Nishitani Osamu

The March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, registering magnitude 9 on the international scale, has been called a once-in-a-thousand-years disaster. Hearing this, people understand that the earthquake was indeed of exceptional scale. Or, they may feel reassured that somehow they will be safe from such horrors for another millennium. “One thousand years,” of course, is just a number for reference, and the seismologists are quick to remind us of the Sanriku Earthquake of 1896 (although it was rather smaller in scale) and the Jōgan Earthquake of 869 that both struck the same northeastern coastline.

 

The Experience of Time

Yet can we even imagine the space of one thousand years? How can we actually feel such an expanse of time? As individuals today we can experience perhaps eighty years, and even if we can relate to the near past in the flow of time of our society, the span of time we can most immediately sense must be only about 100 or 120 years.
We may speak of time rather loosely, but the way we actually perceive it is more complex. In fact, we appear to divide time into different dimensions. First, there is the time in which we are living as individuals. This is the time of our own immediate experience—our daily lives. This human-scale time unfolds against the backdrop of the flow of time in our society as a whole and overlaps with that flow. Were it not for the overlap or mingling with “society time,” our personal time would be only private, without any context. Our private, subjective time is linked to the time shared with society as long as our thinking and awareness are connected to it. Time that is linked to society allows us to transcend the framework of our own personal experience and to further extend ourselves through knowledge and conjecture. We can thus envision and speak of things that happened somewhat before we were born as if we know them. That is what we call historical time. 

There is yet another dimension of time. Transcending even historical time is “natural time”—time that unfolds centered upon the natural world (or what scientists call geologic time). If history is the record of human experience, natural time is independent of human history, or rather encompasses it in the evolution and change of all creation and the universe. Time as dealt with by science is presumed to be linear, stretching from past to future in a neutral, one-way flow. This expanse of time is also thought to extend homogeneously on both the micro and macro scale into the past prior to human experience and into the future beyond human experience. 

Our perceptions of time include awareness of such multiple dimensions of time. The basis of our understanding is time as we experience it in our own lives, and this personal time is defined by the framework of time of the society in which we live, or society time. We live our personal time within the perspective provided by the framework of society time. That being the case, we perceive the time we ourselves are living as real and what sustains our sense of the reality of the present is the time of the past, and the time beyond us in the future is open-ended and undefined. The period during which the past can have a palpable sense of reality, however, is probably not much more than one hundred to one hundred twenty years.

 

“Modern Time”

In Japan, the past one hundred to one hundred twenty years overlap roughly with what is defined as “modern time.” Even in global perspective, modern time extends no more than about two hundred years. There are, of course, many ways of defining modern time, but for convenience’s sake, we may think of it as the “industrial age”—that is, our era of individual awareness and state systems, of society organized by industry where science and technology go hand in hand, and of economics as the unifying force of the world as a universalized territory, sustaining all manner of things. In that era, “progress,” “development,” and “growth” are seen as changes that occur with the passage of time, and every one of us is engaged in activity either within that crescendo-like perspective, or taking such “progress” for granted. Travel on foot evolved into travel by train, automobiles were invented and networks of highways and streets were built; soon airplanes beginning to fly about; foot couriers were replaced by mail services; with the invention of the telephone, telephone communications rapidly spread, and today such communications have evolved using the technology of the Internet. Amid the rapid succession of such changes, society has been transformed, and the way people live is quite different from what it was fifty years ago. The changes begin in central areas of society and spread towards its periphery.

The very definition of the “modern age” is inseparably tied to our perception of history and its attendant concept of time, and if the dynamic I have just described is the overall aspect of the modern age, then time is continually directed toward development by the mechanisms of invention, innovation, and improvement. That dynamic becomes a self-evident “fact” that defines people’s perception of time in that society.

