Zen, Japan and the art of democracy

Foreign observers have long been baffled by Japan’s self-discipline in the face of multiple disaster

Western Europe has experienced only one "killer" earthquake of similar magnitude to the one that struck Japan on 11 March 2011. Even so, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, also followed by a tsunami and fire, caused a profound though arguably short-lived crisis in western thought. The indiscriminate loss of life challenged both Christian beliefs in God's benevolence and omnipotence and the Enlightenment's new, humanist conception of a well-ordered universe (the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz's "best of all possible worlds") with man as its rational and progressive centre.

Leading intellectuals such as Voltaire put God and nature on trial and found both guilty. Believers in the wrathful Old Testament God argued, however, that the disaster was divine punishment for the sins of Lisbon. At which Voltaire thundered: "Was Lisbon more sinful than London or Paris?" Rousseau wrote a letter to Voltaire in response, chiding him for his insults - not to God but to nature. If people had dispersed themselves throughout the natural world rather than being pent up in a crowded city, there would not have been so many deaths. The descendants of Rousseau can be found among those environmentalists who see the recent catastrophe in Japan as nature's revenge for the country's whaling.

The Lisbon earthquake was a one-off in European history. Memories of it faded. God was soon back in heaven and all was right with the world. One can only imagine the effect on European thought and culture if such events had become a regular occurrence over the past two and a half centuries, as they have been in Japan. Since 1755, Japan has experienced as many as two dozen major earthquakes, as well as countless smaller ones, reminding the people of the ever-present danger beneath their feet. But, as foreign observers always remark, the Japanese accept these catastrophes with an uncomplaining stoicism and self-discipline, and without the slightest hint of theological or humanistic crisis. To understand why, we must first look at the two major religious traditions of Japan, Shinto and Buddhism.

Modern Shinto descends from the animistic beliefs of the ancient Japanese, whose myths make clear that, like the pre-Christian Romans, they did not expect their gods to be unfailingly just or benevolent. The storm god in particular, Susano-o (whose name suggests the angry whistling and howling of the wind), could act like a divine hooligan when he was in a foul-weather mood. Like Zeus with his lightning bolts, Susano-o could devastate swaths of human settlement with a single blow. He could also be vengeful and sadistic. According to the oldest collection of Japanese myths, the Kojiki (712), once, when he was angry with his sister the sun goddess, he ran amok, destroyed her rice fields, defecated in her hall, flayed her pony alive and hurled it at her spinning loom and then murdered one of her attendants. His sister was so outraged that she hid in a cave, causing darkness to fall. Only when she was tempted to peek out by her fellow gods' laughter - reputedly provoked by another goddess's striptease - was light restored to the world.

The ancient Japanese were practical, worldly people - again, much like the ancient Romans - and they seem to have felt little inclination to philosophise about why their gods took pleasure in periodically inflicting on them major natural disasters. They accepted these catastrophes as a part of human life and built their homes of lightweight materials that would not fall too heavily on their heads. It wasn't until Buddhism arrived in the 6th century that the Japanese began to try to explain their frequent experience of death and mass upheaval from a wider, philosophical perspective.

With its central doctrines of accepting that life is transient and full of suffering and that it is therefore necessary to free oneself through enlightenment from the wheel of life and death, Buddhism had a satisfying, ready-made world-view for a cataclysm-prone country. The Buddhist attitude is well expressed by the 13th-century hermit Kamo no Chomei, who fled to the hills above Kyoto to escape a series of natural and man-made disasters. In his poetic diary, An Account of My Hut (1212), he admonishes us: "The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration: so in the world are man and his dwellings." Echoes of Heraclitus.

Stateless nation

This sense of life as transient and fragile was elaborated into a more formal philosophy by Dogen (1200-53), the Thomas Aquinas of Zen Buddhism. Dogen's philosophy is one of impermanence and emptiness, or non-essentialism: it is not only nature that has no fixed or permanent identity; neither does man. "The thought of enlightenment . . . is the mind which sees into impermanence." Or, more poetically:

To what shall I liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops,
Shaken from a crane's bill.

