Saturday, June 25, 2011

My father and the motorbike

Ever since my infancy, I knew one thing for sure. My father was not the type of person who would ride on a motorbike. He might drive a car (he actually did and still does), but he would never ride a motorbike.

So strong was my conviction, that I was quite shocked when my father started taking lessons. Soon he got a rather big motorbike. He would put me in the back seat, and ride in the countryside. Apparently, it was the thing to do for man. Maybe he was having a midlife crisis.

One day, I was walking with my friends towards the playground. In the distance, I noticed a policeman questioning a couple of people. My friends started to say "the police has captured someone! The police has captured someone!" I tried not to look in the direction, and suggested, very casually, that we take alternative routes.

Actually, it was none other than my father, with my grandfather. Apparently, the police was questioning them, for not wearing the helmet. Oh, God, that was embarrassing. My friends kept making fun of the unfortunate couple, while I prayed that my father would not look in my direction. Fortunately, none of my friends there recognized the face of my father.

When we were safely in the playground, I sighed a deep sigh of relief. I then apologized, in my heart, for ignoring a family member (actually, two family members) in a socially perilous situation. When I met my father that evening for dinner, I did not say anything about the incident. My father hushed about it too.

Soon after this day of embarrassment, my father had a minor accident on the motorbike and had his collarbone broken. He was hospitalized for one month. After he got out of the hospital, he got rid of the motorbike. I never saw a motorbike again in my house. The midlife crisis of my father was over.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Under the board, there is hell.

One of the things that really surprises and impresses me is the resilience of people who have been afflicted by the tsunami disaster. In particular, fishermen and their families seem to have a philosophical resignation for whatever the ocean inflicts upon them.

A few weeks ago, I was visiting one of the most severely damaged areas. I talked with a boy who escaped up the hill behind his house. From where he was, the ocean could not be seen. His grandfather happened to be standing at a place where the sea could be observed, and yelled out that the tsunami was coming. The boy and grandparents fled, grabbing weeds, treading on rocks and boughs, escaping for their life.

Fortunately, they could make a narrow escape. The water came to up the boy's foot, and the waist of grandpa, as then the tsunami began to recede. They stayed in the mountain overnight, shivering in the cold. The next morning, the rescue and relief came.

When I asked the boy if he wanted to live near the sea again, he said yes. Considering the flight that he had, and the complete destruction of his house, this answer seems surprising. But then the philosophy about the ocean is deeply different. His father is a fisherman. A fisherman's life is in and from the ocean. A fishermen faces the forces of mother nature. That's is the name of the profession. Nature is usually benevolent, but can become quite savage from time to time.

Among the Japanese fisherman, there is a saying "under the board, there is hell". Below the safety of the board of the ship, the vast ocean is lurking, which can become brutal at any moment, and when that happens, there is no resisting the unleashed energy. Humans are at the mercy of the forces of nature, ever since the beginning of time, now, and in the future forever.

Under the board, there is hell. This philosophy of fisherman is probably true for all of us, even in the bright lights of civilization. We sometimes forget that.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

We just sat on the river bank, and watched the water flow.

Youth is about wondering, not knowing why or how, and making many mistakes.

As I look back, my college days were full of wonders and mistakes. And the figure of a fat man was always with me.

His name is Ken Shiotani. He is a fat philosopher at large, meaning he has no job. His wife supports him. It is amazing to think that he worked for Japanese government once. That's where he met his wife. Now he has achieved a status of the "Totoro" character in Hayao Miyazaki's film. Nobody knows why he is here, but he is here anyway. And he is incredibly clever. He is too clever to make a living in this vulgar world.

I met Ken Shiotani as I entered college, and have been with him ever since. Once, we were lying on the bank of the Sumida River, with a can of beer each in our hands. We were making confessions about girls, as well as discussing difficult questions in Physics and Mathematics.

