By chance, the day before the earthquake, I wrote an article, which was published a few days later, in the morning edition of the Asahi Shimbun. The article was about a fisherman of my generation who had been exposed to radiation in 1954, during the hydrogen-bomb testing at Bikini Atoll. I first heard about him when I was nineteen. Later, he devoted his life to denouncing the myth of nuclear deterrence and the arrogance of those who advocated it. Was it a kind of sombre foreboding that led me to evoke that fisherman on the eve of the catastrophe? He has also fought against nuclear power plants and the risk that they pose. I have long contemplated the idea of looking at recent Japanese history through the prism of three groups of people: those who died in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those who were exposed to the Bikini tests, and the victims of accidents at nuclear facilities. If you consider Japanese history through these stories, the tragedy is self-evident. Today, we can confirm that the risk of nuclear reactors has become a reality. However this unfolding disaster ends—and with all the respect I feel for the human effort deployed to contain it—its significance is not the least bit ambiguous: Japanese history has entered a new phase, and once again we must look at things through the eyes of the victims of nuclear power, of the men and the women who have proved their courage through suffering. The lesson that we learn from the current disaster will depend on whether those who survive it resolve not to repeat their mistakes.
This disaster unites, in a dramatic way, two phenomena: Japan’s vulnerability to earthquakes and the risk presented by nuclear energy. The first is a reality that this country has had to face since the dawn of time. The second, which may turn out to be even more catastrophic than the earthquake and the tsunami, is the work of man. What did Japan learn from the tragedy of Hiroshima? One of the great figures of contemporary Japanese thought, Shuichi Kato, who died in 2008, speaking of atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, recalled a line from “The Pillow Book,” written a thousand years ago by a woman, Sei Shonagon, in which the author evokes “something that seems very far away but is, in fact, very close.” Nuclear disaster seems a distant hypothesis, improbable; the prospect of it is, however, always with us. The Japanese should not be thinking of nuclear energy in terms of industrial productivity; they should not draw from the tragedy of Hiroshima a “recipe” for growth. Like earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural calamities, the experience of Hiroshima should be etched into human memory: it was even more dramatic a catastrophe than those natural disasters precisely because it was man-made. To repeat the error by exhibiting, through the construction of nuclear reactors, the same disrespect for human life is the worst possible betrayal of the memory of Hiroshima’s victims.
I was ten years old when Japan was defeated. The following year, the new Constitution was proclaimed. For years afterward, I kept asking myself whether the pacifism written into our Constitution, which included the renunciation of the use of force, and, later, the Three Non-Nuclear Principles (don’t possess, manufacture, or introduce into Japanese territory nuclear weapons) were an accurate representation of the fundamental ideals of postwar Japan. As it happens, Japan has progressively reconstituted its military force, and secret accords made in the nineteen-sixties allowed the United States to introduce nuclear weapons into the archipelago, thereby rendering those three official principles meaningless. The ideals of postwar humanity, however, have not been entirely forgotten. The dead, watching over us, oblige us to respect those ideals, and their memory prevents us from minimizing the pernicious nature of nuclear weaponry in the name of political realism. We are opposed. Therein lies the ambiguity of contemporary Japan: it is a pacifist nation sheltering under the American nuclear umbrella. One hopes that the accident at the Fukushima facility will allow the Japanese to reconnect with the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to recognize the danger of nuclear power, and to put an end to the illusion of the efficacy of deterrence that is advocated by nuclear powers.
When I was at an age that is commonly considered mature, I wrote a novel called “Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness.” Now, in the final stage of life, I am writing a “last novel.” If I manage to outgrow this current madness, the book that I write will open with the last line of Dante’s Inferno: “And then we came out to see once more the stars.”