Dear Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda,

With all the challenges facing your government in reforming the economy and rebuilding Tohoku, I imagine you don’t have much time for poetry. But there is a poem I’d like to share with you, and I think you’ll agree it has something to say for Japan in a post-3/11 era:

The sap is mounting back from that unseenness

Darkly renewing in the common deep

Back to the light and feeding that pure greenness

Hiding in rinds round which the winds still weep.

The inner side of nature is turning

Another sursum corda will resound;

Invisibly, a whole year’s youth is striving

To climb those limbs that looked so iron bound.

Those stanzas were written in Germany by Rainer Maria Rilke after World War I. I was thinking a lot about them in the weeks following 3/11 here in Tokyo. Turning them over in my mind, I felt I could imagine a future beyond the horrifying images of destruction being broadcast from the north, and the frightening, confusing news reports about Fukushima — a future that would be bright for my yet-to-be-born daughter. I think you will also be inspired by their message of hope and renewal after desolation.

But there is one more stanza, and I have also been thinking about that one year later:

Preserving still that grey and cool expression,

The ancient walnut’s filling with event;

While the sapling trembles with repression

Under the perching bird’s presentiment.

Those last two enigmatic lines strike a discordant note, even souring the emotional tone of the poem. How to reconcile the growing exultation of its first two stanzas with the comedown of its last lines? What could they mean? That even in nature’s renewal we have to expect suffering and loss? Or that in the renewal of the old and firmly established, genuine youth can be overshadowed? That latter interpretation is what I have in mind when I now imagine Japan’s post 03/11 future.

Like many foreigners and Japanese, I hoped a year ago that there was a chance to reform Japan’s society and economy, beginning with the rebuilding of Tohoku. During my times as a volunteer in Ishinomaki city working alongside students from my university, I have played a small role in activities that will bring about local renewal. I have seen Japanese and international NPOs working with local citizens to clean and rebuild their towns, and to lay out plans together for the future. And as long as I keep my thoughts fixed on the tremendous work being done by these people, I can believe “another sursum corda will resound.”

But I can’t wish away the disconnect between those local activities and the lack of a national vision for reconstruction. Like many others, I am frustrated at how weakened your government is by factional troubles, and by the petty zero-sum struggle for power the opposition is waging against you.

So yes, it is understandable that you can’t do much more than offer large sums of money for reconstruction. And I imagine you must be frustrated as prefectural and local governments prove unable to arrive at a consensus about where and how to spend that money rebuilding their communities, ensuring that hundreds of thousands of Tohoku people will remain in cramped, uncomfortable temporary housing, often far from their hometowns and friends.

I also realize that one of the saddest dilemmas for your reconstruction and reform agenda is presented by the traumatized, often elderly residents of wrecked rural and fishing towns along the coast of Tohoku. Many quite naturally want to preserve as much as possible of their traditional way of life. They have had the numbers to vote down urban consolidation measures that would see dying villages abandoned, and they oppose your free trade policy initiatives, and the liberalizing reforms that can revitalize Tohoku’s declining agriculture and fisheries sectors.

The dilemma is that in exercising their democratic rights, they want to restore a status quo that was already demographically and economically unviable before 3/11. Even worse, their choices may help speed up the migration of young people from Tohoku for better opportunities in the south.

This is a microcosm of what some of my students have called Japan’s silver democracy: the conservatism of elderly voters hoping to renew the “old and firmly established” eclipsing economic reforms needed to secure the future for Japanese youth. So there are those last words from Rilke’s poem turning over in my mind.

That overshadowed future, Mr Noda, is what I worry about when I think of my daughter’s life in this country. My fear for Japanese society now is that, even after experiencing the terrible shocks of the tsunami and the Fukushima crisis, it will remain too wedded to an inflexible economic nationalism to accept readily “foreign-looking” reform ideas; that your government is too factionalized to make a forceful case for such reforms; and that at a deeper level, habits of excessive loyalty and deference to seniority will remain fixed in its civic, educational and business life, dampening young peoples’ resolve to speak out.

You’re probably thinking the same as I am about what could lie ahead: that Japan might just waste its tremendous economic and intellectual potential, muddle through without taking on the risks of reform, and gradually expose its underemployed youth and frail elderly to greater poverty and social isolation as it runs down the revenue needed for their safety net. Beginning, I’m afraid, with Tohoku, where the tsunami shattered the fragile community life of its elderly and blighted the already narrow employment opportunities of its youth.

In my volunteer work I have tried to give something back to a society which, for all the faults I have listed, has still been very good to me. I’m not confident that it will be as good for my daughter and her generation.

I don’t want to finish on such a negative note. I began with a quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke, and I will finish with some words from a famous Japanese lover of German literature: Maruyama Masao, Japan’s greatest postwar political thinker.

A critic of Japan’s wartime political system and an advocate of ethical individualism, he isn’t so fashionable these days. What he wrote in his essay “Being and Doing” just before 1960 will, I suspect, be regarded as subversive by some of your senior public servants, but you and I both know that the unaccountable ways of such men are now discredited.

To me, Maruyama’s words read like a promise still awaiting fulfillment and I hope you will heed them, for they point to a civic activism that I believe is the way forward for Japan’s youth and for Japan’s future: “The application of the criteria for democratization as ‘doing’ is, that leaders will provide unstinting service to citizens and society, and citizens will check their leaders for rights abuses and critically monitor their performance”.


Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor at the School of Global Japanese Studies, Meiji University, Tokyo. He has worked as a volunteer with the NPOs Peace Boat and It’s Not Just Mud in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Send submissions of 500-700 words to community@japantimes.co.jp

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