5/24 Japanese Sense of Nature

Today we discussed two readings: “Is There a Japanese Sense of Nature” by D. P. Martinez and “The Hidden Face of Disaster” by Oguma Eiji. The first article is a stereotype-breaking journey, while the second is about a region’s struggle in finding its place in Japan’s rapid modernization.

Martinez starts with an assumption that there exists a Japanese sense of nature because the understanding of nature in Japan is tightly connected with Shinto and Buddhism. However, just as other cultures, nature is both worshipped and manipulated/used by human. She discusses an example:¬†kami¬†(the Japanese term for deity), or the forces of nature, is often represented in manmade object and we know a rock is kami “because it has been wrapped in folded white paper hung on twisted straw rope”. This example seemed to me the establishment of human power over nature at first, because it implies the containment of kami. However, in Shinto, it is not human that get to decide what is kami and what is not, but rather that everything is kami, so whenever we encounter the sacred object (maybe chosen by a priest), we know kami stands in there. In Martinez’s argument, it is exactly the lack of explicit knowledge of conquering nature that deludes people that there is a Japanese sense of nature; however, this kami example shows that nature is always expressed as surrounded by human touch, which in other name, may be called manipulation. The sense of nature is so delicately embedded and encapsulated in Shinto and Buddhism that even the Japanese believe the infiltrated stereotype that they have a Japanese sense of nature.

Moreover, not only is the sense of nature not unique in Japan, it is used as a tool by the lower class, in the example of fishery. As considered lower by the urban people, fishermen uses the idea of nature to find meaning of themselves and make up for feeling inferior to people of the higher class. Fishermen disdain urban people as they are not able to take care of the environment and unwilling to venture. Partly characterized by the disdain toward each other, the modern divide of class could be one that is not characterized by income but living environment–“an urban middle and working class and a shrinking rural-based population”. As much as modernization benefit people in rural places, it intensifies the divide between rural and urban.

This reading has been very interesting while complicated, as it is a new way to approach the nature to me–I have never thought about how to understand “the sense of nature”, not to mention a Japanese sense of nature. It has been very inspiring to think about nature in the perspective of religion, sociology and politics.

And then Tohoku is where no respect for nature is shown, as modernization abuses the area and made it extra-vulnerable to disasters, 3/11 as an example. The struggle of Tohoku as “the Tibet of Japan” is the result of modernization, and the Oguma suggested at the end that it requires change in the socio-economic structure of the country in order to deal with the problems Tohoku is facing. The country has enjoyed sweet fruits of modernization; maybe it’s time for Japan and all of us to think about how to deal with the consequences and side effects of modernization.