A world-ending cataclysm is common to many mythologies. The Biblical flood narrative is the best known and follows a fairly typical pattern: wrathful deity, mass destruction, surviving remnant — in this case the righteous man Noah and his family. We gather from these tales that life to early humans felt dreadfully precarious — more so, even, than it may feel to us.
Japan’s mythological account of the world on the brink of annihilation is in a class by itself. Other stories of its kind are tragic, terrifying. Japan’s is comic, even bawdy.
The sun goddess goes into hiding. She has been offended by her brother the storm god, an unruly, malicious spirit who damages his sister’s rice fields and fouls the hall where she has been celebrating the festival of first fruits. Outraged, the sun goddess withdraws into a cave. If that’s the way the world is, she will decline to shine on it. The “eighty myriads of gods” take counsel. How can they lure her out? One of them, the “Dread Female of Heaven,” lights a fire and dances a lewd dance, at which there is such hearty divine laughter that the sun goddess can’t resist a peek outside to see what’s going on. She is seized and dragged out, and the world is saved.
The native Japanese temperament sees the world as by and large a kindly, unthreatening place, notwithstanding the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions the land has always been prone to. It is only with the introduction of a foreign creed — Buddhism in the sixth century from India via China and Korea — that the mood darkens.
Buddhism teaches a descent from a golden age of the True Law (Shoho) through a lesser age of the Imitative Law (Zoho) to an apocalyptic age called Mappo — the Latter Days of the Law. “In the Latter Days of the Law,” wrote a ninth-century Japanese cleric, “there will be none to keep the Buddha’s commandments. If there should be such, they will be as rare as a tiger in a market place.” Or as the modern historian G. Cameron Hurst III put it (in an article in “The Cambridge History of Japan,” 1990), “Time was conceived of as an inexorable process leading to the final conflagration of all worlds.”
Mappo began, it was calculated, in 1052. Japan then was in its Heian Period (794-1185), four of the most peaceful, serene centuries any culture anywhere can boast. Peace prevailed still, but military clans in the distant north were gathering strength and growing restless. They could not be ignored forever, but court life in Kyoto, the capital, went on as blithely as if the status quo were a matter of course. A 13th-century chronicle known as “Gukansho” laconically records the rude shock when it came at last: “After senior retired emperor Toba died on the second day of the seventh month of the first year of Hogen (1156), fighting and strife began in Japan, and the country entered the age of warriors.”
For 400 years death ruled Japan. War, murder and self-disembowelment were embraced with all the eagerness that had marked Heian’s celebration of life, love, beauty and art. Historians are hard pressed to see any point to it all. This was mappo indeed — not a physical annihilation but the end of all law, coherence, meaning. The frenzied pursuit of death overlay — or perhaps expressed — a spreading, thickening gloom. “This life is but a temporary abiding place, shame upon shame,” muses a character in the “Tales of the Heike,” the 13th-century war epic. “What is it to be accounted? There is only sadness of heart in the long darkness of this world.”
“This world” became a place to leave if you could — not necessarily by suicide but by casting off all worldly ties and becoming a recluse, a person for whom the world has, in effect, ended. The 13th-century “Tale of My Ten-Foot-Square Hut” is a beautiful expression of that impulse. It is attributed to a courtier-turned-hermit named Kamo no Chomei, who, in his flimsy weatherbeaten little hut deep in mountain mists, writes, “Since I forsook the world and broke off all its ties, I have felt neither fear nor resentment. I commit my life to fate without special wish to live or desire to die. Like a drifting cloud I rely on none and have no attachments.”
War yielded to peace at last, and though a warrior ethic reigned, the peace proved remarkably durable. Through most of the Edo Period (1603-1867) the national gaze was inward. Buddhism lost its hold and was succeeded by a down-to-earth neo-Confucianism. All in all the world seemed a pretty solid place. Few worried about it ending.
Maybe a little apocalyptic fear is good for us. Not too much, just enough to check complacency. By the early 20th century Japan was a great power; in 1941 it recklessly attacked Pearl Harbor and found itself at war with the United States. Everyone knows how that ended. Twenty years after the August 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Robert Oppenheimer, the American nuclear physicist considered “the father of the atomic bomb,” spoke of his feelings in a 1965 TV documentary titled “The Decision to Drop the Bomb.” “We knew,” he said, “the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multiarmed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
“Death, the destroyer of worlds” — Aum Shinrikyo guru Shoko Asahara did not see himself in those terms, though others did and do. His own self-image was as a kind of Christ-figure and herald of the End of Days. It is hard to know what to make of his pseudo-philosophical musings, harder still to understand his charismatic hold on a multitude of followers, many of them highly educated, some of them scientists. The group expanded through the 1980s and into the ’90s. At its peak it had 10,000 members in Japan and 35,000 in Russia. The climax was the March 1995 sarin gas assault on workaday Tokyo subway commuters. If hardly apocalyptic in terms of the number killed (12), it perhaps does merit the adjective as Japan’s first ever experience with random high-tech mass murder in the name of religious transcendent righteousness. The last Aum members implicated in the atrocity were arrested only this year, and its shadow has not yet altogether lifted.