The Japanese Disasters

It’s nicknamed Mori no miyako, “the forested capital.” Or maybe we could render it – Sendai — the “Kyoto of the woods.” The castle of Lord Date Masamune, built in the 1600s, is called the Aoba-jo or “Green Leaves Castle” and the main street of the castle-town is called Green Leaves Avenue.  When I visited for a week in 1986—a visit prolonged since typhoons were preventing rail travel—I was struck by the green so lacking in most Japanese cities, watered by the Hirose River. I fell in love with it, comparing it in some respects to Sapporo where I’d met my wife.

I will always associate, as do many Japanese, Sendai with the song Aobajo koi uta,a plaintive ballad that begins with this verse so representative of Japanese art, which always finds poignant beauty in the transience of life:

“Hirosegawa nagareru kishibe

Omoide wa kaerazu
Hayase odoru hikari ni
Yureteita kimi no hitomi
Toki wa meguri
Mata natsu ga kite
Ano hi to onaji nagare no kishi
Seoto yukashiki
Mori no miyako
Ano hito wa mo inai”

“On the bank of the flowing Hirose River
I’m remembering what can’t return.
In the dancing brightness of the rapids
I see your eyes brimming with tears.
Time goes around.
Summer comes again.
Just like on that day the rapids between the banks
the delightful sound of the rapids
in this wooded city.
That person no longer exists”

I am wondering if Sendai exists anymore. “Many areas of the town,” according to CNN, “are simply gone — mud and boards littering an area where a row of homes used to stand; a vehicle upside-down among tree branches. A school, which had 450 people inside when the tsunami hit, stood with its doors blown open and a jumble of furniture — plus a truck — in its hallways. Some teachers and students were able to escape the building, but officials said others did not.”

Located just 100 miles west of the epicenter of Friday’s earthquake, Sendai incurred more damage than any other major Japanese city. Its Futaki neighborhood is being referred to as “ground zero” of the disaster. Sendai, in Miyagi Prefecture, is the most populous city in the vast Tohoku or Northeast region. It had a population of a million people before the quake and the tsunami it unleashed. It is thought that the nearby fishing town of Minamisanriku has lost around 10,000 of its 17,000 residents. Kasennuma, also in Miyagi, a city of 74,000, is totally submerged. Whole towns and villages have been sucked out to sea. The official death toll remains relatively low at 10,000, but the number of missing is huge. How many has Sendai lost?

First there was the violent shaking, lasting over three minutes. As it started people must have thought, “Need to turn off the gas stove.” Every schoolchild has been taught that. Next: “Be concerned about a tsunami.”

But there was no time. Within minutes, as houses caught fire, the sea level dropped dramatically only to well up ferociously. The wall of water attacked the city, submerging the treetops, and inundated almost the entire Tohoku Pacific coast. The Sendai airport runway was flooded. City blocks blazed into the night as fire engines remained idle, unable to reach them through the inundated streets. The perfect storm of fire and water, a catastrophe of biblical proportions.  A snowstorm made life more miserable for those lacking shelter.

Up the coast police found the bodies of 200-300 persons who’d been dragged out to sea, then returned to shore. This was the big one—not just the biggest in 140 years of scientific record-keeping, but probably in the last 1500 years.  And it’s not over yet; aftershocks measuring magnitude 6 or more have been happening every few hours.

I grieve for Japan, where I spent six years, in general. The Friday quake impacted a huge swathe of the country. My mother-in-law in Sapporo, in the northern island of Hokkaido, definitely felt it. She told my wife (who got though to her on the third try since many phone lines are down), that she thought it was just another normal quake. (It was in fact 6.8 magnitude in Sapporo.)  She was watching TV at the time and saw that a quake had hit Tokyo, over 500 miles to the south. What a strange coincidence, she thought, that there’d be earthquakes in Sapporo and Tokyo at the same time. She didn’t realize it was all the same quake, which was indeed felt as far away as Beijing.

Like most Japanese my mother-in-law has a very matter-of-fact attitude towards earthquakes. They are shikataganai koto, something that can’t be helped. One just has to deal with them rationally (even while perhaps trying to explain them with reference to the earthquake god Nai no kami, or the legendary giant catfishNamazu, who lives in the mud under the sea and thrashes about wildly when not restrained).

She opines that the quake is divine punishment for Japan for political corruption and factionalism. But the religiosity and fatalism of this 78-year old, very tough woman coexist with great practicality. Her up-to-date pre-fab home is programmed so that when the earth trembles the kitchen cabinets lock automatically so dishes don’t fall out. And the heater shuts down. She has her act together, as do the Japanese people in general when it comes to earthquakes, But this was not a normal one.

I mourn for the whole country but for Sendai specifically—Sendai with its unique dialect I found incomprehensible, Sendai with its exceptionally beautiful women, Sendai with its rich history. The Date samurai elite were for a time friendly to Roman Catholic missions, protecting them even when the central power persecuted Christians. In the 1610s Date Masamune sent emissaries to the Vatican to establish ties; they traveled across the Pacific to Mexico and on across the Atlantic. (In 1617 seven of the samurai mission members decided not to return home but settled in a town near Seville where hundreds of people today hold the surname “Japon.”)

The envoys brought back letters, paintings and maps preserved in the Sendai City Museum. At least I hope they are. And I hope the monument to the great Chinese writer Lu Xun, who studied in the city from 1904 to 1906, has not been damaged.

