A string of islands in the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, gripped uneasily between the Pacific tectonic plate and the Philippine Sea Plate, Japan has seen more than its fair share of catastrophic disasters - in the 20th century alone, earthquake, typhoon, tsunami, fire, volcano, nuclear attack and terrorism.
Like Britain, another resolute island nation, Japan has always responded with stoic rebuilding. But unlike almost anyone in the world, the Japanese also refract their historic misfortune through a unique cultural lens, producing monster movies, Zen poetry, modernist post-apocalyptic literature and even pornographic manga involving tentacle rape. Why is Japan's response to its history of disaster so fantastical?
For centuries, Japanese authors, poets, and artists have mulled over the existential instability of their island life. They personified their demons, giving fears tangible shape to make them less frightening. The namazu is a legendary figure and a popular subject of woodblock prints - a giant underground catfish who swishes his tail to cause earthquakes, often shown with a monkey or a minor deity (Kashima) on his back, attempting to restrain him.
Another common approach is to practice detachment. The essayist Kamo no Chomei (1155-1216), in the Walden-esque Account of My Hut, discusses the earthquake of 1185: "Of all the frightening things of the world, none is so frightful as an earthquake." But Chomei also saw it as an opportunity to meditate on "the vanity and meaninglessness of the world." Likewise, Kokan Shiren (1278-1346), a poet and Zen master, writing about an earthquake 100 years later, called it "a time to be fearful, / but to delight as well; / no wind, yet the wind-bells / keep on ringing."
Paul Anderer, a professor of Asian Humanities at Columbia University, says this attitude is typical: "The world rightly seen is a … fragile world. It's made the more fragile because of human greed and avarice and desire, and a way to deal with it is to curb desire if not to suppress it entirely." Another way is the heed to short-lived experience that Japanese call mono no aware - the idea that transience brings its own beauty.
The 1923 Tokyo earthquake was one of the worst in the 20th century, with deaths totalling roughly 100,000 in a population of four million. Film director Akira Kurosawa, 13 at the time of the quake, describes the ruins of the city in his 1983 memoir: "The whole Edogawa river district was veiled in a dancing, swirling dust whose grayness gave the sun a pallor like during an eclipse. The people who stood to the left and right of me in this scene looked for all the world like fugitives from hell." He may have drawn upon this vision of stark, lawless chaos for Rashomon and Seven Samurai.
Barely more than 20 years later, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 ushered in a whole new era of horror. The response of many Japanese artists was to displace the trauma into the oblique and fantastical, into monsters and allegories.
The Godzilla films clearly represent nuclear chaos engulfing Tokyo. But, as Susan Napier of Tufts University points out, they also illustrate what comes after: the slow, sad process of rebuilding, as doctors begin helping radiation-poisoning victims at the hospital and scientists look toward preventing the next disaster."One of the things the Japanese are very good at is talking about the aftermath of the disaster - the poignancy, the mourning."
And it remains so. In 1995, the combination of a 6.8 earthquake in Kobe and the Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks on the Tokyo subway helped plunge the country into a long-term malaise, which drew imaginative treatments from writers such as Haruki Marukami. In his story UFO in Kushiro, the main character's wife leaves him after spending days watching TV coverage of the quake: "Five straight days she spent in front of the television, staring at crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways. She never said a word."
Novelists Kobo Abe and Kenzaburo Oe also wrote post-apocalyptic tales around that time. On the more low-end side of things is Japan Sinks, by Sakyo Komatsu, in which, quite literally, Japan implodes following a tsunami and an earthquake. It was first published in 1973, but reissued after the Kobe quake.
Then there's anime and manga, the wild collective subconscious of Japanese cartoons. Many take place in millennial universes, including the Evangelion and Akira series.
Evangelion is the story of a war between a paramilitary unit and a group of avenging Angels in a Tokyo hit by an earthquake, a tsunami and a mega-explosion. The subtext, to Prof. Napier, is a deep "internal sense of unease and concern about the future."
Japan has always recovered from disaster by weaving trauma into its culture. The only question may be which new monsters this latest trauma will dredge up to the surface.
Britt Peterson is deputy managing editor of Foreign Policy, where a version of this essay first appeared.
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