In the “modern age,” time is seen as moving toward the future in a linear fashion: The future is envisioned as continually more affluent and advanced than ever before; in other words, it is what lies beyond the development of the present. This perception of time, however, arose as the secularization of the economy of Christian salvation (emancipation) and eschatological concepts of time. It is the product, in other words, of the particular nature of Christian society. In modern times the perception of time conceived of as “modern” spread around the world as the basic premise of “civilization,” and in due course that perception of time engulfed the entire world. The more recent phase of that process has come to be called “globalization,” and through that process, all manner of phenomena of human society have been drawn into the dimension of “economy” and reduced to commensurable numbers, and the world has come to be evaluated by the immutable criteria of “development” and “growth,” and unified and managed on that basis.
Japan came to share this globalized perspective of time from around its Meiji era (1868–1912). Since then we have striven to live in that time as it fits into the framework of “modern” time. Yet come to think of it, such a grasp of time as inextricable from “development” and “growth” has only been around for about two hundred years. Before that time, not even people in the West—certainly not people in Japan—lived according to that forward-driven perception of time.

 

The Time of “One Thousand Years”

It is all the more difficult, therefore, to grasp the real import of one thousand years as in “once in a thousand years.” We cannot understand very well what happened only 200 years ago. And yet, like a larvae within its cocoon, we have shut ourselves into this preconception of time that has only been around for only some two hudnred years as if it were a self-evident truth. But what is the meaning of “one thousand years”? Is it anything more than some sort of spell from the lips of a stubborn believer in superstition? “A thousand years” in this case is more likely to evoke the expanse of natural or geologic time, that dimension of time that I mentioned earlier. Time in nature is on a far vaster scale than that of human experience. In short, when we speak of “once in a thousand years” we need to be aware that we are facing time of a different order. The massive earthquake in Tohoku broke into our everyday human-scale time—the perception of time we have become familiar with in “modern times”—confronting us with the awesome scale of natural time. And that time, like the time a thousand years ago, destroyed the sphere of life we have built in “modern times” and its extension—the 2011 sphere of life.

“The same as it was one thousand years ago” . . . but in that one thousand years, the “world of people” has been greatly transformed. I will not say “society” has changed. After all “society,” like “modernity,” is a concept introduced from outside Japan. I would rather speak, as Japanese would have in olden times, of “the world of people” (hito no yo). Once hamlets were few and far between, and traveling from one to another was difficult; “the world” was something quite different from today. Today communities are linked by train lines and highways to the cities; along concrete paved streets, far vaster numbers of people dwell in greatly changed, densely crowded conditions. And yet, the earth shook and destroyed the towns, and the ocean rose up and engulfed the land just as happened one thousand years before. Nothing that human society had achieved by so much change, through all its “progress” and “development” over one thousand years, could prevail in the face of a natural phenomenon on such a scale.

No matter how they may advance their technology, no matter how they may build a tower over 600 meters tall in Tokyo, human beings cannot control the slippage of the plates that make up the earth’s crust and they cannot prevent the seas from rising over the land. Today more than one hundred million people live on these small islands of Japan, but before the power of nature even one hundred million people are as helpless as the six or seven million inhabitants of these islands were a millennium ago. Indeed, the difference just goes to show how minuscule is humankind compared to the land and the seas of this Earth. Modernity’s perception of time trapped people in the vision of “development,” causing them to forget the minuscule existence that is humanity. They came to see nature in terms of resources for human use and came to believe that human beings could freely “develop” the resources to remake the world as they desired. And yet, though we may find ourselves boxed in to such a view of the world, we do have channels linking us to “time one thousand years ago.”

 

“That Most Terrifying of All Calamities”

Even before the 2011 disaster unleashed its outburst on “time,” the poet Jōtarō Wakamatsu, of Minamisōma (Fukushima prefecture) published a collection of poems entitled Hokui 37-do 25-fun no kaze to kanaria (The Wind and the Canary at Lat. 37゚25' N; Gen Shobō, 2010). Both the Kashiwazaki Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Niigata prefecture and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant lie roughly along the 37゚25' N parallel. Wakamatsu journeyed through the towns located in this zone that supplies so much of Japan’s energy needs and wrote poetry that muses on the diverse ways that people have lived from the beginning of human history.