It was dusk, and many lovers were strolling the river bank in couples. They saw us, two blokes, drinking beer, speaking nonsense. They took the natural reaction of avoiding us, not coming to within a 10 meter radius of where we were lying. Maybe they thought that we were homeless people. We were dressed quite shabbily. Once I was refused by a restaurant owner when I tried to enter with Ken Shiotani. For some strange reasons, Ken Shiotani is always wearing a pair of sandals. Even in the middle of winter. Maybe that's why he looks like a retired sumo wrestler.

In any case, that evening, when Ken Shiotani and I lay on the bank of the Sumida River, drinking beer, talking about girls, physics, and mathematics, abhorred like pests by the well-meaning couples, stands as an epitome of my bohemian days. We were ignorant, full of hope, and did not know where we were going. We just sat on the river bank, and watched the water flow.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Boy's eye in the keyhole.

Once I was in the restroom of a railway terminal. It was what some people would call "no.2". As I was sitting there, I noticed that there was a footstep outside. Incredibly, an eye looked into my private space through the keyhole. It was a small boy, about 5 years old.

The boy looked into the toilet quite eagerly. His eye showed all the symptoms of earnestness and concentration. Naturally I felt strange, but then understood.

The boy apparently wanted to go to the toilet so desperately. An emergency situation. It was apparently "no.2". If it had been "no.1", the boy would have gone the other way. As the boy was so intent on going to the toilet, he was looking into the otherwise private space, to see who was there, and what he was up to.

Fortunately for the boy, I was just about to finish. So I said, "wait, I will be finished very soon. Just wait!"
After flushing, I opened the door. A cute boy hurried into the toilet, noticeably relieved.

As I went back to the corridors of the terminal building, I could not help smiling. How desperate the boy must have been! To this day, I remember the very intent expression of the boy's eye in the keyhole. It reminded me of a wild rabbit I once encountered out there in Scotland.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Octopus Woman of Wales

I stayed in England for two years, and have been returning to the country ever since. I found the English true to the reputation world wide. Reserved, masters of understatements.

Therefore it was a shock to learn an alternative culture different from the English. One day I traveled to Wales. I got on the train to reach Cardiff. On the way to St. David's, Britain's smallest city, I dropped off the station and went into a pub.

The pub was fairly crowded at the middle of the day. There was a group of people near the window, making a merry music. A man was playing the guitar, and men and women were singing to the music. As I look back, that scene itself was already a rarity, to an eye accustomed to the English reservedness.

I found a seat at the bar, and sipped a pint of local ale. The music making folks had apparently been drinking quite a few pints of beer themselves, judging from the merriment of their noise.

Suddenly, a woman stood up, and started walking. She came towards me dancing, moving her arms and legs like an octopus. As she passed by me, something incredible happened. She grabbed my private part, squeezed it, and went on walking, dancing like an octopus.

I was naturally shocked and was still aghast, when the woman returned from the restroom. She was still dancing like an octopus. I anticipated a repeat.

My anticipation went unanswered. The victim this time was a gentleman sitting a few stools away. The octopus woman walked dancing, and grabbed the private part of that gentleman, squeezed it, and went back to the music group, dancing like an octopus.

People laughed, the gentleman laughed, and I laughed at last, recovering from repercussions of the unknown. Maybe things were different in Wales. Take it easy, and let things go. After a few pints and a bathing in the sun of a golden afternoon, I began to understand the Welsh way of life.

I have encountered many strange things in my life, but my private part has been squeezed by a woman only once. Here's to the octopus woman of Wales.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Once in a lifetime you notice an entirely new universe, and see that stars are shining in a great constellation. In the naive belief that they're near, you try to reach out, only to realize the formidable distance between the sources of light and your good self.

At those moments, you feel so desperate. You feel that the distance is never to be overcome. You can only yearn for the stars, and are forever bound to the earth. You feel so miserable and tiny.

And yet, here's a thought that might make you relax. True, you may never reach the stars. True, you might not become a member of the constellation yourself. However, it remains that you have seen it. There are lives led quite happily without ever knowing the existence of the new universe that you are craving for. People living in blissful ignorance. You, who have looked up at the sky, and noticed the stars shining, are nearer to that space than before.

