To what extent has Buddhism affected the Japanese response to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake?

On 11th March 2011, Japan was not only shaken by its largest recorded earthquake at magnitude 9.03, but as a result of the earthquake suffered from the devastative consequences of a tsunami that caused what has been argued as being an even greater disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in some respects than the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986.[1]  The Japanese response to this has, expectedly, been huge, as the disaster has obviously had a life-changing impact on a huge proportion of the population of Japan.  This essay will assess the polarity within the Japanese response to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and argue how far Buddhism has affected either side of this polarity.  By looking specifically at the Japanese response, the essay will be able to form conclusions that are uniquely Japanese in drawing together an overview of the influence of Buddhism in contemporary Japanese society.  As ‘Japanese response’ is a multifaceted concept with a potentially vast amount of possible implications, this essay will look specifically at a range of different responses in relation to them being either of an active or a passive sort.  By this, the term ‘activity’ refers to there being a noticeable emphasis on things physically changing, whether as the term ‘passivity’ refers to an emphasis on remaining calm and non-committed.  Whilst the active response will be explored through several examples of political and humanitarian responses, the passive response will concentrate on how the Buddhist teaching of ‘non-self’ is central to the Japanese concepts of ‘kamikaze’, ‘hōben, and ‘gaman’, all of which have held significance in defining the passive general response of the Japanese.  This essay will thus explore both sides of this polarity before concluding in assessing how far Buddhism has affected either side of the polarity.  The essay will firstly analyse the Japanese responses that have stimulated activity.

Before looking into the Buddhist affects on the political reaction of the general population to the disaster, an overview of the governmental situation during and after the disaster will be made.  The active humanitarian response in Japan has been majorly suppressed by the government’s fallibilities surrounding the aid actually getting processed and distributed to areas where it has been needed.  This has had a significant effect on how the people and institutions have responded to the disaster, and as a result there have been both widespread protests against the government, and a stream of grassroots organisations independently rebuilding communities.  A number of important examples, identified by Jennifer Robertson, of the governmental failures in adequately processing aid help to elucidate this point.  She suggested that aid had failed to reach areas that were most in need of it not only because of the bureaucratic make-up in some areas, effectively, being destroyed, but also because of the whole system of the distribution of aid was underpinned with corruption.[2]  This corruption has come to the height whereby Prime Minister Noda has had to agree to financially assist the areas that have been willing to accept nuclear debris for disposal, whilst other communities have been offered financial aid by the Tokyo Electric Power Company if they agree to host new nuclear reactors.[3]  It is not surprising, when looking at the recent failings of the government in providing for the people, that the largest protests in Japan in about 50 years have happened since the disaster.[4]  However, as the purpose of this essay is to explore the Buddhist affects, these will now be explored in relation to the political response.

The general Japanese animosity towards its government’s failings has held a remarkably similar ideological background as the general Buddhist reaction can be considered to have been to the Fukushima disaster.  In exploring the similarities between the responses of the Soka Gakkai and Shinnyo-en communities, it is clear that both communities shared very similar anti-nuclear views with roots in the rejection of the speed of modern scientific and technological advancements.  This is reflected in comments that have been made by the leaders of both movements in response to the disaster.  Daisaku Ikeda, the President of Soka Gakkai, argued that ‘the more civilization advances, the more intense the impact of nature’s violent forces becomes’.[5]  This can be compared to the references to the environment that Shinso Ito, the leader of Shinnyo-en, gave in her speech at the Global Peace Initiative of Women conference in March 2012.  Her statement that ‘because we believed that the more we consume, the more developed and affluent our economies would become, we have destroyed our natural environment’ clearly holds the same rationale towards her anti-nuclear stance that Ikeda had presented.[6]  Some parallels can be found in comparing these reactions to those found in Japanese society.  For instance, a large majority of the Japanese population have recently had a petition signed by 7.5 million people calling for ‘an end to nuclear power’ refused in a governmental vote in June 2012, which subsequently led to Japan’s ‘largest public protest since the 1960s’.[7]  Whilst the Buddhist argument appears to be of suggesting that the leaders of Japan are leading the country into a spiral of environmental damage through being too fast in its technological advancements, the Japanese opinion has been of needing to move away from the technologically modern but clearly environmentally disastrous nuclear power.  With over 70% of the Japanese population declaring themselves to be Buddhist, it is probable that the messages of the Buddhist community would be followed by most of this proportion of the populace.[8]  However, as it is impossible to concretely suggest this, it must remain that both the Buddhist organisations and the majority of the Japanese people are only strongly comparable, rather than specifically interrelated, in their opinions.  It will now be argued how far the Buddhist community has contributed towards the physical aid that has been provided in the country.

