Sartre famously declared that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. It is human judgment, in his view, that determines what is disastrous, and human suffering that is its measure. On this scale, the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11 and the nuclear crisis that followed constituted a historic disaster—one that, five months later, the country is still struggling to understand.
The initial impact was broadcast live: the first responses on Twitter arrived before the tremors had subsided. News helicopters hovered above while the churning waters of the tsunami rushed inland over sea walls, carrying fishing boats through city streets, crushing some houses and sweeping others away. Amateur videos of destruction spread across the Internet and appeared on news networks around the world. For those watching far from the epicenter, these spectacular images of nature’s violence had an eerie immediacy.
And yet for all of the footage and commentary, real comprehension has often seemed desperately scarce, particularly after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. When the first hydrogen explosion was reported, there was suddenly very little to see except the grainy image of the buildings’ white exteriors. We had to rely on the conflicting accounts of experts to interpret the invisible danger. The technology that had given us the illusion of proximity now seemed far beyond our control. We were reduced to watching the events from an unfamiliar distance, forced to see how little we knew.
It will take more time for the slow pace of understanding to catch up to the instant images of suffering. Near the damaged reactors, the citizens of Fukushima struggle with the lack of reliable information and the spread of damaging rumors suggesting that the whole region and its people are tainted. Farther from the evacuation zone, the conversation has shifted from the immediate dangers to the long-term consequences of the disaster and the radiation it has released.
When The Nation asked a group of Japanese writers and artists how they were making sense of what had happened, some saw in the suffering a return to the mood at the end of World War II, with its cities in ruins and radiation in the wreckage. Some hoped for the resurgence of Japanese values that had been eroded by modernity. For others, the tragedy seemed to mirror America’s experience of September 11: the unheeded warnings, the televised horror that announced a new era in history (a “post-9/11” world), followed by the burst of patriotism and the longing for normality. Looking back on the responses to the disaster, what emerges is as much a portrait of those who witnessed it as of the devastation they witnessed.
“In a Motel Room in Chandler, Arizona,” by Koji Suzuki
“A Man-Made Disaster,” by Hiroshi Senju
“Canaries in the Coal Mine,” by Banana Yoshimoto
“A Sense of Urgency,” by Paul Noritaka Tange
“Self-Restraint,” by Hitonari Tsuji
“Restoring the Time Capsule,” by Hideo Furukawa