Japan and the Reality of Suffering

The scenes around the northern Japanese city of Sendai are still shocking. Clothes set out to dry hang outside two-story houses whose first floors are entirely crushed and hollowed out; the second floors are generally untouched. A solitary chair sits in the smashed wreckage of what must recently have been a living room. Cars can be seen floating on small rivers, and telephone poles teeter at crazy angles. Giant rectangles of scrap metal stand all along what were in January typically spotless and sleek Japanese highways.

In November, I traveled up to the little fishing village of Ishinomaki, an hour from Sendai, with the Dalai Lama. Almost eight months after the earthquake and tsunami of Mar. 11, the sense of devastation was hard to bear. An old wooden temple still stood firm against a hill, but the gravestones in front of it were broken or tilting over. Tidy boxed remains of the recently departed, accompanied by snapshots—here a teenage schoolboy, there a smiling grandmother—sat in rows by the altar, but no survivor had come to claim them, and there were perhaps no homes to take them back to.

When the Dalai Lama stepped out of his car to greet and console the hundreds who had gathered in the street to see him, women began wailing and sobbing, “Thank you, thank you.” He told them to look forward, not back; to honor the dead with something more concrete than tears; to rebuild their community as their nation had so stirringly rebuilt itself in the wake of World War II. As he turned round, however, I noticed that the usually unshakable Tibetan was wiping a tear from his eye.

Only two weeks earlier, by chance, I’d gone up to the little town of Iwaki Yumoto, just outside the “exclusion zone,” which surrounds the crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant for 20 kilometers in every direction. Three of the plant’s six reactors melted down in the wake of the tsunami—and fires broke out in a fourth—making it the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, a quarter of a century earlier, and ensuring that uncertainty would continue for decades.

Once a hot springs resort, Iwaki Yumoto is eerily deserted now. Most of the people I saw had traveled from all over Japan to work in often very dangerous conditions clearing up the plant. They’d come to rescue their nation in its time of need, several told me, but another reason was surely that jobs are scarce in Japan today. The tsunami came along just as the country was beginning to recover after two decades of economic misery.

The year just passed might have been a terrible cosmic test for Japan: In Sendai, people were just beginning to rebuild their houses (and lives) when a typhoon in September reduced the new structures to rubble. Some young people I know in Tokyo were so traumatized by the earthquake that, the following day, they moved to the southern island of Kyushu. Many elderly people fleeing the devastation around Fukushima came to the nearby prefecture of Yamagata, a Japanese friend who lives there told me. Having safely arrived, they looked around—their families gone, no homes to return to, not much of a future—and some quietly took their own lives.

Yet for all the sadness that will not go away, I can’t help feeling, after almost 20 years of living in Japan, that it’s the country’s strengths, more than its weaknesses, that have been and will be highlighted by the recent cataclysms. For a thousand years or more, after all, the island nation has weathered earthquakes and fires and wars and nuclear bombs; in some respects—a little like the Britain in which I grew up—it almost seems made for dealing with calamity. Resilience, stoicism, and community-mindedness have been binding and guiding the nation for centuries.

Rather than the “pursuit of happiness,” Japan is built, at some deep, invisible level, around the Buddhist law of the reality of suffering; my Japanese family and neighbors are not inclined to complain about circumstances so much as to deal, silently and efficiently, with the hands they’re dealt. Some years ago, an Osaka painter in his 90s told me, “We used to believe that people should pay for suffering. It is such an instruction and help in growing up.” One of the most celebrated geishas in Kyoto has written, “I believe that self-discipline is the key to beauty.”

For all its zany and promiscuous Western surfaces, Japan remains a profoundly traditional culture in which most individuals believe that their destinies are assigned to them by gods or fates or the laws of nature. They may not trust their government or corporations—which were typically equivocating, evasive, and immobile after the disasters in March—but they do seem to trust the larger forces around them. That sense of faith—or fatalism—can be a blessing when it comes to natural or man-made catastrophe.

In Nara, where I live, my friends take pains not to talk about this year’s tragedies; many have been through worse. A well-traveled local pal with whom I play Ping-Pong every day recalled how, during the war, “Japan was like Somalia. No food and so much danger.” And the decades of hard work that built up the economy after the war can be seen as an invisible savings account on which to draw in an emergency. The area around Sendai is a wreck, but most of my Japanese neighbors know they’re blessed in comparison with the earthquake victims of Port-au-Prince.

When I went up to the area around the nuclear plant in October, I found myself staying in, of all places, a golf resort by the sea. Many of the locals had left the area after the disaster, I was told. When I arrived, late at night, the big hotel looked like a ghost town. Only a handful of kimono-clad guests seemed to be enjoying the tea lounge and the play area.

Next morning, I awoke early and went into the breakfast room at 6:15—to find every table packed. Dapper golfers from Tokyo were busy scarfing down their eggs, about to head out for their first round, undeterred by pelting rain and the belching factories that surround the seaside course. In some places this could look like recklessness or indifference; in Japan it seemed to stand for fortitude.

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