Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 31, 2011

The nature of catastrophe, sakura, and the hope of hakanasa

Filed under: Catastrophes — by Philip J. Palin on March 31, 2011

Spring Evening by Hayami Gyoshu (1894-1935) Yamatane Museum, Tokyo

The nature of any catastrophe is confirmed by how survivors respond and especially the meaning-made of their shared experience.

Are we victims or heroes?  Are we innocent or culpable?  Have we done our best or shown our worst?  What have we learned?  What does this pain tell us of wider reality?

Three weeks after the earth’s rocky jaws opened and a black tide swallowed the shore, the aftershocks — both geophysical and psychosocial — continue.  This crisis is not concluded.  The nature of this catastrophe has not yet been resolved.

We can see the cascade of cause-and-effect from earthquake to tsunami to infrastructure failures to nuclear emergency to death, injury, and destruction.   The functions in time and space are mostly known.  But our interpretive formula is not yet in place.   We cannot discern the limits of these functions, we cannot yet calculate the direction (much less velocity) of change.

This uncertain calculus — and radically disrupted equilibrium — helps confirm we are in the midst of catastrophe.

Across Japanese society we can perceive the system self-organizing around various attractors of meaning.  One of the principal attractors is solidarity with the survivors. Last week I suggested this is an example of mochiai, a sense of interdependence, unity, and shared-steadiness.

This is the season of sakura — cherry blossoms — in Japan.  There is no direct analogy in American holidays, but a blend of Independence Day, Memorial Day, Arbor Day, and Easter, each in its most old-fashioned form, might get close.   Typically this is a time for families, work-groups, and others to picnic beneath the flowering trees, watch fireworks, and drink too much.

This year some are concerned it is inappropriate to enjoy the sakura.  Would such individual indulgence undermine mochiai?  In English we might ask, would such behavior be unjust? In Tokyo the blossoms are expected to reach their peak April 4-14.  In Sendai the peak is forecast for April 18-25.

Mindful consideration is appropriate. I hope most will choose to gather beneath the blossoms.

Cherry blossoms reach their peak just as they begin to fall from the tree.  The beauty is brief.   But the beauty is real. The small sour cherries that replace the blossoms are also real.  The birds that eat the cherries are just as real.

Reality is hakanasa — fleeting, ephemeral, evanascent, transitory — the sakura teach us.  The Seventeeth Century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho wrote,

Come, see real
of this painful world.

Embracing  pain does not require excluding the flowers.  To recognize the reality of each is a resilient choice.

There is much in Japanese culture to reinforce this complicated, even paradoxical, sense of reality. This may reflect the precarious physical reality of Japan. But this sensibility is also present in Western culture and in the American experience. We can recognize it at Valley Forge, Gettysburg, the Edmund Pettus Bridge and more.

In future posts I will join you in seeking to learn what the “nuclear earthquake” in Japan has to tell us about mitigation, resilience, supply chains, critical infrastructure, public information, training, recovery, strategy and much more. But it would be a mistake to discount what this experience has to teach us regarding narratives, worldviews, and culture. These are equally real.

In this context it was meaningful to me when earlier this week I received from a long-time Japanese friend an extract from the opening and closing of Ranier Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus:

A tree ascended there. Oh pure transcendence!…
And all things hushed, yet even in that silence
A new beginning, beckoning, change appeared…

Silent friend of many distances, feel how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell into the night…

Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?

In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.

And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.

To which I responded with the Basho haiku of flowers and pain.

There is shared strength, even half a world away… if we will allow it.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 31, 2011 @ 12:56 am

Terrific post Phil! Many Thanks! As this terrible event continues to unfold over the next months and years you are particularly positioned to help US understand what the Japanese are feeling during this massive human undertaking where the past could well cloud the future. Sakura! Hakansa! The blossoms and life itself brief, fleeting, yet eternal.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 31, 2011 @ 12:57 am

HAKANASA! Correction!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 31, 2011 @ 1:51 am

After reading Mark’s Wednesday post, I asked Arnold to let me post today instead of on Friday as I am assigned.

I was almost done with my first draft before reading Mark’s post. As such it is not a “response” to Mark, but I perceive the two posts are complementary.