Japanese know Sendai as the home of Tohoku University, one of the finest public universities in the country. They also know about the city’s Tanabata Festival, held in early August every year. The population swells as what seem to be half the population of Tohoku gather to celebrate the Chinese  myth of the love of the Weaving Princess (the star Vega) and the Cow Herder (the star Altair). The princess’s father, a powerful deity presiding over the Milky Way, allowed her to meet and marry the cowherd. But then he became angry when she neglected her silk-weaving duties and let cattle wander into heaven.  He separated them, only allowing them to meet once a year, when magpies assist the princess to cross over a heavenly bridge to meet her husband.

The August festival, celebrating this divine liaison, is marked by the display of countless decorations throughout the city, spectacular fireworks displays, dancing and other events. Think of it as a kind of subdued Mardi Gras, and flooded Sendai as New Orleans after the hurricane. Will the festival, celebrating the persistence of love under the most unfavorable circumstances, survive?

My mother-in-law’s opinion notwithstanding, we cannot attribute either divine or human agency to the movements of tectonic plates of the coast of Honshu. This is just—shikataganai—the way things happen on our young vigorous planet. But it may happen that the worst part of this disaster will be man-made. When some human beings who in their quest for profit and prosperity deal with the environment stupidly, we really need to hold them accountable.

One-third of Japan’s energy supply is provided by nuclear reactors. They are located for the most part on the thin strips of coastal land where the great majority of Japanese live, and vulnerable to inevitable cataclysms. When an earthquake or volcanic eruption disrupts the supply of electricity needed to pump the water that keeps the reactor cool, there can be a meltdown and release of lethal doses of radiation. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 is thought to have produced many thousands of deaths from cancer in addition to 57 immediate deaths from radiation exposure.

What happens if  — as now seems highly likely — power plants Dai-ichi and Dai-ni, up the coast from Sendai in Fukushima prefecture, experience meltdowns? Do we say shikataganai? Or do we demand the heads of the planners, politicians and corporate bosses who made this happen? For years public opinion polls have shown a plurality of Japanese opposed to nuclear power. A 1999 Asahi Shinbun poll showed 45 per cent of Japanese opposing nuclear energy, with only 32 per cent supporting it. In 1996 half the electorate of Mie Prefecture signed a position opposing the construction of a nuclear plant. But as a study on public opinion and nuclear power in Japan published by Rice University in 2000 noted, a minority argued that nuclear power was the key to Japanese energy independence. “These views allowed officials to discount protests as short-term, selfish economic anxiety. They effectively used financial rewards and compensation to dampen discontent. Little attention was given to the legitimacy of public concerns on safety.”

Despite public opposition, and the occurrence of level 2, 3, and 4 accidents (in 1995, 1997, and 1999 respectively), reliance of nuclear power soared. In 1990, 9 per cent of Japan’s electricity was generated by nuclear plants, while in 2000 the figure was 32 per cent.

In  the 1990 film Yume (“Dreams”) by Kurosawa Akira, based upon the great film director’s own dreams, there is a short piece called “Mt. Fuji in Red.”  In the nightmare, people are fleeing from an earthquake along a bridge. Several—a woman and her two small children, a man in a suit, and a man dressed casually—pause to stare up at Mt. Fuji, realizing in horror that it is erupting.  (This is entirely conceivable. It last erupted in 1707 and has erupted about 75 times in the last 2200 years.)  A huge radioactive red cloud appears on the horizon as huge columns of flame envelop the mountain.  The uniformed man notes that the mountain is ringed by six atomic plants. They flee, although he declares that because Japan is small there’s no escape.

The scene changes to a deserted debris-strew cliff overlooking the sea. The casually dressed man asks where all the people have gone, and the other man tells him they’ve all leaped into the sea. He then points to the sky and explains: “That red one is plutonium 239. One 100,000,000th of a gram causes cancer. The yellow one is strontium 90. It gets inside you and causes leukemia. The purple one is cesium 137. If affects reproduction and causes mutations. It makes monstrosities. Man’s stupidity is unbelievable. Radioactivity is invisible. But because of its danger they colored it. But that only lets you know what kind kills you. Death’s calling card.”

He bows politely, says “Osaki ni”  (a phrase literally meaning, “in advance of you”), and turns to the cliff, preparing to leap into the sea. The other man tries to restrain him, noting that radiation doesn’t kill immediately, but is told that “waiting to die isn’t living.”

The woman hugging her children cries out, “They told us that nuclear energy was safe. Human accident is the danger, not the nuclear plant itself. No accidents, no danger. That’s what they told us. What liars! If they’re not hanged for this, I’ll kill them myself!” The man about to leap into the sea tells her that the radiation will kill them for her. He again bows low, and confesses he’s one that deserves to die.  He throws himself over the cliff as the radioactive winds surround the living.

Was this nightmare scenario just the bad dream of the great Japanese director? Japanese officials are pooh-poohing the possibility of a major calamity. Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio “assumes the possibility of a meltdown” at one of the Fukushima reactors. “At the risk of raising further public concern,” he says, “we cannot rule out the possibility of an explosion. If there is an explosion, however, there would be no significant impact on human health.”

Reminds me of the woman in the film: No danger. That’s what they told us. I don’t want to predict the worst, knowing little about nuclear power. But it’s obviously not safe when you have to evacuate 180,000 people as a precaution, when workers have to struggle to avert disasters, and countries are urging their nationals to leave Japan with radiation a principle concern. There is already a significant influence on the mental health of Japanese seized by anxiety about explosions and leaks. As we mourn the dead we should on behalf of the living struggle for safe, sustainable, green energy.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at:




Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: