Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Myth Of Namazu & Other Thoughts On The Nuclear Catastrophe In Japan

Words seldom fail me, but I am struggling to write about -- let alone make sense of -- the nuclear crisis that seems to be lurching toward disaster in the only nation whose people felt the wrath of the atomic bomb. Twice.

Tokyo was my home base for nearly three years as I traveled the Far East as a journalist. I became deeply enamored of Japanese culture and the Japanese themselves, if not the racism and xenophobia that hides behind Japan's incredible post-war recovery and has stifled immigration to the point where the country's indigenous population alone will be unable to maintain the productivity for which it is justifiably famous in future years.

My in-country travels took me far to the north in mid-winter to Hokkaido, which you would be surprised to know more closely resembles Switzerland with its dairy farms and alps, far to the south to temperate Kyushu and Mt. Aso, an active volcano, and to Fukushima on the Sendai Plain in northeastern Honshu, where the enormous earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11.

But Hiroshima, which I twice visited, has always loomed largest in my memories of Japan.

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The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is situated at one end of a park. At the other end is Ground Zero and the so-called A-Bomb Dome, the concrete and wire framework of a domed government building that was destroyed in the August 6, 1945 cataclysm.

About 140,000 people perished in the explosion and from associated effects, principally radiation poisoning. They included three-year-old Shinichi Tetsutani, who was riding his tricycle about a quarter mile from the hypocenter of the detonation of the first nuclear weapon to be used in anger, the consequence of a frightening new technology that its creators were all too aware would change warfare -- and civilization -- forever by wreaking unimaginable death and destruction.

Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, taking about 74,000 lives. Kyoto, the original target of the first bomb, was spared because the American government officials and generals who were desperate to end the war nevertheless were sensitive of its cultural significance.

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I saw Shin's trike on my first visit to Hiroshima and the museum and it is seared in my memory much like the frozen hands on a pocket watch in an adjoining exhibit that will forever read 8:15, the moment that the atomic bomb exploded.

My second visit to Hiroshima included an extensive tour of the hospital and laboratories of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, which was established in 1948 and funded by the U.S. in an act both altruistic and a reflection of the need to better understand the horrors that it had visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For the next 36 years, the commission studied the latent effects of radiation among bomb survivors, including the outcome of pregnancies one and two generations later.

I would have been unprepared for the gracious reception that I received in Hiroshima -- in fact the warmest of anywhere I went during my time in Japan -- had I not befriended Hiroshi, a native of the city who ran a small bar near my Tokyo apartment. On some nights I would stay after the bar closed, leaving from a hidden waist-high door that led to a narrow back alley after she would regale me with stories about being a teenager during the war whose military family had been evacuated to the country.

It was Hiroshi's view that few Japanese felt enmity toward the U.S. for the atomic bombings, as well as the firebombings that incinerated Tokyo and so many other cities that there were relatively few unscathed targets by August 1945.

While I did occasionally experience hostility, usually in small coastal villages at the end of a rail line, Hiroshi was right. Although they would never admit it to a gaijin (foreigner), most Japanese were well aware that their government, in the thrall of those hard-liners, had started a war that brought out the worst in them. The payback was awful, of course, but the Japanese who have toiled to remember the bombings -- from putting Shin's trike on display to working hard to insure that there are no more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis -- have brought out the best in them.

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While the Japanese have remained deeply opposed to nuclear weapons, they have embraced nuclear power in their energy-poor island nation and acknowledged the potential peril of building reactors in earthquake fault zones. Then there are Godzilla and the many other anti-nuclear horror films.

Japan's first commercial nuclear power plant went on line in 1966 and prior to the quake there were 55 reactors operating around the country. Their output accounted for about a third of Japan's total electric output before four of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex were compromised in the 9.0 magnitude quake and are now in various states of collapse following fires and explosions that have caused enormous spikes in radiation levels and threaten calamity.

It is too early to predict how many radiation deaths may transpire, although they seem increasingly likely, as well as the latent effects of radiation among survivors. Yes, including the outcome of pregnancies one and two generations later.

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In Japanese mythology, Namazu is a giant catfish who lives in the mud beneath the earth and causes earthquakes.

As the story goes, Namazu is guarded by the god Kashima and restrains it with a capstone. But when Kashima lets his guard fall, Namazu thrashes about, causing violent earthquakes.

After the great Edo (Tokyo) earthquake of 1855, Namazu took on new meaning as a yonaoshi daimyojin, which loosely translates as a god of rectification, and it became commonly held that the catfish was punishing human greed. Many homes have images of Namazu and Kashima on their walls because it is said that these homes will be protected from earthquakes and their occupants experience 10,000 years of luck.

I am someone who in my lifetime has gone from opposing to supporting nuclear power, and more recently an aggressive program to build new reactors in the U.S. What has happened in Japan does nothing to change that view.

The Japanese spirit is strong. A core tenet of Shintoism is that nature is infinitely more powerful than humankind and that humans exists with the permission of the gods. The Japanese will rebuild, recover and perhaps embrace new myths, but I for one wonder as to whether a military adventurism that led their leaders to conquer much of Asia and ended in nuclear disaster was a forewarning of a second nuclear disaster because of another kind of greed.

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