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.