Did you know that one in every ten earthquakes on earth happen in Japan? Four tectonic plates meet at the heart of Japan, making the country susceptible to frequent and massive earthquakes. Yet, earthquakes are not the only disaster Japan has experienced over the course of its long history.
The Second World War
Visit Hiroshima. You might see nothing – recall the opening lines of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour. Nonetheless, visit Hiroshima. And Okinawa, too. And Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto. World War II left its traces across the entire country, burning down cities and hundreds of castles, temples, and shrines, killing millions of innocent people.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is by far the worst disaster in the entire history of Japan. Yet the action of the kamikaze pilots speak to a deeper disaster. The Japanese government found, either deliberately or by accident, a way to manipulate the minds of the youth so that young soldiers were made to act as if they glorified the hopeless and suicidal mission. The book Listen to the Voices from the Sea collects the notes written by the kamikaze pilots during the end of the war. This is a great place to start in order to understand the totality of the moral collapse in Japan during the Second World War.
Fukushima Nuclear Crisis
Many Japanese consumers are still quite unsure as to whether they should buy food, especially seafood, produced in the Tohoku region.
More than four years have passed since the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. Despite the lack of media coverage, problems persist today.
Nuclear power plants have been an energy source charged with political significance. During the middle of the twentieth century, Yomiuri Shimbun, the largest newspaper in Japan led by Matsutaro Shoriki, cooperated with the CIA to convince the Japanese people that the power plant was “absolutely safe.” This “myth of absolute security” was coupled with the construction of the image of the nuclear power plant as the symbol of the technological achievements of human civilization. The first Japanese nuclear power plant was completed in 1966, and since then it has also been featured at the 1970 Osaka Expo.
The physical explosion of the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant was followed by a momentary political explosion, as many took to the streets to hold massive demonstrations against the Japanese government’s pro-nuclear policy. The struggle continues.
Industrialization and Pollution Diseases
Every student in the Japanese public school system is introduced to the “four pollution diseases” related to the industrialization of Japan. The first is the “itai-itai disease” which spread in 1912. “Itai” means “it hurts” in Japanese, a phrase repeated over and over again by victims as their spine and joints caused severe pain due to cadmium poisoning.
The second is the “Minamata disease” (1956) followed by the “Niigata Minamata disease” (1965). Both were caused by mercury poisoning which led to paralysis, coma, and even death. Tens of thousands of victims were affected, and yet it took forty years for the government to pay compensation.
Finally, the “Yokkaichi asthma” broke out in 1960. Victims had serious difficulty breathing, and in some cases the respiratory distress led to death. The cause of the asthma was the sulfur-containing smog released from the petrochemical complex in Yokkaichi.
Tuberculosis Epidemic in Textile Factories
During the late nineteenth century, more than half of all Japanese workers worked in textile factories. Of those workers, the majority were women. These women migrated from the countryside to work in the cities and send back money to their homes – much like the Chinese migrant workers today.
The working conditions in those factories were horrible. The factories as well as the dormitories were packed and filthy, as is testified by photographs. In such an environment, about 20% of weavers and 25% of spinners died of tuberculosis, and many more were suspected of having tuberculosis at the time of their deaths
After years of negotiations between the Japanese government and the textile corporations, the Factory Laws were legislated in 1911 and implemented in 1916. Nonetheless, similar to what happened in nineteenth century Britain, the industry cheated these laws in one way or another.
Great Tenpo Famine
This famine ironically played a major role in opening up Japan’s borders to foreign trade.
Due mainly to flooding and cold weather, crop yield decreased by 60% in 1833. The famine continued for seven years, killing more than 60,000 people. The legitimacy of the Tokugawa government was heavily shaken due to rebellions and revolts organized by peasants.
This deadly typhoon which hit the south-western Japan killed close to 5,000 people and tore down entire cities. Miraculously, the Ise Shrine did not sustain any damage thanks to the protection which the trees provided.
The Kumano area received one of the severest blows by this calamity. This was where the writer Kenji Nakagami, one of the most celebrated Japanese writers, was born. Nakagami had just turned 13 when the typhoon hit, and he managed to survive not without the help of luck.
Typhoons are a part of a seasonal routine for Japanese people living in Okinawa, Kyushu, Shikoku, and south-western Honshu. It is incredible to see how the residents manage to survive and rebuild their homes over and over again.
The average Japanese person had to pay 20% more for all the goods they purchased – this was the impact the 1973 oil criss, known as the “oil shock,” had on the country.
The construction of train tracks and highways came to a halt. Many people bought and stored ridiculous amounts of consumer goods such as bathroom tissue and detergent in panic. New magazines and books had to cut down on page count, since there was not enough supply of paper. There was a massive attempt to reduce energy consumption – not unlike after the Fukushima crisis. The rapid growth of the Japanese economy came to a halt.
Eruptions of Mt. Fuji and the Cherry Blossom Island
Did you know that the iconic Japanese mountain is still very much an active volcano? Since the beginning of Japanese history, Mt. Fuji has been sending rocks and ashes flying across the country, blocking passages, halting trade, and painting cities in gray.
Another seriously active volcano, which has been erupting close to a thousand times per year for the last decade, is Sakurajima, literally “cherry blossom island.” Hundreds of people were killed, and thousands of houses were burned down, by this complex of mountains blessed with a deceptively pretty name.
The Emperor's Move-Out
One of the big issues during the early nineteenth century in Japan was whether the country should open its borders and engage in foreign trade. As we know, the country did open its borders, which led to the “Meiji Restoration” – which is more like a Meiji Revolution – in the later half of the same century.
The Emperor had to move from Kyoto to Tokyo for political reasons, and this made Tokyo the new capital of Japan. (Did you know that the location of the Emperor’s house just is the capital of Japan?) But the tension persisted. In less than twenty years, Japan had to undergo a radical Westernization, and a significant number of people reacted quite violently. The 1876 “Shinpuren Rebellion” is famous for starting other rebellions across the country, and it also inspired Mishima to write his Runaway Horses.
Yes, sugar. Sugar was introduced into the Japanese diet during the eighth century. With this, Japan unconsciously imported a host of health problems. The shogun Iemochi Tokugawa (1846 – 1866) famously was addicted to sugar. At the time of his death, 30 of his teeth had cavity.
Even today, people continue to wrestle with the problem of sugar overconsumption. An article in Nature, vol. 482, reveals the “toxic truth about sugar,” and lists more than 20 negative health effects, claiming that excessive consumption “can cause many of the same health problems as alcohol.” A sweet nightmare.