In looking at the figures for humanitarian aid that has been given, the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS) must be acknowledged as being by far the most dominant organisation to deal with the monetary side of things, whilst they notably hold a much greater influence than the nearest Buddhist organisation to have influence.  This is compounded by comparing the amount of money that has been handled by the JRCS in comparison to that held by the most notable Buddhist relief fund that has been found, the Tzu Chi organisation of Taiwan.  Whilst the JRCS, in their February 2012 ‘Operations Update’, stated that it had transferred $4.5 billion ‘to fifteen prefectures to assist disaster survivors with cash grants’ over the previous year, the donations made by Tzu Chi, until October 2012, amounted to $63.8 million given to ‘97,000 households in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures’. [9],[10]  This contribution by the Tzu Chi is just 1.42% of that of the JRCS collection, thus showing the extreme difference between the power and influence of the organisations.  On the grassroots level, meanwhile, there have been a few reports of Buddhist groups and temples taking action, although these have been largely marginalised.  The Zen priest Abe Koyu of Joenji temple in Fukushima City, for example, has directly enforced the clean-up job around Fukushima City, with all of the irradiated soil being piled into a heap behind the temple, because ‘neither the government nor the nuclear plant operator…are helping with the clean-up’.[11]  However, reports of similar actions appear to be sparse, and so the effects of grassroots actions like that led by Abe Koyu could not be seen to be even near as immense as that provided by the JRCS.  In this regard, it is clear that, despite there being a few cases of some actions holding influential value, Buddhism has not held an institutional stronghold with regards to its influence on the humanitarian relief provided in Japan.  The essay will now explore the more passive responses that are associated with Buddhism.

Buddhism is arguably central to the foundation upon which the passive response is built in Japan.  This argument holds an especially significant weight when relating to the three main concepts within the passive response as have been outlined by Brian Victoria as ‘kamikaze’, ‘hōben’, and ‘gaman’.  The ‘Kamikaze’ response, which has foundational principles in ‘denial of the individual self and the rebirth of the soul’, could potentially explain for why there were ‘several hundred workers’ who ‘sacrificed themselves’ in the work that was needing to be done immediately after the disaster at Fukushima.[12]  It is difficult to think seriously of this idea, however, without believing that it could have put across as a form of propaganda.  Likewise, as few sources have been found to show that the workers themselves believed that they were following in the likeness of the historic Kamikaze force, this suggestion holds a pretence of being suspicious and potentially autocratic.  The image is more likely to have been constructed by the media in order to repress the reality of the fact that hundreds of workers at the Fukushima nuclear reactor had lost their lives in the immediate aftermath of the disaster because of the fatal danger that was involved in the work that they had to do in fixing the reactor.  As most of the media have evidently been aligned with the pro-nuclear stance of the main political parties, it is clear to see how this could have been the media’s angle in order to suppress the anti-nuclear majority.  The actual tolerance from the people of this potential lie, however, can only be truly understood when exploring the concepts of Hōben and Gaman.

The two Buddhistic concepts of Hōben and Gaman have not only been skewed for their purpose throughout history, but also have become strongly ingrained within Japanese cultural.  Gaman, as the ability to numb the emotional reactions of the self in order to persist through harder times, ‘can and has been used to justify the endurance of human-created injustice, including exposure to nuclear radiation’.[13] Hōben gives justification that, in allowing for others to tell ‘expedient’ truths, the individual sees through the immediate primal responses of the self and rather allows truth-bending to occur if necessary.[14]  This could explain why, despite the immensity of the Fukushima disaster, there have still been a vast majority of Japanese who have committed themselves to non-action.  As both gaman and hōben are underpinned by the Buddhist concept of non-self, it must be seen that it is through this element of Buddhism itself that the passive response has been based.

The Japanese response to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake has ranged from being very active, as is the case of the large and progressively strengthening anti-nuclear protest movements, to the opposite extreme to suggest that the majority of the Japanese have responded passively as to keep in line with the Buddhist concept of non-self.  Whilst it is hard to see that Buddhism has had a significant influence over the active response, it must likewise be acknowledged in the centrality of its role to the passive response.  The implications of this finding are great: it raises questions about the way that Buddhism is being presented within the Japanese context.  If Buddhism continues to be used with such a passive emphasis, then in times of disaster Buddhism will retain an almost nihilistic role in Japan.  If this image is to be defeated, Buddhism must become more visibly active in scenarios of disaster, whilst also aiming to reform the concepts that hinder people from taking actions.

Bibliography

Journals

Jacobs, R., ‘Social Fallout: Marginalization After the Fukushima Nuclear    Meltdown’. 2011, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 9(28:4).

Karamoskos, P., ‘Fukushima Burning: Anatomy of a Nuclear Disaster’. 2011, Physician     Life, May/June 2011, pp. 15-19.

