The Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan

March 18, 2011

In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, the Zuiganji monastery in the city of Matsushima, where CSI director Professor Hal Roth practiced for over a year, was used as a shelter for displaced residents. The picture above shows Zuiganji's Sutra Hall.

Imediately following this tragedy, Professor Roth published an an Opinion piece in the Providence Journal that follows here:




 

Reflections on the Resiliency of the Japanese National Character
An essay by CSI director Professor Hal Roth

The tragic events in Tohoku (northeastern Japan) remind me what I learned of the Japanese national character almost three decades ago in the year and more that I lived in that area—which, despite the devastation, give me great optimism for the future of that nation.

Many China scholars spend a year or two doing research in Japan because of the excellent work by Japanese scholars on traditional Chinese culture. As a post-doctoral student studying Chinese philosophy at Tohoku University, I lived in Higashi Sendai in a foreign students' dormitory. I also had the great good fortune to be able to engage in Zen practice at Zuiganji, a nearby monastery on the shores of Matsushima Bay. To make a little money, I also taught English in the Social Welfare Department of Sendai City, two of whose members were preparing to go to San Raphael in Marin County, California, on an exchange program for social workers.

In addition to learning some practical things like how to avoid a hangover, so many of my basic assumptions and perspectives on human experience were transformed that I spent many subsequent years integrating them into my way of thinking about the world.

In the foreign students' dorm, I lived with a large group of young people from all over the world who were studying in Japan. Actually most of them were second- and third-generation Japanese from South America who talked and acted Latino but who (obviously) looked Japanese. As I got to know them better, what slowly started to dawn on me was the fluidity and permeability of culture and its effects on the human psyche. Here they were, the chill children of Japan in whom beat an overtly passionate Latin heart. This showed me that slowly but surely, the barriers between nations and cultures were being broken down as more and more people were traveling greater and greater distances and living side by side with others. What dawned on me then was the extent to which we were gradually developing a world civilization, a fully integrated global community in which the effects in one city, region, or country could affect people halfway around the world. This has only continued to develop at an even faster pace in the past few decades.

The more I learned about Japanese language and culture, the more I appreciated the extent to which they absorbed the most desirable or useful elements from other cultures. The Japanese borrowed first from China, so when contact came with the West there were rough and ready mechanisms to absorb it. There is much to admire in such cultural mechanisms that enabled rapid adaptation of the best of the rest of the world. Perhaps this might actually be a model for how cultures could learn from each other in the twenty-first century.

Working at Tohoku University and in Sendai Social Welfare I came to appreciate the extent to which traditional East Asian Confucian values were alive and well in modern Japan. You see it in the extent to which each individual feels directly connected to a larger social whole: family, village, city, province, region, nation. And how the meaning of our lives as individuals is attained in relation to other human beings and to the natural world in which we live. I readily embraced this emphasis on human relationships and on community, and came to understand how working for something greater than oneself gave one a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. I am convinced that this communitarian ethos, so deeply representative of the best of traditional Confucian values, will prove to be a key factor in the recovery over the years to come.

Through my Zen practice at Zuiganji I came to appreciate the extent to which a deeply felt sense of how we experience the world from a common ground – a common source – is an inherent part of the Japanese worldview. And that this common ground – one that we share with Nature and the environment – is the source of all our better natures, the source of love for our family and compassion for all human beings. This awareness of our common foundation will doubtless be a source of strength to the Japanese people as they recover from this disaster.

On one of my return visits to Japan, I visited the Peace Park in Hiroshima, which was built on the site of Ground Zero, where the first atom bomb was dropped in August 1945. The Peace Park incorporates the dome and shell of the old Hiroshima City Hall in a museum dedicated to the victims of this devastating blast. Deeply affected by the record presented in this museum of the horrific results of nuclear attack, I looked across the street and noticed a relatively new professional baseball stadium built for the city's team, the Hiroshima Carp. I was bowled over by the contrast between the devastation of war and the concrete evidence of how the people of Hiroshima were able to rebuild against such unbelievable odds. It is significant that this baseball team took the carp as their symbol. In East Asian culture carp are known for their great perseverance because they swim upstream to mate against even the strongest currents, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.

I have no doubt that all these qualities will guarantee that the Japanese people will successfully recover from this unthinkable disaster.