Some of the most haunting images from Japan's 9.0 earthquake have been of houses, being deformed, overwhelmed, pulled from their foundations by the onrushing tsunami, houses reduced to debris, swept out to sea. We talk all day long about housing prices, mortgage foreclosures and real estate, about all the ways to express our dwellings as objects of abstract financial manipulation. It takes a disaster of this scale to redraw our attention to what our houses mean as a place to live in.
Impermanence is a deep aspect of spiritual and aesthetic belief in Japan. Ise Shrine, the most sacred site of the nativist Shinto religion from the 7th century, is rebuilt from scratch every 20 years, from Japanese cypress and thatch, no paint, no varnish, left open to the sun, the rain, and the warm salt air off the Inland Sea, its main pillars sunk by the master craftsmen straight into the dirt, where they communicate with the earth through the natural process of rotting and breaking down. All Japanese schoolchildren know the sonorous opening lines of the Tale of the Heike, a 13th century account of the battles leading to the fall of the 400-year-old capital in Kyoto.
"In the sound of the bell of the Gion Temple echoes the impermanence of all things. … The proud do not last long, but vanish like a spring night's dream. And the mighty ones too will perish in the end, like dust before the wind."
The 13th century ascetic and monk Kamo no Chomei, in a series of meditations called "An Account of My Hut," relates these themes specifically to architecture.
"The flow of the river is ceaseless, and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration: so in the world are man and his dwellings."
We have this sort of thinking in pre-Socratic Greek thought with Heraclitus. Versus the Milesians, who thought the underlying substance of the world to be fixed and permanent, Heraclitus found the only constant to be change, and also found the core metaphor in the river: "When one steps into the river twice, it is not the same water that washes over you." This has not been a dominant line of thinking in the Western tradition, though, and we tend to put our marbles in the basket with fixed celestial spheres and eternal ideas. And in our architectural tradition we build monuments in stone, to last the ages.
Lasting but a moment
The author recounts the series of events that led to the fall of the 400-year-old Heian capital. First, a great fire in 1177, that cut a swath through the city and left a sea of ashes. Then the tornado of 1180, where "every house, great or small" was destroyed in the path of the whirlwind.
Then came the famine of 1181, which continued for three years, leading to starvation in the streets of the capital. "In the case of husbands and wives who refused to separate, the one whose affections were stronger were sure to die first. This was because, whether man or woman, they gave to their beloved whatever food they occasionally managed to get."
Then there was the earthquake of 1185. "The mountains crumbled and rivers were buried, the sea tilted over and immersed the land. The earth split and water gushed up, boulders were sundered and rolled into the valleys."
The effect of this litany of disasters is devastating. One might want to ascribe it to a premodern mythical hyperbole, except we now know his descriptions to be clinically accurate. Kamo no Chomei, however, does not lose sight of his thesis about architecture:
"Where does he come, where does he go, man that is born and dies? We know not. For whose benefit does he torment himself in building houses that last but a moment, for what reason is he delighted by them? This too, we do not know. Which will be the first to go, the master or his dwelling? One might as well ask this of the dew on the morning glory."
Both the dew and morning glory, of course, are fated to die by day. We've seen this again and again in the disasters, natural and unnatural, that strike Japan's mainland.
Tsunamis have hit the Sanriku area in 1896, 1933 and 1960, with similar results. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 resulted in more than 100,000 dead in the Tokyo area, largely by the firestorm that swept through the wooden housing after the tremors. The fire-bombings of Tokyo and other major cities in 1944 and 1945 again resulted in over 100,000 dead, largely by fire. The 5,000 casualties of the 1995 Kobe earthquake were largely the result of fire, people trapped in wooden buildings as the flames engulfed them, this time heartbreakingly and traumatically broadcast in real time.
Why build there?
Why does a thoroughly modern society rebuild, over and over, in low-lying, tsunami-prone areas, or in wood structures in densely populated areas, in a way that invites this repetition? Why do we put our houses on the coast in Florida?
It is obviously not because of a lack of technical expertise, or a lack of the financial wherewithal to build structures of reinforced concrete of whatever sophistication. Japanese building technology is the best in the world. There is something deeper in the repetition.
It is not irrational, but a resignation, inviting a relation with nature that does not seek to wall it off. These disasters repeat because, despite the wealth and technical excellence of Japanese builders, there is still a preference for wood, for living near the water. The traditional Japanese vernacular architecture, with its asymmetrical layout, sliding screens open to the outside, and roofs of thatch or bark, invites communication with the world outside at the level of the body, through the senses of touch and smell, its breezes, its circadian and seasonal rhythms, its warmth and blessed rain, and its occasional anger.
So, as we see these houses, from our position in Florida, in all their dignity being swept up by the forces of nature, washed out to sea, reduced to debris, we can raise serious philosophical questions about what it is like to have an open relation to nature, in all its beauty, benevolent fertility and destructive power. We can understand this in Florida, the vanity required to raise our mansions on Tampa Bay and Miami Beach and Biscayne Bay, and imagine they'll hold off the forces of nature forever.
But we can also take the question literally. What is in a house? People are in a house. And all the things they accumulate over a lifetime, the furniture, the blankets, the pictures, the memories of the sun on the wooden floor. And it was obvious, in the back of our minds, as we surveyed the colorful nature of the debris in the water, the deep browns and blues and reds and yellows, strewn with perfect randomness over the vast debris fields, that these patches of bright color were personal possessions. We call this effect in literature metonymy. The house means itself, but also stands in for something it touches.
And so when we look at images of the houses, overwhelmed by the onrushing water, smashed to bits in a debris field, floating out to sea, we pause for a moment to remember the people who lived in them. That, I think, is what the Japanese people are thinking about right now. About the people in the houses, that we saw washed out to sea. As they prepare to rebuild again.
Joseph Murphy, associate professor of Japanese at the University of Florida, is associate chair of its Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. All quotations are from Donald Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature.