A Sensibility for Living in a World in Constant Flux

Sense of the Floating World

Shin'ichi Takemura
Anthropologist and Producer of sensorium

"The volcano Fugen-dake made a horrible attack on us.
And yet I still find myself praying to her. Strange ...."

[A man in Shimabara, the site of a great volcanic explosion in southern Japan]

In the past several years, Japan's volcanic system has suddenly became very active and caused appalling disasters in such areas as Shimabara, and in the form of earthquakes in Okushiri Island in the north, and of course in Kobe. There were many casualties in these areas, and these disasters called into question our capacity for crisis control, as well as the basic structure of contemporary society: the centralized life-line configuration, high-density urban design, information systems, and so on.

It is noteworthy, however, that the local people who suffered these disasters do not unanimously speak of their experiences in such negative terms; they speak of matters other than such grim-sounding things as crisis control and damage recovery. In fact, they exhibit in various ways a kind of revelation concerning that which befalls people when they come in contact with something tremendous that transcends their mundane speculations and desires.

Metaphysical Feeling toward Earthquakes and Volcanic Activities

The words quoted at the beginning come from a local leader in the reconstruction project that was under way as a result of the damage caused by the eruption of Mt. Fugen-dake in Shimabara. The man speaks of his unchanged worship of the mountain. In fact, the name itself, "Fugen," is a Buddhist term for the sacred.

The reconstruction team is attempting to propose an alternative regional design program that will make sense in global terms and in respect to planetary civilization. They are not merely interested in restoring things to the way they were before the eruption. Instead, they want to attain a kind of ecological/cosmological sensibility in relation to the land and the volcano.

This same attitude can be found among the people of Izu-Oshima, who suffered from the eruption of Mt. Mihara some 10 years ago. They feel an awesome respect for any volcanic activity and call the eruption of the mount "gojinka," or sacred fire. The people of the many communities in Japan who have lived in close contact with Mount Fuji and other volcanoes must implicitly share this kind of sensibility.

Tsumura, who contributed two reports (part 1 / part 2) to our sensing Japan, suggests that in Kobe, too, a year after that great earthquake, a significant number of people, including many who lost loved ones, feel "sympathy" toward the earthquake or achieved a revelation-like breakthrough, and became not so anguished by earthly mundane matters. (Please refer also to Tsumura's essay in this library on "earth")

An Asian Sensibility Concerning Earth and Nature

Ken'ichi Harada, a geophysicist, says that such an attitude toward volcanic explosions and earthquakes is particularly Asiatic, or Japanese, and demonstrates a great contrast to the attitude of Western people.

He says that in the West, people tend to perceive natural disasters in more or less functional and material terms. Thus a disaster can only be regarded negatively, and any discussion concerning it would be focused on how the "threat" may be dealt with. In Asia, however, an almost religious attitude is often taken toward these events, one that urges people to find a way to accept or coexist with such phenomena. This gives rise to a state of mind in which one attempts to locate one's position within the greater natural order.

There is also other evidence that supports this thesis. Throughout Japan, we find many sacred points based on traditional worship of mountains. These places are considered sacred sites or places of power where volcanic energy can be manifestly felt. These points are sometimes connected to form a kind of networked route of pilgrimage, such as the famous route that takes pilgrims to 88 sites in Shikoku, the westernmost island of Japan.

The sites might also be compared with acupoints and the route to the human body's system of meridians (the "chi" energy channel in Chinese healing). In short, the volcanic system (the meridian system of the earth, so to say) and the network of religious sanctuaries often overlap.

Toji Kamata, a researcher of religions, has astutely revealed that at the base of our traditional sites of worship lie the singular points of the volcanic system, with their gravitational and magnetic properties. Such geophysical conditions (and people's corresponding sensibilities), provide us with proper spiritual, mental and physical fine-tuning and massage.

In the creation myth of the ancient Japanese "Kojiki," as Kamata explains in his essay (the second verse of linked senses) , one also finds a sort of cosmological sensibility regarding volcanic activity, one that sees it as indispensable to the birth of the world, that both our physical and spiritual life are due to it. Harada, in his article, points out that thanks to advanced geophysics, we now have a means of scientifically substantiating this mythic sensibility regarding the vital movements of the earth.

In Asia and Japan, any discussion of volcanoes and earthquakes would be incomplete were it to be limited to such topics as the magnitude of destruction and disaster prevention measures. We need to take a more inclusive approach to such issues, one that admits the notions of sensibility, religious or spiritual feelings, cosmological awareness, epistemology and cultural values.

Revitalizing a Sense of Living on the Earth

The Pacific Rim Volcanic Zone, in which Japan is located, is in sharp contrast with the rest of the world, where the continents are in stable phases. From an earth science perspective, our mobile zone is always fluctuating, and we keenly feel the respiration and other vital activities of the earth.

This chain of volcanic activities reminds us of the invisible and subterranean existence of the fire meridian that runs across the Pacific Rim; and it reminds us that we are connected with other people of the Rim through that system.

Recent events, regrettable though they may be, have made this meridian manifest, and have given us notice to develop a sensibility that can benefit and facilitate us all as living organisms, to be in touch with the earth's kinetic changes and rhythms, and to live interactively with them. Such a sensibility will involve religious and cosmological notions and may serve to help us reorganize our lives in this fluctuating zone.

The Fire Meridian Network of the Pacific Rim

The local people of Shimabara, emerging from the damage caused by the volcano, are steadfastly developing an alternative regional rebuilding program that reflects their attitude of coexisting with the earth. They have also established ties with the people who were struck by Mt.Pinatubo.

Izu-Oshima, Mt. Fuji, Kobe, Shimabara, Pinatubo: this is not merely a geophysical chain. The emerging network among the people in each region might form the network of sensibility to live along this fluctuating Pacific Rim Fire Meridian.

Throughout 1996, there will be a variety of events in different areas in Japan designed to explore how we might develop this sensibility. From Kobe (first anniversary: see for example Yagi's interview from Kobe in sensing Japan) to Shimabara, Mt. Fuji, and Mt. Mihara in Izu Oshima (a Divine Fire event is planned in November on the 10th anniversary), there are signs that these events will be connected to one another and so form an integrated whole.

Given what I have outlined here, we need to identify and seek a new form for our living environment and our lifestyles, a form that is distinct from that of the geodynamically stable Western European zone.

If we can initiate such a move, the agony of suffering such as that experienced in Kobe and other areas, might give rise to something more positive than mere physical reconstruction: namely, a mind-shift at the macroscopic level, one that will tend toward a radical change in our perception of the meaning of civilization.

[sensing Japan, Tsumura's report part 1]
[sensing Japan, Tsumura's report part 2]
[sensing Japan, Yagi's interview]

[library "earth" (Tsumura's essay)]

[linked senses "earth" (Kamata's essay)]

Theme pavilion "sensorium" (sensorium home page)
INTERNET 1996 WORLD EXPOSITION (World Public Park) / JAPAN (Japan EXPO home page)