Wakamatsu describes the festivals and traditions that still permeate the land of each place he visits, recalling the words transmitted over time from the past. One poem about the village of Kariwa was written in the aftermath of the Chūetsu earthquake offshore of Niigata in July 2007 (the serious shaking of the plant in the earthquake caused a transformer fire and emergency shutdown of all the reactors). The poem incorporates information about the earthquake and the accident at the plant as reported in the media and as written in a letter from a friend living in Kashiwazaki. Wakamatsu quotes from thirteenth-century Buddhist monk poet Kamo no Chomei’s Hōjōki (An Account of My Hut), the classic literary work written in 1212 that attests to the destruction resulting from the Bunji Kyoto Earthquake that hit the Kinai region in 1185—“A terrible earthquake of most extraordinary power.” The Chūetsu Earthquake, measuring magnitude 6.8 but recording very strong swaying in different areas, shook the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear power plant said to be the largest in the world, vastly adding to the dreadful experience of the quake, adding fresh poignancy to Chōmei’s recollection of “that most terrifying of all calamities.” 

Another channel to the past is related to the Jōgan Earthquake that hit Tohoku in 869, the earthquake that has been often referred to since the 2011 disaster. The uta-makura “Sue no Matsuyama” (“the pine hill of Sue”), a conventional poetic epithet that precedes the name of Taga Castle (in present-day Sendai), evokes the tsunami that followed the Jōgan Earthquake. In the famous love poem by Kiyohara no Motosuke (908–90), the father of Sei Shōnagon (famous for The Pillow Book), it is the vehicle of lovers’ vows to be as faithful as the knowledge that “The waves will never rise over the pine hill of Sue,” the “waves” referring to the tsunami of 869.

In Wakamatsu’s anthology, the stanza that immediately catches our eye is one written recalling the seas in the vicinity of the Fukushima Daiichi plant:
Sekai no oto wa kie All the world’s sounds ceased
Subete yo wa koto mo nashi Everything is calm and peaceful
Arui wa Or 
Kitarubeki mono o wareware wa Do we really see 
mite iru ka what is to come?
(“Minami kaze fuku hi” [Day of the South Wind])

However that may be, the fascination of this anthology is that all the poems are presented with passages from such classics as the Hōjōki, the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan), or the Sarashina nikki (Sarashina Diary) along with the verbiage of the contemporary media. And there, the words of these interconnected poems spin out the links that connect the present to “a thousand years” ago. Surely it is the same perception that bridges the two different eras in human-scale time.

 

“Society” and “Our World” 

In “modern times,” many neologisms entered the Japanese language resulting from translation from English and other Western languages. Among them are ningen 人間 and shakai 社会, which are translations of “human being” and “society,” respectively. Since long before that time, the word seken 世間 had roughly expressed the meaning of “society.” The characters for ningen had been introduced centuries earlier, but for a word pronounced jinkan, which was a synonym of yo no naka (the world). 

For human beings who by their nature lived by using language and organized for survival through the use of language, the solitary individual was not part of the picture. Human language can be language only when it is communicated to other humans. Inasmuch as they use language, ningen has tobe plural, or rather, many, as it is basic to their existence. And language links together individual humans (whether it is face-to-face or not) and individuals to their world (or society, if you will). If that link is ma 間 (the “ma” that may be familiar to those interested in the world of art), it stands to reason that ningen and seken share the character ma.

The English word “society” and the yo no naka (“our world”) cannot replace each other because the former tends to evoke the horizontal connections among people (as seen in the concept of the social contract, etc.) while the latter is considered to incorporate both horizontal as well as vertical connections. The yo connotes “generations,” “ages,” “this world,” “the other world,” “the next world,” “social reform,” “succession of generations,” and so forth. Seken is the “link” (ma) connecting these yo. We can further say the yo serves as the “link” connecting humans to one another.

 

The Time and Language of “World”

The yo also connotes “node” or “joint,” as in bamboo. It can represent junctures of time like seasonal changes. What lies between the “joints” is seken or yo no naka—“our world.”The nodes of bamboo encircle its girth and continue in rings up the trunk. Like bamboo nodes, “generations” succeed each other and the “world” (yo) changes. The yo no naka world thus extends not only horizontally, but vertically and in multiple layers. The temporal quality is part of the notion of yo no naka, so even those of us of the world of today could re-invoke the memory of the Bunji Kyoto earthquake or the Jōgan tsunami and overlap it with what we experience today. 

