Japanese people need our solidarity, not a blame game

The earthquake confirms that a pre‑Enlightenment urge to blame human greed for natural disasters is making a comeback.

Frank Furedi


The Japanese proverb ‘fix the problem, not the blame’ captures an attitude towards life that has served Japan well in the post-Hiroshima era. It makes a powerful point, which is that looking for someone or something to blame is often a time-consuming exercise that rarely has positive outcomes. Whereas nothing can be done about an unfortunate event that has already occurred, we can mobilise our creative powers to fix problems that stare us in the face. History shows that when communities embrace a culture of blame, they tend to become distracted from finding solutions to problems.

In the wake of the various disasters that have struck Japan this month, that old proverb will be seriously tested by the reactions of millions of angry and bewildered people. So far, public anger has been directed at the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) for its response to the crisis at the damaged nuclear reactor in Fukushima. Inevitably, as the days passed, criticism of government officials and the nuclear power industry increased in volume.

But in comparison to most other recent disasters – Haiti, Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami of 2004 – there has been very little politically motivated exploitation of the tragedy in Japan by the Japanese people themselves. Instead, the impulse to turn a catastrophe into a political football has been far more pronounced among foreign critics of nuclear power and Western advocacy groups, who seem to regard the disaster in Japan as an opportunity to promote their agenda through the theme of ‘I told you so’.

Throughout human history, catastrophes like that which has befallen Japan have forced people to make sense of the enormity of events. Such a violent disruption to life brings about not only a physical crisis, but an existential one, too. Momentous events on the scale of a triple tragedy of an earthquake, tsunami and potential nuclear contamination call into question the prevailing system of meaning. In such circumstances, people are forced to find answers to questions that sometimes they dare not ask.

That is why, throughout history, earthquakes, floods and droughts have been associated with powerful religious and moral tales about human error and divine retribution. Indeed, since Biblical times, disasters have been experienced as key defining moments in human history. Events such as the Fall of Adam or Noah’s Flood were interpreted in a similar fashion and Martin Luther represented the Biblical deluge as a catalyst for speeding up the world’s decay. (1) Historically, communities have sought to resolve the crisis of meaning that confronts them through elaborating an ideology of evil. Such an ideology helps to give some meaning to a catastrophe, seeking to explain its causes and promoting the idea that someone or something is to blame.

The search for meaning through history

Our ideas about what causes disasters have gone through three important phases. Traditionally, catastrophes were attributed to supernatural forces. Throughout most of history, they were seen as acts of God or of fate. As acts of fate, they were portrayed as inevitable occurrences, whose destructive power could not be avoided.

The rise of secularism led to an important shift in the way that society understood disasters. The rise of science as the new source of knowledge altered people’s perception of disasters and they increasingly came to be defined as acts of Nature. Though science could explain why and how something happened, a natural disaster had no special meaning of its own.

In modern times, we still talk about natural disasters, but we increasingly look for someone to blame. As a result, the view that disasters are caused by acts of nature is being gradually displaced by the idea that they are the outcome of acts of human beings. In the aftermath of disasters today, the finger of blame invariably points towards other human beings. Government officials, big business or careless operatives are held responsible for most disasters. Floods are less likely to be associated with divine displeasure than with greedy property developers recklessly building on floodplains.

Despite the advance of science and the development of a relatively sophisticated understanding of what causes earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, communities find it difficult to accept that disasters are normal and natural parts of our existence. As a result, in the aftermath of a catastrophe people forget the science and are reluctant to treat a natural disaster as a random event; instead, they try to assign it some meaning. Science can explain things, but it can rarely provide meaning for human experience. Consequently, societies look elsewhere to supplement the explanation offered by science. In a secular age, however, claims that catastrophes are divine punishment for sinful behaviour do not have much traction. So instead, the contemporary ideology of evil increasingly focuses on human culpability as the causal agency of catastrophes.

Blaming human greed for catastrophes was systematically elaborated in the aftermath of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. That event marked a watershed in the history of humanity, because for the first time the traditional explanations of the religious authorities were undermined by the growing influence of scientific thought.

Voltaire’s powerful polemic Candide was written partly as a response to the Lisbon earthquake, calling into question the idea that this tragic event was an act of God (2). However, the scientific explanation that attributed the earthquake to natural causes did not entirely diminish people’s demand for an explanation of the event in the language of good and evil. Although science was in the ascendancy, the thirst for a moralised account of the quake was not quenched. And it was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who provided what would turn out to be the standard narrative of blaming human evil for natural disasters.

Rousseau was angry at Voltaire’s naturalistic account. In a letter to Voltaire he wrote: ‘I do not see how one can search for the source of moral evil anywhere but in man.’ Rousseau was convinced that the ‘the majority of our physical misfortunes are also our work’. From his perspective, it was not nature but human arrogance and stupidity that were responsible for the appalling consequences of the Lisbon earthquake.

He said to Voltaire: ‘Without leaving your Lisbon subject, concede, for example, that it was hardly nature that there brought together twenty-thousand houses of six or seven stories. If the residents of this large city had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer or perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock. But many obstinately remained… to expose themselves to additional earth tremors because what they would have had to leave behind was worth more than what they could carry away. How many unfortunates perished in this disaster through the desire to fetch their clothing, papers, or money?’

As far as Rousseau was concerned, this was a disaster that the people of Lisbon brought upon themselves. Since the eighteenth century, Rousseau’s argument has served as a paradigm for finding meaning in the aftermath of disastrous events. However, up to the 1960s, this impulse to find a scapegoat existed alongside the dominant scientific representation of disasters as natural. There are numerous examples where terrible events are attributed to natural causes and where no person is held responsible. It is worth recalling that although 20million people died as a result of the influenza pandemic of 1918, there was little finger-pointing or blaming. Today, by contrast, even a small flu epidemic would lead to an outcry about irresponsible officials, politicians or health professionals.

Whatever its causes, the blame for the loss of lives in such an epidemic today would be placed on people rather than on nature. Moreover, today disastrous acts are not merely interpreted as the outcome of human error but are frequently perceived as the consequence of wilful neglect or of the self-conscious pursuit of interest and gain. Thus they are often portrayed as the result of intentional if not malevolent action. It may well be that expectations of malicious human intent explain the contemporary response to disasters.

The Japanese experience

Japan has a mixed record in being able to give meaning to its experience of misfortune. In its response to earthquakes, it has demonstrated some of the worst and some of the most inspiring attitudes towards disasters. The Great Kanto Earthquake that struck Tokyo on 1 September 1923, leading to the loss of more than 100,000 lives, illustrates how destructive it can be to give in to the impulse to blame. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, rumours circulated that ethnic Koreans were going around poisoning the water wells and looting shops. These rumours led to an outbreak of mob violence and lynching, culminating in the slaughter of thousands of Koreans. Smaller numbers of Chinese and Socialists were also killed as nationalist leaders sought to exploit the profound sense of insecurity in a desperate community.

However, since the Second World War, Japanese society has also developed a powerful sense of disaster consciousness. At a very early age, children learn that earthquakes are a normal part of their lives; they internalise a culture that emphasises the importance of solidarity in the face of adversity. The remarkably dignified and heroic manner in which people responded to the Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit Kobe in January 1995, leading to the loss of 6,400 lives, demonstrated Japanese people’s formidable capacity for resilience. People showed their adaptability and their can-do attitude. Within record time, Kobe was transformed from a rundown city into a modern urban centre.

Japan’s latest catastrophe represents an enormous physical and economic challenge. Japan also faces an equally formidable moral and cultural challenge to its capacity to make sense of disasters. Back in 1923, it was a powerful sense of cultural insecurity that allowed blame merchants to distract people from grasping the problems at hand. In the twenty-first century, the capacity of Japan to bounce back quickly and overcome adversity is threatened by a powerful mood of cultural pessimism now afflicting the industrialised world. A key component of this cultural pessimism is a tendency to blame modern science, technology and various forms of production and consumption for all of the threats that we face. In recent decades, we have seen the unleashing of cultural influences that encourage a reversal of the modern understanding of the relationship between technology and nature. From the modernist perspective, science, technology and design protect humanity from the threat of nature; however, today it is argued that technology does not so much protect us as accentuate the problems brought about by natural disasters.

Today’s anti-modernist imagination has nurtured a new ideology of evil – one where the traditional idea that human greed was to blame for natural disasters has given way to the idea that rapacious human ambition is leading to overconsumption and ultimately to the destruction of the planet. That is why so many in the West can barely conceal their impulse to blame manmade climate change for Japan’s catastrophe – even though this has no basis in fact.

In Japan itself, the anti-modernist denunciation of human greed has been relatively restrained. One notable exception has been the eccentric, radical nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who characterised the disaster as ‘divine punishment’. He told the press that ‘Japanese politics is tainted with egoism’. ‘We need to use tsunami to wipe out egoism’, he said. Statements such as this are fortunately still very rare, since people resent being told that their relatives died because they were too greedy. But the kind of cultural pessimism that dominates the Western imagination today is not without influence in Japan.

Japan needs our physical and moral support. But historical experience suggests that we still have to settle scores with the miserabilist legacy of Rousseau. Hundreds of years ago, the Lisbon earthquake helped humanity to clarify its relationship to the material world and to gain profound insights that helped it to gain greater mastery over its destiny. It is too early to say just how much of a historical marker the earthquake of 11 March 2011 will prove to be. But there is little doubt about the enormity of this event and about the challenge it poses for the human species. It asks us to fix an enormous problem and to imagine and construct new and more secure ways of running our world.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in June 2011. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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