structure would come falling down on our house. I scream the cultural equivalent of "Oh My God!" I invariably woke up at this point, back to consciousness, back to safety. I had a tendency to wake up from dreams at my most vulnerable moments, such a convenient child that I was.

The worse fate I dreamt up for my neighbor's house probably did not come from any selfishness or wishful thinking on my part. It was simply easier, given the makeup of the visual system of the brain, to imagine the neighbor's house collapsing, which I could "render" to myself from the vantage point of the outside. In other words, it is much more difficult to imagine the housing that you're currently in literally crushing onto your body. It is difficult to imagine such a tragedy inflicted on yourself, all the more so to actually experience it and cope.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sun, moon, mountains, and water.

We need to keep diversity at any cost, even at a time of difficulty such as this. Stiff upper lips, with occasional smiles emanating to all around.

It was therefore a good thing that my best friend Shinya Shirasu went ahead with the arts exhibition that he produced and curated himself. The exhibition opened 8 days after the earthquake hit Tohoku area, in the Setagaya Art Museum in western Tokyo.
Shinya comes from a very privileged family background. Shinya's grandfather, Jiro Shirasu, from whom he perhaps inherited the ragged good looks, became famous for his active role in "nation building" after the end of Second World War.

Jiro Shirasu was educated at Cambridge, made friends with British upper class. Upon returning to Japan, he foresaw that the war with the United States was inevitable, no matter how unwise that action was. Shirasu also predicted that Japan would lose the war, a perception he presumably and well-advisedly kept to himself given the raging nationalistic sentiments at that time. Shirasu retreated himself into the suburb, bought a farm, and lived a life of a "country gentleman". In the legendary country house ("Buaiso", now a museum open to the public) Shirasu kept the quiet style of a hermit, keeping a distance from the wartime government of Japan.

On 15th August 1945, Emperor Showa (then Emperor Hirohito) delivered the famous "Gyokuon hoso" ("Jewel voice broadcast") over the radio, which effectively announced the Japanese surrender. Shortly after that, when the long-time friend and mentor Shigeru Yoshida was appointed Prime Minister, Shirasu's active political life began, which made his name in history.

Shirau was appointed as an advisor at the Central Liaison Office, which had the important mission of negotiating with the General Head Quarters led by General McArthur. Shirasu had a substantial role in the formation of the new Constitution of Japan, which was drafted amid dense and often heated negotiations between the GHQ and Japanese government.

At a time when most Japanese obeyed the orders of the American conquerors without questions, Shirasu was described as the "only defiant Japanese", who sometimes defied GHQ orders as a man of principles.

Jiro Shirasu (from )

65 or something years later, Shinya Shirasu sometimes reminds one of the defiance of his grandfather. Shinya has just gone ahead with the arts exhibition ("Prayers to nature") against the wave of event and meeting cancellations after the earthquake. This particular exhibition commemorates the centennial anniversary of the birth of his grandmother, Masako Shirasu. Masako was married to Jiro Shirasu, an art lover with a good taste and essayist with a soul, famous in her own right.

Shinya's grandfather on his mother's line was the great literary critic Hideo Kobayashi, who established almost singlehandedly the modern Japanese prose style of critical essays. Auditory records of Kobayashi's lectures, now available on CDs, are "The Old Testament" of Japanese public speech. Hideo Kobayashi's daughter married with a son of Jiro and Masako Shirasu, giving birth to Shinya and his younger sister. Given such a background, it is fair to say that Shinya is truly a "royal straight flush" of Japanese culture, as I am wont to say rather teasingly to Shinya.)

Masako Shirasu (from )

Hideo Kobayashi (from

Shinya Shirasu (from

On the afternoon of 18th March 2011, exactly one week after the earthquake hit, Shinya held the opening ceremony at the Setagaya Art Museum. It was a difficult day, which is perhaps an understatement. The public transportation in Tokyo was still chaotic, and there was this (both in psychological and practical terms) very real danger of then ongoing nuclear crisis at Fukushima Daiichi. I decided to go, for friendship's sake. I knew how much energy and passion Shinya Shirasu has put into the preparation of this exhibition. Friends stand by friends at difficult times.

One of the masterpieces on exhibition was the "Jitsugetsu sansui-zu" ("Sun, moon, mountains, and water") screen dating from the 16th century, which Shinya's grandmother Masako Shirasu "discovered" in a temple in western Japan and brought to the public's attention through her essays.