That temporal quality is of course different from the linear, one-way sense of modern time that can be simply counted in numbers. It is rather as if the ring-like nodes (yo) warped into loops and met in the magnetic field of a living language. One might also describe it as legendary time. Legendary time seems to have been replaced by the “modern” perception of time around [when? early twentieth century?] the time folklorist Yanagita Kunio (1875–1962) was taking down the legends of the Tohoku region—literally collecting samples of folktales like so many specimens. 

Still, the language of a flexible temporal quality was maintained in people’s daily lives. And when the tsunami set in motion by the shifting of the earth’s crust broke the framework of time that had only been in place for two hundred years, the language/words that could capture the event and the experience were not those of the modernized shakai or the kagaku (science) that had advanced without regard to humanity, but the language spun out of the daily lives of the people—the language of human-scale time.

Surely this is not limited to Japan alone. In every part of the world is the vernacular, and nowhere has the permeation of the “modern” extinguished that language. Rather, what sustains the roots of people’s perceptions in daily life is this type of language, which survives, permeating the modern, evolving but maintaining its distinctive nuances. That language retains the vital sense of time that has not been coopted into the narrow confines of modernity but remains plastic and free. If it were not for this language, people might not have anything with which to capture and absorb their experience when they encounter an event of proportions that vastly overwhelm the human scale.

 

The Wrathful Future

What happened as a result of the recent disaster was not limited to a rude awakening to the realities of natural (geologic) time. What has added to the gravity of the “most terrifying of all calamities,” in which nature swallowed up the mere 200-years of modern time on a scale unprecedented in one thousand years, was that an extraordinary, alien quality of time, which had been awakened but barely contained by “modern” technology until then, burst out into the open. 

There is human-scale time and there is natural (geologic) time, when mountains shift and land rises out of the seas. But now humanity of the modern age has cut the seal on time of a totally different kind in which the fundaments of nature as we know it (the nucleus of matter) may be destroyed. This time is different from all the qualities of time humanity has known heretofore. Until now, the real state of time was in the past. It could be recollected and remembered. But what science and technology has now done is to unleash future time. Until now, the future was undefined; it extended before us without limit. It did cause people to feel uncertainty, but still, because it was undefined, all sorts of expectations and hopes could be projected upon it. 

But now the future has become palpable. We can quite literally feel the threat not only to humanity but to all living things: Time brought about by the creation of radioactive substances through nuclear reaction.

Radioactive waste remains hazardous for 100,000 years; so the production of waste resulting from the use of radioactive material for nuclear power generation thrusts upon humanity the task of storing it in places far removed from the habitations of living things. This is the subject of the recently released film made by Danish director Michael Madsen Into Eternity. It documents the construction of a facility in Onkalo, Finland to serve as the final disposal place for nuclear waste. The space of 100,000 years, which is even longer than Homo sapiens have lived on Earth, is an expanse of time beyond our imagination. Eternity. That is the word we have for the infinite expanse of time so great that it by far transcends what we humans mentally grasp.

Just about anywhere on Earth, “facing the eternal” was once the job of priests and prophets, religious leaders, or divines, but today nuclear technology has made eternity a matter of concern to humankind as a whole. In unleashing the “atom,” science and technology, which cast aside all religious fears and superstitions to study and manipulate nature from a completely neutral point of view, has now, on the contrary forced the human race to face eternity directly, raw and fearsome as it is. From now on humankind will always live in the midst of “fear.” The only way to contain that fear is to construct the kind of eternally impenetrable facility documented in the film made at Onkalo, Finland—that unholy sanctum that “should never be disturbed.”

 

Zero Holiness

It is not as if there have been no warnings of what was in store since the advent of nuclear technology. Leader of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer named the first atomic experiment conducted in New Mexico the “Trinity Test.” It is unclear what this scientist intended in “christening” his experiment with such a religious term, but we can surmise that it was an expression of his expectation and pride in the epoch-making technology of the “atom” he believed would usher in a new era for humanity. Yet, Jewish as was his religious background, the words that came to Oppenheimer’s mind as he witnessed the explosion in the Almagordo desert were not those of the Bible but from verses in the Bhagavad Gita. A mushroom cloud rose 10,000 meters into the sky and the immense fireball brought to mind “the radiance of a thousand suns . . . burst at once into the sky.” He recalled the words spoken by Vishnu in that Hindu holy book, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” And now, what has resulted is not the history of a chosen people but the story of an epochal battle of self-destruction.

