The Utopia of Disaster and Religion

 Rev. Yoshinobu Miyake

The North American continent experiences very few earthquakes based on geological structure.  The only region with an “earthquake zone” is the Pacific coast represented by the states of Washington, Oregon, and here in California.  Even there, however, the earthquakes that occur in that zone are incomparably smaller than those in Japan, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.  Although the area occupied by ??the Japanese archipelago is only some 0.01% of the earth's surface, ten percent of the earth’s entire earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur there.  In short, this means that, in terms of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the Japanese live in a place more than a thousand times more dangerous than the average for all humankind. In addition, more than twenty typhoons occur every year in the western Pacific, and of those, on average two come ashore on the Japanese mainland.  Since Japan is composed of a small archipelago, there is virtually no place where people can "escape" to when large-scale natural disasters strike inhabited areas.

Some 16,500 years ago, at a time humans were still using only stone tools, the Japanese created the world's oldest pottery culture, today called “Jomon culture.” Since that time, the Japanese have lived in an archipelago visited by frequent natural disasters.  The beginnings of the Jomon era occurred more than three thousand years before the first humans set foot on the American continent and created the so-called "Clovis culture," yet within the natural environment of this archipelago, the Japanese established a unique "ancestral concept," "world view," and "concept of kami," concepts that have been transmitted from generation to generation, and continue to characterize the Japanese people of today. While Japanese society has shared in the development of high-tech industrialization with North America and Western Europe, it is needless to say that the cultural and religious background of Japan is quite different from that of the West.

Regardless of Japan’s unique civilization, two massive earthquakes struck Japan at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries.  Those were called the "Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake," an epicentral temblor that struck the greater Kobe city area in 1995, and the "Great East Japan Earthquake" of March, 2011, which caused an unprecedented tsunami along 500km of Japan’s Pacific Ocean coastline, reaching from the Tohoku to Kanto regions.  Of course, the "Great Kanto Earthquake" that struck the capital city of Tokyo in 1923 produced more victims than these two more recent quakes, but the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 cannot really be compared to the more recent two due to insufficient scientific data (including video records).  As a result, in my presentation today, I want to consider the two more recent disasters that occurred since Japanese society attained a high level of industrial high-technology; in addition, these are two that I personally experienced.

On March 11, 2011, people all over the world were shocked as they witnessed news and video of the tsunami caused by the massive Magnitude 9.0 earthquake that fateful day in Japan.  The temblor occurred in the seabed off the coast of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures, along a 500km north-south stretch of coastline, and created a catastrophic tsunami that swept away cities, fishing villages, agricultural fields, airports, nuclear power plants—and the lives of 20,000 people.  The disaster survivors lost not only dear old homes and working places, but loved families and relatives, and they were left so destitute that they had no idea whether they would have a meal the following day.  In the midst of such a dire situation, however, these survivors were not thrown into panic, and looting did not occur in the affected areas.  This fact surprised the people of the world.  On the contrary, rather than falling into chaos, most of the victims reacted coolly and worked to help each other, acting in an orderly way even in the face of unreasonable adversity and disorder, and it seems that this behavior produced a strong impression on the people of the world.  In this situation, the moral maturity of the ordinary people of Japan formed a paradoxical contrast with the lack of crisis-management ability demonstrated by Japanese politicians.

Is this kind of calm in the face of crisis by the Japanese last year something that functions to discriminate them from people belonging to other civilizations such as India, China, the Middle East, Africa, or European?  Or should it be considered a "common behavior" among human beings that we act in such a way when confronted with the collapse of our society, as a means of overcoming the crisis situation?   In fact, similar stories can be witnessed in other regions where people have faced critical events such as terrorism and catastrophe but responded coolly and with orderly conduct.  For example, one can point to the conduct of mutual cooperation at Tahrir Square in Cairo in the "Arab Spring," or the heartwarming story of the Copiapo cave-in accident in Chile.  Are such "heartwarming stories" the exception, or something based on the “fundamental nature of human beings"?

