Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hersey and Haruki

Coverage of the events in Japan have made much of the unique Japanese character in response to a crisis. Resilience, orderliness, extraordinary cooperation and stoicism in the face of an unprecedented disaster barely begin to describe it. More than 10,000 confirmed dead, a quarter million living in temporary evacuation centers, the havoc of tsunami inundation, scores of unnerving "aftershocks", and the uncertainty of radiation leaks: it can only be compared to the devastation of war, and yet we see the Japanese bear it with equanimity.

This is but a single facet of the complex humanity of the Japanese; it is well worth the effort to try to gain a better understanding. So for those who like to read, here are a couple of modest suggestions.

In 1946 the New Yorker devoted an entire issue to John Hersey's 30,000 word essay "Hiroshima"; afterward it was published as a book and amended in 1985 with followups on the people whose experiences were narrated. This is the only time I have finished a book and said, simply, "everyone should read this book."
"Hiroshima" matter-of-factly tells the stories of six people's lives immediately following the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945. Without citing statistics or moralizing, Hersey conveys the suffering experienced by these people, and their humanity in coping with it. Discussions of the book don't often address the culture or character of these survivors (not all of them are Japanese), but the tone, the "voice" of their recollections weaves a context for understanding their outlook.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
A half-century later Haruki Murakami followed, as did Hersey, the lives of ordinary people; in this case the victims of the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo terrorist release of deadly sarin gas in the Tokyo subway. Unlike current media coverage of this month's events, "Underground" does not over-interpret or attempt to draw overt conclusions. Rather, Murakami the novelist and short-story teller, is in this non-fiction book within the best tradition of modern Japanese writers like Natsume Soseki and Jun'ichiro Tanizaki: he allows the characters' words and actions to speak for themselves. In interviews he asked the affected commuters and office workers to tell a bit of their background before getting to the details of March 20, 1995, thus establishing individual personalities that resist generalization. Through the telling of story after story (some of the victims' paths crossed that day), a picture emerges of Japanese people and their response to crisis. It is a more nuanced picture, well worth the time to understand. Murakami also wanted to balance the media's sensational coverage of the terrorist cult, by bringing narrative weight back to the victims. Those who lament today's media focus on radiation issues at the expense of the humanitarian crisis may hear a familiar theme.
Readers of Underground will be reminded of the evolution of technology. Immediate treatment was necessary to minimize nervous system failure. Before smartphones, before internet, email or twitter connectivity the key to effective treatment of the over 5,000 victims of the mysterious symptoms that day was Dr. Nobuo Yanagisawa. One of the few who understood the poison's effect on the nervous system, Dr. Yanagisawa happened to see the unfolding crisis on television and recognized the earmarks of sarin. He then led a team who transmitted the key data for diagnosis and treatment to dozens of Tokyo hospitals via the communication device known as the fax machine

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