The acceptance of impermanence

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Along with the rest of the world, Japan is still grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. However, its islands and inhabitants are no strangers to dealing with times of crisis, not least from natural disasters. Whilst the country’s earthquake-resistant building technology and well-drilled disaster response plans have been held up as examples around the world, perhaps we need to look at what we can learn from the Japanese psyche itself in dealing with crises, particularly their belief in and acceptance of impermanence.

In a country affected almost constantly by natural disasters – earthquakes (around 1500 each year), tsunamis, the flooding and mudslides often brought by the rainy season, and typhoons – the sudden, unpredictable and constantly changing ‘nature’ of nature has been hard-wired into the Japanese people. Spring will follow winter, sunny days will follow cloudy ones, and better days will follow the devastation of an earthquake or tsunami. This awareness has given people the strength to face such frequent and unpredictable disasters with an acceptance, patience, flexibility and fortitude, while also allow reflecting on nature’s unnegotiable power. Ultimately, it has led to an incredible strength of resilience among Japanese people.

Sakura at night

There are some obvious examples of accepting (and even celebrating) impermanence in Japanese culture. Perhaps the most quintessential of these is the sakura (cherry blossom), a beautiful yet fragile flower which blooms into life and then fades away in the span of a couple of weeks each spring. Sakura represents to many Japanese the transience of not just nature ‘out there’, but of all our lives. Many samurai took the sakura as their emblem as it reminded them to accept the inescapable uncertainty of life and appreciate the fleeting moments of beauty, rather than be overwhelmed by a feeling of morbidity and finite existence.

Tea Ceremony

Another of Japan’s most famous cultural aspects, the tea ceremony, is also rooted in this sense of impermanence – it’s key principle of ichi-go ichi-e, literally “one time, one meeting”, is itself a reflection on how each moment of our lives is unique and unrepeatable, as transient as the petals of sakura. Therefore, while recognising that each of these meetings is immediately lost to the past, there is a sense of a never-ending stream of change, as life carries on with new moments and new meetings.

Both the sakura and the tea ceremony are examples of what is referred to in Japanese as mono-no-aware, ‘the bittersweet poignancy of things’. In other words, it is precisely because these moments will pass us by, never to return, that we can appreciate them all the more – tinged with mourning, but also recognising the beauty of change itself.

Buddhist priest

This acceptance and appreciation of impermanence can be traced back to the two prominent religions in Japan: Shintoism and Buddhism. Shintoism, the indigenous faith of the Japanese people, is based largely on people’s relationship with nature, its cyclical patterns and inherent power. Furthermore, rather than one all-powerful god, in Shintoism there are over eight million kami (deities) whose harmonious cooperation results in the realisation of the world we live in. Kami inhabit forests (hence the large number of shrines located in or near forests), mountains, waterfalls, rocks and animals, and because the actions of these kami are fluid, the world too is constantly changing and in a state of impermanence.

When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century, its core belief that ‘all things are transient, and that everything with physical form will eventually perish’, was well-accepted by the Japanese as this fit well with their pre-existing Shinto faith. In fact, the two belief systems merged in many ways, and this included linking the strong Buddhist sense of transience much more closely to the natural environment and the cycle of the seasons, and the rebirth that inevitably follows death.

Interestingly, the well-renowned Japanese woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e have their basis in Buddhist beliefs in impermanence. Literally ‘pictures of the floating world’ (as they depicted the transitory sphere of the licensed pleasure quarters and theatres of Edo (present-day Tokyo)), they used the word ukiyo which was originally a Buddhist term to expresses the impermanence of human life.

Of all the natural disasters that Japan has experienced throughout its history, the earthquake and tsunami that hit the north-east of Japan on 3rd March 2011 was by far the deadliest and most destructive. The largest earthquake in Japan’s history led to a tsunami with waves measuring as high as 38 metres and a nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. An estimated 20,000 people were killed or missing and almost 500,000 were forced to evacuate their homes. The direct economic loss was estimated at $360 billion.

While I myself wasn’t in Japan at the time of the disaster, some years later my Master’s dissertation research on tourism and disaster recovery took me to Kesennuma, one of the worst affected cities by the tsunami that devastated the Sanriku coastline. This stretch of coastline has experienced countless earthquakes and tsunamis; from the first recorded in 869, to the deadly tsunami in 1960 caused by an earthquake as far away as Chile. As I quickly found out during my conversations with residents, if anyone can attest to the impermanence and constant change of natural cycles, it’s the people of Kesennuma.

What struck me first in these conversations was that yes, there was undoubtedly an incredible sense of sadness and loss associated with the disaster. However, there was also an acceptance of the power of the ocean, which can be both harmful and beneficial to coastal communities like Kesennuma. As a local fisherman told me, ‘it’s true that the ocean is dangerous, but it is also in equal parts fun and gives us so much, it provides us with a way of life’. None of these elements was separate from another, and all were in a constant state of impermanence.

What struck me more was the resiliency of people to not only recover but build their community back better than before. A big aspect of this was how they could use tourism to benefit the entire community, rather than just the usual main players. Tourist associations partnered with NGOs, organisations were formed to rekindle the relationship people (especially children) had with the ocean, and see it is a necessary and beneficial partner, rather than something to be either feared or conquered. Pretty much everyone I spoke to talked about the positive things that had come out of the disaster, rather than the obvious pain and suffering it had caused.

So, what allowed the people of Kesennuma to bounce back so resiliently from such a devastating disaster? I think a large part of it has to do with their acceptance and belief in the impermanence of their situation. By accepting that the earthquake and tsunami had occurred, and that there was nothing they could do about that, and that good days would come again, they focussed their efforts on things that they could affect. An incredible example of this was a local sake brewer who found that miraculously two of the tanks containing sake in mid-fermentation (moromi) had survived the disaster, and so with the help of those around him he got the brewery functioning the very next day after the tsunami hit. Within ten days the finished product was ready. As he told me, “for us to make that [sake] was a symbol of the town’s revitalisation, or rebirth, to help having the strength to keep pushing forward.” Therefore, by embracing the transience of nature and of life, the people of Kesennuma, instead of becoming swamped by a fatalistic attitude, became empowered in their situation.

So, what relevance does this all have to us, as we try to navigate through lockdowns and cautious re-openings and a new normal that feels anything but normal? Well, as the Reverend Ashikawa, a female priest at a Buddhist temple in Wakayama prefecture recently told an inquiring professor, “the virus will necessarily disappear. All things are in a state of continual change… I’m thinking about what to do once it’s gone”.

The acceptance of impermanence is not to encourage drowning in fatalism, but to appreciate life in the here and now, and to also focus on what we can do to affect things around us. Precisely because these moments – be they difficult, challenging, uplifting or uninspiringly plain– are transient, means that we can appreciate them all the more, because they are already leaving us, or we are already leaving them. And we can also focus on what we can do in the here and now to affect the things that we can actually have an effect on, like checking up on our loved ones, using our time to improve our skills, or just giving ourselves a moment to relax.

We will get through this. And we’ll be here in Japan waiting for you when we do.

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