Land of Disaster – Foreign Policy 14/03/2011

Land of Disaster

Roiled by earthquake, typhoon, tsunami, fire, and volcano — not to mention nuclear attack and terrorism — Japan for centuries has been a land of disaster, as reflected in popular culture from art to literature to our favorite monster flicks.


A string of islands in the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, gripped uneasily between the Pacific tectonic plate and the Philippine Sea Plate, Japan has seen more than its fair share of catastrophic disasters, from the 1888 eruption of Mount Bandai, shown above, which killed almost 500 people and laid waste to entire villages, to last week’s horrific earthquake and tsunami, the devastation from which is still uncounted. In the 20th century alone, Japan was besieged by earthquake, typhoon, tsunami, fire, and volcano, not to mention nuclear attack and terrorism. Like Britain, another resolute island nation half a world away, Japan has always responded with stoic rebuilding. But unlike the British, or really anyone else in the world, the Japanese have refracted their historic misfortune through a unique cultural lens, producing monster movies, Zen poetry, modernist post-apocalyptic literature, and even pornographic manga involving tentacle rape. Why is Japan’s cultural response to its history of disaster so fantastical — and where does it come from?

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

For centuries, Japanese authors, poets, and artists have mulled over the existential instability of their island life. The essayist Kamo no Chomei (1155-1216), in the Walden-esque Account of My Hut, wrote a long consideration of disaster and the importance of responding to the world’s ills through retreat and nonattachment. In one passage, he discusses the earthquake of 1185, which he saw as an opportunity for man to meditate on “the vanity and meaninglessness of the world” — an opportunity, he wrote, that few took advantage of.

Paul Anderer, the de Bary/Class of ’41 Professor of Asian Humanities at Columbia University, says that this tendency to meet catastrophe with calm meditation is typical, dating back to the “Burning House” parable in the Lotus Sutra: “The world rightly seen is a burning house, and it is that because it’s a fragile world, it’s made the more fragile because of human greed and avarice and desire, and a way to deal with it is to curb desire if not to suppress it entirely.” Above, an image from an 1876 earthquake in a Japanese village.

“Then there was the great earthquake of 1185, of an intensity not known before. Mountains crumbled and rivers were buried, the sea tilted over and immersed the land. The earth split and water gushed up; boulders were sundered and rolled into the valleys. Boats that rowed along the shores were swept out to sea. Horses walking along the roads lost their footing. It is needless to speak of the damage throughout the capital — not a single mansion, pagoda, or shrine was left whole. As some collapsed and others tumbled over, dust and ashes rose like voluminous smoke. The rumble of the earth shaking and the houses crashing was exactly like that of thunder. Those who were in their houses, fearing that they would presently be crushed to death, ran outside, only to meet with a new cracking of the earth. They could not soar into the sky, not having wings. They could not climb into the clouds, not being dragons. Of all the frightening things of the world, none is so frightful as an earthquake.” — Chomei, Account of My Hut

SSPL via Getty Images

As Susan Napier, professor of Japanese literature at Tufts University, says, a common thread throughout much of the cultural response to disaster is a sense of “mono no aware” — the Japanese notion that transience brings its own beauty: “It’s precisely because things don’t last that they’re beautiful, [and] it’s because of that that we have this intense feeling about the world.” Above, destruction in a suburb of Nagoya after the quake of 1891. Kokan Shiren (1278-1346), a poet and Zen master, wrote this poem about the aftermath of an earthquake:

Still things moving,

firm becomes unfirm,

land like ocean waves,

house like a boat —

a time to be fearful,

but to delight as well;

no wind, yet the wind-bells

keep on ringing.

Imperial Household Ministry via Wikipedia

Inventing monsters to explain or come to grips with natural disasters has deep roots in Japanese culture. The “namazu,” or catfish, is a legendary figure and a popular subject of ukiyo-e woodblock prints: a giant underground catfish who swishes up his tail to cause earthquakes — often shown with a monkey or a minor deity called Kashima on his back attempting to restrain the damage. Earthquakes were also explained by an imbalance of yin forces (water) and yang forces (fire) inside the earth.


The 1923 Tokyo earthquake was one of the worst in the 20th century worldwide, with deaths totaling roughly 100,000 in a population of about 4 million. The quake was followed by days of fires that tore through the city’s remaining houses. In the aftermath, some of Tokyo’s citizens and police took up arms in a virulent racialized backlash against the city’s long-hated Korean population, accused of taking advantage of the earthquake’s turmoil to plot sedition: 6,000 Koreans and suspected Koreans were killed, many with swords and bamboo poles.

The director Akira Kurosawa, who was 13 at the time of the quake and may have drawn upon this vision of stark, lawless chaos for later films like Rashomon and Seven Samurai, describes the ruins of the city in his 1983 memoirs, Something Like an Autobiography: “The whole Edogawa river district was veiled in a dancing, swirling dust whose grayness gave the sun a pallor like during an eclipse. The people who stood to the left and right of me in this scene looked for all the world like fugitives from hell and the whole landscape took on a bizarre and eerie aspect.”

