It has been five years since the earthquake devastated the Tohoku region of Japan, killing over 20,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands, five years since the world watched in horror as the towering waves of the tsunami swept across the plains, carrying away houses and human figures. Since that day, I have kept up to date with post-disaster reconstruction efforts and read extensively on the meaning of catastrophe. Like many others, I’ve collected narratives about ruinous homes and stranded boats; about towns torn asunder and familial ties severed by tragedy; about spirits that cannot rest and survivors who could no longer continue the work of survival. I never got the chance to visit the Tohoku region, and the disaster project I had worked on so painstakingly could not be continued due to the volatility of the academic market. Over the past years, I have visited Japan five times, but never went anywhere close to Tohoku, in part out of a sense of anxiety that I might be appropriating the tragedy of others for creative and philosophical ends. I did not want to marvel at the sights of devastation, even as I understood their undeniable allure.
But the disaster, even though not experienced directly, seems to have become a part of my consciousness. Suffering at a distance, suffering witnessed through images and reimagined through language, becomes a sort of lens through which life can be reassessed. In some sense, the narratives from Tohoku saved me since the magnitude of what had happened became a constant reminder that the precariousness of daily life could be endured. Many changes have taken place over the past five years, and I can scarcely recognize the self that first watched the footage of the tsunami on the news. The disaster also showed me that the answers to the questions posed by all catastrophes – questions about resilience, community, and collective moral responsibility – cannot be answered by the limited and limiting discourse of academia. To the academics I met who claimed that the Sublime (the ruins, the terrifying force of nature) matters much more than the reconstruction of devastated homelands, I can only say this: A small hut built out of compassion for those in need surpasses a lifetime of scholarly achievement.
As I build my own figurative hut, in a story that is set partly in 2011, I need to remain constantly aware of those who suffer at a distance. Words are all I have to offer.
I love this speech by Kenzaburo Oe, which – though a bit grand for someone like me – is an important reminder of the value of writing:
“As one with a peripheral, marginal and off-centre existence in the world, I would like to seek how – with what I hope is a modest, decent and humanistic contribution – I can be of some use in a cure and reconciliation of mankind.”