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Effect of spiritual force on the post-3/11 crisis

by Joseph S. O'leary

This Precious Life: Buddhist Tsunami Relief and Anti-Nuclear Activism in Post 3/11 Japan, by Jonathan S. Watts. International Buddhist Exchange Center, 2012, 208 pp., $10.00 (paperback)

T he response of the Japanese people to the triple catastrophe of March 2011 won global admiration. The deeply ingrained attitudes of gambaru and gaman suru (“do one’s best” and “bear patiently”) protected the nation from panic, despair, and anarchy. Collective wisdom dictated that life must go on.

This volume of essays chronicles how Buddhists mobilized their spiritual forces in dealing with crisis and trauma. Arranged chronologically, the essays give a sense of the history as it unfolded. Two Zen priests describe the devastation in the Sendai area, the nuclear anxieties in Fukushima, and the growing awareness that, though the trauma of the tsunami would take long to heal, the nuclear problem would continue indefinitely.

Another Buddhist priest finds a silver lining in the way the tsunami enabled Buddhism to cast off its image as a sleepy funeral religion. Contrary to the sense of Japan as a society without connections (muen-shakai), the bond between helpers and victims brought a “positive energy” and a vision of a better society where “heart-to-heart connections” will flourish. They rediscovered giving (fuse), which is a practice of refining one’s own mind; its spiritual benefits outstrip its physical success.

These authors see hope of a renewal of Buddhism in Japan, as its core values of wisdom and compassion are highlighted in a time of need. They stress the importance of interdenominational cooperation within Buddhism, to overcome inward-looking tendencies and identity fixations. The disaster also showed the need for Buddhist, Christian and Shinto clergy to overcome their differences and unite to protect the lives of children.

When we turn to the nuclear issue, the book takes a much less flattering view of Buddhist reactions, which mirrored a wider political ineptitude in Japanese society. Conservative Buddhists are quicker to practice welfare activities than to raise questions of justice, challenging power structures and getting at the roots of social inequities.

Contributors on this topic are led by Tetsuen Nakajima and Hidehito Okochi, priests who have long been fighting against the nuclear industry and its supportive ideology of “nuclear fascism.”

All reject the claim that the nuclear catastrophe was beyond expectation, citing a 1989 warning that coastal nuclear plants “are continually exposed to the dangers of earthquakes and tsunamis” and the nightmare of multiple simultaneous meltdowns. They denounce the role of a compromised mass media: “People don’t realize how ignorant they are.” Four decades of political apathy among the Japanese as a whole have born bitter fruit.

Professor Jun Nishikawa identifies the “atomic village” of elite politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, academics and journalists as culprits. Fukushima Prefecture was typical of the scenario wherein conservative rural communities, seduced by subsidies and lulled by reassuring propaganda, gladly harbored nuclear reactors. Now, the prefecture has done a huge rethink, calling for sustainable development based on recyclable natural energy.

Gradually, “an ethical viewpoint is emerging from the stench of the failing nuclear administrative system.” Yet whereas Fukushima sparked a 200,000-strong protest in Germany on March 27, 2011, a Tokyo demonstration on March 20 attracted only 1,500 people. The apathy of university students to the nuclear issue, even after the catastrophe, is particularly striking. Their political unawareness means that the lesson of the tragedy is wasted on them and that they are unable to deconstruct the myths of safety and necessity on which the nuclear industry relies. The blame lies with “a generation of parents who have raised their children to be politically disconnected.”

The contributors’ call for a radical reshaping of Japanese society will probably seem utopian to many readers.

Can a policy of “territorial development based on endogenous initiatives and local resources, emphasizing the full employment of local people and the equitable distribution of resources,” meet the energy needs of Tokyo? Is it realistic to call on Japan to move into “a world of posteconomic growth, postdevelopmentalism and posteconomic globalization,” and to “abandon the value system that has forged the basis of the modern world”?

Capitalism, not Buddhism, is the binding religion of modern Japan. The critique of economic and political corruption is a new field for the application of Buddhist wisdom, which would certainly energize Japanese Buddhism and give it social relevance. But it will probably remain a specialty of the band of “Engaged Buddhists” so eloquently represented in this book.

Life will go on as usual.