A wide swath of homeland security — and other public policy as well — is an ongoing attempt to calibrate individual goods with social goods. How do we honor individual rights and social justice — both?

This can be seen as an ongoing process of mediation, for which we have developed mediating institutions, systems, and processes.

Democracy mediates between the rights of each and all. Markets serve individual opportunity and mass needs. Culture situates the individual in community. Our political, economic, and cultural systems each play a role — and influence other system elements — in seeking some balance of liberty and justice for all.

Reflecting certain cultural biases, the American political and economic systems tend to celebrate the individual… to our sometime glory and occasional detriment.

Reflecting their own cultural biases, the Japanese political and economic systems tend to champion the community. In this time of crisis, these communal values are heroically helpful. In other contexts the same values can be troublesome.

The individual is real. His or her liberty, dignity, and opportunity is — or ought to be — sacred. The community is also real. Our shared needs, values, and hopes deserve attention and care. And what is good for the individual can be in conflict with what is good for the community. The reverse is also true. How to resolve this conflict is often unclear.

Homeland security has emerged as another mediator in this ongoing dialectic.

Comment by John G. Comiskey

March 31, 2011 @ 6:40 am


In recent posts you have provided a unique sense of Japanese’s homeland security that demonstrates how culture dictates our sense of how important matters should be AND mostly are attended to by particular peoples. To that point, I am adding mochiai to my homeland security lexicon. Recently, we have seen how New Zealand’s uniqueness and civic-ness facilitated a mostly excellent response and recovery. In a different vein, we have seen Haiti’s dysfunctionality contribute to cascading catastrophes replete with human suffering and indifference.

As you know, I spent two months in Louisiana last summer as part of the Coast Guard’s response to DWH. I saw, firsthand, a NOLA tempered by lessons learned and not learned but determined to do things better and at the same time celebrate their cherry blossoms in the form of the New Orleans Saints Superbowl champions.

Near ten years into the Homeland Security Era and still we endeavor to identify the homeland security paradigm.

As of today, I identify the homeland security paradigm as a resilient and educated civic minded populace imbued with a sense of kaizen and Emersonionan self-reliance, mochiai, and an appreciation of cherry blossom-like treasures.

Thanks for today’s post. I have bookmarked it for use in the Fall Semester.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 31, 2011 @ 8:38 am

The “fiction” of private land ownership has dominated Western Culture. The Kings “deer parks” exemplify it. I prefer the Native American take–we are all stewards and trustees of what we received.
The rule of the extractive industries continues in the US and includes those able to exploit post-disaster situations. That is why watching another culture tackle a disaster that threatens its way of life is and will be so fascinating and perhaps “awful” to watch. Based on Cesium 138 readings now looks like need to expand the evacuation/relocation zone out to 50 miles, not Kilometers. These readings exceed levels at Chernoybl were the evacuation has now become permanent for those evacuating.
A guestimate that within the next 30 days the Japanese event will be labeled the worst nuclear accident on earth yet. But could be wrong.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 31, 2011 @ 9:49 am

All Coke plants in Japan country wide now converted to producing bottled water. S.Korea coca-cola ops also about to convert to drinking water for Japan.

Some estimates of more than 3 decades to decommission irradiated plants scoured by seawater as coolant starting to appear.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 31, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

Bill and John, When this kind of catastrophic cascade hits the world’s third largest economy — and a place profoundly serious about disaster preparedness — anyone who claims to be involved in homeland security ought to be paying close attention. The personal connection has no doubt facilitated a more textured engagement, just as Mark’s background in Christchurch has given particular resonance to his analysis. But while Mark was a senior fire official in Christchurch, I was the president of a small college in Tokyo; very different roles in terms of offering current insight. Further, my time actually living in Tokyo was over two decades ago and for a bit less than three years. I often traveled back-and-forth for another ten years, but have not been back for a decade. So… while I certainly want to advocate serious attention to the cultural context, I don’t want to over-state my own expertise in terms of cross-cultural interpretation. I am glad to be provocative, but should not be mistaken as authoritative.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 31, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

Disclaimer accepted Phil but you are still ahead of most. GOJ refusing to expand the area to be evacuated but also indicates six (6) not four (4) reactors to be permanently shut down.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

