I suspect most people have a huge fear of something; a particular nightmarish fear. My own is that of walls of water crashing over a shore and pushing their way through cities of skyscrapers. It has not been helped by imaginative Hollywood productions. A few years ago when I first heard about the possibility of a piece of the Canaries dropping into the Atlantic, which would cause a massive tsunami across the Atlantic, I couldn’t imagine how I would have received this piece of information had I been living on the Eastern seaboard of the US. I felt queasy enough at the prospect sitting in my house on the top of a hill in the middle of the North of England. I am lucky, though, that my fear can remain irrational and unreal.
Not so for many people worldwide, and I cannot imagine what it must have been like to see, and then suffer the consequences of the great wave which swept across the eastern edge of Honshu a few days ago.
The Japanese have lived for centuries with the rumblings and threats and disastrous consequences of earthquakes and volcanoes. From the relatively safe perspective of England, and with my worrisome nature, I honestly don’t know how they do it. Well, for that matter, I don’t know how people anywhere live in such conditions of permanent uncertainty, under threat from the infinite power of nature itself. Are they able to rationalise it all by thinking statistically about the much greater chances of suffering harm in life through mankind’s own doing?
The awfulness of the Japanese tragedy this week is the combined effect of natural disaster with nuclear disaster. I have no idea why building reactors on fault-lines could ever be considered a good idea, but maybe living on the edge of geological uncertainty allows you to have a different perspective on these matters. A sort of nonchalance or devil-may-care attitude is combined with pressing economic and energy drivers. And disaster ensues.
Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave) is possibly the most iconic piece of Japanese art in the world. The wave it depicts is unimaginably huge and terrifying, and dwarfs Mount Fuji in the distance. It is shown at the point when it will come crashing down on three small boats. In composing the image, Hokusai was influenced by European perspective rules, which adds to the drama of the image. The print was made using woodblock printing techniques and thousands of impressions were printed. Gradually, however, the blocks deteriorated, so earlier impressions are much better to view.
With this image seared into their culture, I can’t imagine how the Japanese ever manage to forget human frailty in the face of such overwhelming force and power of nature. But my heart goes out to them for what they have suffered and will continue to suffer in coming months as a result of these calamitous events.