Even if you cannot reach the stars physically, lights have already started to shine within yourself. You may think that stars shine only in the heavenly space. But one day, you might find a little tiny luminance within your heart, independent of the constellation above, but inspired by, and enlivened through, a subtle resonance between your good self and the unreachable stars.

When this happens, you would smile like you have never smiled before. And I'd love to see that smile. Maybe I would love the smile better than the constellations.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Red bag was the object of desire.

When I was at kindergarten, there were two kinds of bags for milk money. Each morning we would bring 50 yen for the milk provided at lunch. White bag was for the ordinary milk, and red bag was for the coffee-flavored one.

In the morning, we would put the milk money bag into a wooden box, with our names on it. Some were white, others were red. Somehow, my mother got an idea into her head that I was never allowed to bring the red bag to kindergarten. I looked with a painful agony and wishfu longing at the red bags that my friends brought and joyfully put into the wooden box.

Red bag was the dream of my life. Red bag was the object of desire. There was nothing more adorable than the sight of a red bag
in the wooden box. I remember it vividly even now.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Yellow umbrella.

It is rainy season in Japan now, so that every day is almost certainly wet. I can't say I enjoy this time of the year so much. I am a walker, and do not like to carry around an umbrella. I do, however, have a cherished memory associated with the rainy season. It started with an umbrella.

I was 9, a 3rd grader in the elementary school. One day it was raining hard, and I was alone in the classroom. It was dark inside and outside. I was feeling lonely. I don't recall why I lingered on in the classroom. Maybe I left something behind and returned to get it. I was a careless boy then, and probably still am.

Feeling the pain, I went to the window, and looked on the school ground. There was not a soul there, except a classmate of mine. It was Kumiko. Kumiko held a yellow umbrella, and walked alone in the pouring rain, in the middle of the school ground.

I do not know how it happened. Kumiko seemed so small, so isolated, and yet she carried on with her steps, holding the yellow umbrella, walking towards the school gate, perhaps in pain like myself. Exactly at that moment, I realized that Kumiko was dear to me. It was the first time in my life that I ever realized that someone was so special in my heart. It was a moment of love.

Thus, the rainy season is somehow associated with the image of Kumiko, with a yellow umbrella, walking alone in the school ground. When I think about it, the raindrops becomes tears from a past long gone.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Other people are mirrors.

Other people are mirrors. In them, you see the reflection of your own self. Sometimes the reflections are distorted, but they are still helpful in coming to terms with yourself.

Often it so happens that you express at length your deepest passion, what you value, only to be ridiculed and ignored in the end. It has not come across to the listener. Your eloquent expressions have fallen on deaf ears. At those moments, you feel as if you have been betrayed by the world, and you start secretly licking your wounds. And yet, what is actually happening then is a beautiful self-recognition. You have come to your true self by stumbling on the rocky surface of miscommunication.

At other occasions the resonance is overwhelming, sometimes almost frightening. You feel your own idea appreciated and absorbed by the other party. It starts going to and fro between you and him (her), until the energy is magnified and reach a truly phenomenal dimension. You embrace the bliss of living, and being together becomes magic.

Whether resulting in resonance or rejection, other people are always mirrors, reflecting ourselves in a yet unelucidated mathematics of transpersonal infection.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

But the anger is there.

Since the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake on 11th March 2011, I have visited the tsunami-afflicted areas twice.

Once I was drove a hired car from the Sendai station myself. I was unable to leave the vehicle, haunted by what I saw. I did not have any connections to make myself useful for the people in need. I could merely witness, feeling inexplicably and deeply guilty, unable to make sense of what was happening and what had happened.

On the second occasion, I visited a temporary school for junior high students who lost their houses by the tsunami. They were all up and going, smiles on their faces. The headmaster told me that despite their optimistic outlooks they have experienced worse than nightmares. On the night they escaped into the mountains, many elderly people passed away. It was a cold night. Some had fled just wearing t-shirts. And yet, on the day that I went, their faces were all smiles and forward looking.

I have been spending many hours thinking what I could do. The destruction caused by the tsunami is beyond belief. Miles, literally miles of habitats washed away. Entire communities lost forever.