When an event beyond human comprehension occurs, how do people react and behave in the face of the sudden appearance in its wake of an incomprehensible and forbidden “Zone”? And how does the community around it change? This was the theme treated in an SF novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky that deals with the long-suppressed story of the nuclear radioactivity disaster in the Ural mountains in 1957. Based on that novel, former Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky created the masterpiece movie Stalker. This film portrays an even purer drama of the spirit than the original novel. It describes the thorough and simple, raw faith of human beings who, in the face of what might be called “zero holiness,” divested of all doctrinal presumptions, live with unconditional fear and horror of something and the awe it inspires.

At Chernobyl, where the accident took place in the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine in 1986, the abominable energy emitted by the destroyed No. 4 reactor was entombed in a massive wall of concrete now openly called a “sarcophagus.” However, the occupant of the sarcophagus is still alive, and the still powerful radioactivity has seriously weakened the concrete, requiring the covering to be replaced over and over. Calling the casing a “sarcophagus” suggests the desperate hope of helpless humans that they will have trapped inside it something that has “died.” One is reminded of Rudolf Otto’s description of “the holy” as that which people fear and keep at a distance yet find themselves unexplainably attracted to. Nuclear technology has already created such dreaded yet “fascinating” inner sanctums.

In Japan, splendid torii gateways, such as found at the entrances to holy places, are often built near the sites of nuclear power plants. They suggest people’s fear of divine punishment or the presence of something “holy” in the space beyond. When faced with some overwhelming power or when forced to face eternity, people inevitably become “religious.” Or rather, the necessity to face eternity has given rise to all sorts of religions. Even scientists and engineers, when they are involved with nuclear technology—unless they are completely blind to its meaning—probably find their job of assuring “safety” similar to the job of a priest attempting to sooth the wrath of the gods.

 

United States: Birthplace of Nuclear Technology

One other thing we have to keep in mind is that the country that developed nuclear technology and put it to practical use in a surprisingly short amount of time was the United States. Nuclear development was made a huge national project in the midst of the all-out war that embroiled the whole world. Making the most of so-called management engineering, scientists and engineers were organized efficiently for the R&D and charged to concentrate on specific assigned tasks. With only a few at the top aware of the purpose of the whole project, the first nuclear weapon was created.

Harnessing nuclear energy, with its destructive power a hundred thousand times greater than TNT, has to be a state-scale project anywhere. And that is true even when it is employed for what are known as “peaceful purposes.” Whole nations are mobilized for this development—their bureaucracy, politicians, and military, their scholars and universities, their industry, and also, naturally, their media. All the more in a country that calls itself a “democracy,” the media must be mustered in order to secure the “support” of the people. The media must be mobilized to cover over the truth of what is really happening, whether it is top national secrets in wartime or, in peacetime, the propaganda sustaining the nation. Since the launching of all-out world wars began, the organized establishment has been part of nuclear technology from the outset.

This technology produces radioactivity through nuclear reaction and that radioactivity is fatally harmful to humans (and of course all other forms of life). This was made abundantly clear following the “experiments” conducted in actual warfare at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Moreover, the radioactivity that is released remains harmful over an extremely long period of time, and the best we can do is to physically confine it.

Nuclear technology thus unleashed energy several tens of thousands of times greater than results from any chemical reaction and the radioactivity that is emitted in the process lasts several tens of thousands of times longer as well. The half-life of the transuranic element plutonium that humans made from uranium is over 24,000 years. It would require four times longer—some 100,000 years—to attain a state harmless to living creatures

Meanwhile, the United States was founded only about 230 years ago. Even the advent of a place on the earth known as the “Americas” came only about 250 years before that. The nation founded on the “new continent” by migrants from Europe eventually established itself as the United States of America. One hundred and fifty years after its founding it had grown into a world hegemon, and in the middle of the twentieth century, that young United States put nuclear technology to practical use for the first time. Nuclear science had actually developed in Europe (mainly Germany), but the United States centralized the results of that study, organized it through management engineering, and developed the technology for practical use. And thus were unleashed the particles that embody the extraordinary expanse of time that is 100,000 years. 