Impermanence (mujo) became a central theme of Japanese art and literature and has permeated every other realm of the culture. It may seem paradoxical that, for all nature's savagery throughout their history, the Japanese have devoted so much of their literature and art to extolling its beauty. How can one love a cruel, pitiless, indifferent nature that produces earthquakes and tsunamis? The haiku poet Matsuo Basho's answer to this conundrum comes from Zen: if nature offends your ego, then transcend your ego by becoming one with nature.

Basho's life was full of loss and sorrow, but he turned to nature to transform, or "refine", that sorrow into what he called sabi (literally a sense of loneliness). This was an impersonal, ego-less state of oneness with nature and detachment from the self. For Basho, poetic practice was an exercise in self-abnegation, rather like what John Keats called "negative capability". As Keats wrote: "With a great poet, the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

The haiku poet "empties" himself to experience nature as it is, unfiltered through the human ego. In the work of an English nature poet such as Wordsworth, poet and nature are equally present (in "Daffodils", he refers to himself eight times in 24 lines). In the best of Basho, the poet vanishes and only nature remains:

Such silence
Cicada voices
Pierce through rock.

The Japanese political response to disasters or unexpected national emergencies has been less inspiring. Since the Heisei era, the reign of the present emperor, began in 1989, Japan has faced a series of emergencies: the bursting of the financial bubble in 1990, the Kobe earthquake of 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attack that same year and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of April 2011. In each case, the response of the government and its elite bureaucracy has been lethargic and uninspired. If one is looking for a deeper cultural or historical reason for this apparent incapacity for quick thinking or flexible, responsive action, a good place to start with is Prince Shotoku (573-621).

Shotoku was the Alfred the Great of Japan. He "made" Japan just as Alfred made England by establishing the basis of a national identity and polity. In his constitution of 604, Shotoku advises his countrymen of the need for wa, or "harmony". The best way for a nation to attain harmony, he argues, is to have a wise ruler but, because wise rulers come along "only once in a thousand years", the next best way is to achieve consensus among the ruling class. The Japanese political establishment has taken this advice to heart ever since. The problem is that consensus does not work well in an emergency, which requires independent, decisive action on the part of a responsible leader.

Who is in charge in Japan? According to the country's first modern constitution of 1889, the emperor is sovereign - but the emperor has never really been in charge, at least not for the past millennium. Some right-wing thinkers have identified him with the Buddhist concept of mu, or "nothingness": the powerless centre of power, all the more powerful symbolically for being powerless politically. They view the emperor as a kind of negative polarity, holding the nation in harmonious, positive alignment (a mu that produces wa, so to speak). The problem is that not only the emperor, but the prime minister and all the senior government officials and bureaucrats seem to be manifestations of mu - incapable of taking a strong stand or any kind of independent action.

Fifteen prime ministers have served the emperor Akihito, who is now in the 23rd year of his reign. This is a less salutary form of mujo, or impermanence, and not one that inspires in the Japanese public much confidence in their leaders. In The Enigma of Japanese Power (1989), the Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen describes Japan as a "stateless nation", controlled by a faceless, unaccountable, oligarchic elite from behind the scenes. Little has changed in the past 20 years.

In Ikiru (1952), Akira Kurosawa's film satirising bureaucracy, housewives in a poor neighbourhood of Tokyo petition City Hall to turn a mosquito-infested swamp into a playground. Holding their children, the women are sent from one government department to another, in a dizzying round of bureaucratic buck-passing. After finally being sent back to where they started, they explode in anger: "You're making a mockery of democracy!"

Japan's postwar democracy was still in its infancy and Kurosawa was trying to instruct his countrymen in a new way of thinking: that governments exist to serve their people. Looking at the political establishment's sluggish response to crisis 60 years later, one might doubt whether they ever took the lesson to heart.

Two weeks after the catastrophe of 11 March, doctors in Miyagi Prefecture in north-eastern Japan were complaining to the media that they and their patients were surviving on two balls of rice a day. The press was full of stories of citizens who had loaded their cars with noodles, rice or even restaurant food and had driven hundreds of kilometres to distribute these to victims throughout the coastal areas. They were able to do so because the roads were not clogged, as one might have expected, with military convoys distributing food and medicine and evacuating the wounded.

