March 29, 2011

Outgrowing Our Madness: A Nobel Prize winner on Japan's relationship with nuclear energy

This week's New Yorker magazine features a moving piece by Kenzaburo Oe, Japanese author and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, on Japan's relationship to nuclear energy. In "Tokyo Postcard: History Repeats," Oe argues that to continue to construct nuclear reactors would be to betray the memory of the Japanese who have died from exposure to nuclear radiation:

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.

Though Oe notes that Japan has failed to honor the pacifist ideals set forth in its post World War II constitution (including the renunciation of force and an unwillingness to possess, manufacture, or introduce nuclear weapons into Japanese territory), the country has not forgotten the lessons of the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

The ideals of postwar humanity...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.

To read the full article, click here.

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