Japan and Disaster, Forever

They’re twins joined at the hip.  As the staggering magnitude of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami sink in, I’m reminded of just how deeply interwoven natural disasters are in Japanese history, even in the Japanese psyche. 

One of my favorite authors is James Clavell, whose Asian Saga begins with Shogun, a novel about a European sailor colliding with the samurai culture in 1600.  One of the book’s primary themes is that, even in a land of ultimate beauty, violent destruction crouches ready to surprise anyone at any time.  This produces the Zen philosophy that the Japanese lived by, and is evident in both the stoicism, nihilism, and lust for life on every page of the book. 

That mindset is seen in many scenes of brutal, random violence, but perhaps is nowhere better shown than at the end of chapter 38, where a sudden earthquake ravages the island.  Rather than try to produce a short quote, here are two pages of characters reacting right after the disaster:


I can’t find a good enough passage right now, but Clavell mentions a few times that the chaos of major catastrophe is a mainstay of Japanese life. 

On a less ambitious note, I’m also reminded of the climax of 1986’s The Karate Kid Part II, where a huge storm attacks the island of Okinawa, off the coast of Japan.  The people of Okinawa were clearly used to such tragedies. 

There are doubtless plenty of other examples.  Let’s not even get into atomic disasters and Godzilla. 

Now, though, I worry that this latest disaster could be compounded by a new factor: it’s been common knowledge for years that Japan is in a demographic death spiral, producing one of the most rapidly aging societies in the world, along with Russia (see information about ages and birth rates here, here, and here, for example).  With a decimated working age population to cope with the wreckage–and who knows yet how the quake and tsunami may have made this disparity even worse–Japan’s recovery could be many times more difficult. 

I’ll close on this melancholy note, by remembering that Gibbon himself gave as one of the foremost causes of the fall of the Roman Empire, the combined effects of historical natural disasters (see numeral I here), and that one of the reasons Rome was unable to handle these and the barbarian invasions was because they had let the comfort of their lives lull them into population decline (here, and the last paragraph here for details on poor Roman birth rates prior to the civilization’s fall).

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