The apartment building in Chiba where my wife Keiko and I have spent most of our adult lives and where our four children grew up looks across the bay to Tokyo and Yokohama. On clear days, particularly in the late autumn and early winter, we can see Mount Fuji, glistening white in the morning sun or glowing red in the twilight.

Earthquakes are a common occurrence here, and as our condo is situated on the fourteenth floor, even low-level tremors are readily noticeable. A thump or a jolt is followed by the swaying of ceiling lamps. One or both of us will exclaim “Jishin!” and then, if the quake is strong enough, scamper to make sure that the gas has automatically gone off before turning on the television for the report that always follows moments later.

When the tremors began shortly before three in the afternoon on March 11, I was sitting on the sofa, chatting via Skype with my youngest brother, who was in a hotel room in Virginia. Typically, the worst of an earthquake is over in a matter of thirty or forty seconds, but this time the shaking continued—and intensified. My brother later told me that he, too, could hear the rumble. In a show of bravado, I jokingly remarked that he might want to pass on my last best wishes.

Amid a pile of fallen books, I eventually succeeded in getting through to my wife on her cell phone. She was breathlessly climbing the stairs with a full load of groceries, the elevators having automatically shut down. The first big aftershock came as I met her coming in the door. We’ve lost count of all the aftershocks that followed.

Bordering Chiba Prefecture to the north is Ibaraki Prefecture. It was only through indirect e-mail exchange that we learned that my wife’s relatives there had come through unscathed, though we still don’t know what’s become of the house where she was born. To the north of Ibaraki lies Fukushima Prefecture, whose commercial capital is the mountainous city of Kōriyama, our daughter-in-law’s hometown. Although her house was seriously damaged in the quake, the area is at a safe distance from the nuclear plant that has become the focus of world attention.

So my family and relatives can only be thankful, even as we pray for the tens of thousands who have lost their lives in Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures, and for the quarter-million survivors who are now homeless. Meanwhile, we cope with the most minor of inconveniences—a blackout as we were cleaning out my university office on the eve of my retirement, empty grocery-store shelves, train delays, and possibly unsafe tap water. My farewell party was canceled, and the beginning of spring classes has been delayed. No one’s complaining.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan has rightly described the disaster as the worst to befall Japan since the end of World War II. Sobering as that assessment may be, a sense of unreality lingers, in part because Japan is still, even after the greatest earthquake in its recorded history, a rich and superbly well-organized nation. The Western media’s appetite for whatever smacks of Apocalypsis Nipponica notwithstanding, Japan will survive and recover, even with current increasing anxieties about the long-term effects of the partial meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plants. An ironic side effect of the disaster has been concern about the sudden appreciation of the Japanese yen and fear that the Japanese may now call in their IOUs from debt-ridden America.

The Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 measured lower on the Richter scale but took the lives of 130,000 people in the greater Tokyo area, most as the result of fire. At least another six thousand died at the hands of vigilantes after false rumors were spread that resident Koreans were looting and poisoning wells. The catastrophe strengthened the hand of Japanese militarists. The widespread international praise for the calm and orderly way the Japanese have handled this earthquake is a measure of how much has changed in this country in less than a hundred years.

My wife’s elder brother in Hitachi, Ibaraki, is old enough to remember being evacuated during the war and returning to a city devastated by Allied bombing. His father, a soldier, had been captured by the Russians in Manchuria and sent to Siberia. In the aftermath of the war, Japan seemed to face a much bleaker future than it does today. Since the earthquake, my brother-in-law has been impressively stoical, remarking only that vegetables are scarce and that water shortages have put a burden on his family’s high-tech toilet. A similar sort of resignation can be seen in responses to news about the damaged nuclear reactors. Two of my wife’s relatives are nuclear scientists, and both seem more concerned about the practical matter of getting to work and back than about ecological debates.

