A Note on the Disaster in Japan

The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact. It does not touch anyone in particular; “I” am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside. – Maurice Blanchot, Writing of the Disaster

You would think such a day would tremble to begin . . . – Thomas Harris, Hannibal

I often get asked about the March 11 disaster, or people wonder why I have not written about it.  I’ve always been reticent to do so, since I wasn’t living in Japan at the time.  I was thinking about moving here and joining my wife, although nothing was set in stone.  Living nine hours behind Japan, I was asleep at the time of the earthquake, since it was 5:46 AM. I was still living a rather vampire-esque student existence after my PhD, so when I finally got up around midday the story had already been passed over. The tsunami had happened, but there is only so much you can report after that, although the BBC News kept showing the footage of the NHK offices shaking at the moment of the quake, with TV’s turning off and papers flying everywhere.  But really, the first I knew of it was a phone call from a friend, asking had I heard, and that they hoped my wife was OK, she was living in Tokushima at the time, way down south on Shikoku Island, so was fine.

I suppose one of the possible reasons people ask me for my view is because, as well as being a resident of Japan, I am an academic philosopher.  We rightfully expect philosophy to provide some kind of understanding of events such as wars or disasters; however I have always felt that philosophy, as a response to disasters, seems hollow.  Blanchot, when he wrote his ‘Writing of the Disaster’ had Hiroshima, as much in mind as he did the Holocaust.  His point is of course, that events like Hiroshima can only be commented by those who were not ‘in’ the disaster.  If you were actually directly affected, if you were ‘there’, you would most likely be dead, hence “ “I” am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside.”  This seems unsatisfactory; surely we can talk of a survivor’s experience as being of one who was ‘in’ the disaster.  We might also wonder whether we can really say someone is ‘spared’ because they did not die, and allowing for mental trauma such as post-traumatic stress disorder, we can also ask how ‘intact’ the survivor is.   Blanchot, seems too esoteric, far removed from the wastelands of Hiroshima, Nagasaki or indeed the Tohoku coastline.

However, it maybe that there is something about the disaster, about any disaster anywhere which renders philosophy impotent as a response.    The philosopher Theodor Adorno noted this, that an event, (Adorno had Auschwitz in mind) has the capability of rendering philosophy’s response at best trite or at worst meaningless.  No explanation, no an attempt to make sense of or to understand could do justice to the experience that those who were there and had to endure the disaster. The entire exercise is fruitless some say, you are trying to impose a certain kind of order on something chaotic, to render rational or intelligible that which happened ultimately for no reason, or at least no reason beyond a mere causal explanation of events, the what and who, but not the how.

The danger of resting at that point, to simply acquiesce to philosophy’s powerlessness is that it leads us to yield to the temptation that, say in regard to the situation in Fukushima, that philosophy has nothing to offer. And that would be a mistake, maybe Adorno is right, philosophy should not be sought out to make sense of things, but it may still be able to offer guidance on practical concerns.  Questions about how, post-3/11, Japanese society should respond to the ongoing crisis in Fukushima, I submit, is a conversation to which philosophy can contribute.


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