Don't overlook Japan's spirituality

March 26, 2011 

Truthfully, I am getting a bit tired of the same old cycle of media coverage toward crises like the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Whenever I turn on the television, the three major cable news networks seem to show the same kind of scenes and interview the same kind of people. There are experts on earthquakes and other kinds of technological authorities who share their knowledge on the extent of the disaster and, in particular, its relationship to the nuclear issue. Then the media swings back to the possible implications for U.S. nuclear policies and then back to interviews with American elected officials. That is basically the cycle of coverage.

Yes, there is an occasional interview with a Japanese survivor, an American teacher living in Japan or an American leaving Japan for safer grounds. Is that all there is to this crisis?

It is understandable that our attention be directed to the infrastructure, political and economic issues but there is more than that when we want to understand the impact of this series of disasters that has afflicted Japan. There is the spiritual upheaval as well.

I listened to a psychologist on CNN liken the psychological impact upon the Japanese people to the Holocaust in that they will pass on the trauma to the next generation. It may be true, but that does not help me understand how the Japanese cope on a spiritual level.

People marvel at the discipline of the Japanese and wonder if that kind of a disaster had befallen the United States whether our citizens would pull together and maintain a unity of purpose like the Japanese. Is it just because they are disciplined or is there a basis from their religious traditions that enables them to make sense of these events in a way that fortifies their will and determination to prevail?

Japan has its own blending of religions and philosophies that have created a rich tapestry of pluralism in its religious life. It is not unusual for someone to believe in and practice several different religions. This kind of approach does not make sense for Western sensibilities but does work for the Japanese. In one house, for example, a woman goes to her Christian church and offers a prayer to Jesus. And then she shows her respect to her Shinto deities, various avatars of Buddha, Confucian ancestors as well as the God of Christianity. The Japanese seem to be much more flexible about their religious systems believing that life and death cannot be contained by only one religion or a single idea.

Also anyone who studies Japanese culture will quickly discover that the group defines the mind-set of the individual. That might mean the family, the clan or even the entire nation. That is why the emperor of Japan plays an important symbolic role and why it was such a major event when the current emperor spoke to the Japanese people in the aftermath of this earthquake and tsunami.

It is not that people do not think for themselves or abdicate individual responsibility. It is that the Japanese rely on their sense of peoplehood, which influences the way they see meaning and purpose. That might derive from the way they view their nation, or the company they work for because the group identity ties it all together on a spiritual plane and in an everyday manner of existence. It also influences the way they understand death and the afterlife as well.

The Japanese are struggling with the same issue we are facing, which is how to balance human ingenuity with the forces of nature. It is not only an engineering problem. It is not simply an economical or political issue. All of these issues are involved as human beings try to cope with the after effects of the man-made disaster as well as the unforgiving rage of nature.

There always is in the background the spiritual domain that penetrates through it all. I want to know how the Japanese are coping and how their religious leaders are comforting the people and what they say to inspire the people to maintain their amazing composure. What teachings do they rely upon that strengthen them? Are there experts in Japan who can talk to us and explain what they know and how they confront this kind of a national disaster?

Will CNN, Fox and MSNBC ever consider bringing on a religious leader who can unveil the spiritual wellspring of wisdom that supports the Japanese? Who knows, we might learn something from them if we face, god forbid, something like that kind of earthquake and tsunami on our land.

In 1828, the Japanese poet Yamamoto Ryokan (1758-1831), who was a Zen monk, wrote a letter after an earthquake that killed thousands of people. He said, "When you suffer a calamity, then be it so; now is the time of calamity. When you die, then be it so; now is the time to die. Thus you save yourself from calamity and death." The pragmatic and powerful wisdom of Japanese Zen monks belong to a proud religious tradition that continues to serve Japan today.

I hope that as we watch the reconstruction in Japan we will find a way to behold the religious traditions, understanding how they too contribute to rebuilding the Japanese country.

Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.

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