According to a universally known saying in Japan, the four greatest fears are of “earthquakes, lightning, fires, and fathers.” The fact that the list begins with earthquakes is telling. In the Hōjōki (“Account of My Hut”), a still widely read work from the late twelfth century, Kamō no Chōmei, an aristocratic monk, poet, and recluse, writes:

In the second year of Genryaku [1185] there was a great earthquake. Mountains crumbled, burying rivers, and the sea rushed in, flooding the land.... In and around the capital, there was not a temple or shrine that survived unscathed.... Dust and ashes billowed like smoke, and the roar of the moving earth and of falling dwellings was that of thunder. Those inside were instantly crushed; as for those who fled outside, the ground opened up before them. Lacking wings, they could not fly into the air or, becoming dragons, ride upon the clouds. We can only imagine their misery. Among all the disasters that may befall us, the earthquake is surely the most dreadful of all.

Chōmei’s themes are those of the author of Ecclesiastes: the vicissitudes of life and the vanity of worldly pursuits. But while Chōmei concludes his essay by surrendering to the will of Heaven and urging simplicity and tranquillity, he draws no link between natural events and supernatural judgment. Less than a century later, another Buddhist monk by the name of Nichiren shows no such compunction: as the fiery preacher of the Lotus Sutra, he blames the Shōka Era earthquake of 1257 on the failure of the nation’s rulers to heed his wisdom.

In the Edo Period (1603–1868), earthquakes came to be identified with Namazu, a giant catfish dwelling in the bowels of the earth whose rumblings are restrained only by the god Kashima. Like St. Michael, Kashima keeps his foot on the monster, but is then distracted by other business. In the mid-nineteenth century, a series of massive earthquakes led to the widespread distribution of woodblock prints depicting the catfish (Namazu-e). Because the worst damage from these earthquakes was in the most privileged areas of the eastern capital, people began to speculate that earthquakes served as a leveling mechanism in an otherwise highly stratified society. The earthquake deity came to be known as yonaoshi-myōjin, “illustrious god of world renewal.” It was, after all, the lowly but affluent merchant class that profited from the rebuilding.

The question of how literally premodern Japan took the story about the catfish may be less interesting than the fact that the Japanese, despite their long and terrible history of earthquakes, have never engaged in the sort of arguments about theodicy that took place in Europe after the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. This is surely no accident: it would not have occurred to the Japanese, lacking as they did a tradition of belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, and beneficent deity, to pose the question of divine justice. Moreover, in Japan the gods were expected to nod from time to time. Kashima, like today’s politicians and the executives of Tokyo Electric Power Company, may mean well, but he too has his off days.

Today Japan is largely a secular society, at least in outward appearances. My admittedly unscientific guess is that if asked whether they believe in the actual existence of Kashima—whose shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture was seriously damaged in the earthquake—most Japanese would respond with puzzled looks, wondering what possible relevance the question might have. (The shrine, I am sure, will be lovingly repaired.)

This doesn’t mean that mere custom reigns and that there is no religious contentiousness in Japan; in fact, there is every sect imaginable, traditional and modern. Pausing in its round-the-clock coverage of the earthquake and tsunami, Japanese television marked the anniversary of the Sarin gas attacks in Tokyo on March 20, 1995, which were carried out by members of a cult called Aum Shinrikyō.

Three days after the current disaster, Tokyo’s neonationalist governor, Shintarō Ishihara, declared it to be “heavenly punishment” for the greed and egotism of contemporary Japan. The fact that the great majority of this disaster’s victims are from one of the nation’s least affluent regions made the statement all the more bizarre. Yet the negative reaction has been relatively mild, perhaps in part because Ishihara quickly apologized, perhaps also because the public may be inured to his outrageous off-the-cuff remarks. The comment will probably not be an issue in his bid for a fourth term in April.

Meanwhile, most Japanese aren’t interested in blaming the earthquake on anyone. Instead, they say things like shikata ga nai (“it can’t be helped”) and ganbarō (“let’s carry on”)—stock expressions that have a lot of weight here, now more than ever, as Japan goes on picking up the pieces.

Art: Kashima hammers Namazu, Anonymous, 1855

Related: Jeopardy, by the Editors
'Dreadful Portents,' by Peter Milward

Charles De Wolf is a linguist and translator of Japanese literature. He is professor emeritus at Keio University, where he continues to teach linguistics and comparative culture.

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Published in the 2011-04-22 issue: View Contents
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