Earthquakes and Literature

We had a terrific earthquake here in Oita last night. I was on duty at our new earthquake proof hospital building so not so much as a single pen stand fell over. The whole building has humongous shock absorbers built into the foundation. But some of our nurses came in this morning reporting of bookshelves falling over and dishes flying out of the cupboards in their homes. A clerk told me that the roofing slates of houses in his neighborhood rained off the roofs. My house, fortunately, was safe and the damage was minimal: A few broken dishes and a single stone dislodging from the stone wall.

The frequency of earthquakes is one of the main reasons you do not see many stone buildings in Japan. Almost all of the ancient temples of Kyoto are constructed of wood, even though they are modeled closely after the stone and brick temples of China. Not only are they constructed of wood, but the truly traditional construction does not even use nails to hold the wood together, opting for a more flexible structure. Some of the buildings have survived for centuries.

Some scholars have proposed that the frequency of earthquakes not only influenced our architecture but also our philosophy, art, and literature. Meteorology does influence literature somewhat. The ubiquitous fog in England, the sun in Italy, the cold in Russia, the humidity in the Deep South, all act as backdrops and often shape the mood and outlook of the literature of the respective areas to different degrees.

Japan, until quite late in its history, maintained elements of the hunter gatherer society. Activities like digging for clams and gathering bracken sprouts in the springtime, hunting for chestnuts and propagule in the fall, live on as social events. Many Shinto rituals trace their origins to thanks giving ceremony for the fruits of the land. As such, seasonal changes in the weather tend to make their way into literature.

The Japanese obsession with transience probably owes a great deal to the frequent earthquakes. If it happened less frequently, you could blame it on the wrath of God, or call it God’s test. But it just happens too often for that. Nobody in England ever said that the fog was God’s retribution for the sinful mortals, and nobody in Russia looked for divine reasons why the snow was falling. Some things just are. In Japan, every once in a while, inexplicably and without reason, things just crash to the ground. And there is nothing to do but to pick up the pieces and start over. That unspoken reality sinks into our psyche by osmosis and shapes the way we think to a certain extent.

If you read Haruki Murakami or Banana Yoshimoto, you get the feeling that the characters are perpetually living in temporary shelters and picking up the pieces from unspoken disasters. There is a certain self-deprecating stoicism about the way they trudge through their lives. The clean, orderly, aesthetic Japanese society stands back to back with the fatalism nurtured by an environment where things just sometimes fly out of shelves and disintegrate. What can you do about it? That’s life.

There are few works of fiction directly about earthquakes that I am aware of. Haruki Murakami has written a series of shot stories about people affected by the Hanshin Earthquake. Teru Miyamoto, whose Takibi no Owari was already a work in progress when the earthquake hit, said his work was strongly influenced by the events that followed. But all told there is a surprising dearth of fiction relating to earthquakes per se. Kamo-no-Chomei wrote of the Genreki Earthquake of 1185, “As time passes people will stop talking about it.”

Japanese culture is not what it used to be. We watch the same Marvel movies and fuss over the same health food fads as everyone else in the first world. But we are still reminded, sometimes, of a small part of our culture through the intermittent reinforcement of corporal education: The ground starts shaking.

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