Saturday, May 21, 2011

POINT OF VIEW/ Seiichi Kondo: Post-disaster reconstruction should pivot around arts, culture


photoSeiichi Kondo (Photo provided by the author)

The Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11 is said to be the worst catastrophe that befell our country since the Jogan mega-tsunami in 869.

Towering breakwaters were destroyed by the March tsunami, reminding us that even our modern technology is powerless before the forces of nature. Science, too, proved incapable of taming nuclear power. The quake and tsunami knocked the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant out of control.

Compared with today, life in the Heian Period (794-1185) offered far fewer conveniences. But that did not stop people from composing poems and reveling in the beauty of the four seasons. World-famous literary masterpieces, such as "Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji) and "Kokin Wakashu" (Collected Japanese poems of ancient and modern times), were written during that period.

Roughly a millennium later, we are now forced to take a good, hard look at our supposedly highly developed civilization.

A few days after the quake and tsunami, I saw bittersweet footage of small children in evacuation shelters, wrapped in blankets and happily playing video games. I should imagine the trauma suffered by survivors will become more apparent in the days ahead. To meet their mental health-care needs, I propose that our post-disaster reconstruction efforts be centered around artistic and cultural pursuits.

In order to catch up with the West and follow the trend for globalization, modern Japan turned to science and technology to control nature, and promoted centralization to grow into a military and economic power. But this has deprived society of humanity and left nature badly scarred. Our post-disaster reconstruction work must be designed to correct this sort of distorted "development."

The first task should be to revive regional communities. The Indonesian island of Bali attracts tourists for its terraced rice paddies. This leads me to believe that there is intrinsic value in certain traditional ways of life and work. Any village that has its distinctive personality and tradition, such as festivals that keep community ties intact, is the sort of hometown that even young people, who have left for the big cities, would always cherish and want to return to.

The French city of Nantes declined after its shipyards were shut down, but a cultural renaissance has since made it the No. 1 city French people want to live in. Nantes is famous for its highly affordable and successful classical music festivals. Scotland's Glasgow, too, has been energized by its striking modern architecture, and was designated to host a series of cultural events under the European Capital of Culture campaign in 1990.

Volunteer relief workers from around Japan are rushing to the communities devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake. I suggest that top artists in and outside the nation also gather in the region to engage in creative pursuits. They could participate in community planning and offer their ideas on how to let local history and culture, such as traditional festivals, define the personality of each community. There are enough showcases in Europe and the United States of artists participating in community revival activities and producing great results.

Takata Matsubara, a scenic pine forest in the city of Rikuzen-Takata in Iwate Prefecture, was devastated by the March tsunami. Out of some 70,000 pine trees there, only one survived. This lone pine tree has become a symbol of hope and encouragement not only for survivors, but also for people around the country.

Respecting culture is the same thing as seeking harmony with nature. Nature offers diverse renewable energy sources. Scandinavian countries rely on biomass for district heating that uses hot water being passed through underground pipes. We could follow their example, and apply our knowledge of science to undertakings that will free us from our current dependence on nuclear energy.

If we can adopt this sort of new lifestyle, our country will once again be able to live up to its "Japan as No. 1" reputation. And I believe we Japanese have the right mind-set and technology to pull it off.

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Seiichi Kondo is commissioner of the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

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