I don't know how it is, but the only way I can seek atonement is by changing. To make this nation, which has been stagnant for a couple of decades now, go in a new direction. To reinvent myself, so that I am more open, more linked, more outgoing.

And there is deep anger at the stagnation of Japan in general. I know the connection is illogical. The indignation at the inability of the nation to change has nothing to do with the brutal physical force in the shape of tsunami. But the anger is there. It has to change.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The trip (I)

It was in the earl days of May, 2011, that I found myself finally on a Tohoku Shinkansen train bound for Sendai.

It was a trip mixed with apprehension and remorse. Apprehension, as I did not quite know what to expect. I was planning to hire a car. Would the road be OK? Will I be able to get gas? Remorse, as the trip was somewhat overdue. I would have liked to travel to the devastated area earlier, helping people in need in any way I could. But simply couldn't. I suspect it was partly a question of schedule and partly inaptitude lurking in my personal traits. I was simply unable to find a temporal or psychological "window" to travel to the afflicted areas, no matter what the consequences might be.

A few weeks earlier, I was having conversation with Nobuto Ariyoshi, Chief Producer of "The Professionals" program on NHK, in which I played the role of the castor for more than 4 years. Nobuto and I are very close personal friends.

I was telling Nobuto about my plan, and revealed that I would probably walk from the Sendai station towards the sea, thus making myself independent of any means of transportation. "You should definitely go to Onagawa", Nobuto said. "You should head towards where the Maine Pal building used to be."

Nobuto went for a few weeks to the NHK outposts in the Sendai area, helping his colleagues report on the state of the region and people's tremendous efforts towards recovery in the afflicted area. Nobuto said he had seen scenes of damage beyond description. "It goes on and on and on", Nobuto said. "Even with our best efforts as tv journalists, we simply could not cover everything. There are many unreported sufferings, unnoticed by the world, silently endured by those affected. You should definitely go there yourself and see how it is"

It was perhaps Nobuto's words that finally pushed my back to venture into the most severely damaged areas. I decided to go to Onagawa as Nobuto suggested, and witness the devastation by myself. I felt that I had a duty to experience it, almost like a moral imperative, and report it to the larger world in my own words, to record and not to forget, what happened to many innocent lives.

Preparation for the trip was an uneasy one. I had to think what I could do, once getting there. Would I have a chance to talk to the small kids in the refugee camps? Would they be pleased, if I had a few snacks to share? How about a few boxes of "Mushroom Mountain" and "Bamboo Village" chocolates, two definitive favorites of Japanese children? Or should I bring some interesting books that the kids can read in the long afternoons in the school gym, where they and their families are taking refuge? Should I consider helping people with the clearing of debris, an indispensable action in the process towards recovery?

It was difficult to assess the situation beforehand. There were reports of too many materials being sent to the relief camps. Books are difficult to match, people having different preferences and interests. I felt somewhat shy of bringing my own books. Probably I would appear too presumptuous.

After much thought, I finally came to the conclusion that I should go anyway, without any definite plans to do any specific volunteer works. It is quite possible that I may be unable to visit the relief camps in a proper way, without a prior arrangement. I may just have to observe, and see what I can do, perhaps not on the spot, but on the intermediate to long terms. Of course, should some opportunities arise where I could be of any help, I would and should be prepared. I put a pair of thick cotton gloves, and a pack of masks into my backpack. Finally, I set off.

As the Tohoku Shinkansen train left the platform, there was much formality and perhaps a little bit of tension on the train bound for Sendai. "In the event of an earthquake, the train would make an emergency stop", the train conductor warned in a carefully worded announcement. The digital news flash above the door of the car carried a special message, expressing condolences to the people in Tohoku for the tremendous loss, and hoping for a recovery. When I walked out onto the deck to go to the toilet, there was a man in black suits, wearing the Japan Railway Company badge. Apparently, this gentleman, most probably a management high in the rank, was stationed there on the train to see to it that everything was going as planned.

