It was not Japan's darkest day. But it was without question Japan's darkest day since the war.
Japan is used to the destruction of earthquakes. The 1923 Kanto earthquake killed nearly 100,000 in Tokyo and Yokohama—many killed by heavy falling roof tiles, which were then traditional; many more dying in the fire that swept Tokyo in the wake of the earth's shaking, and left more than 1,500,000 homeless. (Amid the rubble, the Imperial Hotel reached skyward, undamaged, as a symbol of hope. The earthquake-proof design of Frank Lloyd Wright had been just that.)
Japan is used to earthquakes. The lessons learned in that earthquake and many others have meant its late-twentieth century buildings are among the world’s best at resisting the earth’s regular tremors, and keeping people safe.
What that earthquake engineering couldn’t do was to save people from the tsunami that came after the Pacific plate dropped catastrophically, pulling the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan then delivering it by deluge across the shallow plains of Honshu.
We should never forget that the planet is an inhospitable place. The violence of nature can be resisted only by the ingenious exploitation of nature’s own resources to human ends.
Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ (above) could not be more topical, nor the consolations of great art be more welcome.
Hokusai loved to depict water in motion: the foam of the wave is breaking into claws which grasp for the fishermen. The large wave forms a massive yin to the yang of empty space under it. The impending crash of water brings tension into the painting. In the foreground, a small peaked wave forms a miniature Mt. Fuji, which is reflected hundreds of miles away in the enormous Mt. Fuji, which shrinks through perspective; the wavelet is larger than the mountain. Instead of shoguns and nobility, we see tiny fishermen huddled into their sleek crafts; they slide down a seamount and dive straight into the wave to make it to the other side. The yin violence of Nature is dismissed by the yang relaxed confidence of expert fishermen.
Because of man’s ingenuity and vigilance, destruction is not the normal human experience—that relaxed confidence portrayed so subtly by Hokusai is.
But we should never forget the power of the earth to destroy.