Three Years After The Japanese Tsunami: The Winds Of Changelessness

Big fishing boats are left washed ashore after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northeast
Big fishing boats are left washed ashore after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan, Wednesday, March 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Yomiuri Shimbun, Kaname Muto) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT

Pico Iyer is the author of "The Man Within My Head" and "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the 14th Dalai Lama."

NARA -- Three years ago, on this day, I flew from my home in Japan to visit my mother in California. Only a few hours after I arrived in Santa Barbara, I heard that a 9.0-magnitude earthquake had shaken my adopted home of 24 years -- the apartment in which my son and his family live in Tokyo was suddenly at a tilt -- and had been followed by a devastating tsunami. More reports kept coming through the hours and days that followed, of nuclear meltdowns in the area, and magazines and radio stations from Bangalore to Toronto started getting in touch with me, the rare non-affiliated Western writer they could think of who spent time in Japan. In every case, I said I couldn't say or write a thing because I felt so guilty to be away from family and neighborhood at their time of greatest need.

Soon after I got back to Japan, I went up to spend some time in the area around the devastated nuclear reactor in Fukushima, watching grizzled workers from the plant clean their clothes in a public laundromat, walking with one of them, who agreed to talk to me so long as nobody else could see us, up to a shrine encircled with ancient graves. Two weeks after that, I went up to a fishing village laid waste by the tsunami to see the Dalai Lama try to offer some solace to orphans and survivors amidst the headstones. All along the usually spotless roads were great chunks of debris, half the size of a city block, cars overturned, telegraph poles at crazy angles. My orderly, reliable home had been turned into a South Pacific island after a hurricane.

Now, on the same day of the year -- it would have been my late father's birthday -- I get ready to fly away to California again. Foreigners all around me in the hippie restaurants of Kyoto talk about how they don't eat fish nowadays, because the radiation situation is really bad; the more countercultural of Japan's kids have fled their capital for the local equivalents of Hawaii or Montana. The radiation expert with whom I traveled up to Fukushima could point out that many of his claims for how some of the projected horrors were overblown -- the result of panic or misunderstanding -- have been borne out so far.

What I feel is that a culture whose existence has been based, for as long as it's been a culture, on uncertainty, impermanence, due caution about everything we don't know, is much as it's always been. The government is imposing new taxes, the best pitchers are defecting to America, the population is aging unsettlingly, and this week driving around the hills just outside skyscraper-choked Kyoto, I saw signs warning me to look out for bears.

Meanwhile, a priest around Fukushima is working to exorcise dark spirits. My Japanese wife, when we walk past a pretty shrine, stiffens because -- she says -- black rites are performed there at midnight, with human sacrifices. A Westernized, Metallica-loving seller of punk clothes from England, she nonetheless places fresh water daily in front of the tiny homemade shrine she's set up next to a boom box at home, and meditates for many long minutes, praying to gods she can barely name.

The Buddhism that is an almost invisible foundation of Japan teaches that the first law of human existence is suffering; one of its wiser recent teachers, asked for the meaning of life, said, simply, "Everything passes." The Dalai Lama, on his way to Kyoto next month, will say nothing about enlightenment or miracles or Nirvana or magical powers; only about realism, and the necessity of studying the way things are with an unflinching, impartial, empirical precision. When he was here 15 months ago -- his latest book, "Beyond Religion," had just spelled this out -- he told a large audience not to listen to people such as him, in robes, but to attend to scientists, who observe a universal, ecumenical, exact system of data and cause-and-effect, as beyond ideological or religious differences as the law of gravity.

Japan is still -- and will long be -- a country of ghosts and of gods, which is partly why it still remains so far from the larger world in so many (often costly) ways, even in the midst of its mismatched, globalized surfaces. Fantasy is everywhere here, but that does not make for any less realism--and surrender to what is more deeply beyond understanding. Twice this week, I walked to a temple near my home and watched eleven priests, committed for the season to silence, race across the terrace of an ancient wooden building, brandishing huge torches (as they have done since the year 752), and scattering purifying sprays of ashes around the devout below, as if to test the limits of faith by flirting with a conflagration.

My family and neighbors, my little granddaughter here, know that a tsunami could return at any moment. Or not. Nobody has forgotten the sorrows of three years ago. But while so many elsewhere are talking about the disaster in terms of ifs and buts (a radiation that very few of us understand), most of my friends in Japan seem much less distractible. Everything is uncertain, and none of us will last for long: that part didn't change at all three years ago.