Opportunity to see this famous screen at first hand is rare and far in-between, except at special exhibitions like this one. Kongoji temple in the south of Osaka city, which has been protecting this precious piece of art into modern times, exhibits it only on two designated days a year, acting on quite understandable intentions of preserving a irreplaceable cultural heritage.

Thus, it was with great anticipations that I went to the Setagaya Art Museum on the day of opening ceremony, despite concerns for the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

Setagaya Art Museum is situated in the spacious Kinuta Park. It has its own backup electricity supply, a factor which helped the head of museum to make the laudable decision to go ahead with the exhibition. Once surrounded by the park greens, I felt my nervous system noticeably relax. I realized only then how strenuous these days had been, after the great earthquake, in the shadow of the appalling damage that has been done and the imminent crisis at the nuclear plant.

I met Shinya in front of the Museum. "Congratulations, my friend!" I said to Shinya, shaking his hand. Shinya was dressed in a handsome suit, welcoming guests with a big smile, but not without his characteristic shyness.

"There will be no drinks provided. The party is cancelled for today because of the earthquake, sorry!" Shinya said to me in a whisper. "Only the exhibitions, I'm afraid". "Don't worry", I said. "I will buy you a drink when things have settled down." "You say you haven't brought any good wines for me today?" Shinya said, jokingly, with twinkles in his eyes. "Wait some time", I said. "Today's art works only, as you've just said yourself. Drinks later!"

What warmth! It is those small talks that keep life going! I waved Shinya a temporal see you. The doors were now open. Guided by museum attendants, we went into the halls to admire the collection of artworks curated by Shinya, many of them expressions of prayers, dedicated to the joys and sorrows of life.

There it was, in the dimly but sufficiently lit room, the "Sun, moon, mountains, and water" screen. It was a particularly poignant time to admire its magnificence. Most probably once in a lifetime, as I suspect would become evident many years from now, when I look back on the difficult times of the past through the rosy windowpane of recollection.

Standing in front of the masterpiece, my attention was immediately drawn to the fact that the "waves" in the lower half of the painting reminds one of tsunami. This realization was perhaps not entirely due to associations made by the over-sensitive nerves after the earthquake. It also had, I suspect, a much deeper resonance.

The identity of the creator of the "Sun, moon, mountains, and water" screen is now lost. Mystery surrounds its origin. It is difficult to pin down exactly what contexts were behind this impressive portrayal of nature. Today, one can just stand, admire, and feel, explore, and implore. One then feels that the philosophy behind the screen is the ethos "everything is connected". Not only the trees on the mountains, the flowers blossoming on the boughs, but also the rocks and waters, moon and the sun. They are all living, vibrating, anticipating and responding to the existence of each other, connected. There is no division. Everything in this world is connected. No life and death.

Therein perhaps lies the truth, a truth that is probably too terrible to face, too harsh to be taken into the calm speech of daily life.

The tsunami waters waited for hundreds of years to reach the deep inlands. When they finally made their ways, had the time of their lives, a terrible tragedy was wrought upon the innocent lives of tens of thousands, quite unintended, but strictly prescribed by the laws of nature.

Sun, moon, mountains, water, and me. Lost for words in front of the screen, I could only pray.

This world is such a cruel place. And yet, through still unknown miraculous steps, life and beauty somehow descend to the earth.

On day 8 after the earthquake, I was witnessing a magnificent portrait of the miracle of existence in an art museum in Tokyo, under the shadow of developing nuclear crisis. The radioactive materials are perhaps having the time of their life now, I thought, released after such a long period of confinement.

Please, I prayed, please be it so that we could live and let live. Let us somehow overcome, because, even if, everything in this world is connected.

"Jitsugetsu sansui-zu" ("Sun, Moon, Mountains and Water") screen, the left (above) and the right (below) panels (from

Monday, March 21, 2011

The importance of being diverse.

Ever since the Tohoku Earthquake hit, so many events and meetings have been and are being cancelled in and around Tokyo. All over Japan, in fact. Some of them are put off as a direct consequence of the earthquake. Others are results of empathetic act on the part of those concerned, or rational efforts to relocate human and material resources in an effective way. The shortage of power necessitated a careful appraisal of all social events. Still, some cancellations simply do not make sense. Some cancellations are not wise actions, even from the viewpoint of helping those afflicted by the disaster.

