The Ballad of Fukushima: In the Wake of Disaster, Japan’s True Character Emerges
Anindya Novyan Bakrie
The iconic Japanese film “The Ballad of Narayama” tells the story of a village where everyone who reaches the age of 70 is sent away to the top of Mount Narayama to die. The old make way for the young so that newer generations may have enough to eat.
What makes the film compelling is that it is not shocking. Instead, the brutal practice appears entirely natural in the context of a small and remote village in 19th-century Japan.
The world of Narayama acknowledges the reality of Malthusian laws that protect society against overpopulation. Filial relations are subject to the inexorable logic of survival, which demands that the old stop being a burden on the young. The son who carries his aging mother to the mountain groans under the emotional and moral weight of the journey, but he is duty-bound to undertake it.
If there is any consolation, it is that his son, too, will carry him one day. Generations must pass so that generations may arrive. Sometimes they have to pass even before they are dead.
“The Ballad of Narayama” came to mind as news appeared about how elderly Japanese were volunteering to replace younger workers battling to cool tsunami-crippled nuclear reactors in Fukushima. These older engineers, along with other specialists, offered to move into the radioactive plant so that younger Japanese could avoid exposure to radiation hazards that could leave them childless or even kill them.
“The Ballad of Fukushima” has yet to be penned. If it is, it will be even more beautiful and cruel than “The Ballad of Narayama.” Unlike in Narayama, there is no Malthusian logic at work in Fukushima. No custom, let alone law, justifies such self-sacrifice in Japan today. The absence of volunteers from Fukushima will not tip the ecological balance toward disaster. Japan will not collapse if the volunteers live out their retirement in safety.
Yet, the volunteers — aged 60 to 78 — have decided to celebrate Japan’s future more than they care for themselves in their fading years. This is the Narayama refrain running through their courage.
The Fukushima volunteers — “activists” might be a better word — have given several matter-of-fact explanations for their decision. One is that it makes scientific sense for them to venture into radioactive territory. Since cells take longer to reproduce in older people, any cancer caused by absorbing radioactivity would take much longer to form. One activist declared with a touch of humor that he would be dead from something else long before any radiation-caused cancer could kill him.
Others take a generational view of the catastrophe itself. In interviews with the media, they have spoken about how their generation used its knowledge and skills to build the facility in the 1960s and 1970s. In return, they benefited enormously from nuclear power. But the earthquake and the tsunami turned a safe and clean source of energy into a national catastrophe. Hence, they have a moral responsibility to deal with the aftermath of that nightmare.
Yet others note that they simply have an obligation to protect youth in a rapidly-aging Japan. In the process, they observe that they are losing their fear of death.
These selfless arguments reinforce the view of Japanese society as being one with a strong sense of itself. Loyalty to the nation becomes a way of life.
Of course, Japan is not the only nation with such a sense of itself. Every nation displays this sense to a certain extent; otherwise, it would not be a nation. What makes Japan exceptional is the way in which the sense of being Japanese informs society not only in the best of times but also in the worst of times.
This was seen in the way that Japanese society responded to the earthquake and the tsunami themselves. There was no social breakdown. Instead, with the social resilience accumulated over time, people lined up calmly for help, helped one another and got through each day with the belief that the following day or week would be better. There was hardly any looting even though the forces of law and order had been battered, like everything else, by the natural disaster.
This expression of the Japanese character is rather different from the famed Bushido spirit. That is the way of the warrior, a special code of conduct that reflects a samurai’s sense of honor and discipline. Frugality, loyalty, the mastery of martial arts and an emphasis on honor unto death characterize that spirit.
Some of these elements — especially loyalty — were certainly present in the Japanese response to the crisis. However, the military dimension was lacking entirely. The main actors in the national drama were not warriors but civilians molded by the social democratic culture of post-war Japan. They were civilian heroes in a war unleashed by nature.
As Japan returns to normal, people elsewhere would do well to remember the extraordinary stories created by the disaster. The Japan that was the first Asian country to modernize, the Japan that is a miracle of post-war economic recovery, the Japan that has led the latest phase of Asian industrialization — this Japan is well-known.
However, there is another Japan of everyday heroes who make their mark not during eras of prosperity but during times of adversity. They are often anonymous; even when they are celebrated in the media and by their neighbors, they often vanish from sight afterward.
It is this other Japan that is a true beacon of hope at a time when honor and loyalty are not universally plentiful values. In acknowledging the value of the Fukushima activists, we do no more than celebrate the best in ourselves.
Anindya Novyan Bakrie is vice chairman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, CEO of Bakrie Telecom and chairman of VIVA Media Group. He is a presidentially-appointed member of the APEC Business Advisory Council and sits on the board of the International Council of Harvard University’s Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs.