Japan's gods of nature


Raijin, Japanese god of thunderA typhoon was bearing down on Tokyo. As we sped along an expressway 250 km to the south-west, late last year, my guide, Yoshiko, was gentle but determined in the face of potential disaster.

'It will hit the centre of Japan tomorrow night. It will hit while we are sleeping,' she reported. 'If I get any more information I will introduce you to it, but it is out of my control. All I can do is make a prayer and kick that typhoon out of Japan.'

It was a scenario all too familiar to Yoshiko and her countrymen. Strung out like a levee alongside Asia's distended midriff, Japan faces the full wrath of the vast and mercurial North Pacific Ocean.

And the fault line that runs beneath the Japanese archipelago is as inescapable as an error written into the genes: there is no knowing when it will unzip and send the islands above it tumbling into themselves, and no telling whether the ocean will respond to these tectonic antics, pouring itself over the land like some hateful monster.

As we neared the city of Hamamatsu, Yoshiko pointed out Lake Hamanako, whose broad, fresh waters were turned to brine by an earthquake-induced tsunami in 1498. Today, eels thrive in these brackish waters, and the city has built its culinary reputation on the popular, nutritious foodstuff.

Not much of a silver lining, but enough, perhaps, to mollify a nation that has suffered its share of humiliation and tragedy: occupation, atomic bombings, recession, typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and, now, potential nuclear fallout.

The natural disasters — those events that Yoshiko says are 'out of my control' — must surely leave the Japanese with the feeling that they are living in an abusive household; they can never be certain that their unreliable motherland won't turn from love and beauty towards anger and violence.

But Yoshiko's calm, pragmatic approach might hold a clue to the workings of a nation squired by moody geography and shaped by conflict both foreign and internal. To the casual observer, the Japanese seem to carry the demeanour of a people resigned to catastrophe, and ever alert to the exquisite tension between pleasure and pain.

Here, goodness seems to organically inhere in everything, a notion informed by Shinto, the indigenous religion to which more than 80 per cent of the population adheres.

'Shinto is a nature religion: we give thanks to everything we have,' said Yoshiko as rain pummelled the earth and hats flew in all directions. 'For example, today we are giving thanks to the god of wind, the god of rain.'

A hotel manager expressed a similar sentiment a few days later, in the alpine village of Kamikochi, where mist obscured an active volcano, Mt Yakedake. 'When we are lucky we can see the fumes,' he said.

This expression of respect — gratitude, even — for the natural coexistence of good and bad is foreign to most of us raised in the west. So too is the unconditional acceptance of personal responsibility, an attribute which is sacred to the Japanese.

I discovered this when Yoshiko was forced to leave behind a journalist from our party who was running late. He caught a taxi to our next meeting point, and Yoshiko confided that she would have to pay the fare from her own pocket. 'It is my responsibility to ensure that everyone is on time,' she said. 'I might get fired if anyone is late.'

It is this remarkable attitude that comes to mind when I try to make sense of the scenes of resignation and capitulation that have seared our television screens since Japan's north-eastern coast was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami just over a week ago.

To be sure, grief and disbelief are etched on the faces of survivors huddled in evacuation centres and those roaming obliterated streets looking for God-knows-what.

But the shouts of blame and accusation so redolent of other disasters are strangely absent; there is no news of looting or violence, no demands for immediate evacuation and coronial inquests. People form orderly queues for scarce petrol and inadequate food parcels. From the outside at least, the conduct of a people trapped in an apocalyptic nightmare is nothing short of exemplary.

Perhaps the people of Japan tread softly and with deliberate respect in the hope that they won't disturb the god of geology, the god of the sea, the god of the fiery mountain. Perhaps, as Yoshiko did in the face of that typhoon, they put faith in their tera tera bozus, tissue or fabric dolls which ward off bad weather, unless you turn them upside down, in which case they invite the typhoon or tsunami right into your living room.

And perhaps, when the gods decide to show their wrath, these people simply accept that there is no human being big enough to shoulder the blame.

In Yoshiko's case, her tera tera bozu did the trick, for the typhoon made a u-turn and headed for Hawaii instead. But she was careful not to insult the natural forces that had set it in motion in the first place.

With bowed head she said, 'Thanks to the god of cloud and the god of rain.' 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist working for Jesuit Communications. 

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Yoshiko, Japan, Earthquake, Fukushima, Hiroshima, disaster, god of rain, god of cloud



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Below are extracts of an <e> letter from Anne Thomas in Sendai, Japan where she has lived for the past decade teaching English.

I encourage you to reflect and pray upon the message of hope and the sense
of a new creation which is being experienced and articulated here..

Things here in Sendai have been rather surreal. But I am very blessed to
have wonderful friends who are helping me a lot. Since my shack is even
more worthy of that name, I am now staying at a friend's home. We share
supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in one
room, eat by candlelight, share stories.

During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. People
sit in their cars, looking at news on their navigation screens, or line up
to get drinking water when a source open. If someone has water running in
their home, they put out sign so people can come to fill up their jugs and

I come back to my shack to check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the
electricity is on, and I find food and water left in my entrance way. I have no idea from
whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking
to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they
need help. I see no signs of fear. Resignation, yes, but fear or panic,

They tell us we can expect aftershocks, and even other major quakes, for
another month or more. And we are getting constant tremors, rolls,
shaking, rumbling. I am blessed in that I live in a part of Sendai that is
a bit elevated, a bit more solid than other parts. So, so far this area is
better off than others. Last night my friend's husband came in from the
country, bringing food and water. Blessed again.

Somehow at this time I realize from direct experience that there is indeed
an Enormous Cosmic evolutionary step that is occurring all over the world
right at this moment. And somehow as I experience the events happening now
in Japan, I can feel my heart opening very wide. My brother asked me if I
felt so small because of all that is happening. I don't. Rather, I feel as
part of something happening that is much larger than myself. This wave of
birthing (worldwide) is hard, and yet magnificent.

Thank you again for your care and Love of me,

With Love in return, to you all,


Janet Winfield | 22 March 2011  

Interesting angle, Catherine. The Japanese had/have much to endure and when natural disasters befall them they need all the help they can get.

Their stoicism though, such as 'making no demands for immediate evacuation' may be at the heart of the
cruel behaviour they've unleashed on the citizens of
other countries. Ask Australian, English and Dutch
ex-prisoners of war how ruthlessly cruel almost all soldiers were. There was indeed 'unconditional acceptance of personal responsibility, an attribute most sacred to the Japanese'. 98 persent of them were cruel and uncompromising to the nth degree. It was clearly their personal responsibility not to indulge in such unspeakable acts. I saw an Allied soldier,
taken out of the camp he was in, as a prisoner of war, stabbed in the stomach with a bayonet because he had done something that dismayed them, and shackled to the barbed wire fence surrounding that camp, to die slowly.

Of course the Japanese need assistance when a natural disaster befalls them. I have just made a donation to the Red Cross. Hopeully, they'll become less stoic.

Joyce | 22 March 2011  

A very moving and perceptive article. I enjoyed it a lot. Thought provoking.

Maurice Shinnick Croydon Park SA | 23 March 2011  

As with many who comment on the tragedy in Japan, I am awed by the response of the Japanese people, both in their stoicism and the apparent absence of looting - a distasteful part of the aftermath of earthquakes in most countries.

However for me, the most interesting paragraph in Catherine's article is:

'Shinto is a nature religion: we give thanks to everything we have,' said Yoshiko as rain pummelled the earth and hats flew in all directions. 'For example, today we are giving thanks to the god of wind, the god of rain.'

We in the West have historically felt the need to proselytise the world to our religion, the Scriptures of which tell us that humans were created to "fill the earth and conquer it".

Earthquakes and tsunamis, flooding rains and king tides, droughts and bush fires remind us that we cannot conquer the earth in our temporary and brief tenure.

Our understanding of our place in the earth can benefit by learning from the more accepting perspectives of Shinto and some other indigenous religions.

Thank you, Michael, for publishing this article as a reflection.

Ian Fraser | 24 March 2011  

Catherine, I enjoyed reading your reflections very much - having spent some 16 years in western Japan - until my return to Australia nearly three years ago. I had a privileged time I have to say - as a teacher - with many marvellous friends who became in turn my teachers about Japan and its cultural perspective. And one of the best was the Shinto priest of a shrine in the centre of the city where I lived. As my Japanese fluency improved we were able to enjoy lengthy discussions on all manner of religious and cultural matters and he introduced me to many significant people in that western region - as well as making me an honorary member of his shrine. He said maybe I was the only such foreigner in Japan. What I admired though was the lack of written scriptures yet the reading of the natural world and living in some sense of harmony with the seasons and its unpredictable nature (as in the typhoon or earthquake/tsunamis to which you referred) - to celebrate key points of the year and to pray for the same kinds of things, in essence, as in my youthful Christian life - for good outcomes in health, for examinations, for birth, for happy marriages - for all the key elements of the human life! I was privileged, I said above. And when an association of Shinto priests from that region came to Sydney in early 2008 to pray for the repose of the souls of the two young men in the 3rd of the midget submarines which entered Sydney Harbour in late May of 1942 and which had some 16 months before-hand been discovered off the northern beaches of Sydney - I was able to assist by introducing them to the sainted Paul GLYNN SM - who arranged for an ecumenical service up at Mona Vale on the cliff tops looking out to the site of that sunken submarine - now a protected site! We all play our part to understand the things which are different and which link us! Thanks again for writing!

Jim KABLE | 19 February 2012  

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