McLaughlin, L., ‘Religious Responses to the Great East Japan Earthquake’. 2011, Association for Religion and Intellectual Life, 61(3), pp. 290-97.

Robertson, J., ‘From Uniqlo to NGOs: The Problematic “Culture of Giving” in Inter-Disaster Japan’. 2012, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 10(18:2).

Shuk-ting, K.Y., ‘Responding to Disaster: Japan’s 3.11 Catastrophe in Historical Perspective: Special Issue of The Asia-Pacific Journal’. 2012, The Asia-Pacific  Journal, 10(11:1).

Victoria, B., ‘Buddhism and Disasters: From World War II to Fukushima’. 2012, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 10(11:7).

Williamson, P., ‘Largest Demonstrations in Half a Century Protest the Restart of Japanese Nuclear Power Plants’. 2012, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 10(27:5).

Yoneyama, S., ‘Life-world: Beyond Fukushima and Minamata’. 2012, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 10(42:2).

Books

Batchelor, M. and Brown, K., Buddhism and Ecology. 1992, London: Cassell.

Cooper, D. and James, S., Buddhism, Virtue and Environment. 2005, Aldershot: Ashgate.

James, S., Zen Buddhism and Environmental Ethics. Aldershot: 2004, Ashgate.

Primary sources

Ikeda, D., ‘Human Security and Sustainability: Sharing Reverence for the Dignity of Life’. 2012, Soka Gakkai International, [Online] Available from: http://www.sgi          -usa.org/newsandevents/docs/peace2012.pdf [Accessed 03.12.12]).

Ito, S., ‘Address by Her Holiness Shinso Ito at the Global Peace Initiative of Women                    conference’. 2012, Shinnyo-en, [Online] Available from: http://www.shinnyoen.org/news-address-holiness-shinso-global.html [Accessed 03.12.12]).

Websites

Asia & Japan Watch, ‘In post 3/11 Japan, Asia’s ethnic faiths rally to attract new followers’. October 12 2012, The Asahi Shimbun, [Online] Available from: http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/recovery/AJ201210120056 [Accessed 03.12.12].

The World Factbook, ‘Japan’. 2012, Central Intelligence Agency, [Online] Available from: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ja.html [Accessed 04.12.12].


[1] Peter Karamoskos, ‘Fukushima Burning: Anatomy of a Nuclear Disaster’. 2011, Physician Life, May/June 2011, pp. 15-19, pp. 17-8.

[2] Jennifer Robertson, ‘From Uniqlo to NGOs: The Problematic ‘Culture of Giving’ in Inter-Disaster Japan’. 2012, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 10(18:2).

[3]Robertson, ‘From Uniqlo to NGOs: The Problematic ‘Culture of Giving’ in Inter-Disaster Japan’.

[4] Piers Williamson, ‘Largest Demonstrations in Half a Century Protest the Restart of Japanese Nuclear Power Plants’. 2012, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 10(27:5).

[5] Daisaku Ikeda, ‘Human Security and Sustainability: Sharing Reverence for the Dignity of Life’. 26th January 2012, Soka Gakkai International, [Online] Available from:
http://www.sgi-usa.org/newsandevents/docs/peace2012.pdf [Accessed 03.12.12]).

[6] Shinso Ito, ‘Address by Her Holiness Shinso Ito at the Global Peace Initiative of Women conference’. March 2nd 2012, Shinnyo-en, [Online] Available from: http://www.shinnyoen.org/news-address-holiness-shinso-global.html [Accessed 03.12.12]).

[7] Williamson, ‘Largest Demonstrations in Half a Century Protest the Restart of Japanese Nuclear Power Plants’.

[8] ‘Japan’, The World Factbook. 2012, Central Intelligence Agency, [Online] Available from: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ja.html [Accessed 04.12.12].

[9]Robertson, ‘From Uniqlo to NGOs: The Problematic ‘Culture of Giving’ in Inter-Disaster Japan’.

[10]Asia & Japan Watch, ‘In post 3/11 Japan, Asia’s ethnic faiths rally to attract new followers’. 2012, The Asahi Shimbun, [Online] Available from: http://ajw.asahi.com/article/0311disaster/recovery/AJ201210120056 [Accessed 03.12.12].

[11]Brian Victoria,Buddhism and Disasters: From World War II to Fukushima’. 2012, The Asia-Pacific Journal, 10(11:7).

[12]Victoria, ‘Buddhism and Disasters: From World War II to Fukushima’.

[13] Victoria, ‘Buddhism and Disasters: From World War II to Fukushima’.

[14]Victoria, ‘Buddhism and Disasters: From World War II to Fukushima’.

Originally an essay submitted in December 2012 for the Buddhism In Practice Year 3 Study of Religions module at Bath Spa University.

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