Culture, No.6  Jun. 4, 2011


Rebuild new, yet rebuild “as it was before

First, I offer my sympathy to those who have suffered as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and my condolences to the families of those who lost their lives.

The idea that nature is a good thing, as implied in words such as “nature conservation” and “natural food” only shows one face of nature. Nature, as we saw in the latest disaster, also has another face: that of fear.

It was a “once in a thousand years” massive earthquake and tsunami. Although under the current circumstances we have little data on damage resulting from causes other than the tsunami, the earthquake itself caused up to several hundred aftershocks. While some disasters come once in a thousand years, some greater disasters come once in ten thousand years. There is even a theory of an extinction cycle, whereby 80% of life forms face extinction once every 25,000,000 years. When we consider the length of geological time, the history of mankind is so brief. In a more comprehensible comparison, if the history of Earth to this day was a year, the history of mankind would have begun when the temple bells started ringing on New Year’s Eve.

The archipelago of Japan sits on a point where four tectonic plates meet, so these kinds of earthquakes occur regularly. That is how it has been for a long time, so we cannot help it. So there is absolutely no reason for the Japanese, who have lived on this land for several millennia, not to have reflected the effects or characteristics of earthquakes onto their culture.

A visitor from a foreign country to Japan in the early Meiji Period documented such a state. I think it was after the great fire in Yokohama that a foreign visitor was shocked to see the Japanese cleaning up and laughing as if nothing had happened. Even some of the victims of the latest earthquake mentioned that they were “fortunate just to be alive,” and a mother who went shopping at a disaster-struck supermarket that had nothing more than snacks on its shelves shed tears, saying, “How could I not appreciate this when I think about all the people who have suffered real damage?” I wonder what Marie Antoinette would have thought.

Many people – and I am one of them – exert strength in times of trouble. It is hard to believe that this psychology of the Japanese has nothing – good or bad – to do with the last world war lasting as long as it did after the government missed opportunities to bring it to an end. If we look back in history for major disasters, it is possible to make a list that goes on almost forever. While the latest one was a tsunami, if we look for a volcanic eruption we can go back six thousand and several hundred years (Jomon Period) to the eruption of Mount Aira in southern Kyushu, which likely caused the Jomon culture in the area to become extinct, and the ashes currently remain as shirasu (pyroclastic layers).

All things are impermanent; let water wash everything away – this psychology probably emerged as a result of natural causes in cultures that encounter natural disasters every once in a while. Nature moves on its own, regardless of human intent. If people simply have to bear the major impact themselves, it is no mystery that such emotions take root and develop deep within people over long periods of time. A town long known as home disappears instantaneously. What were all the accumulated efforts of the people? Questions like this arise endlessly, and so they should. Is it ironic fate that such a country is subject to two atomic bombs and a nuclear reactor crisis?

Ise Jingu shrine has a ritual called Shikinen Senguu. It involves tearing down old architecture and rebuilding every twenty years exactly the same structure as before. The same psychology can be seen when we view the major calamity from the latest tsunami. We sustain some things over the history of time, and to do so, we rebuild, building “the same as before.” I wonder whether that was why the cartoonist Tezuka Osamu wrote Phoenix as his last work.

I love collecting insects, and I travel a lot. A couple of years ago, I happened to hear a lecture given by Oike Kazuo, a seismologist who was the President of Kyoto University at the time. Oike presented a world map that plotted dots representing the seismic centers of interplate earthquakes throughout history. They were numerous, and they formed lines that drew plate boundaries on the map, since interplate earthquakes only occur near plate boundaries. Upon seeing the Asian part of the map, I couldn’t help but tell Oike, “Those are all places where I go to catch insects!”

Areas near plate boundaries are subject to constant changes in nature. The insects that inhabit these areas must adapt to these changes, which makes them capable of adapting to minute changes in the environment. I had somehow happened to develop an interest in insects that were classified into such a group. That was my conclusion upon hearing Oike’s lecture, which was in a completely different field from mine.

