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Tomoyuki Hoshino Blog Post: “I can’t get the story of the 102-year-old earthquake victim who killed himself out of my head.”

May 1, 2011

This is a translation by Brian Bergstrom of a blog post by author Tomoyuki Hoshino that was originally posted on April 23, 2011.  Thanks, Brian!

I can’t get the story of the 102-year-old earthquake victim who killed himself out of my head.  I myself remember, right after the earthquake stopped, being gripped with the feeling, “Ah, I’m alive, thank goodness!”   Surely this man, too, felt a certain relief at being still alive after it was over.

Being 102, he must have experienced the Great Kantô Earthquake of 1923 as a child.  Born and raised in the town of Iitate, he may not have felt much shaking, but he must have been aware of it if only due to the enormity of the damage it wrought, both literally and on Japanese society as a whole.

So why did a man who’d experienced two enormous earthquakes feel as though he had to take his own life shortly after surviving this latest one?  After 102 years, why didn’t he feel he could bear to see the rest of his time to its end?

All I can do is guess – the only way I have to think through this is to write about the reasons for my own feelings of shock, using this man as a symbol.

The shock I feel – it’s not just a response to the action taken by this particular man, but to the strength of will displayed by all those who had everything swept away by the tsunami or who reside in areas rendered unlivable by radiation and are nevertheless trying as hard as they can to return to these areas and remake their lives there.

I’ve been surprised all along by the strength of these people’s attachment to where they happened to have been born and raised.  And so, hearing about someone who went so far as to kill himself rather than leave his hometown – “surprise” is too commonplace a term for what I feel; it’s more like I’ve been assaulted, shaken to the very bottom of my existence.

Of course, there are surely those who think that the man’s action was perfectly natural.  But I have my reasons for being shocked.  I was a child whose family moved constantly, a child without a hometown.  Technically, I suppose my family home would be Tokyo, but I only started living here in my late teens and thus can hardly claim to be a “born and raised” Tokyoite, and I find I lack any special attachment to the place.

So in this sense, I am in the minority.  There was a long period when I had quite a complex about my lack of hometown.  I was convinced there was something missing from me, as if I were a piece of grass with no root.  I felt myself gently excluded from the communities formed from shared regional identity.  I only rid myself of this complex in college, where I encountered people who bore all sorts of identities.  I learned that a hometown is no necessity, that plenty of people grow up without one, that to lack one isn’t always a disadvantage.

Realizing this, I came to look back at my earlier worry and concluded that I’d been oppressed by a certain “imagination of home.”  Even though people don’t usually go so far as to actually say, “I feel sorry for people without a hometown,” there’s still a general sense that it is impossible for the majority to imagine choosing to live rootlessly, as I do.

I grew defiant, figuring that if people had no interest in imagining what it might be like to be in my position, there was no reason for me to try and imagine what it might be like to be them.  I quit attempting to imagine what it would be like to have an attachment to one’s native land, either the pleasures of it or the pains.  I occupied myself fully with contemplating the pleasures and pains of my rootlessness.

But now this stance seems sour and unproductive, leaving me at a loss. It’s a way of thinking that leads to nothing but an ever-strengthening sense of mutual isolation and results, in the end, only in mutual asphyxiation.

Is this really something to think about in oppositional terms?  Isn’t it the sort of difference that poses no particular problem for coexistence?  Separating myself so completely, I’d become too uncaring.  I never even tried to imagine what it might be like to live in union with one’s environs, what sort of identity that would produce, how much of one’s self might become inseparable from the land.  I never thought about how the loss of that land and the life one built there could outweigh the loss of the things destroyed more directly by a disaster.  Just like those with a firm sense of homeland never thought about what it might be like to be rootless like me.

It’s impossible for me to truly experience it, but I’m nevertheless currently occupied with trying as hard as I can to imagine the pain of having a life and land I’ve been bound to since birth torn from me.  We cannot think seriously about how society will function following this disaster without such attempts at imagination and feeling.

As long as our thinking never goes beyond the level of detached, cool-headed respect for the boundaries between us, leaving it at “whatever you want to do is fine,” we cannot achieve a society in which people can truly exercise their agency and choose how they wish to live.  All that way of thinking does is unwittingly create hierarchies within this range of supposedly free choices.  This disaster has made it all too clear that none of the choices we make  (including  averting our eyes – this is also a choice) can ever be thought of in isolation.

We must allow our various viewpoints to bump up against each other as we strive to realize and give shape to a culture that respects the foundations upon which each of us stand and enables their mutual support.  Rather than making judgments based on a “common sense” rooted in supposedly communal sensibilities, we must instead search within forms of feeling we cannot understand for bases of coexistence, and learn to trust them.

The experiences of those born and raised in one place and those like me are both equally valid.  Now is not the time to shrilly declaim one’s particular experience as “authentic”– it is the time to recognize each other’s position, and through this mutual recognition, arrive at authenticity together.

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