Coexisting with Nature: Reflections after the Devastating 2011 Earthquake in Japan

In the three months since Japan’s major earthquake in March, many evocative articles and inspiring anecdotes have been published that, taken together, could well represent the early contours of a new, emerging paradigm of remembrance of our fundamental and inextricable oneness with nature and each other.

When I began musing about the revitalization of satoyama culture it was not at all clear how we might get “from here to there”, given the inertia and entrenchment of our current paradigm of separation, but if there is any silver lining to be discerned from the horrible dislocations of Japan’s still-unfolding tragedy, perhaps it is that the Japanese people are not letting this crisis go to waste in terms of using it as an opportunity for reflection. Many observers are recognizing that Japan is undergoing a profound transformation – starting even before the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster tore its societal fabric – and now the potential for real change across seemingly disparate sectors is being revealed in increasingly practical terms.

For years I have been following one of Japan’s small but influential organizations through their newsletters and website. Japan for Sustainability has always taken a leading role in showcasing the many ways – from industry to education – that the country is creatively responding to the realities of finite resources and the need for conservation and environmental sustainability.

In keeping with Japan’s current and beneficial self-reflective zeitgeist, this month the JFS website goes deeper than usual with a thoughtful article, Coexisting with Nature: Reflections after the Devastating 2011 Earthquake in Japan, written by JFS’s founder, Junko Edahiro. In it she contemplates how her country is being called to reexamine its modern assumptions about controlling nature and asks whether it is time to consider alternative ways of being in and relating to the natural world – alternatives that, from this blog’s perspective, closely resonate with the values and ethics of Japan’s ancient traditions of satoyama culture and spirit.

The following are extended excerpts of Edahiro-san’s reflections written after her recent visit to the Tohoku region:

The experience of personally seeing damaged sites and hearing what had happened provoked a lot of thoughts, one of which was about humanity’s “coexistence with nature.” Being a land of frequent earthquakes, Japan has experienced many huge tsunamis in the past. Typhoons also hit it as many as 10 times a year sometimes. As it is located in the monsoon climate zone and nearly 70 percent of the land is covered with steep mountain forests, the country often experiences natural disasters such as floods and landslides caused by heavy rains.

Ishinomaki had a solid embankment built along the shore. The city and its residents believed that it would provide sufficient protection against a tsunami, but this time the tsunami was much higher than the embankment and it devastated the area, leaving behind massive damage. I keenly felt the weakness of humans and human- made things in the face of natural threats like earthquakes and tsunamis.

We often use the expression “coexistence with nature.” It’s often found in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports of companies, and it definitely becomes a topic when discussing town-building activities. After seeing the situation in Ishinomaki, however, I began to think the expression is used merely superficially and is too optimistic. I think we refer to coexistence with nature when we establish a natural environment around us as something we can appreciate, which would never attack us, as if it were a miniature garden.

Most Japanese towns, including Ishinomaki, were planned and built based on the idea of combating threats from nature with technology. In this case it was to establish a solid embankment that could withstand a tsunami, but at Ishinomaki the embankment was destroyed because the tsunami was much bigger than people using modern technology had predicted. What do we need to do now? Is a more fortified and higher embankment the solution? The city of Kamaishi in Iwate was also badly damaged as the tsunami surged and overflowed its embankment. It had built a huge one after learning lessons from the earthquake and tsunami in Chile in 1960, but it was still useless.

The city of Miyako in Iwate also suffered considerable damage from the tsunami, but in contrast the people from the city’s Aneyoshi region were all found safe. This region was once destroyed almost completely when it was hit by the Meiji Sanriku Tsunami in 1896 and the Showa Sanriku Tsunami in 1933. The number of survivors from these tsunamis was said to be two and four, respectively. There is a stone tsunami marker erected on a mountain path about 500 meters away from the shore, on which warnings are inscribed to be passed on to descendants to remember the importance of having houses on a hill. People from the region have kept in their mind the warning on the marker: “The tsunami reached here.” “Do not build houses below this point.” “Be cautious even after years have passed.” Every house in the region is built on sites above the marker, so no damage to people and houses was reported here.

