March 24, 2011
Disaster and the Rhetoric of Sacrifice
— Yuki Miyamoto
Nearly two weeks have passed since a catastrophic earthquake and violent tsunami devastated northeastern Japan. Officials are struggling to calculate the still-mounting death toll and to assess the full scope of destruction, while efforts to avert meltdowns at crippled nuclear power plants intensify. Natural disasters, so often worsened by human failures, activate our religious imaginations.
Too often in times of crisis explicit religious expressions are appalling. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina stimulated an outpouring of hateful sentiment; the hurricane was deemed by some to be God’s punishment for homosexuality in New Orleans. In 2010, Pat Robertson infamously attributed the earthquake in Haiti to the Haitians’ “pact with the Devil.” Now, in connection with Japan’s current plight, right-wing firebrand Glenn Beck has speculated that the quake and tsunami were a “message from God.” To this he added, with telling ambiguity, that he is not “saying” that God caused the earthquake, but also not “not saying” it.
Religious rhetoric has also cropped up in Japan. Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara has claimed that the calamity is a “divine punishment.” “Japanese politics,” Ishihara remarked, “is tainted with egoism and populism. We need to use the tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has attached itself like rust to the mentality of the Japanese people over a long period of time.” Ishihara, a conservative politician whose troubling record also includes racist and sexist comments, later retracted his remarks and offered an apology.
More subtle than such explicit remarks, however, is the religious aura developing around the group of Japanese persons working to contain radiation and incapacitate nuclear reactors on the verge of meltdown. Dubbed by the Western media as the “Fukushima 50,” (though the group comprises more than fifty workers), these volunteers are dousing the burning reactors with water at close range. As the Guardian has put it, the Fukushima 50 “are the nuclear power industry's equivalent of frontline soldiers, exposing themselves to considerable risks while about 800 of their evacuated colleagues watch from a safe distance.” Here aptly analogized with soldiers, these volunteers evince a will to sacrifice themselves on behalf of their country.
As Chris Hogg of the BBC notes, Japan is fond of “heroes who sacrifice everything for the greater good,” in this case a country steeped in a tradition that holds the nation as sacred. Dying for the nation thus evokes a religious sensibility. For example, a Japanese newspaper reported that one woman sent a text message to her husband on the team, saying: “Please be a savior (kyuseishu) of Japan.”
The risks of the Fukushima 50 are indeed of heroic proportions, a fact I appreciate all the more from my comfortable vantage point here in Chicago, thousands of miles from the accident site. At the same time, an unsettling feeling has crept upon me—a feeling that recalls the unease I have experienced at the Yasukuni Shinto shrine in Tokyo, where soldiers who died for the “sacred” Japanese nation-state, which emerged in the nineteenth century and is embodied in the deific emperor, are enshrined. Deifying soldiers who have given their lives on behalf of the country, however, has the effect of glorifying and upholding, rather than challenging, the conditions giving rise to the disasters of war.
Within this religio-political tradition, civilians may also be granted the status of deity after death in Japan. For example, in the Saga prefecture of southwest Japan, one shrine is dedicated to police officer Masuda Keitaro, who devoted himself to treating those suffering from cholera in 1895. He himself eventually fell victim to the epidemic he was fighting and passed away. Since containment of the disease coincided with Masuda’s demise, the officer’s death was deemed a sacred sacrifice, and he was enshrined as a protector of the villagers from disease.
The present threat of illness is of a different sort, but like Masuda, the Fukushima 50 are widely hailed as “sacrificial” heroes for their noble and necessary endeavors. Without wanting to diminish the genuine dedication and risk of this group, however, one might call critical attention to the problematic religious underpinnings of the worshipful attitude with which they are being treated, for such attitudes may mask a latent nationalism that sees the nation as sacred and therefore infallible; such attitudes—hardly unique to Japan—may explain in part the Japanese government’s reticence about the full extent of the threat of nuclear disaster.
Whatever the case, the religious tradition and sacrificial rhetoric that inform such attitudes threaten to divert attention from investigations of what “necessitated” the risk, and potential deaths, in the first place. The glorifying rhetoric of sacrifice in service of the greater good potentially deflects attention from the task of interrogating the conditions that gave rise to disaster—in this case, the matter of nuclear power: its threat to individuals, communities, and the global environment.
We do not know, of course, if the Fukushima 50 will someday be enshrined as deities for their sacrifices. But perhaps the best show of gratitude we might now offer would be to turn a critical eye to our own complicity in the disaster to which they respond. Japan has for too long relied on uranium and plutonium for energy, notwithstanding the fact that there is no safe way to dispose of nuclear waste, nor to make the power plants that convert these elements into useable energy entirely secure.
In gratefully considering the risks and efforts of the Fukushima 50, we must move beyond potentially-distracting religious rhetoric and sensibilities to remind ourselves who is accountable for their lives, and why we have so far failed to choose a safer energy alternative that would not require such risks.
Max Blumenthal, “Blaming Katrina on Gays, Israel, and Man-on-Horse Sex,” Huffington Post, September 5, 2005.
Nicholas D. Kristof, “Some Frank Talk about Haiti,” New York Times, January 20, 2010.
Elizabeth Tenety, “Glenn Beck: Japan earthquake ‘message’ from God,” The Washington Post, March 15, 2011.
Tania Branigan and Justin McCurry, “Fukushima 50 battle radiation risks as Japan nuclear crisis deepens,” Guardian, March 15, 2011.
Chris Hogg, “Japan Hails the heroic ‘Fukushima 50’,” BBC News, March 17, 2011.
“Tokyo shōbō chō: Hibaku to tatakai hōsui—kazoku ‘kyūseishu ni’” (“Tokyo Fire Department: Watering and battling against radiation exposure—‘be a savior,’ said the wife,”) Yomiuri Online, March 21, 2011.
Komatsu, Kazuhiko. Kami ni natta hitobito: Nihonjin ni totte “Yasukuni no kami” towa nani ka (People who became gods: What ‘Yasukuni Deities” means to Japanese) (Tokyo: Kobunsha, 2006).
Yuki Miyamoto holds a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at DePaul University. Her book Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: Commemoration, Religion, and Responsibility After Hiroshima is forthcoming from Fordham University Press.