A Cultural Footnote

the Japanese disaster

by by Benson Tucker

illustration by by Annika Finne

Fifteen months ago, Haiti experienced an earthquake whose immediate and long-term human consequences are nearly unfathomable. Around three hundred thousand Haitians died during the earthquake and its aftermath, an estimate rendered doubly disturbing by its magnitude and imprecision. (1) Any estimate of the casualties is likely to be off by more people than you or I have ever met. In the blogosphere and US media, Haiti was described as a “backwards country,” and this became general explanation for the extent of the damage, the obstacles to efficient aid provision, and the fact that for many Americans used to a certain amount of control over nature, the crisis just didn’t fit into our rational picture of the modern world. The same rhetoric became the basis for public speeches’ hopeful conclusions, moments of soaring oratory in which the amount destroyed became the amount we (the Western world making and hearing the speech) must efficiently and rationally rebuild. Though we approached Haiti with sincere compassion, this approach was bound up with the typical condescension of the first world when dealing with under-developed nations. (2)

The cultural and material context of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami is clearly drastically different than that of Haiti. Japan’s material resources and social institutions were more prepared to respond to disaster, a difference evidenced in the disaster’s consequences. The way we interpret those consequences, though, is different as well. In Western eyes the destruction is not the distant experience of an under-developed other, but an experience that we find much more imaginable. Finally, though, Japan’s economic development defined the physical manifestation of the disaster not only by reducing its direct effects but also by creating the possibility that the indirect effects might become unimaginably cataclysmic. The history of earthquakes is inseparable from the history of Japan, and considering the context of this particular earthquake leads us to investigate how Japan developed in the shadow of the earthquake in general.

Though modernization, the process of gaining control over the natural world, usually separates the modernizing society from its past, Japanese modernization hasn’t been so forgetful. The memory of past earthquakes can be found in building codes, regular readiness exercises, and the allocation of serious resources to technologies for minimizing the consequences of earthquakes, which have come to be considered eventual certainties rather than mere possibilities. (3) As it became one of the world’s largest and most dense economies, Japan had both the need and the capacity to build up rather than out, and so implemented modern, capital-intensive building techniques. (4) Because these techniques didn’t become widely available (indeed, they didn’t even exist) until after the September 1, 1923 earthquake that destroyed much of Tokyo and killed over 100,000 people, they have been applied over the years to prevent a similar disaster. The memory of that devastating earthquake is ritualized and fixed as a persistent part of modern Japanese culture; the anniversary date is used for earthquake drills throughout the country. Japanese modern architecture subtly expresses earthquake consciousness even while otherwise resembling Western architectural modernism. An anecdotal but poignant case: the Sompo Japan headquarters, a mid-70’s Tokyo skyscraper designed by Uchida Shozo, recalls Mies van der Rohe’s 1950s American skyscrapers, but altered in such a way as to prevent window shards from reaching the street in the event of an earthquake. (5) By adapting to particular geological concerns, the Japanese cityscape comes to ensure the irrelevance of nature—the definitive task, for better or for worse, of the modern city. (6)

A second product of this particular cultural and material context is the immense quantity of deeply personal media objects (7 that became available soon after the disaster occurred. As home to much of the consumer electronics industry, Japan’s market and population are thoroughly saturated with gadgets, many of which were switched on to record the experience. Tweets and videos reached Western spectators, and even though they came from the other side of the world, they were highly personal expressions on websites we already had bookmarked, making the way we encountered these experiences more familiar than foreign. Consequently, these individualized and mediated moments, placed in the context of the web browser and removed from that of disaster, communicate and reproduce authentic emotional experience more effectively than the all-too-real footage of dusty death from the inhuman perspective of the news-copter.

Seeing someone run out into his suburban street as his things fly off the shelves hits home for us. These little details of comfortable domesticity—the evidence that our society is a far cry beyond natural threats—are the parts of the quotidian that assure us of our safety, and yet we see, in the most familiar and modern of ways, (8) that these details can indeed be upturned by disaster. The Haitian disaster fits into a tragic logic, and so it is morally moving without undermining our sense that it couldn’t happen to us. Japan in ruins breeds a deep uneasiness.

It was from within that sense of safety last week that we clicked over and over and ended up with thirteen tabs of disaster porn. “Pearl Harbor” was a trending phrase on Twitter, generally appearing in some variation of a karmic vengeance narrative. (9) This narrative created a new logic for those Tweeting it: they could explain the disaster by blaming Japan, and as long as they didn’t accept any guilt for themselves, they would remain invulnerable. Moving from empathy to accusation offered the self-assurance we found in last year’s “backwards country” rhetoric.

