Friday, March 18, 2011

Helping vs. blaming in Japan

Over at Religion Dispatches Levi McLaughlin, a professor of religion who specializes in East Asian traditions, writes about Tokyo's governor Shintaro Ishihara describing the tsunami that struck Japan as "divine punishment."
Ishihara, a prize-winning novelist, stage and screen actor, and a populist hero of the Japanese right, has gained notoriety for his willingness to court controversy, but his take on the tragedy in northeastern Japan offended even his staunchest supporters. On March 14, just three days into the crisis, Ishihara told reporters that he saw the tsunami as “divine punishment,” or tenbatsu, a term usually employed in Japanese to describe a righteous and inevitable punishment of the wicked. For Ishihara, the tsunami produced by Japan’s largest-ever recorded earthquake was a means of washing away the “egoism” (gayoku in Japanese) afflicting the Japanese people.  
While the Tokyo Governor said that he felt sorry for the victims, he concluded that “We need a tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time.”  
Ishihara, who will seek a fourth term as Tokyo Governor in a 2013 election, apologized publicly the next day, following comments by Miyagi Prefecture Governor Yoshihiro Murai, leader of the prefecture closest to the quake epicenter. Murai condemned Ishihara and urged sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of victims suffering in northern Japan. Despite Ishihara’s expression of regret, his “divine punishment” comment lingers as the most widely known religious sentiment yet expressed by a high-profile Japanese public figure in reaction to the current crisis. It resonates with similar remarks made in the United States following disasters, such as those by Pat Robertson in 2005, who described Hurricane Katrina as divine retribution for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts upholding Roe vs. Wade, or the televised conversation between Robertson and Jerry Falwell on September 13, 2001 in which they characterized the attack on the Twin Towers as God’s punishment for American tolerance of “abortionists,” gays, feminists and the ACLU. 
In his willingness to attribute this current natural disaster to divine influence, Ishihara joins the esteemed ranks of Glenn Beck, who was equally sure that a message was being sent but a bit less specific about what it was:
What God does is God's business, I have no idea. But I'll tell you this -- whether you call it Gaia or whether you call it Jesus, there's a message being sent. And that is, "Hey you know that stuff we're doing? Not really working out real well. Maybe we should stop doing some of it."
The need to believe that everything happens for a reason and that good will be rewarded with good while bad is punished by bad is called just-world bias, and it's on full display here.  You could point out to Ishihara or Beck that the cause of earthquakes is actually plate tectonics which were set in place long before Japan was Japan, but the answer would almost certainly be "I know-- and why do you think that was?  Why did it happen now?"  

Well, for reasons someone with more geological knowledge than I could doubtless explain, but that simply pushes the question back another notch.  There has to be an ultimate explanation in this thinking, and "That's the way the world is" isn't good enough.  It's not hard to sympathize with this desire to find reasons behind it all, because having reasons makes it easier for us to cope-- or at least, it seems like it does.  But when people try to draw a direct connection between a disaster and a punishment from some divine power it sounds an awful lot like blaming the victim, doesn't it?  Strange how it's so rare that you hear someone who has suffered due to a disaster saying "Yes, that was obviously God's cosmic punishment for my behavior."  No, it's almost always somebody else's suffering that was earned.  I wonder if Governor Ishihara counts himself amongst the "egotistical" people who needed to be taught this terrible lesson.  

On a brighter note, McLaughlin notes that the religious populations of Japan do not appear to be paying Ishihara much credence-- they continue to help in relief efforts as they're able:

Temples, shrines, and other religious facilities across the Tohoku region, and elsewhere, have been transformed into refugee centers. An article from March 16 on reports that the priest at the Rinzai Zen temple Jionji in Rikuzentakata village is housing 69 refugees who were treated by doctors and nurses from the Japan Red Cross. Seventy to eighty percent of the town’s 8000 households were wiped out by the tsunami. 
Jodo Shinshu, Japan’s largest traditional Buddhist sect, has cancelled plans for the 750th memorial of sect founder Shinran. Instead, the Shinshu priesthood has transformed head temple Higashi Honganji in Kyoto into a dispatch center for relief supplies. Temple staff members are loading water, food, and portable stoves into trucks to be sent to the afflicted Tohoku region, and they’ve turned their famous garden Shoseien into a center for fundraising; and this at a time when the 115 Higashi Honganji Jodo Shinshu temples in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures have been damaged, clergy in Sendai have been killed, and the sect is unable to make contact with seven temples. 
Meanwhile, leaders of the Pure Land Buddhist sect Jodoshu report that they’re unable to contact approximately twenty of the 300 sect temples in these prefectures; they’ve also assigned their headquarter staff to gather funds and supplies. Rinzai Zen headquarters in Kyoto have dedicated their staff to raising funds for emergency relief. The Soto Zen headquarters at Eiheiji reports that it has mobilized clergy to accompany members of its volunteer organization Shanti International Association who will travel to northeastern Japan to aid in relief efforts. Staff at the head temple of Nichirenshu, the largest sect of Nichiren Buddhism, is still contacting its temples in northeastern Japan, and it has cancelled all other activities in favor of fundraising. It’s likely that the leaders of every other traditional Buddhist denomination have dedicated their staff to raising money and gathering materials for earthquake relief. 
Shinto organizations have also pitched in. Shinseikyo, or the National Association of Shinto Youth, immediately established a “Disaster Policy Committee” responsible for fundraising and contacting Shinto priests in the disaster area. The Shinseiky message board is now filled with inquiries seeking contact with Shinto clergy in shrines that cannot be contacted and are most likely destroyed. 
Christians in Japan, who make up less than one percent of the country’s population, consistently initiate successful and high-profile social welfare activities, and they have leapt into action to provide relief. On March 12, mere hours after the quake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region, the YMCA in Kobe began soliciting relief funds; as an organization that survived the January 17, 1995 earthquake in western Japan and provided relief to residents in Kobe, they are eager to help victims of this latest natural disaster.

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