The reason why we are well advised to carry on doing our daily chores, while needless to say caring and acting for the people in need, is perhaps rather complex in its makeup but not that difficult to grasp.

There is after all such a thing as a "healthy metabolism" of society. Without it, our society simply does not have the robust strength necessary to support and restore as required. "Normal" activities have to go on, even in areas where the connection to the rescue and relief efforts is not outright evident.

In order to extend help to those in need, volunteer works directly related to the emergency situations of course count. Food, water, fuel, and other indispensable materials need to be delivered to the areas of devastation quickly. Electricity must be provided. Media works are also evidently indispensable. The maintenance of communication channels such as mobile phones is one of the first priorities. Social networks, e.g., twitter and facebook, play increasingly important roles in keeping people connected. They have proved crucial in coping with this crisis.

The network of mutual influence and support, however, extends far wider than we would immediately perceive. The deterioration of diverse activities in society ultimately undermines our ability to respond to emergency and prolonged needs. Society is an organic dynamical system. With loss of diversity its very health is endangered.

In Tokyo, because people have been generally refraining from dining out since the quake, the restaurant industry is suffering. Events after events have been cancelled in the entertainment sector, affecting the lives of many. People working as freelancers or part-timers in various fields from media to catering are complaining about having their assignments cancelled at a very short notice.

At such a time of extraordinary crisis, there is a tendency in us humans to be focused on one thing, often verging on single-mindedness, if not amounting to outright panic. To be honest, that has happened to me, too. Ever since the fateful Friday afternoon on which the earthquake hit, I have been simply unable to take it off my mind. The same seems to be true for many people in Tokyo. Whenever I walk in the streets and pass people, the conversations I overhear are dominated by earthquakes. And doomsday scenario is not uncommon.

Only yesterday, as I walked through the backstreets, I heard a young man, crouching on the street, talking earnestly to an elderly couple. He was speaking rather loud, so that the words came to me very clearly.

"I know this from a close friend of mine. The Self Defense Force actually knows for sure that another big one is going to hit Japan. This time in Tokai area. They know it for sure. But powers that be do not acknowledge it. They are hiding the information so that people in Japan do not get too frightened."

The elderly couple was listening to the young man's version of conspiracy theory very eagerly. The gentleman was even nodding in a grave manner, as if to suggest approval and commitment. Granted, at a time of such an extraordinary crisis, conspiracy theories abound, and may sound psychologically real. The young man's prediction of another earthquake hitting Japan is yet to materialize, and I hope it won't come to pass. There is no evidence to suggest that another big one is imminent. Having said that, the whole episode suggested to me once again how narrow-minded we could become at those times.

So one of the difficult but absolutely crucial tasks now is to go back to life's diversity, rather than shying away from it. We need a healthy entertainment industry. The restaurant sector has to flourish. Books need to be sold and read, hotels rooms have to be filled with laughter. While investing a substantial amount of our time and energy on the rescue and relief efforts, we somehow need to keep life's diversity. Apart from thinking about this earthquake and pondering the future of nuclear energy, we need to sing a song of the various joys of living.

When you come to think about it, the charm of Japan derives much from the various kinds of natural and cultural varieties to be found in this small island nation. Facing and embracing diversity is actually so natural to the Japanese mindset, as is evident from the relaxed and sometimes haphazard way people in which approach religion. New Year's Eve at the Shinto shrine, funeral in Buddhist style, celebrating Christmas in a big way, being wed before a minister in a church, making the eternal vows with hands on the bible. We needn't learn new things. It simply suffices to remember.

One hopes that the current wave of cancellations, affecting the entertainment and restaurant industries in particular, would be only a temporary one. We need to realize the importance of breathing and enjoying an air of diversity. Only by keeping ourselves culturally and mentally robust through variability could we hope to help those in severe situations here and now, and you-know-where-and-when.

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That's the spirit, although not in so many words.

This morning, I woke up to find the headlines on the front page of Japanese newspapers to have a happy tone for the first time since this crisis began. A 80 years old grandma and 16 year old grandson have been saved from the debris of their house 9 days after the strike of the terrible quake. With the situation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant now apparently closing in to controllability, people in Tokyo are noticeably breathing easier. The rain falling in Tokyo this morning, without any significant level of radioactivity in it, has a soothing effect on the agitated minds.