Open floodplains used to be found in many monsoon regions in Asia. Although heavy typhoon rains cause flooding and overflowing rivers, they also contribute to bringing nutrients from upstream, which in turn help boost crop harvests. I learned that people in the old days didn’t try to stop flooding. They left spaces open for flooding on the floodplain in case of any overflow and avoided living there. People were adjusting their own activities to natural rhythms. As the population has continued to grow and people thinking that they can build houses anywhere they want as long as they pay for them, they began building houses on flood plains and ended up suffering from greater damage caused by typhoons and flooding. For people living by a river with a high risk of flooding, it is now normal to expect engineered high embankments to contain the enormous threats from nature.

“All life, including human beings, is sacred and kept alive by everything in the universe.” This is an eastern idea. The concept means that we live in a web woven of all that exists, both animate and inanimate. The ancient Chinese philosophies of Laozi and Zhuangzi include the basic concepts of “naturalness” and “non-action,” suggesting that instead of trying to manipulate or resist nature, fitting ourselves into the natural world is the most appropriate attitude.

A woman who was evacuated to a local temple and now takes care of dozens of evacuees including elderly people at the shelter said, “I love the sea. The tsunami hit and swept my house away, but it can’t be helped. Television broadcasts reported about people who felt betrayed by the sea or blame it on this disaster, but I have never felt like that. I live close to the sea because I love it, so I don’t blame it. I’ll live by the sea again, although I’m thinking about living somewhere uphill next time.” She reminded me of the concepts of non-action and naturalness. “Naturalness” here is a mode of being in accordance with the ways of nature. To gain such naturalness, Laozi and Zhuangzi preached that non-action is important. In their idea, the opposite of non-action is “artificiality,” attempts by people to put something natural under their control. Examples of artificiality here are trying to block tsunamis or flooding with engineering technologies.

Should humanity regard nature as an object that needs to be suppressed and controlled, or just let it go and go along with its natural oscillations? The earthquake and tsunami disaster has given us an opportunity to reconsider the relationship between humanity and nature and how we should perceive it. People in the disaster areas, including those in Ishinomaki, have started discussing and working on reconstruction plans. Some towns might choose to build higher and stronger seawalls, while others might decide to pass on the tough lessons from the tsunami disaster this time to future generations by telling them that we should not live too close to the water’s edge because it is the realm of nature. There is no single and ultimately correct answer. Yet I strongly hope that future city planning is developed with longer time perspectives to enhance resilience, not just short-term efficiencies, and that planning and reconstruction in the affected areas are carried out using the hard lessons learned from this disaster.

By Junko Edahiro, Japan for Sustainability

One response to this post.

  1. This is a very powerful and important posting and it has implications not only for the well being of Japan but for the whole world. I just finished Paul Gilding’s excellent book, “The Great Disruption”. It is clear from the basic math alone that our planet is heading for a major transition and it is a slow train wreck that has already begun… the train has already come off the track. Gilding describes the nature of the upcoming disruptions through the lens of climate change and we are talking about a world in which economic growth is no longer possible. He claims that within 7 to 8 years, the disastrous effects of climate change will be so evident that all of mankind will finally end their denial that we are destroying the habitability of our planet and a massive effort, similar to the mobilization for World War II will come to pass as we attempt to save our global civilization.

    Here is my point, Japan will be a leader world wide and the kinds of insights that are discussed in this posting will be essential for all the world as we deal with an increasing series of natural disasters. What will be important is reestablishing a balance with nature and greed for accumulating more wealth and money will be seen for the planet destroying activity that it is.

    This is the Great Work for humanity in this era… to live in harmony with nature and to form sustainable economies that foster the flourishing of life in a healthy biosphere. Gilding argues that we will either do it or our civilization will collapse and the work begins right now! We have already waited too long and the response required will be unprecedented.


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