To cite a somewhat nerdy example, insects in such a group are classified into different types even within Japan, bordering on a tectonic line that runs from Itoigawa and Shizuoka. And it is a surprisingly clear distinction. Here is a specific example: Phyllobius brevitarsis is an insect that is found in countless numbers on Japanese knotweed that grows along the Mount Norikuradake bus route to the west of the tectonic line, but across the Matsumoto Valley and in Mount Tateshina and Yatsugatake east of the tectonic line, none can be found. And there is knotweed everywhere, in vast quantities. People say that it is due to the environment, and that there are different foods or different temperatures in that location. But in fact, the species and distribution of this particular insect relate strongly to the geological history of the median tectonic line. There is no other logic to explain it. And this applies to humans as well.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that humans undergo genetic changes in the same way. It is the brain – or culture – that does not go without any impact from these environmental conditions. But we do not usually think that way. Particularly in this age, when the world is heading toward globalization and a universal culture, nobody cares about the east and west sides of Matsumoto Valley. But it is plainly obvious that a society that has never had a tsunami in its history and thus does not even have a word for it would be different from a society with a history of them.

The regional classifications of Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kinki and Chugoku are, in fact, a reflection of the tectonic age around 20 million years ago, when Honshu Island used to be several islands. Each of these shu (regions) was an island of its own, just as Shikoku and Kyushu are. Many people believe that the classifications come as a result of administrative reasons, but the fact is that they have unknowingly been influenced by nature’s classification. Humans have only lived on the Japanese archipelago for a mere 100,000 years. We should realize that we all live on the hand of Buddha – a hand called nature.

Why is kaleidoscopic verdure so beautiful?

Photo : lisbe

We all need to face up to the land we live on, once and for all. How many species of plants and trees are trapped under concrete awaiting their future? The Ohga Lotus seed is known to have survived from the Jomon Period. We wonder how many life forms have survived under the buried land.

When people ask me where the most beautiful scenery in Japan is found, I reply that it is the spring greenery of the natural forests in Shikoku. Western Japan has many species of trees, each of which wears its own shade of green during the spring. These blend with the dark green of conifers and the flowers of the Japanese cherry. This kaleidoscopic beauty is simply beyond expression. The roots that support these trees span the earth, and many spawn surround these roots. There are numerous life forms there that modern people choose not to see and do not attempt to see, even with the technology to do so.

We experience such an ecosystem – as we would call it today – and its expressive verdure as something extremely beautiful. Why is that? We can see the law of nature in action here. And what might that law be?

Consider a tree, for example. Its branches are adorned with countless numbers of leaves. What is the law here? The sun rises in the east and sets in the west – it moves continuously. The tree will attempt to receive the maximum amount of sunlight possible. How will it position its leaves in order to do so? Can we calculate it on a calculator? We probably could, but we don’t need to, because the answer is right in front of us in the way the leaves are positioned on the tree. Now compare that with the way we line up our solar power panels. How smart are we? We merely go about lining up the same panels at the same angles.

We observe nature and see beautiful answers to complex questions. We are, in fact, merely seeing the answers, and are barely seeing the questions themselves. How do all those species of trees and the ecosystem of all life forms above and below the earth cooperate and live with one another? The spring greenery of Shikoku offers us a single view of the formula. And that is what we perceive to be beautiful. This is probably because our brain, which is itself a complex machine, sees equilibrium to a multidimensional space in the sight. The brain synchronizes with what it sees and attains its own equilibrium, at which point some form of energy in the brain reaches a minimum, thus causing us to experience no fatigue and feel good. The brain is another product of nature.

The Japanese sensitivity to beauty developed beneath this nature. But we, relying only on a partial function of the brain called consciousness, have almost taken to destroying nature heart and soul. That was the era I lived in. I simply cannot understand why we go to such efforts to harm this beautiful land of ours. I really cannot. The people who destroy it say that it is “for food (survival).” I grew up in an era of food shortages, so I think I know quite well what it means not to have food. How many people here today really have “no food”?

How is our education? People say it focuses on solving problems. They believe headlong that competent people are those who “can come up with the answers to problems.” As a result, they always ask, “So what should we do?” But nature has already revealed the answers. The answers are right there. People just do not see the question itself. Modern people do not understand because they have got things reversed. These days, I have come to believe that we should set examinations that show the answers first, and ask what the questions to these answers are.