Trappings of modernity

Where was the government? The disaster had affected only a small part of the country; surely a more efficient distribution of food could have been possible, given the immense resources at Japan's command? Many had asked the same question after the Kobe earthquake - and that was not in an isolated region like Tohoku, but in a major city in central Japan. At that time, Kobe's infamous yakuza gained considerable public esteem by distributing food to the needy and homeless far more efficiently than the state was willing or able to do.

Despite its modern, democratic trappings, the Japanese government does not seem to understand that it is a public service. People exist to serve the state, not the other way around.

In the more psychologically powerful, symbolic terms preferred by the conservative establishment, the state is identified with the emperor. As the wartime slogan put it: "One hundred million lives for the emperor!"

As recently as 2000, Yoshiro Mori, the then prime minister, assured his audience at a meeting with pro-Shinto politicians, "Japan is a divine land centred on the emperor" - abrogating the postwar constitution at a single stroke. Similarly, after the Tohoku catastrophe, the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, caused outrage by declaring that the earthquake was "divine punishment" for Japan's present-day materialism. To which one might respond: isn't Tokyo a lot more materialistic than Tohoku, one of the poorest regions of Japan?

The present constitution, enacted on 3 May 1947, stipulates that the people are sovereign, not the emperor, as in the 1889 Meiji constitution. But many conservatives, it seems, still prefer the Meiji version. As Mori's remarks made clear, they feel nostalgia for the pre-war kokutai (national polity), which combined politics with Shinto. Again, such sentiments contravene the postwar separation of religion and state. To many right-wingers, the 1947 constitution is tainted because it was enforced by the Allied (mostly American) occupation authorities following Japan's defeat in the Second World War. It is perceived as "un-Japanese" and as an attempt to impose values that are alien to the country's culture and politics.

As the writer Yukio Mishima once remarked, the emperor is the political establishment's "joker", or trump card, to play when the chips are down. This trump card has long enabled the far right to cloak itself in the sanctified aura of "imperial tradition" and also enabled the establishment to escape the self-inflicted debacle of the Second World War almost miraculously intact, except for the token offering of a few sacrificial victims to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in 1946-48. This was in contrast to Japan's fascist allies in Europe, where the fall of Hitler and Mussolini forced a credible break with the older political systems in Germany and Italy.

Sure enough, now that the chips are down, the emperor has been des­patched to visit earthquake victims, gracing his subjects with the divinity that "doth hedge a king". The people have welcomed his visits gratefully - but not so much those of the prime minister. When Naoto Kan visited the earthquake area three weeks after the event, one homeless 72-year-old woman seemed underwhelmed. "I don't expect anything from the government," she said.

Kan came into office in 2010 vowing to replace back-room rule by bureaucrats with a newly decisive politics. If the March earthquake was his first great test, however, one can hardly say that he has impressed. Kan survived a no-confidence vote on 2 June by promising to resign in the near future; by late June the opposition parties were demanding a firm date for his departure and, in protest at his tenure, delaying the implementation of a special budget for post-earthquake reconstruction. Victims have expressed outrage that crucial work has been delayed even further because of these familiar factional squabbles.

Revolutions in Japan have never originated with the people. They, too, have been imposed from above after power struggles among the ruling elite (the so-called Meiji Restoration of 1868 is a good example). The Japanese are a profoundly conservative people, and for understandable reasons. If the ground beneath one's feet has a habit of shaking, cracking and convulsing, one would hope for social and political stability, at least. Grumbling will follow the rumblings, but the shaky foundations of the state are likely to remain standing, however precariously.

Japan today desperately needs that leader who Prince Shotoku said appears only once a millennium - if not a Shotoku, at least a Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, prime minister of Portugal at the time of the great Lisbon earthquake, who, when asked by panicking officials what they should do, answered: "Feed the living and bury the dead."

Roy Starrs teaches Japanese studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

His latest book, "Modernism and Japanese Culture" (Palgrave Macmillan, £16.99), will be published on 20 October