The destruction wreaked by the earthquake/tsunami in Japan last week is almost unfathomable. Our hearts go out to the millions of people who have been directly affected by this terrible tragedy. Yet in spite of the large number of causalities, it is remarkable that there were not more, given the magnitude of the earthquake.
From 1968 to 2004 we lived in southwest Japan, far from the area devastated by this natural catastrophe in northeast Japan. But we have close friends (and former students) who live in the area hardest hit. We have received word, indirectly, that they have survived, but we imagine they are suffering in many ways.
In spite of all the loss of life and property, Japan will overcome. The Japanese people have a remarkable resiliency. The Great Hanshin Earthquake (near Kobe) occurred in 1995. There was almost unimaginable damage to the buildings and roads in the region; more than 6,000 people were killed. Just a few years later when I was in Kobe for the first time after the earthquake, I saw little evidence of there having been a major catastrophe. It was almost unbelievable that the city could have recovered so quickly.
The Japanese are resilient partly because of their high level of energy, their ability to work long and hard, and their concentration on what needs to be done. Their resiliency is also due to a view of life expressed by the Japanese word hakanasa, which means ephemeral or transitory.
The Japanese love cherry blossoms so much partly because of their widespread awareness of hakanasa. Again this spring as the cherry trees bloom across Japan, where they can people will gather for parties under the trees, eating, singing and drinking sake—enjoying life while they can.
The cherry trees bloom in all their glory, but then quite quickly the blossoms begin to fall. The parties are held under the trees with the blossoms gently falling, and with greater or lesser levels of awareness, the Japanese tend to see the falling blossoms as indication of the transitory nature of life.
Part of the Japanese sense of hakanasa undoubtedly comes from the frequency of natural disasters across the nation. In addition to earthquakes and tsunami, the country often suffers from typhoons also, and historically fires have been common calamities in cities crowded with wooden houses.
Rebuilding seems to be a part of the Japanese mindset. The Ise Grand Shrine, dedicated to the Sun Goddess, is one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan. The major buildings of Ise Jinju are dismantled and new ones built on an adjacent site every twenty years. (The present buildings, dating from 1993, are scheduled for rebuilding in 2013.)
To be sure, it will take enormous effort to rebuild from last week’s catastrophe in Japan. There is need for massive assistance from individuals, organizations, and countries from around the world. But over the next few weeks the Japanese people will once again gaze upon the cherry blossoms, perhaps thinking about the transient nature of life even more than before—and then continue determinedly to overcome the vast devastation caused by the tsunami last week.