The answer to the question of life is one’s own life, which is an answer to some extremely complex and complicated questions. How did I come to this answer? What was the question? These are the questions that life throws at us. The reason why we never had an answer to “What is life for?” is because the question and answer are reversed. You cannot move the answer, because obviously, it is your life. What you do not know is the question, and not your life.

In effect, this is what observing nature is about. It is about knowing the answer first and thinking about the question. It is not about torturing mice in a laboratory. “You carry out an action on a living being and obtain results. How many combinations do you think there are for this?” This was what Miki Shigeo, an anatomist senior of mine whom I respect, asked me in a loud voice while we were listening to an academic conference. Why do mice exist in the first place? Why do they take that form? Mice are undoubtedly an answer to a question, but what is that question? That is what we still do not have a clue about. I can tell that some readers do not have a clue about everything I am writing here.

All living beings connect with each other to form the ecosystem. This is a concept that will become mainstream in biology this century. The survival of the fittest is not always the case. Evolution is not a branch of a single tree, but rather a network of living beings connected with each other. But this concept is quite simply the concept of engi (the theory of dependent origination or dependent arising) in Buddhism. Biology and evolutionary biology will continue the debate with fundamentalism to ultimately converge into something close to traditional Japanese thinking. That is a natural process, considering that the world is almost like Japan in its sakoku (closed-door) era. There are no longer frontiers in America; just some people who want to live on the moon.

Encouraging double residency

I have recently advocated several opinions on social issues. One of these is Sankin Koutai (Edo shogunate’s policy to let the daimyo or feudal lord of every han or clan move periodically between Edo and his han): people from urban areas go to rural areas, and vice versa. And to achieve this, the government should approve double residency. The advantages of this system were evident in the recent tsunami. If a disaster hits the cities, go to the rural areas. If a disaster hits the rural areas, go to the cities. The latest earthquake did not cause any direct problems in Tokyo, but that is not to say that the unexpected will not happen. I wonder what this nation intends to do in the event that Tokyo produces evacuees.

My idea of seeking double residency in a prosperous society is not about luxury. The home need not be luxurious. I think it is ironic that urban residents of countries like Germany and Russia, which would never face disasters like ours, have the custom of owning small homes in the countryside. My view is that we should at least own “temporary housing” of our own in rural areas to prepare for the event of a disaster. I proposed this idea at a committee meeting organized by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism and was criticized, “In this economic decline?” But I heard someone mention at the same committee meeting that Japan has a surplus of homes. So, why temporary housing?

When we live in multiple living environments, we get to understand, more than anything, what we truly need. Those who already know it all would find one residence sufficient, but humans often learn from and only from experience. People can preach us all the benefits of facing nature, but that is completely different from having to face nature on a daily basis. We simply need to experience these things. There is no formula when it comes to living. That is why some people who hate the countryside really hate it, and vice versa with the cities. But then we all say, “Home, sweet home.” A bias is a bias because it simply lacks necessity. But if we slack off, saying that we have no need now, a natural disaster will hit when we least expect it.

I have lectured on the disadvantages of logical thinking so many times, to the point of nausea. While it is true that modern society is where people who are good at logical thinking succeed, its problems become clear to everyone when a disaster hits. Those who plan nuclear power plants, calculate their profitability and give out all the orders are not the ones who live near the plants. That is why the thing that concerned me the most in this latest disaster was not nature, but rather the nuclear power plant. Our country should consider the nuclear power plant incident and the ensuing planned blackouts as rarities.

The root of it all is the energy issue. This is another point that I have long been making. We need to put a stop to our tendency to depend on energy. If we keep measuring economic growth on a conventional scale, we will naturally end up depending on energy. Economic growth rates and energy consumption almost always run parallel to each other. We cannot have one sector of the government advocating energy and environmental conservation and another advocating economic recovery, because it will not work. If we all start preaching about what will not work and then complain that the government is not doing a good job, that is a waste of effort.