It was quite understandable that they were taking these precautions. The Tohoku Shinkansen train, the pride of Japan Railway East Company, had resumed its operations only a few days earlier. The Tohoku line was severely damaged by the earthquake. The resumption of Shinkansen service, after a hectic recovery effort in defiance of aftershocks and threat of power shortages, was regarded by many to symbolize the hope that things, somehow, would slowly go back to normal again, if not immediately for the better.

As the bullet train approached Sendai station, I looked for signs of damage inflicted by the earthquake. There were blue sheets here and there on the house roofs, indicating an ongoing repair process. Apart from those visual signs of irregularities, the city of Sendai seemed to be up and going.

Getting off the train at Sendai station, I began to see signs of recovery. People in the corridors were smiling, briskly going on with their own businesses. Pupils in school uniforms were chatting loudly, as any healthy teenagers would do. Store clerks were selling at the top of their voices local delicacies and souvenirs. I was heartened to see these testimonials of the energy and determination of the Sendai people to make life tick, no matter what.

I slipped into the rental car office. I could only reserve an outdated model. I would have preferred a hybrid car, which would have alleviated worries about the need to refill gas on the way.

Gas was a natural theme for our conversation. "Would you fill the gas before you return the vehicle?" asked the store clerk in a polite manner. "Sure," I said. "I wonder if there would be any trouble with the gas stations?" At that time, memories were still fresh with images of people lining up for the gas, in the days after the earthquake. There was a high profile tragedy of a man who was lining up to fill some gas for his daughter at night, taking warmth from a heater, fell asleep, and was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. "The gas stands are quite all right", the man in uniform answered. "At least within the city of Sendai."

The store clerk took me to the car park. The number plate was that of Okinawa. Presumably, they had to take in cars from the tropical island to fill the shortage of rental cars in Sendai area. The car was small, but functioning excellently. You could not expect less from a Japanese car rental company.

It was thus with a little anxiety and trepidation that I got on the road to Ishinomaki and Onagawa. Honestly, I did not know what to expect. For sure, I have seen the coverage of the tsunami disaster and the devastation inflicted upon the region. However, as Nobuto said, the damage was apparently too severe and widespread to give a full coverage. I just had to see and take in, in order to start things in earnest, my way.

(This is a part of a series of essays written after the earthquake of 11th March, 2011, which brought devastations to eastern Japan.)

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Everybody is different, everybody is good.

After leaving the city of Hagi, we went on a seaside route, heading towards the hot spring town of Nagatoyumoto. "Yumoto" (literally meaning the source of hot water) is a common denominator for many hot spring places in Japan. Our designated lodging for the evening was Otani Sanso, which has a reputation of wonderful service and food, combined with, needless to say, an excellent bathing experience in hot water.

On the way to the hot spring town, I was looking out of the car window with an idle heart. The impressions felt at the school under the pine tree was still very much alive within me. What are we going to do? In the flow of consciousness, in the aftermath of an intensive encounter, I was taking it somewhat easy, absorbing with interest the passing coastal scenery of the Sea of Japan.

At a turn, a roadside sign attracted my attention. "Misuzu Kaneko Memorial Museum", it said. Misuzu Kaneko is a household name in Japan, famous for her poems, which are poignant and vibrant, verging on being almost beyond belief, that such words could ever come out of a human mind.

"Everybody is different, everybody is good", she wrote in one of her well-known masterpieces. Thus to praise diversity is a politically correct cliche nowadays. Given the context and age in which these words were churned out, Misuzu's words are almost like miracles. Misuzu's poetry provides such a wonderful and gentle penetrator into the human soul, moving people, inducing them to be fundamentally better.

"I cannot spread my hands and fly. Birds are unable to run fast on the ground like me. When I shake my body, I don't make an enchanting sound. Bells do not know many songs as I do. Bells, birds, and me. Everybody is different, everybody is good."
Misuzu's works are in plain and simple Japanese, so that even a small child can understand and appreciate them. The philosophy expressed is deep. It resonates well with the traditional sensitivity of the Japanese for the changing and the perishing, including their own lives. The appreciation of the pathos of things ("mononoaware").

Reading her poems, one feels that Misuzu's heart is always with the suppressed and defeated. In one of her poems, Misuzu portrays the joys of fisherman at great harvest, contrasting it with the mourning processions of fish in the ocean weeping for the lost ones.

