A few years before the Normans invaded England in 1066, Cnut was the Danish king who ruled a large territory stretching from Scandinavia to Scotland and England. As it happens with rulers, courtiers surrounded Canute, as he is also known, and told him that his power knew no bounds.
Cnut saw through their sycophancy and decided to teach them a lesson. One day when the tide rose, he asked the courtiers—will the tide retreat if I command? Of course, they said. And so Cnut told the rising sea: “You are part of my dominion, and the ground that I am seated upon is mine, nor has anyone disobeyed my orders with impunity. Therefore, I order you not to rise onto my land, nor to wet the clothes or body of your Lord.”
The sea then, as it often is, was impervious and merciless; it ignored him—the waves rose higher, soaking him. Some storytellers end the story here, explaining how the king was shown his place. But there is a different ending, for Cnut turned and told his people: “The power of kings is vain and trivial, and that none is worthy the name of king but he whose command the heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”
Nature sets those eternal laws, but it does not mean we sit tamely, obeying the laws. We build dams and harness wild rivers to grow crop and generate electricity. We invent medicines to protect ourselves from the scourge of diseases that microbes and other life-forms may infect us with. We tap the sun and ride on waves. And we explore the subatomic universe, hurling projectiles we can’t even see, at speed we can’t fathom, to learn about ourselves and our world.
But there are times when we pause. When things go wrong we assess and then start again. We don’t get it right the first time. But we persevere.
The Japanese know this, more than any other people. They have lived with tsunamis. Now they face the nuclear threat. They know how to rise again. A mushroom cloud tamed them once, but they emerged again, this time in peace.
The triple tragedy of an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude, a tsunami of mind-boggling proportions, and a possible nuclear meltdown emptying Tokyo, can destroy any spirit. But this is Japan. Indeed, caution is necessary and prudent.
The Swiss and German governments are right in assessing the implications of the catastrophe. At such a time, the certainty of some Indian officials, insisting that all safeguards are in place, tempts fate—someone please switch off their mikes. Scaremongering American demagogue Glenn Beck and the Tokyo governor have hinted at divine retribution. But how divine is such a vengeful entity whose message only spells destruction and death? Where is the compassion?
Japan has lived in the shadow of risks and adversity; the tsunami has been part of Japanese lives. In Katsushika Hokusai’s heart-stopping woodcut, Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura, (Under a Wave off Kanagawa) we see the giant wave rise higher than the snow-capped Mount Fuji. The water will eventually recede, the mountain will stand, many boats and homes will disappear, and people will die.
That Hokusai print is part of the Ukiyo-e tradition, or pictures of a floating world. That phrase, “floating world”, resonates in Japan. It suggests the impermanence and fragile beauty of life. In Ukiyo Monogatari (Tales of the Floating World), Asai Ryoi describes the phrase as “living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; …. Refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world.”
That sounds philosophical, a reflective meditation on the transitory nature of life. Roppongi’s night clubs, Akihabara’s gizmos, or Ginza’s shops show a different Japan—fast-paced and hedonist; but think again of the phrase, the floating world—and its key—the refusal to be disheartened. That’s the essence of Japan—to rise again, and be normal again. Being normal isn’t easy for Japan, which has long seen itself as special, and special it is. But it can show how special it is by returning to normalcy.
If any nation can, it is Japan. Earthquakes? Japan has built homes of wood, to rebuild them quickly. And on 11 March, when the earth parted, its skyscrapers swayed, but did not break. They bowed to nature, and they rose again. Bowing is part of Japanese culture; so is standing straight. Faith matters, but so does engineering.
In 1945, the Little Boy and the Fat Man, as the two atomic bombs were called, were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, levelling the cities. But flowers bloomed again. Until then, we must help, offer compassion, and express admiration for a remarkable people who know how to rise from the ashes.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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