 

The Time of a Country without a Past

There is something unique about time in the United States. It is a country without a past. It was a society established by throwing off Europe’s shackles of the past and transplanting only “modernity” directly to its new territory. For the founders of the new nation there was only future, extending wide open before it. Its people styled themselves pioneers of the future, inventing electricity and the telephone, taking the lead in systems for mass-production of automobiles, and providing models for remaking nature and the world through science and technology. And today they take the lead even in the remaking of human beings themselves. This is how, it is said, the future is “opened up.”

Yet, confronting a phenomenon such as never seen before when he opened up the future of nuclear technology, J. Robert Oppenheimer, of the second generation of a European immigrant family, said he recalled a verse from an old Indian epic. In the Time of his own country there was nothing like the ancient Shiji history of China or the medieval Hōjōki account of Japan to mark “one thousand years.” 

That Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in the year the United States declared its independence is symbolic. The new nation had cut itself off from the fetters of Europe’s age-old struggles for power and authority and created a novel state in which a “free people” had “privatized” power. As the foundation for the creation of this new society, private property was made sacred and institutions based on ownership were put in place. Under those institutions, people were empowered to manipulate nature “freely,” and to buy and sell it as their natural right. Those who did not approve of such “freedom”—the native people of the Americas—were refused the right of property ownership. In this “America,” the entire landscape inhabited by all living creatures was made into real estate that could be bought and sold under title deed, and it became the name of a system under which such rights were held by all citizens.

Then it was said that the United States had a “manifest destiny.” It had a mission to spread this “freedom” throughout the world; in other words to propagate its own system throughout the world and to distribute in the “free market” all manner of things on the planet—whether they be natural resources, human beings, or ideas—as materials and commodities. Through that system, human beings became “free” masters of the world, unconstrained by conditions in nature or history (the past). And that “freedom” was thought to be the future of humankind. The driving forces toward that future were the technology for developing nature and utilizing its resources, the industrial systems that socialized that technology, and the market where all things became commodities and were distributed. Speaking of “trinities,” modernity was advanced through this indivisible three-in-one system of technology, industry, and market economy.

Although this system was not unique to the United States, the country was not weighed down by social or historical burdens —i.e., the past—that might have obstructed its “free” application. The United States, therefore, was able to produce—as the other side of the coin of freedom—social management methods, such as management engineering aimed at efficiency and growth, by deploying the most suitable of the options at their disposal. (Management engineering made “freedom” indistinguishable from unlimited “control/management.”) And this could be framed the “escape from the old world” and the “advancement of humankind.”

What drew everyone into that brightly lit future was the “Dream.” As brightly as the Dream might shine, however, increasing darkness spread out under its feet. The neglected dross that collected in the shadow of such shining dreams (the victims of the New Orleans flooding or today’s “99 percent” occupying Wall Street) was left to sink into oblivion, and dismissed as nothing to regret. However, as the upshot of the monstrous technology developed in order to realize such “freedom,” the 100,000 years of time buried in nature has been exposed and unleashed, and it has begun to petrify the future. Now the urge to pursue the future has come to cloud the future of humankind. And now—though we never before thought of the future as countable—we are now forced to count it far beyond the dimension of human-scale time. 

The circle of globalization has been closed. With the century and a half during which U.S. hegemony spanned the world coming to an end, the spontaneous combustion system of modernity is burning itself out. Will we stay with the 200-year-old “modern time”? Should we venture out of that Time? As the Strugatsky brothers wrote in their science fiction work A Billion Years Before the End of the World, the “end of the world” is always far away, and if the “end does not come” then there is no difference between tomorrow and one billion years in the future. But now, there are signs of the end. Human beings have to count the years of time amid those signs. We must face that now-countable or finite time, transform it into the infinite, and we must come up with some other way of exploring the possibilities of some new kind of “freedom.” 


(translation by Lynne E. Riggs, 3-22-12)

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