Locating these tweets in the American psyche is probably a misguided effort. We all know there’s no unified American psyche. Yet Japanese mass destruction and the high-water mark of American power (10) are fairly close in our cultural imaginary, and the distance is narrowing faster and faster as the disaster’s horizon moves beyond the time and space of the disaster itself. (11)

A final consequence of Japan’s developed context is the fact that despite generally safer buildings and more organized response, Japanese modernization also produced nuclear power. (12) Putting the disaster in terms of World War II actually begins to seem appropriate as the crisis goes nuclear: after harnessing the Americans’ uniquely destructive force (13) and allowing the drive of global capitalism to rebuild society on a nuclear foundation, the essentially destructive nature of that foundation emerges again. The prospect of nuclear meltdown suspends the Japanese people between two double-edged swords: the reliable but unyielding Earth and the dynamic but cataclysmic nuclear/capitalist machine. (14)

The Japanese government’s advice to Fukushima residents within 30 kilometers of the Daiichi nuclear plant has been simply to stay indoors and wait. (15) The economic law of modernity, that capitalism must remain in motion, is suspended in the state of emergency. Stock markets around the world plunged, and manufacturers scrambled to replace the Japanese elements of their supply chains. Even the nations most supportive of a nuclear future are forced to take a moment to consider the contradictions of progress.

Kurosawa’s last nightmare (16) is made real, at least in the nightmares of the Japanese people but the perpetrator is more insidious than was dreamt. It’s not the American bombers but rather the nature of capitalism whose engine has brought Japan to this moment of stationary agony. What would Mishima (17) say were he to come face to screen with the news of radioactive vapor filling broken containment vessels? Perhaps he would merely mourn a nation meeting its inescapable fate after abandoning its spirit and falling from grace with the sea. (18) In this same moment, though, we can see the manifestation of a new spirit in the overwhelming international unity of support for Japan. We’re vulnerable and unsettled, but we’re more stirred to action than we are paralyzed, and the millions provided in aid are more fairly seen as camaraderie than imperialism. As the world is increasingly participating in the same modern existence, our moment of human history becomes inclusively unified against the terrors of geological history. However, the disaster in Japan also points out the limits of our modern moment: even if our Internetworked world means that it doesn’t matter where you live, we see that in the end the natural space we live in still matters.

BEN TUCKER B’13 wants to write the most opaque byline ever.

1. Though estimates of the dead were provided – around 270,000 in April, 2010, and around 316,000 in January, 2011 – no one can specifically explain the origins of these numbers.

2. Even the word “under-developed” suggests this condescension, and it becomes difficult to describe these attitudes of superiority without reproducing them.

3. Certainty in future earthquakes comes more from scientific investigation than from historical legacy, but the two are undeniably related as both the scientific questions we choose to ask and the scientific conclusions we choose to value are informed by our society’s history.

4. Contemporary Japan is the world’s third largest national economy, and among countries with an area of over 250,000 km2, its density is second only to India.


6. Though the modern city certainly responds to other needs, my point is that the modern city, as such, is distinguished by its unprecedented conquering of natural space. In this way, modern life becomes separated from its past because it is lived increasingly in built space rather than natural space.

7. Media objects, such as videos and tweets are made, sent, reproduced, removed, and viewed.

8. YouTube.


10. The end of World War II may be the high-water mark in terms of our ability to remove diplomacy from international relations (demanding unconditional surrender) and to move from victimhood to dominance (from bombed to bomber).

11. We’re now concerned with the damages of the aftermath and not the direct destruction.

12. The fact that Japan relies on nuclear power was not simply early ‘green’ public policy, but is a result the material facts of Japan’s geological history: large stores of coal and oil are absent. Human and geological histories collide constantly, in both incremental human decisions and vast natural catastrophes.

13. There’s a difference between a bomb and a power plant, but it’s the same technological legacy.

14. The only way to imagine another course of events is to stop taking either the Earth’s geological history or the procession of world capitalism as a given.

15. I don’t mean to criticize this advice unduly; it seems like the safest option.

16. I refer to a segment from his film Dreams, “The Weeping Demon,” in which the Japanese people are mutated out of their natural form and suspended in endless agony by nuclear holocaust.

17. The celebrated author committed seppuku in 1970 after failing, in a coup performed in ritual dress, to persuade the Japanese armed forces to return to the service of the emperor and save the nation’s traditional core from Westernization.

18. Mishima’s short novel The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea might be read as an allegory of Westernization in which a sailor exhibiting the Protestant ethic and at home only in the motion of the sea is murdered by a gang of Japanese boys.