The great wave
A look at how Japan views the sea—and itself
Jun 2nd 2011 | from the print edition
AT AROUND the age of 70, Katsushika Hokusai, still bounding with artistic energy, created “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”, a series of ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints. His most famous, since reproduced on everything from Tintin books to tea cups, is “Beneath the Wave off Kanagawa”, painted around 1830.
Most Westerners, when viewing it, focus on the wave itself, which towers over Mount Fuji in a show of almost implacable force, all the more terrifying considering the three fragile boats under it. Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, wrote in “A History of the World in 100 Objects” that the picture reflected frightened fishermen and an insecure, cloistered Japan about to be forced by American gunboats into the modern world. But Japanese art critics differ—and they have a point. In the picture the boatmen look more serene than fearful, as their vessels slice through the waves. Their stillness in the face of danger is all the more poignant in Japan, as they have a job to do. They are racing to deliver fresh fish to market, and yet they remain, as far as many Japanese see it, in delicate balance with nature.
Since the March 11th tsunami, once again Japan is examining itself through the prism of a great wave. What it sees can at first strike an outsider as oddly romantic. Talk to mayors of port cities up and down the stricken north-eastern coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, and they almost invariably describe the mighty ocean as a friend and source of hope—even though some lost loved ones, homes and businesses in the onslaught.
In Japan at large some people (though woefully few national politicians) feel that the destruction wrought by nature has revived a sense of purpose; some have even taken it as a cue to get married and procreate. During two decades of constipated economics and politics, the deadening sense grew that Japan had lost its appetite for risk, whether entrepreneurial derring-do or even, in the context of a population that had begun to shrink, the risk of picking the wrong mate. But with a disaster on a biblical scale in March, the Japanese bowed to no one. Some fishermen, faced with 40-foot (12-metre) waves, took to their boats and headed straight over them: echoes of Hokusai’s deliverymen. Granted, that was the best way to save their boats. But how refreshing if it were to reflect a reawakened sense of courage in the country as a whole.
If it does, where better to look than by the sea, chief pillar of national identity? Japan, though small in surface area, stretches far. To go from the northernmost tip of the Japanese archipelago to its farthest-flung southern rock is to travel from Norway’s North Cape to Rome. The surrounding seas have long been regarded as Japan’s protective armour, or sometimes its womb. (Until 1945 Japan had never been occupied by an enemy.) Moreover, the oceans are a bountiful source of the nation’s food.
Yet the seas, and what Japan does with them, are also the main sources of friction with the outside world. The trouble starts with the names: the Sea of Japan is the East Sea to South Korea, and the East Sea of Korea to Pyongyang. Outlying islands are no less contentious, largely thanks to the memories of pre-1945 Japanese aggression that they stir up. So Dokdo, occupied by South Korea, is claimed by Japan, which calls it Takeshima. (Koreans denigrate the claim, pointing out that the island has no take, or bamboo, at all.) Island disputes with China and Russia also fester. And then comes whaling and dolphin-slaying, where the cultural gap with much of the Western world appears at its widest. The Oshika peninsula, devastated by the tsunami, welcomes visitors by boasting of its two main industries, whaling and nuclear power. No wonder that even before the Fukushima nuclear crisis, its stunning scenery was not on most foreign tourist itineraries.
Now that Japan faces the task of rebuilding its coastal communities, can it cast its relationship with the sea in a new light? That is the hope of some who want Tohoku, Honshu’s north-eastern region, to become a blueprint for a more harmonious balance between man and nature—once the Fukushima nuclear plant stops pouring radioactive bilge into the ocean. Shigeru Sugawara, mayor of semi-destroyed Kesennuma, is one of them. Since the tsunami, he has printed new business cards that say: “Kesennuma is immortal as long as there is the sea.” But he wants the relationship to change: a smaller deep-sea fishing industry, for example, and more “slow-life”industries, such as tourism, organic food and day-boat fishing.
The prefectural governor, Yoshihiro Murai, takes a somewhat different tack. He is trying to use the disaster to bypass co-operatives, whose priority rights over fishing along the coast, he claims, often put off private enterprise. Intriguingly, his calls for deregulation have struck a chord even in ancient fishing communities whose members are as old as Hokusai was when he created his masterwork. In Momonoura, an oyster-farming village, fishermen whose families have harvested the sea for centuries realise that, tsunami or not, their community is dying out, since young men and women do not want to step into their grandfathers’ rubber boots. Private capital might not only buy new boats, but give offspring jobs close to home. Another village has set up an enterprising share scheme to finance new oyster beds and skiffs to work them.
Japan’s most liquid bank
Yet for all the talk of change, many also know that the co-operative style of organisation has done a service to Japan’s local waters by saving them from greater overfishing. Few now take for granted the abundance of the area’s fish, even though they live by one of the world’s richest fishing grounds, where Pacific currents meet. Some still call the ocean a bank, though no longer in the sense of limitless cash. They know the more they take out, the less is left. Such people are, like Hokusai, wise in their old age. Will they, like him, dare to embark on something new?