Disaster Theology: Blame and Powerlessness in Japan

Japanese literature is filled with writings about earthquakes, tsunamis, and other such cataclysmic events which were, for many, interpreted as portents of harder times to come. For others they were decrees from heaven meted out to a people whose Confucian morality had become corrupt or simply lax; or the Mahayana Buddhist version of the traditional “end times” scenario. Mappo, the “Age of Decline,” was thought to have occurred because the dharma—the teachings of the Buddha—had been allowed to languish and grow stale.

For nearly a thousand years leading up the modern era, a majority of Japanese Buddhists believed they were living in the Age of Mappo, a period marked by military strife, frequent earthquakes, epidemics, fires, and floods, and a general deflation on the value of human life. Given that Japan has always been particularly vulnerable to volcanic eruptions and other seismic events, not to mention pestilence and war, it must have seemed to such true believers that the Buddhist teachings on Mappo were more often right than wrong.

Today few of these attitudes prevail. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara’s attempt last week to evoke the specter of tenbatsu, or “divine punishment,” against the people of Japan got him smacked down so smartly that it’s now questionable whether he can win reelection. And Mappo can hardly offer a persuasive reading of history in a country where traditional forms of Buddhism are now in steep decline. But in that case, how are we to understand such terrifying events as the triple misfortune of an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, followed by a nuclear disaster of previously unimagined proportions?

In response to a catastrophic earthquake that struck Japan in his own day, Zen master Ryokan (1758–1831) offered a haunting but uncharacteristically moralistic poetic response:

Day after day after day, 
At noon and midnight, the cold was piercing. 
The sky was thick with black clouds that blocked out the sun. 
Fierce winds howled, snow swirled violently. 
Wild waves stormed heaven, buffeting monster fish. 
Walls trembled and shook, people shrieked in terror. 
Looking back at the past forty years, 
I now see that things were racing out of control: 
People had grown lax and indifferent. 
Forming factions and fighting among themselves. 
They forgot about obligations and duty. 
Ignored notions of loyalty and justice, 
And only thought of themselves. 
Full of self-conceit, they cheated each other. 
Creating an endless, filthy mess. 
The world was rife with madness. 
No one shared my concern. 
Things got worse until the final disaster struck
Few were aware that the world was star-crossed 
And dreadfully out of kilter. 
If you really want to understand this tragedy, look deep inside 
Rather than helplessly bemoan your cruel fate.

In other words, “I hate to say, ‘I told you so’—but I told you so!”

Fortunately, we know today that tsunamis are caused by earthquakes and other forms of seismic activity, and that seismic activity is caused by a shift in tectonic plates. We can’t predict exactly when they’re going to shift, but we are increasingly certain that they don’t do so in response to the immorality of the people in the countries where they occur. There are plenty of evil people living in regions with no seismic activity whatsoever. And there plenty of wonderful people living along the northeast coast of Japan.

Nevertheless, Ryokan’s is a pretty common response to events of this kind throughout history—whether we’re talking about ancient Rome, 18th century Japan, or Pat Robertson in 21st century United States. The desire to regain control in the face of terrifying events is so strong we might as well call it an imperative. We will do or say almost anything to put ourselves back in charge; even if that means accepting the blame or assigning it to another.

I’m sure Governor Ishihara (a very capable person under most circumstances) must have been feeling the limits of his power last week. Frankly, I’m sympathetic. If his city is facing the possibility of radioactive contamination because of the laxness of its people, those threats can be eliminated if, going forward, everyone just tries a little harder. It’s sad (and more than a little horrifying) to imagine that people could be doing their very best and tragedy would still strike. It’s sobering to think that, ultimately, we are not in charge.

That, finally, seems to be the spiritual lesson of the day. And there is great value in the feeling of humility that comes to us at moments when we can admit, simply and honestly, as we see so many people in Japan doing today, the shocking vulnerability of our place in this world. Does it make us want to build safer nuclear reactors? Certainly. Does it strengthen our resolve to develop an ever better understanding of seismology? You bet.

Do these guarantee that, going forward into an age of accelerating climate change and rapidly depleting oil reserves, we won’t take one hit after another to our most deeply-held belief as modern people: that we can do a better job of running the planet than the planet can? No. There is no guarantee whatsoever that we will emerge from this century with our pride of species still intact. On the other hand, if there really are any gods or buddhas watching, our humility may be something beautiful to behold.