If we are encouraging creative production with the aim of enabling the economy to recover, we need to depend on energy. Finance would then transfer the problem to foreign countries that undertake creative production, which, from a global perspective, does not solve anything. Should our country limit how much electricity it supplies? We would then allocate the limited supply to what really needs it. People simply need to be extremely creative in working with however much electricity they are given.

The law, if I recall correctly, obliges power companies to supply power. There is no mistaking the fact that that has played a role in the steady increase of energy consumption; after all, they are obliged to supply power. Did power companies stop thinking at that point? That may have caused the current state whereby a small nation is running so many nuclear power plants. Is it not the duty of power and energy experts to take their thoughts one step further and think about how much energy the country needs? That is their job, is it not?

“Our own nature = body” is our capital

There is logic in saying that nuclear power plants are bad, and there is also logic in saying that they are necessary. As I write this manuscript, the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant is yet to reach a completely stable state. Yet even with the many “unexpected” incidents that occurred and all the trouble that ensued, fortunately it has not caused any directly fatal events.

But I do have one specific concern. I suspect that there were political issues behind the scenes of this incident. My view is that Sato Eisaku, the former mayor of Fukushima Prefecture who resigned amid accusations that he had accepted bribes, likely made quite a strong comment concerning the safety of the Fukushima Power Plant and annoyed someone. That is why, when Sato was arrested, I said in Fukushima Prefecture, “Aren’t the people of Fukushima going to say something when the police arrest the mayor they elected?” Because Sato was raising the issue of the safety of the power plant, which is a major issue today.

Could it be that making the issue political in the form of bribery may, in turn, have resulted in neglect in terms of safety? The issue is the safety of power plants, and not the political debate on the subject. If an incident such as the latest one occurs, it undoubtedly leads to huge costs, which means they should have spent more on safety. But this is in no way what the “blackmail” statement in Okinawa refers to. It is about the actual product and its safety. We don’t mind the power plant coming to a halt due to the earthquake, but why does the cooling device have to stop as well? Today’s cameras and cell phones can even survive a dip in water.

What is more, I feel that the whole case is like the Battle of Guadalcanal. The entire energy issue, including the latest one on nuclear power plants, is about feeding tactics when and only when they are needed. Neither nuclear power plants nor war are natural phenomena. The Japanese way of thinking contains weaknesses in terms of handling such man-made events.

Japanese people are strong after any kind of destruction, but they are not too good at handling crises. We can tell, because we all talk about crisis management. If we were capable of undertaking crisis management, we would not need to talk about it. It is probably similar to the French notion of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. I often travel on the airlines of foreign nationalities because I think of these things.

Many people cannot take drastic steps when they are most needed. An incident keeps progressing on its own, while people do nothing about it. This is the opposite of “tending” something. With natural phenomena, we commonly monitor the process and tend it slowly and surely. But man-made incidents don’t always work that way. We need to take drastic but appropriate measures at appropriate times.

In any case, the radioactive contamination caused by the nuclear power plant accident is like the culmination of Japan’s destruction of nature since the end of the World War. I strongly hope that our history of the destruction of nature has bottomed out now. It is my constant belief that we can only live on what we have. Why in the world should oil from the Middle East be the lifeline of Japan? Do we not feel that something is wrong there? If we continue living with the notion of “Hey, it’s profitable,” a natural disaster will hit at some stage. It is natural for us to live humbly.

Our capital for such a life is our own nature – our body. And our body works at its best when it is in nature. This must be so, because that is how our body is made to begin with.

But when we live in the city, we forget about that fact. That is what I think whenever I see the Metropolitan Government building. How could anyone make decent judgments working all day in such a place? The brain is part of our body. Humans can endure such places. But it is merely “can endure,” and it is not that it is normal or that it is life.

It is natural for people who live in such places to spend two or three months a year in nature, and they should do so. Executives go and play golf on the weekends. Why should that only be for executives?

And then they should go back to thinking and come up with some answers.

Translated from the Special Report ‘Reviving a strong Japan’: Shizen no hosoku to Nihon-jin,” Voice, May 2011, pp. 102-109. (Courtesy of PHP Kenkyusho)