Misuzu was born in 1903, and her short life ended in 1930. She was only 26. Her marriage to an untruthful and profligate husband resulted in much misery and a prolonged battle over the custody of their only daughter. Finally, Misuzu could not take it any more. The poet took poison, escaping from the miseries of life.

Thus, from a practical point of view, Misuzu's life might have been a tragedy. However, the purifying effect of Misuzu's genius meant that the sufferings and torments had no trace in her works. Reading her lines, one would not suspect the ups and downs (mostly downs) of her personal life. Actually, it comes as a great shock for many of Misuzu's poem lovers, to get to know the actual history of her existence.

The very magic of Misuzu's poetry resides thus in the cleansing process. The secret of creativity is to hide its sources, said Albert Einstein. Misuzu's life and her works are great lessons for humanity, telling us that it is possible to remain mellow and pure after unspeakable afflictions. Turning sour as a reaction to hardships is not necessarily a natural course of things. People from children to mature adults simply adore Misuzu's lyrics. Perhaps we can all sense, without even knowing why, the existence of a deep, and embracing love in what Misuzu writes.

The roadside sign for "Misuzu Kaneko Memorial Museum" brought all these reflections within me. We were passing the seaside town of Senzaki, where the poet with a gentle heart was born and lived. It is probably fitting, I thought, that I remembered Misuzu Kaneko at this time of difficulty. Maybe we can learn a lot of things from the lovely poems of Misuzu. Perhaps we can all be like children again. Then we could derive strength from the audacity of youth.

The sun was inclined towards the west as our car arrived at Otani Sanso. There was one hour or so before supper. At such times, I always make a point of walking around, trying to get to know the area, acquainting myself with the ambience of the land. After casual conversations, I discovered that my editor and photographer preferred a dip in hot water to physical activities. I thus set out alone, exploring on my own the tranquil charms of the town of Nagatoyumoto.

There was a river just in front of the hotel, and a small path led gently to the riverbank. It was clearly a stroll designed to entertain the whimsical and easygoing hearts of people coming to relax in the hot spring. The route was flat and effortless, inducing one to go into deep thoughts.

It was only a few weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, and the connotations were inescapable. The town of Nagatoyumoto was far from the sea and there was no real danger of a tsunami. However, the river flow reminded me of the numerous towns in the ocean side exposed to and perished by the savage forces of the tidal waves. Suddenly I felt like crying.

How many people would you say there are, in this quiet and lovely town of Nagatoyumoto? One thousand? Maybe two thousand. It is such a small and beautiful town. The traces of history, the tiny workings of the everyday, are the building blocks for this community. The breathings and touches of people are recorded and expressed in every tiny nuance of the town. There is nothing more beautiful than the venerable, peaceful tranquility of a historical community.

And yet, in Tohoku, numerous communities were lost as the result of the earthquake. Houses where memories had been kept, tiny paths children hed been using to go to school over the years, pa and ma shops where laughter and opinions had been exchanged, were lost forever, in the brutal wave caused by the tremors of earth's crest.

There is no atonement for such a loss. It is, simply and precisely put, irreparable. I thought to myself, trying to come to terms with the unexpected surge of emotion.

Walking along the serene flow of the river, I cast my eyes on the loveliness of the town of Nagatoyumoto. After what we have experienced in the earthquake, appreciation has perhaps become deeper and more lasting. You learn to take pleasure in the smallest of things, like a pot of plant placed in a garden corner.

Everybody is different, everybody is good. I thought of Misuzu Kaneko again. Her creations have been inspiring and giving a lot of courage to people. Did she ever come to find solace in the hot water here, I wondered. Did she ever have a moment of tranquility, when comfort came her way, rather than she offering the world words of sunshine?

At that moment, I felt as if my personal happiness depended very much on the answer.

I sincerely hoped she did.

