One day in September 1923, the great writer and poet of the Tohoku region, Kenji Miyazawa, went into woods not far from his hometown of Hanamaki in Iwate Prefecture to chop down a tree. Suddenly rocks broke away from the cliff, rocks he called “assassins.” But he was not surprised or shocked. “After all,” he wrote, “I am the one who cut down that tree.”
We in this country will be searching for answers and reasons and newly configured goals after the horrific disaster that struck this region in northeast Japan. No doubt Japan will invent new technologies to harness the energy that comes from nature, more benign ones than we have relied upon in the past.
But the ethical dilemma still remains, just as it did after World War II, when Japanese people were compelled to seek new and more democratic forms of social organization. The old ones had led them into a disaster for themselves and for their victims in Asia and the Pacific. The very definition of what it meant to be a Japanese was altered — for the better.
Two authors born in Tohoku speak to us today in a way that can give guidance to find a new paradigm for the kind of life we should lead from now on. The first is the erstwhile Kenji (1896-1933), for whom the convention is to call him by his given name; the second is Hisashi Inoue, who passed away a year ago, on April 9, at the age of 75.
Why Kenji? Here was a prose writer and poet born in the 19th century with a 21st-century take on the world. Kenji believed that humans were not the lords of creation, but only a single element — and not one above any other — in shinrabansho (all creation).
In Kenji’s works, the animals often teach humans everything — from everyday morality to the bitter truths of life and death.
In his wonderful story titled “The Bears of Mount Nametoko,” the bears make a pact with a bear hunter. They will allow themselves to be hunted and shot, for they realize that the hunter’s livelihood depends on the hunt. But in the end, Kojuro, the hunter, is surrounded by a circle of bears. The victimizer and the victims have become one. What ensues is left to the imagination; but the inference is that Kojuro’s life is taken for his past “sins.”
Yet Kenji went even further in his many works. He not only communed with nature but communicated with it. The rocks spoke to him, telling him how they got where they are. The rivers and the wind and the snow brought messages to him. And there is no author in Japan who describes light in such dramatic and telling ways as he does.
All of this is not just nature worship, which we are familiar with in the literary traditions of many countries. Kenji has a unique message; and it is this message that can provide a guide for us in our struggle to find a new set of ethics and social practices — one that will help us avoid a repeat of the kind of nuclear disaster we are facing today.
In a country plagued with natural disasters, it behoves people to have more than a healthy respect for the powers that unleash them. Japan requires a practical working philosophy that allows people to appreciate the forces of nature — the wind, the water, the air, the heat and cold — and use them without bringing on calamity. Kenji provides just that.
In fact Kenji, who had no romantic liaisons during his lifetime, was in love with all creation. When he walks through the woods, the leaves create “imprints of crescent-shaped lips” on his elbows and trousers. When he hears the wind beating against his door, he knows that it is coming from the elements who want to marry him. Kenji’s connection with nature is erotic: Humankind’s love of nature is true love.
What has the world’s environmental movement been leading up to if not this? What is the Fukushima nuclear calamity telling us if not that we must rethink and reinvent our relationship with nature? We do not need to renounce exploitation of nature. On the contrary: We will simply be required from now on to see our place in it in the proper light — a light showing us that we cannot take without giving back.
Inoue, who was born in a small town in Yamagata Prefecture in 1934, went one step farther in his marvellous 2003 play, “The Water Letters.” Narrated by a number of people from many countries and of varying ages, the play is about the importance of rivers to every civilization on Earth. The moral of his story is that we are all interconnected. When water is adversely affected in one place, the damage flows all around the world.
Is this not what is happening in Fukushima now? We have all become citizens of this region; and the redressing of the tragedy has become the responsibility of us all.
Inoue addressed the fate of the victims of 1945’s U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima in an earlier play, “The Face of Jizo.” In the introduction to that play, he stated that this was a disaster that happened to all people in the world. He saw the attack on Nagasaki in the same light. “Those two atomic bombs were dropped,” he wrote, “not only on the Japanese but on all humankind.”
The pollution of the air and water in northern Japan has now polluted the entire world. We are certainly not able immediately to abandon all older methods of extracting energy that desecrate nature. This will take years. But we are ready right now to adopt a new paradigm for our relationship with this planet; and that relationship needs to be one that sets priority on the renewability of resources and the restoration of the integrity of water, air, soil and light.
In the 20th century, Japan experimented with empire and failed. In this century it has already threatened the forces of nature that rule this country, and has been horribly defeated.
This country may now rank third in the world in terms of GDP, but it is poised, with its traditions of respect for nature and its essentially ethical lifestyle, to be No. 1 in showing the world that a new paradigm can be adopted and put into practice.
Japan is facing a challenge even greater than the ones it faced when the country opened up to the outside world at the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), or when almost everything had to be rebuilt in the postwar decades due to the bombers’ devastation.
This is an ethical challenge. The technologies of rebuilding will take care of themselves.
This is a chance for Japanese people to teach the people of the world that they can live a 21st-century life without defiling nature; a chance for Japan to be truly No. 1 in the world.