We’ve just got back from a wonderful trip to Japan*. Among the rugby and the sightseeing and the hiking we were caught in typhoon Hagibis last weekend in Tokyo. It was a reminder that Japan is a country almost uniquely vulnerable to natural disaster.
The majority of its 127 million population are crammed into coastal plains, while much of its increasingly depopulated interior is mountainous and beautiful but inaccessible. The country is a mess of tectonic plates, and the earthquakes and tsunami there can be devastating. Over 140,000 died in the 1923 Kanto earthquake and its subsequent firestorm. Typhoons barrel up from the Pacific with increasing violence, bringing storm surge and massive quantities of rainfall. Widespread flooding and landslides follow.
I visited Japan for many years, living there for a bit too, and it occurred to me as now that this vulnerability explained a lot about the people’s relationship with nature. Despite only 9% of the population – and a pretty ancient 9% – living outside urban areas, the Japanese are still pretty close to it. This is the country where Shinto shrines still prosper, celebrating local mountains, trees and rivers, and hosting local festivals. A rich Buddhist and Shinto mythology seems perhaps oddly alive and relevant in this highest of high tech societies. The natural world is mysterious and disordered, beautiful and threatening.
The Japanese response to it seems complicated – and I’m not nearly informed enough to understand it. They venerate the natural world while seemingly wanting to concrete it over and network it with power lines. Japan is the nation which hunts Minke whales. On the other hand, Tokyo subway stations pipe birdsong to soothe stressed commuters, and cherry blossom parties – hanami – are one of the highlights of the year.
The sometimes astonishing gardens I have visited seem to be a pretty good expression of this close relation to the natural world and the need to control it. I’m no garden designer, but their form and rhythm seems simultaneously natural and tightly studied. They’re highly immersive, and their explicit purpose is often to encourage the viewer to contemplate his/her own relation to nature.
Nature in the UK is, of course, relatively benign. By and large, we don’t have insects or snakes which can put you in hospital. There aren’t bears roaming the Lake District ready to pick off the odd unwary hiker. We don’t experience earthquakes and don’t regularly – haven’t regularly – experienced hurricanes or widescale flooding.
I’m sure this is one of the reasons why we’re suffering from what ecologists call “nature deficit disorder”. In Britain we haven’t had to understand nature in the same way because we aren’t threatened by it.
This issue was well illustrated over the weekend. Some England rugby fans were complaining about their game being cancelled ahead of the typhoon, which then hit as predicted pretty much at the time of the kick off and has killed over 70 people (as at the time of writing).
I hope it was an experience they will not quickly forget.
*If you haven’t been do try to go!