May 2011


Lian Hearn

The work of catfish

Katsushika Hokusai, 'Under the Wave off Kanagawa', c. 1830. © Corbis
Reflections on Japan

The dark wave rises, and keeps on rising like the sea in a nightmare. Ships cascade over a wall built to protect the port town from typhoons and tsunami, and cars are swept away like plastic bottles. A flock of seagulls soars upwards. Out at sea, fishing boats rode over the huge swell just as the fishing fleet from Sanriku did in 1896, when another huge tsunami destroyed the east coast of Japan’s Tohoku region. In that earthquake and tsunami about 22,000 people died. In 1933 another tsunami struck; photos from both events bear witness to the total destruction.

People here get their living from the cold, rich waters of the northern Pacific Ocean. They cannot move away; they have always rebuilt before, but this time the cost and the sacrifice seem almost too hard to bear.

I was in Tohoku last year visiting friends in Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures. It was my first visit to that part of Japan. I’d always wanted to go to Sendai: I like its name (sen means ‘hermit’ or ‘wizard’ and is used in many words that suggest enchantment: senkyo– ‘fairyland’, and suisen – ‘narcissus’) and its association with the great Sengoku daimyo (a feudal lord), Date Masamune, known as the ‘one-eyed dragon’. Sendai is a modern city now but Masamune’s presence can still be felt, especially in the Zuigan-ji, rebuilt as a Zen Buddhist temple for his family in 1609.

Zuigan-ji was mostly closed – it is being restored. Work started in September 2009 and will be finished in March 2018. At the moment it is sheltering the homeless, as temples have through the ages.

I took another small personal pilgrimage to Matsushima and Hiraizumi, in Miyagi Prefecture, in the footsteps of seventeenth-century haiku poet Matsuo Basho. Traditionally Japanese travellers did not so much explore the unknown as visit and revisit sites made famous by poetry, legend and history. Matsushima, even in Basho’s day, had been described as “the most beautiful place in all of Japan, the green of the pines is dark and dense, the branches and leaves bent by the salty sea breeze … did the god of the mountain create this in the age of gods?” At first it seemed Matsushima could not have survived the tsunami of 11 March 2011, but it was protected by its islands.

Long before Masamune, the Fujiwara lord Kiyohira founded the temple of Chuson-ji at Hiraizumi, as part of a pledge before Buddha to honour the spirits of the dead, whether “friend or foe, human or animal”. On 18 March 2011 Chuson-ji’s bell tolled for an hour-and-a-half for the victims of the earthquake and the tsunami. It was the week of the spring equinox (higan) and all over Japan people gathered to pray for the souls of the dead and to raise money for the living.

Only the Golden Hall remains of Kiyohira’s building. With Chuson-ji’s collection of sutras inscribed in gold and silver lettering on deep blue paper and statues of Buddha and Kannon, it is one of the most beautiful expressions of human spirituality I have ever seen. Amida, Buddha of Infinite Light, sits serenely in a glowing representation of his Pure Land (Western Paradise), as though time has stood still since Kiyohira’s day. It is an illusion. The Golden Hall has fallen into disrepair and been restored over the centuries, most recently in the 1960s.

The Pure Land is also represented at nearby Motsu-ji. Once Motsu-ji had 40 pagodas and 500 monasteries but they burned to the ground in 1226 and were never replaced. Only the garden remains. Here, reflecting on the death of one of Japan’s best-loved heroes, Minamoto Yoshitsune, at Takadachi, Basho wrote:

Natsugasa ya

Tsuwamonodomo ga

Yume no ato


(Summer grasses,

The traces of dreams

Of ancient warriors)

Like Basho I climbed to the remains of Takadachi and gazed down on the Kitakami River. Rain dripped from the trees and dappled the surface of the water. The cold wind from the north had a hint of snow, of winter.

It used to be believed that earthquakes were caused by a giant catfish, Namazu, thrashing underground. In one of the oldest shrines in eastern Japan, Kashima Jingu, lies a huge stone beneath which the troublesome catfish is said to be confined. Catfish woodblock prints were popular in the Edo period (1603–1867), originating as talismans against disaster, and then turning satirical and cynical. People connected with the building trade – carpenters, roofers, tatami mat makers – were pictured as cronies of Namazu, and merchants as his reluctant contributors: rebuilding after earthquakes forced them to unlock their wealth.

