Monday, March 14, 2011

We are all Japanese!

 Firebombing of Kobe as shown in the 1988 animated movie "Hotaru no Haka" (Grave of the fireflies) by Isao Takahata. The film is eerily reminding of the present situation in Japan, with the troubles with the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear plants. It is a beautiful movie, visually stunning, but I don't really suggest to you to watch it, unless you are sure that you do not suffer of depression.

One thing I remember of my first trip to Japan, in the early 1980s, is a conversation with an old Japanese man in Tokyo. We were somewhere on top of a small hill and he was telling me of the time of the war in a mixture of English and Japanese. At some moment, he made an arching gesture, as to encompass the whole city, and he said something like, "it was all destroyed, all the same, minna onaji..."

I had at least some idea of what he meant. I had read Fosco Maraini's "Meeting with Japan" and I had seen pictures of Tokyo after the firebombing in 1945. Later, I went to visit Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. Much later, there came the movie "Grave of the fireflies," telling the story of the firebombing of Kobe. Of course, without having been there, one can't really understand what carpet bombing or atomic bombing must have been. But stories and movies do tell something and just a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum can give you months of nightmares afterwards.

When I was living in Tokyo, in the mid 1980s, I always had the impression of being in a different dimension. It was a sensation of impermanence, something like living in the world of Basho's poems. It was difficult to walk in the city and not to notice that those large avenues crisscrossing the city blocks had been designed with a specific purpose in mind: that of barriers against the spreading of fires. But would those barriers be enough? Every time a small earthquake shook the building of the University of Tokyo, where I was working, it was a little like hearing good old Godzilla stomping its giant feet, just around the corner.

Tokyo has always reminded me of a spaceship or an ocean liner. A huge, sophisticated, complex machine where whatever happens to one, happens to everyone. In the belly of the giant machine, you can't survive alone: if the ship sinks, everyone sinks. In Tokyo, people live in a sort of contrappunto dance where everyone has to move in step with the others - it is the way to live in an immense metropolis where millions of people are moving, working, going to school, talking, eating, bicycling, drinking beers, getting coffee and doing the things people do.

The earthquake and the tsunami of 2011 have been a visual discovery of all what I had been imagining in my worst nightmares. The houses and the fields engulfed by the waves show what happens when you lose the things that keep life livable in a town; including a firm ground to stand on. The explosions of the nuclear plants of Fukushima have been a reminder of how fragile the supply lines are to life in towns.

With the world becoming more and more complex, we need to apply more and more technology to make sure that nothing goes wrong. But, in the end, it is the black swan principle: something must go wrong, sooner or later. And, in our complex world, when something goes wrong, it often does it a spectacular way and then the result is disaster for everybody. We all know that no man is an island. This time, we are all Japanese.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)