April 1, 2011 @ 1:39 am


I just wanted to point out that as soon as those in authority chose to pump seawater into the reactors and spent fuel pools, those particular units were “dead.” The seawater is corrosive enough that the emergency use of it signed the death warrant for those facilities as soon as it was utilized. This news is just official notification of ground truth.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

April 1, 2011 @ 4:39 am

Philip, what a truly wonderful post and associated commenst by all which should be shared w/Madame Secretary and all DHS employees – thank you –

I wish I was not so pessimistic about our resilience, our capabilities to respond to same. We desperately need leadership we so lack not only from this inexperienced WH, but as importantly if not more, both sides of the aisle seen as so distracted by other. I fear that we lack anything clse to the strength and patience portrayed by the wonderful people of Japan!

The economic tsunami I see becoming more and more apparent here on Main Street USA where I see “Citizen Joe” truly struggling is my concern as so many worried. To think of actual earthquake and/or tsunami causing such substantial calamity among us would cause such despair to a populace seemingly already so unhappy, so depressed. I fear for America, we neither have national energy plan nor a government cmpetent to respond as it should – ineptness and self-agenda abound and our “me, me” culture cannot be compared by that of japan as we have seen portrayed on ur television screens.

Great Post! This shuld be distributed to every Congressional member and their staff as well.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 1, 2011 @ 5:36 am

Mr. Tingus, I share your concern regarding the “culture of me.” But… I am also aware that my principal encounter with this me culture is through the “me-dia” (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

In my direct experience: family, friends, professional colleagues, at church, and across my community I constantly encounter mutual concern, generosity, and an abundance of good sense. Perhaps you encounter something similar on Main Street USA?

The origin of my deepest concerns seems to be an abstraction that contradicts my actual experience. I don’t want to entirely discount these indirect accounts of a culture in trouble. But neither should I ignore my actual experience… which is considerably more positive.

Further, it is my impression the situation in Japan is just as nuanced. While there is truth in the narrative of communal care and personal sacrifice, there is also evidence of communal oppression and the absence of personal initiative.

Depending on where I look there is cause for confidence in — and despair for — the human condition, both here and in Japan. So I am inclined to encourage the positive as much as possible.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 2, 2011 @ 10:06 am

From Kyodo News Agency (http://english.kyodonews.jp/news/2011/04/82699.html) on April 2:

The Tokyo metropolitan government has asked visitors to its parks to voluntarily refrain from holding parties under blooming cherry trees, in the Japanese seasonal tradition of ”hanami,” in light of the March 11 quake and tsunami and power shortages, drawing some criticism for excessive restraint.

At Ueno Park, one of the major beauty spots in Tokyo whose roughly 1,200 cherry trees draw more than 1.5 million visitors each season, some 30 signs put up by the Tokyo government read ”We ask for voluntary restraint on parties within the park in the wake of the earthquake.”

Similar signs are visible also at suburban Inokashira Park, home to some 500 trees.

The metro government also cites the rolling blackouts organized by Tokyo Electric Power Co. to curb demand to meet postquake power supply shortfalls among reasons for its move against the parties, which it says are unfavorable for producing massive garbage.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said in a press conference Tuesday, ”People should voluntarily refrain from watching cherry blossoms at least during the night under the lights.”

At a gathering Wednesday, Ishihara went further, ”This is not an era in which people at this time of year may drink viewing cherry blossoms, even during daytime.”

Among critics of the move, Renho, a state minister who has taken charge of encouraging people to save electricity, said Friday, ”Any restrictions by authorities of people’s freedom of movement or social activities should be kept to a minimum.”

Economic commentator Hajime Yamazaki said, ”This is undoubtedly excessive. Seeking voluntary restraints on cherry-blossom viewing and parties has only adverse effects for public administration, as it stalls economic activities.”

A 32-year-old woman from Fukushima City who recently visited Inokashira Park and viewed a sign said, ”I think it is good that people enjoy watching cherry blossoms where they can as people in disaster areas cannot do so even if they want to.”

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 5, 2011 @ 3:01 am

Another story on subdued hanami: http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/national/T110404004541.htm

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