After a series of severe earthquakes in the Ansei period (1854–60), the catfish evolved again into a symbol of protest. Earthquakes were considered a sign that poor government was failing to maintain the natural balance between Heaven and Earth, and the inept Tokugawa shogunate (feudal regime) was an obvious culprit. Along with terror and destruction, Namazu also released powerful energy that cleared away obstructions and made space for something new.

Kashima, Deer Island, is an industrial town in Ibaraki Prefecture, home to the most successful soccer team in Japan’s J.League, the Kashima Antlers. The land for miles around has been reclaimed, the courses of the rivers altered. In the earthquake of 11 March the reclaimed land went into liquefaction, roads split apart and all the power poles and pylons fell down. Power was cut to thousands of homes and there is still no running water. Helpful instructions have been issued: “Line the toilet with a plastic bag, with newspaper at the bottom. Tie tightly after use and store on the verandah. My friends get their water from a relative who has a well.” Back to Edo days again.

“Your room leaned over,” they wrote, “and we could not open the door, but it’s fine now, so please come and stay again soon.”

It is impossible to spend any time in Japan without encountering earthquakes or typhoons. People are generally well prepared and unworried. Last October there was a small tremor when I was in Fukushima. The ceiling lamp began to sway, the pictures shook on the walls, everything rattled. It didn’t last long – just long enough to wonder if this was going to be the big one that everyone agreed was well overdue.

The earthquake of 11 March was the big one, but not where it was expected, in Kanto like the great earthquake of 1923 that killed between 100,000 and 140,000 people. It took everyone by surprise. It was unlike any other earthquake we had ever experienced before, said my friends in Itako.

And it was not the earthquake that destroyed so many coastal towns and took thousands of lives. It was the tsunami.

The day after, when the first images began to come through, I kept going over past memories as if by the power of thought I could retain them all unspoiled like the Pure Land. I was worried about my friends, all beyond contact by phone or email, but I did not want to exaggerate my grief or make personal such a huge national tragedy. I wanted to cry but I wondered if I had the right. In the end I cried anyway, spent days in mourning. I sensed a similar outpouring of grief round the world, from a mixed cohort of all ages and nationalities who have come by many different routes – samurai films, haiku, Zen, art and sculpture, ukiyo-e, netsuke, anime, manga, J-pop, NHK taiga dramas, Shogun, martial arts, Mishima, Haruki Murakami – under the spell of Japan.

Japan is a country of extremes, its character forged by its unstable geography and climate. The arts, both traditional and modern, are fuelled by images of disaster, the creative energy of regrowth and the stillness that comes in the intervals between. These extremes have produced, through the ages, a singular courage in the face of death. To live with this disregard for death, not fearing it, not seeing it as an unfair personal tragedy, makes room for humility and self-sacrifice and banishes self-pity. It puts human life into a realistic relation with nature, accepting the unpredictable power of wind, water, fire, of Earth itself. In this acceptance lie the seeds of hope. Words of deepest despair – we cannot live here again – are followed almost immediately by but we will rebuild our town; I cannot live without my loved ones by I must live to pray for them and honour them.

A friend sent me a link to a news story from Kamaishi: deer, not seen since the disaster, have returned to Yakushi Koen – the park of the Healing Buddha.

Looking at the picture of the deer above the ruined town puts me into a reverie where I see Japan’s history unfold as if in time lapse. Kashima is an island inhabited only by deer, surrounded by unimpeded rivers. Towns grow, the waters are dammed, the rivers flood, channels are excavated. The land shakes, tsunami sweep in, temples catch fire and burn, whole towns are destroyed. Minamoto Yoshitsune is betrayed and killed. The Fujiwara and a hundred other warrior houses pass away. Motsu-ji disappears, Zuigan-ji rises again. Homes are rebuilt, land reclaimed, sea walls constructed. Petals open and fall; trees are green, red, leafless, then green again. Typhoons, volcanoes, earthquakes, war and again war, firestorms, bombs, radiation. Destruction. Healing. Recovery.

The seagulls rise over the black wall of water. My friend plants narcissus in a window box. The deer return to the garden.

Lian Hearn
Lian Hearn is a writer based in Goolwa, South Australia. She is the author of the Tales of the Otori series, which has sold more than 4 million copies. Lian Hearn is the pen-name used by children’s author Gillian Rubinstein.

Cover: May 2011

May 2011

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