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What does healing a broken world mean in Japan today?

29 November 2013

Mount Fuji and the surrounding landscape. Photo credit: P Walpole

Pedro Walpole, SJ

In a country recognized for its depth, quality, and culturally refined sense of simplicity, the responses and actions to environmental concerns are of broader value than simply the national. People have a working relationship with their landscapes – be it cultural, spiritual, economic, social – and for many, there is a knowledge of where they are in the ecological system. But there is also a deep questioning of how to respond adequately, advocacy for a non-nuclear society post-Fukushima is growing even if the alternatives are not in place. And while there is an understanding of reckoning with disasters, there are deep questions in society as to how the genuine empathy translates into social upliftment and what direction to take in its development as a nation, knowing that the Western model of consumerism is untenable and unsustainable.

These thoughts developed during multiple conversations and presentations last month while meeting with teachers and students in several Jesuit high schools across Japan, the social center in Tokyo and Jōchi (Sophia) University. I also had the good opportunity to meet with young Japanese professionals who finished their graduate program with the UN-mandated University for Peace under the Asian Peacebuilders Scholarship sponsored by the Nippon Foundation.

Mount Fuji is perhaps one of the most native and aspiring landscapes of all in the country and koyo, the autumnal change of leaves, is deeply moving; it stretches the imagination and heart. Autumn is also a time of change when we know we must prepare for winter.

Rural life has a simplicity that reflects very clearly a self-identity and human security that is at the core of governance, economic sustainability, and ecological services when community is at the centre of resource management. These are generic values found in many marginal cultures across Asia Pacific with which the youth of today can still connect. Not all are in contact with this simplicity, as the urban work ethic shows little change and is not dynamic in response to broader changes. Many though are recognizing that friends and community can give us identity, and we are not simply identified by one’s company calling card as before.

Living with a sense of natural simplicity and rural adaptation, we can better face uncertainty, suffering, doubt and death; we grow humble and stronger, loving more deeply. We have to see, discern, and act. We do this by engaging with others and losing our loneliness. We need to speak our fears and raise doubts in order to form the right questions to bring us forward. In this way we will understand the simplicity needed, the sacrifice called for at times. These were some of the sentiments of the youth I met.

Stories of Fukushima in 2013 tell of people in affected areas feeling alone, lost, having no view of future, and needing work. Volunteers are a valued presence and occasion for action; they give of themselves and ask each person “how are you doing?,” weaving anew a community fabric.

Any act of healing carries an attitude or orientation that is focused on the other and the recognition that the other is wounded. In one sense, it is about basic human relationships where healing is personal, not a regulation for what officially must be done. Healing is a process that gives strength in different ways to both the one being healed and to the one assisting. The focusing is important, being a specific care for the other in the world where I also belong and do not seek merely a general aura of wellbeing. This carries on to our relation with nature.

Former Prime Minster Junichiro Koizumi shifted to an anti-nuclear stand and is calling the present administration to change. Lawmaker and anti-nuclear activist Taro Yamamoto (Upper House Diet member) broke protocol last 31 October and handed Emperor Akihito a letter, explaining his action as an attempt to inform the Emperor of the continuing health risks due to the leaking of contaminated water at the Fukushima nuclear plant, especially on children. Civil gatherings for the last 80 Fridays that continue around Parliament Building are impressive in their simplicity and commitment. The elderly are involved; they have the time but also conviction, even for a future which is not theirs. The nuclear industrial family is a very special and closed group that has a tight hold on what the present government can do.

Institutions define us and so we must commit to ideas of change when building anew. Our physical buildings reflect us and our lifestyles, but can we build with simplicity that also reflects where we want to go? This is the challenge.

Global empathy can also deepen with the growing use of communications. We don’t know what the people’s needs and the economy will be like in 20 years if we are to sustain a greater responsiveness and sensitivity. There is a challenge to get involved worldwide, not to withdraw, and to consider what people say or seek in life. There is sympathy for the loss of lives and the pain of those who survived the recent typhoon Haiyan in central Philippines.