In her work titled A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (Viking, 2009), the writer Rebecca Solnit, who lives in San Francisco, has proposed the concept of a ‘unique community’ which she calls ‘the Utopia of Disasters.’  According to Solnit, immediately following critical events such as earthquakes, bombings or major storms, many people behave altruistically, and demonstrate a compassionate attitude to others within the high stress situation, even if those others are complete strangers.  The most common impression people tend to have of the situation of crisis is that of egoistic attitudes, panics, and the manifestation of the regressive phenomena of barbarous behavior.  But that impression is far from the truth. Solnit states, "the result of longstanding close sociological survey proves the behavior of people of all over the world in case of facing disasters, from the bombing of the Second World War to flood, tornado, earthquake and major storm".

On the other hand, Solnit suggests that this fact is not so well known, with the result that the bad post-disaster behavior sometimes exhibited by people may be a kind of defensive measure.  Namely, they think that “Since others are going to be acting barbarously, I must act similarly, merely as a defensive measure.”  She cites as examples the case of earthquake-ravaged San Francisco in 1906, and New Orleans in the condition of flooding by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  According to Solnit, people who committed murder under those conditions believed, "S/he was a criminal, and I was just defending the existing order, which was in an extremely precarious condition."  As a result of this kind of unfounded delusion, the non-everyday community created by the victims of the disaster was essentially destroyed by a far-removed central government, and the network most suited for the present situation was denied.

I think that Solnit's argument certainly has some merit.  But if so, how can one explain why not a single case of murder and looting occurred in the aftermath of either the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995, or the Great East Japan Earthquake of March, 2011.  Even now, twenty months after the quake and tsunami, some 330,000 people still lead lives as refugees without a breakdown in the moral order.  This is likely based in part on differences in social structure between America and Japan, but I don’t want to get drawn today into the traditional debate about differences between a multi-ethnic and homogeneous state.  The reason for my reticence is the fact that many “non-Japanese” live in Japanese society today, yet even after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake or the Great East Japan Earthquake, those "foreigners" living in the disaster areas were treated without prejudice as "fellows" and given the same share of food and places to live.  Not only that, but temporary FM radio stations were established in the Kobe and Sendai areas with broadcasts in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and English in order to make it easier for foreign residents without Japanese-language abilities to receive crucial information and administrative aid services.  These stations were operated by Japanese volunteers fluent in foreign languages.

By the way, Professor Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, based on his research into "Induced Pluripotent Stem cells, or iPS."  As Yamanaka’s research makes clear, the fact that a lizard can regenerate a lost tail or limb (such as like recent Spiderman movie “Amazing Spiderman”), is due to the fact that even after cells have differentiated into individual organs, if the animal faces conditions that threaten its very survival, the cells can be “reset” to their original undifferentiated form.  This “primal resetting” allows the cells to function once more in a universal capacity to recreate a variety of lost parts.  I would like to suggest that this same sort of “primal resetting” might occur at the societal level as well.  When a society confronts a stressful event such as revolution or great natural disaster, the critical question of how to repair the wound may turn out to be a matter of great importance to the future survival of the society.  If so, then the ability to reset the society temporarily to its "primal form" might be the most efficient way of allowing the society to respond to any and all unexpected situations that emerge.  The word "merge" is the opposite of "emerge."  No matter whether an individual organism or an entire society, I think that when one is faced with the critical conditions of an emergency, the ability to discard the optimized state of the individual and instead return temporarily to the universal primal form may enhance the chances of survival.

It is clear that the small religious communities represented by Jesus and his disciples, or the Buddha and his disciples, evolved over time to be optimized for the conditions of their respective society, yet that same process of optimization can be clearly linked to the subsequent rigidity and decline of the religious community.  The insistence that we go “back to the founder” is the clarion call to religious reformation in any age.  When facing a crisis, the religious group that can reset itself to its “primal form” is the group that will survive.  In the same way, the nation or society that can regain its primal form in the face of disaster is the one that will be the nation and society most able to transmit its civilization’s values over the coming ages.

Rt. Rev. Yoshinobu Miyake , Superior Director General of the Konko Church of Izuo (Osaka), was born in 1958 in a well-known Shinto priests family. He studied at Doshisha University in Kyoto and Harvard University.

Having been active worldwide in the field of interfaith dialogue for the past 35 years, he also established and appointed as the CEO of RELNET Corporation in 1997 and served as General Secretary of the G8 Religious Leaders Summit/Japan since 2008.