Humans in Nature

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It snowed a lot today in Kawakami. Pictured above are some photos I took from the parking lot work. Almost 50cm so far and its still coming down hard. School though, was not cancelled. I couldn’t believe it, coming from a small town in Virginia where we hold school closings for just a few inches, or sometimes even just the prediction that there would be a few inches without any snow actually hitting the ground.

Though there are no snowplows in use here (as is the case with most of Japan), it is standard for car owners to own a set of snow tyres, so everyone made it to school without any issues. This reminds me of something I have discovered about the Japanese worldview, however.

There have been many times where I felt the way the Japanese handle natural disasters and dangerous weather to be rather reckless. Old unkept tunnels collapsing, living directly within active earthquake zones and beside active volcanoes, driving around in typhoons and snowstorms, etc. When someone dies or becomes injured in such areas, there is a certain air of nonchalance applied to the ordeal that initially made my jaw drop. Just three years ago, there was a massive typhoon in the area where it rained nonstop for almost a week, and hundreds of people lost their lives due to landslides linked to unkept artificial cedar forests lining the hills. These things could have been prevented. The tunnels could and should have been repaired, there should have been warnings issued and better information spread about the incoming weather, schools should have been canceled, etc. Someone with some sort of executive control could have stopped them.

What I have come to realize, is that there is a fundamental difference in the way Japanese and Americans view their role in nature. Americans see themselves as doers, able to harness the forces of nature and keep them at bay. The Japanese however, appear to view humans more as a part of nature, and that disasters are just something that we are all subject to. When a death happens in America due to some natural disaster, we are always searching for who is to blame. Who is guilty. Who could have prevented this from happening? Even when our loved ones die in old age, it is always the doctor’s fault. Death is a mistake, it shouldn’t happen. Our society is built around lawsuits. We almost seem to console ourselves with the loss of our loved ones in knowing that someone has paid a price. We live in a penal society.

It seems hard to perceive these things unless looking in from the outside, but this sort of system seems quite obviously intrinsically rooted in our worldview that has sprouted from Abrahamic religion. In such religions, there is someone that can be in control of everything (god). People are culpable for their actions, and we are judged for them in the end. Here lies also the roots of our legal system.

In contrast, Japan for the most part, has no religion, and the religion that it does/did have (Buddhism) does not pose that there is any agency in control of the universe, nor does it have any concept of judgement or sin.

In Japan, I’ve never once seen this sort of search for the guilty when natural disasters occur. Culpable? A mountain collapsed in on a tunnel, how could that be the fault of a human? Once  man puts himself in nature, that is that. There is no dominion over nature, we live and are susceptible to death like everything else.

The Japanese way seems obviously more integrated with the natural coming and going of life on the planet, however, it does indeed lead to a lot of incompetencies and inaction where action could indeed be taken. If only for fear of lawsuits, schools are cancelled in America, tunnels and bridges are repaired, old buildings are demolished and replaced with newer structures. Action is taken.

I can’t say that one system is better than the other. All I can say is that I am learning, and that our (human) cultures around the world have a lot to learn from one another.

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