(This is a part of a series of essays written after the earthquake of 11th March, 2011, which brought devastations to eastern Japan. This essay is a sequel to "School under the pine tree".)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

School under the pine tree

It was Thursday, 24th March 2011, the 12th day after the earthquake. Early in the morning, I headed toward the Haneda airport, which Tokyo residents use for mostly domestic flights. For the first time after the earthquake, I was to leave Tokyo. I had not been out of Tokyo since the 7th, when I returned from a trip to Hakata, Kyushu. Prior to that, I had been to the United States, attending the TED conference at Long Beach.

I am normally a restless fellow. The 17 days stay time in Tokyo was unusually long. After the quake hit Tokyo, two business trips had been cancelled; one to Kyoto, and one to a hot spring near Sendai. Actually, Sendai was within the most severely damaged area. Had either my trip or the earthquake been a few days off, it was possible that I might have been affected by the worst quake in Japan's postwar history. I could have been unable to move and breathe amongst the calamities.

As I approached the airport terminal, something seemed to start circulating within my system; something that I had long forgotten. I met my editor and photographer in front of the check-in counter. "Hey, I'm glad to see you well. Where were you when the earthquake hit??" We greeted each other with what had become the virtually default question since the quake, "where were you at that time?".

Everything is electronic in a contemporary airport. I put my printout of e-ticket over the reader, and was very cordially directed to the security gate. As a Japanese, I am accustomed to these mannerisms, but for this once, a dash of thankful emotion surged towards those in uniform. I placed my MacBook on the tray, took off my coat, walked through the metal detector gate, and collected my things back into the bag. The whole procedure was something that had become a routine, something I took almost for granted. And yet, it felt so fresh and even "shining" after the nervous confinement in the aftershocks-rocked Tokyo.

My destination in this trip was Yamaguchi prefecture. Some 100 years before I was born, this region had been one of the centers for the major social change that brought about the modernization of Japan--The Meiji Restoration in 1867. Its unique status as the arbiter of modern Japan meant that people from Yamaguchi always occupied a central position in politics. 61 prime ministers have led 94 cabinets in the modern era. Of those, 9 prime ministers had come from Yamaguchi, including the first-ever Japanese prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, and the latest as I write this, Mr. Naoto Kan, who is currently carrying the weight of restoring Japan back to health after the earthquake.

Although the trip itself had an independent purpose, I made a point of visiting Shoka-sonjuku in the city of Hagi, Yamaguchi prefecture. It was my very first visit. Shoka-sonjuku, which literally means "village private school under the pine tree", was instrumental in bringing about the Meiji Restoration. In this now legendary school, Shoin Yoshida, the much learned and spiritual leader, taught young people and inspired them. His disciples later proved to be instrumental in realizing the revolutionary social changes that led to the modernization of Japan.

I always wanted to express my deepest respect to Shoin Yoshida somehow, the great teacher whose idealism and passion was a source of inspiration to those who envisioned a new Japan. The period in which Yoshida taught at the school under the pine tree was rather short. He began his lectures in 1857, at the young age of 27, succeeding his uncle's role as the headmaster. His lecture ran for just one year, during which time such notable young samurais as Shinsaku Takasugi and Hirobumi Ito were inspired to do what they could towards the building of a new Japan.

In the days eventually leading to the Meiji Restoration, the turmoil caused by the dying cries and oppositions from the "ancient regime" meant that many aspiring and innocent young lives would be lost for petty or fake charges by the powers that be. Two years after he assumed the role of headmaster at the school under the pine tree, Shoin Yoshida was sentenced to death for his alleged involvement in a foiled assassination attempt against a high Tokunaga shogunate official. He was only 29.

It was awe inspiring to stand in front of the building of the school under the pine tree, which remains to this day. It is such a small establishment. Nowadays, the name "juku" (private school) refers to prep school for entrance exams, which are usually conducted in an increasingly outdated "paper test" paradigm. What a trivialization of a once brilliant and intense idea. How do modern academic institutions such as universities compare with the humble and (you could almost say with much reverence) shabby school under the pine tree, in terms of passion and vision, not in terms of physical grandeur or authorities endowed on them by the government?

Histories are not easily forgotten in Japan, a nation always obsessed with its own past. In the year 2010, Japanese people earnestly consumed stories about those young samurais who brought about the Meiji Restoration. The sentiment was that it was now a time for great changes in Japan, and the stories of the enterprising young ones, who dedicated their lives towards the opening of new Japan, inspired people.

The year 2011, well before the devastating quake and tsunami attack, brought new wind of sentiment to the land of rising sun: It is good to appreciate the inspiring tales from the Meiji Restoration. However, if the appreciation was not accompanied by practical measures and tactful implementations, it would by all possibilities end as an unfruitful consumption of fantasies. The more than 150 years of distance in time from the Meiji Restoration meant that it was now possible to keep a safe distance between the current affairs and the vibrant turmoil of the bygone era. There was a danger that the story of Meiji Restoration would remain fairy tales, irrelevant to the contemporary issues. As the year 2011 dawned, the Zeitgeist was noticeably changing. People were starting to take things more seriously, at their factual values. Fantasy scenarios no longer sufficed. People were starting to feel restless.

It no longer appeared sufficient, or indeed appropriate, just to praise the events leading to the Meiji Restoration. Social parameters have changed. Time had moved on.

And then the earthquake struck Japan. Many things were "reset". In waking up from the aftermath, we were searching, not so much for an answer, but a direction we could follow.

It was at this poignant moment that I stood before the school under the pine tree. I was searching within myself, for a feeling that I could trust. The context had changed completely. Japan is in great crisis. My personal life would be also affected. Perhaps we would emerge out of this crisis as a different kind of people. Maybe the change will be dramatic. Alternatives would enter the main stream. Japan would be transformed, possibly beyond recognition.

The trumpet shall sound, and we shall be changed. The question is how, and in which direction? Standing in front of the school under the pine tree, I was searching for an answer. I am still searching for one now.

The school under the pine tree. (Photo taken by the author)

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.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


SInce the earthquake on the 11th March, life as we know it has changed beyond recognition in Japan.

I am tweeting @kenmogi about situations developing in my beloved country.

May calm and happiness prevail!

Ken Mogi

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The bizarre backwardness of Japanese job market.

The fact that Japan is an island nation has led to the preservation of many unique customs. Some of them (e.g. Kabuki and Bunraku) are cultural gems. Others are simply outrageous and should be abandoned in the modern era asap. However, saying good bye to old customs is sometimes hard to do, especially when it concerns a value system tightly woven into society.

The manner in which Japanese companies recruit workers is bizarrely backward. Not only is it stifling the economy, but also, which is more serious, it is crushing the spirits of the young. Japanese companies, especially those big ones whose stocks are traded in the Tokyo stock exchange, impose age and college graduation year restrictions on the applicants. Typically, they state that the applicants should be less than a certain age. At the same time, the companies often allow only the fresh graduates (or, to be more precise, those students who expect to graduate from college at a definite period in the near future) to apply to their supposedly lucrative jobs.

The bizarre system (which is totally without any economic merits, although some old guards do claim there are some advantages) means that you need to follow a tightly scheduled lifeline. Once you step out of the line, then there's no question of getting a "proper job" at a "respectable company". The establishments are failing to see how this restriction of personal freedom is suffocating the Japanese youngsters, an intellectual and moral failure totally unjustified in the contemporary world.

The immediate victims of the Japanese system are those with atypical cv. Going around the globe, in the style of the "gap year" so widespread in U.K. and elsewhere, is totally out of the question. The jealous guards of the Japanese system, in the form of questioners at job interviews, typically demand explanations for any "holes" in the applicant's cv. A "hole", in the strangely medieval mindset of Japanese corporate culture, means any period of time you have spent away from institutions and organizations as a free individual. By this definition, Prince William of Wales, who took a gap year in South America, would not qualify for a position in a Japanese company.

Naturally, youngsters make some noise, but it falls on deaf ears. The plain fact that the present system constitutes a serious violation of basic human rights seems to have escaped the attention of powers that be so far. In cognitive neuroscience, we do study a phenomenon called "inattentional blindness", but the inaction of Japanese companies possibly qualifies for an "oddball".

(This theme to be continued)