Young Japanese finding their sense of belonging through ecology. Photo credit: P Walpole

Learning to value the environment and our Earth beyond studies in college allows not only for appreciation but relation. With some students, they shared concerns over acidification of oceans, world water needs, nuclear damage, limitations to the region’s education, typhoons, and consumerism, and that we learn we can care for others. The use of knowledge, the persuasion of family, community, and government can all be applied in acting for the global good.

One of the college students asked me if it is now a question of making greater sacrifices and I responded that the point of healing a broken world is not focused on depriving oneself of what one enjoys or to make sacrifices, but in a desire to respond to real needs, leading one to learn simplicity and deepen an attitude and culture of care.

Many of the things we are moved to do help us simplify our own lives and lifestyle and appreciate further the quality of life of others. Giving from the surplus that some of us may have is really like paying for a nuisance or a nagging to go away. People in Japan are giving to those who survived typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines not because they are bothered, but because they deeply care. There is a humble relief, a joy, if it can be said in the circumstances, to be able to give with meaning in such a disaster. Usually we don’t have the time to stop and think – and feel – about these things and when we do, there is a certain relief in our own living when we act. Attitudinal change comes easy because it comes from a deeply human realization.

When talking of development direction, peoples’ questions and doubts need to be addressed at the basic human level of experience as much as the technical level. Questions and statements emerged such as:
“The problem is so great, there little I can seem to do.”
“I save energy, but where do I go from here?”
“When we work for justice we see the face of the poor, but for the environment, it is diffused.”
“I am confused. For me, pollution seems abstract, impersonal, and I am not able to feel the suffering of others. It is too dispersed across the world.”
“Some say ‘I like baseball as a hobby or choice, and for others, it is ecology.’ But how do I help people see the difference?”

Environmental destruction is not simply the direct impact of our lifestyles on areas of conservation and pristine beauty; these are figuratively worlds apart though in reality connected. Sometimes it is important to see the human face and circumstances as not distinct from where we live. Often we use the face of the poor to reflect the state of conditions in Africa where we may never go, or the “poor” (personified) polar bear in the water to show the diminishing ice and climate change.

We know there is a connection and “we must act,” but it is best we focus on what we can sustain. We need to identify what we can acknowledge, what we can share with others, what can affirm our humanity.

Looking for peaceful alternatives towards a non-nuclear future. Photo credit: P Walpole

A broken world, a broken environment, is not devoid of the personal and social dimension if we share a sense of belonging. Similarly, there is occasion for a subjective experience of consolation that is not based on performance or definable impact.

Environmental issues are many, but if we talk of concerns they are centered in us, based on our hope, our love, our willingness to be transformed again, we seek to heal. Crisis is change, but we do not have to live in crisis. If we can share values, we can better see beyond the crisis and act.

Personal change that is affirmative and lasting comes not from authority but from local wisdom. It begins with gratitude – a deep affirmation of what it is to be human. Many youth are confused, alone, insecure in the world today, and knowing the “ecology” gives a sense of belonging. Some of their comments include having too much to do, how to simplify their lives, how to enjoy and communicate their sense of living.

When I know “in the ecology of things” who I am and where I am, I can be more responsive locally and more broadly engaged. Actively engaging with an environmental concern is not an ideology, not a science, but a way of life that begins with oneself. It is not about winning anti-nuclear arguments while others lose, but accepting together the cost and the challenge. Simplicity is not in debating, but in communicating and conversing.

Sustainable Human Development is where many youth can connect globally. We can reflect on the UN four pillars and find our concerns deepening the reflection and action called for in: inclusive economic development, inclusive social development, environmental sustainability, and peace and security.

Do we have urgent questions and goals for the future that we are willing to share and act upon rather than first arguing about the answers?

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