Getty Images

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 ushered in a whole new era of horror to Japan. The aftermath of the disaster was unimaginably grotesque — and made worse by the fact that it was manmade. The response from many Japanese writers and filmmakers was to displace the trauma by addressing it in oblique, fantastical ways, through monsters and allegorical realms; the nuclear attacks and their long-lasting aftermath of radiation poisoning, as described below by Masuji Ibuse in his 1966 novel Black Rain, may have been, for many, simply too painful to address head-on. Above, children in Hiroshima in 1948 protect themselves from radiation.

“It felt as though night were drawing in, but after I’d been home for a while I realized that it was dark because of the clouds of black smoke filling the sky…. I wasn’t aware until Uncle Shigematsu told me that my skin looked as though it had been splashed with mud. My white short-sleeved blouse was soiled in the same way, and the fabric was damaged at the soiled spots. When I looked in the mirror, I found that I was spotted all over with the same color except where I had been covered by my air-raid hood…. I suddenly remembered a shower of black rain that had fallen after Mr. Nojima had got us in the black market boat. It must have been about 10 a.m. Thundery black clouds had borne down on us from the direction of the city, and the rain from them had fallen in streaks the thickness of a fountain pen. It had stopped almost immediately. It was cold, cold enough to make one shiver although it was midsummer.” — Black Rain, Masuji Ibuse


The Godzilla films are well-known for their vivid allegory of apocalyptic nuclear chaos engulfing Tokyo. But, as Napier points out, they also illustrate what comes after the initial shock: the slow and sad process of rebuilding, as doctors begin helping radiation-poisoning victims at the hospital and scientists look toward preventing the next disaster. “One of the things the Japanese are very good at is talking about the aftermath of the disaster — the poignancy, the mourning,” she says. “Already in [the first Godzilla], the elegiac quality is being established” — as in the haunting score by Akira Ifukube.

1954 Japanese movie posters for Godzilla; Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The January 1995 earthquake in Kobe hit 6.8 on the Richter scale, claimed almost 7,000 lives, and caused $102.5 billion in damage. Coming halfway through Japan’s lost decade of economic stagnation and just two months before the Aum Shinrikyo poison gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, the Kobe quake helped to plunge the country into a long-term malaise. The novelist Haruki Marukami wrote a book of short stories, after the quake, which dealt in various allegorical and direct ways with the disaster.

“Five straight days she spent in front of the television, staring at crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways. She never said a word. Sunk deep in the cushions of the sofa, her mouth clamped shut, she wouldn’t answer when Komura spoke to her. She wouldn’t shake her head or nod. Komura could not be sure the sound of his voice was even getting through to her.

“Komura’s wife came from way up north in Yamagata and, as far as he knew, she had no friends or relatives who could have been hurt in Kobe. Yet she stayed rooted in front of the television from morning to night. In his presence, at least, she ate nothing and drank nothing and never went to the toilet. Aside from an occasional flick of the remote control to change the channel, she hardly moved a muscle.” — “UFO in Kushiro,” from after the quake, Haruki Marukami

Getty Images

Post-apocalyptic worlds run throughout modern Japanese literature, both in high-brow and low-brow fiction. The frequent Nobel also-ran Kobo Abe and Nobelist Kenzaburo Oe both wrote apocalyptic novels: Abe’s The Ark Sakura deals with the inhabitants of an underground bunker, while Oe’s The Pinch Runner Memorandum describes a man and his handicapped son fighting to save the world from the forces of chaos, including, at one point, an earthquake that threatens to overturn the social order. On the more low-end side of things isJapan Sinks, by Sakyo Komatsu, first published in 1973 and then reissued after the Kobe earthquake. A film by the same name, with the same storyline (Japan sinks, following earthquakes and tsunamis), came out the same year (and wasremade in 2006). Released in English under the name Tidal Wave, its trailercontains the now chilling tagline: “It begins with shattering earthquakes! Then come raging firestorms! But the worst is yet to come … Tidal Wave!”

Kodansha Limited via Wikipedia

Then there’s anime and manga: the wild collective subconscious of Japanese cartoon fiction, where the apocalypse is ruled by erotic demon-beasts, as in the Overfiend series, or dominated by the magical powers of young girls, as in Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and his most recent film, Ponyo, in which a young fish-girl causes a destructive tsunami when she attempts to become human. Many of the great anime and manga classics take place in millennial universes, including the Evangelion and Akira series. Evangelion is the story of a war between a para-military unit and a group of avenging Angels in a Tokyo that has been devastated by earthquake and tsunami following a mega-explosion. Says Napier, it’s “really … about psychological apocalypse — about generations and … an internal sense of unease and concern about the future.”

She adds, “That’s why it’s so tragic what’s going on right now with the earthquake — it’s fulfilling a lot of inchoate worries that have been floating around in Japan the last 10 years or so.” Above, an image from Evangelion.


It’s unclear from all of this how Japan will respond to its latest disaster. Certainly, the horror that comes with catastrophe on an epic scale is something Japan has a long familiarity with; at the same time, every new shock has provoked its own cultural aftershock, from the Meiji myths to new and innovative manga thrills. But Japan has always rebuilt by weaving trauma into its culture. The only question may be which new monsters this latest trauma will dredge up to the surface.




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