On Fukushima's anniversary: A Japan of 'great gifts'

With the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and on the fourth anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a Japanese-American writer talks about Japan, the West, responsibility, history, and fun. 

Yuya Shino/Reuters
Employees of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the tsunami-crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, take part in a moment of silence at 2:46 p.m. local time at TEPCO's headquarters in Tokyo March 11, 2015, to mark the fourth anniversary of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett is a Japanese-American writer who was born and raised in California but spent considerable time with her mother in Japan. She feels her upbringing gives her a “dual vision” into West and East. 

 When Ms. Mockett first heard of the March 11, 2011 tsunami that flooded the Fukushima nuclear reactor four years ago today, she panicked. The Japanese side of her family owned a Buddhist temple in the town of Iwaki in Fukushima prefecture, 30 miles away. She found that her family not only survived but planned to stay, a decision that led to her new memoir, “Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye.” 

The book depicts a Japan both secular and spiritual, and a people whose apparent stoicism can be a bulwark against chaos. But it can also foster a blind spot to historical reckonings, an issue with particular resonance as the 70th anniversary of the end of War War II nears, stirring deep emotion in Northeast Asia.

Monitor correspondent Roland Kelts spoke with Mockett in Tokyo this week. 

Q: In the weeks after 3/11, US media portrayed the Japanese as model victims: unselfish, silent sufferers, waiting single-file for a bottle of water or ball of rice.  No violence, no looting. The workers who stayed at the radioactive plant were dubbed “The Fukushima Fifty,” though no one in Japan used this phrase.

You infer a subtext: that Japanese are also presented in this narrative as not quite human​,​ or as robotic. As an American writer of Japanese descent, how do you navigate this?

 A: I remember on one flight to Japan, landing at Narita airport, and the little squeal of glee that a first- time visitor gave when he saw the ground crew bow to the pilot. “Look! They’re bowing!” And I cringed inside. Yes, modern Japan with its amazing airport, and yes, they still bow.

 So it was with the heroic efforts [by workers] at Fukushima. Japan is a stoic country -- many old world countries are.

 In my book, I beg my cousin to leave our family temple, which is close to the nuclear reactor, and he discursively gives me numerous reasons why he cannot evacuate. Then he finally says: “I am not afraid to die.” And really, what can you say to someone who is not afraid to die?

 My job as a writer is to always ask this question: what is human? Further, what is real? Or even, what is the story behind the story? 

 It can be tricky to answer this question with regard to Japan because it does not have Judeo-Christian roots. When I go to the UK, for example, I can see how it is a country that is greatly related to the US. 

Even the conversations about atheism in Europe are tinged with the fervor of the religious convert. Japan, because it simply doesn’t have this kind of cultural framework, does not “work” the way the west does. And that makes translation and understanding hard. One goal of my book was to demystify what I see as some of the true roots of the differences between East and West, while also addressing some of the beautiful cultural things that Japan has to offer.

Q:  Japan seems such a cipher to outsiders, decades after Edward Said’s “Orientalism.” Western writers feel at ease projecting onto Japan. Is this related to a sense of absence at the center of Japan’s identity, perceived by others as an avoidance of responsibility? From the Emperor to the American bombers in WWII, to the government in the wake of Fukushima—there’s never anyone to “blame.”

A: [One wants] to know why Japan, a world economic leader, is not seen as being able to speak openly and honestly about the unsavory aspects of its past. Ian Buruma’s insightful “The Wages of Guilt” has done a good job of framing this question in very stark terms: the Germans were very sorry publicly and the Japanese were not. My husband is from Scotland and I spend a bit of each year in the UK, and each time I meet with a liberal, educated Scottish intellectual, I’m asked: “So how about Japan and those comfort women?” Which I can’t help but feel is not a terribly polite way to break the ice. But I know the attitude comes in part from Buruma’s book.

When I read his book, the Japanese part of me recoiled a bit and thought: well, yes, but you can’t exactly expect a Japanese person to behave with the same extroverted Judeo-Christian based mea culpa-like attitude as a German person, can you? Nevertheless, the stigma remains. And it is not without validity. And most of the educated and well-traveled Japanese I have met are aware of this stigma, but don’t know how to reconcile it.

Every time I go to Japan, I stand on the bullet train platform and look at the books for sale in the kiosks. Mixed in with all the travel guides exhorting me to take in seasonal colors are the books that betray an incredible anxiety about being Japanese. “Who are the Japanese?” “How are the Japanese Different from the Chinese?” “Understanding America.” It drives me crazy, because I think this kind of anxiety is paralyzing, and keeps the mind stuck in an unhealthy and infinite loop of insecurity.

What I have wished for Japan is a leader who can see Japan’s unique contributions to the world, and can also honestly see its place in history, and accept and embody both things. This seems to be incredibly difficult for anyone to do.

How very powerful it would be for a leader to stand up in Japan and declare: “We Japanese of course know the horror of nuclear weapons. But we know more than that. We know that being a defeated country makes our capable, intelligent and talented youth insecure in a way that no adult wants her children to be. At the same time, we know that the atrocities our own people committed against our Asian brothers and sisters were damaging not only to them, but also to us. We have this vast and terrible experience, and while we want to protect our youth from this horrible truth, we know they need to know it as you need to know it. We are in the position for own internal and external suffering as a people to be a model to the world for how to live honestly.” 

This would be extraordinary, and even better if such a leader were fully conscious of Japan’s great gifts.

The tricky thing to add here is that, of course, the issue of comfort women is serious, but it has also been politicized​, and it will take a wily leader to both acknowledge the past while refusing to play politics. The only way I can think of to sidestep this kind of pressure is to tell the truth and to appeal to the best side of human nature that exists. And of course the Japanese can do that.

Q: As you write, Japanese culture embraces and honors its ancestry. But Japan is also accused of cultivating a broader socio-historical amnesia, and even today, of forgetting its own quake and tsunami victims. What lies at the heart of this apparent paradox?

A: On my American side, I still own a part of the family wheat farm in Nebraska, which turned 100 years old recently; I’m very tied to the land there and to the way of life which once reflected how most of us live, and how few of us live now at all.

At this point in my life, I have some perspective on what it means to be “modern.” It means that you wake up in the morning and say: “Hm. What do I want to wear today? For that matter, who do I want to be?” As opposed to, “I better get out and see if the hail destroyed the south field." 

It’s a lot of fun to be modern. There are a lot of ways to play. And the Japanese are playful. Japan is a fun place. Even if all you do is never leave Tokyo, you will know that Japan is fun. So it’s no surprise that part of exploring the wealth that Japan has created has resulted in so many new and fun ways to play.

Since I am essentially an optimist, I try to look at the positive steps that Japan has taken—the wonderful things that have been preserved and the creative ways that modernity has been embraced. But I’m absolutely aware that a shadow lurks beneath all this. It always does with humans. But it can be the lazy intellectual’s way just to carp on what is wrong, and not on what might be and how to make things better.

Years ago, I was at a writer's conference, and there was a wonderful Navajo poet there named Orlando White. He came up to me, quietly, and asked: "Who are your people?" And I explained who my people were. And he said softly: "We think of you as our brothers across the ocean. We admire how you have kept your culture." And this floored me. I had never thought of such a thing before, that Japan might ​mean that to the Native Americans – a yellow-skinned people, modern, wealthy, defeated by the Americans, but still in possession of its borders and its culture, and not Judeo-Christian in origin. It made me want to look at Japan all over again.

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