The crisis is far from over. As of this morning, the confirmed number of deaths has surpassed a staggering 8000, with more than 13000 missing. When you face these deaths one by one, imagining the individuality, unique character, smiles, tears, loves, friendships, dreams, and despairs, then it becomes simply too hard to take.

The full extent of the disaster is not known yet. With the easening of the nuclear crisis (although it is far from being over), a sober and grim realization of the tremendous loss of life sinks in.

It is not that people in the afflicted area were unprepared. The communities along the coast have been subject to repeated tsunami attacks. The tsunami caused by the Great Chilean earthquake in 1960, for example, propagated all the way on the globe's watery surface to the Sanriku area, killing 142 people. Going back further in history, there was the Meiji-Sanriku earthquake in 1896, which caused a massive tsunami reaching a height of 38.2 meters and killing more than 20000 people.

Learning from history, they have built high anti-tsunami walls, some of them 10 meters or even higher. "When an earthquake strikes, immediately escape to high places. Tsunami is expected." Such notices have been ubiquitous in those communities, and people took very educated notice of them. In short, the people have been well prepared, both in physical and psychological terms.

And yet, the tsunami caused by this quake of 9.0 magnitude was beyond any people's reasonable expectations in its scale and brutal force. It is reported that the wall of water caused by this earthquake exceeded 20 meters in height in some places. In Ofunato, it has reached 23 meters. The concrete anti-tsunami walls were easily overcome and destroyed, resulting in a rampage of sea water over the inhabited area, crushing houses, sweeping buildings, taking precious lives away from mothers, fathers, brothers, friends, lovers, people.

That the sheer scale of natural disaster sometimes exceeds even the most sophisticated and careful precautions is something that has affected the Japanese mindset deeply. Some people might call it "fatalism". It may well be so. But if the word "fatalism" also implies that people are being passive, that is not the case. Resoundingly not the case.

In relatively disaster free regions like central Europe, planned continuation of human efforts for hundreds of years might make more sense. The Cologne Cathedral, for example. The building of this magnificent building started in 1248. Its completion took more than 600 years. When completed in 1880, the Cologne Cathedral became the tallest artificially made structure in the world, only to be surpassed four years later by the Washington Monument in the United States.

The perseverance of the German people to keep working on a plan through the generations is admirable. That is not to say that the Japanese are not capable of perseverance and arduous efforts. Here, perseverance takes quite another form. The Japanese spirit of perseverance does not aspire to physical permanence or feigned eternity. In this country, perseverance is nurtured rather in the resigned acceptance of the fact that nature sometimes beats us.

In the city of Ise, people have been maintaining the most important Shinto shrine in the country (Ise Grand Shrine) for more than 1300 years. The will to keep going no matter what did not take the form of physical permanence, however. They have been rebuilding the main shrine architectures such as Naiku and Geku every 20 years, with only a few recorded irregularities in times of turmoil.

It is difficult to say exactly what was the origin of such a convention. The shrines are built of wood, as opposed to stones in the case of Cologne Cathedral. The wears and tears would show after, say, 20 years. It has been believed that the Shinto "gods" prefers new and shining things, and people respected these divine preferences. Japan is a country rich in forestation. Finding an appropriate tree for logging has been possible with careful planning, although becoming harder in recent times. Efforts to renew the forest for the purpose of shrine rebuilding have been conducted since the beginning of recorded history. It is also often said that the 20 years rebuilding cycle has provided a valuable and indispensable opportunity for "on the job" trainings, transmitting the necessary skills and know-hows of shrine building to the next generation.

The Grand Shrine at Ise might certainly be a special case, but the ethos is there. The spirit of perseverance in the form of rebuilding is a hallmark of the Japanese mindset. That would explain why, for example, the Japanese have made such remarkable recoveries after numerous calamities throughout the history of the nation, after the almost entire destruction of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and downtown Tokyo in the Second World War, for example.

The myth of the phoenix thus portrays very well the Japanese spirit of perseverance, albeit not necessarily expressed in so many dramatic and grandiose words.

In the near future, when people have regained enough strength, the sound of hammers will surely start to be heard in the lands of devastation. The danger of tsunami striking the cities again in the future might be in people's minds. However, that would not prevent these people from rebuilding the communities, perhaps with an increased level of precautions and planning.

That's the spirit, although not in so many words.