Over Mount Fuji – Addendum (42) –

Published in the RAGING PLANET

Eileen O’Neill

All around the globe, many countries live with the constant threat of an earthquake. Yet, people go about their normal life oblivious to the danger, whether they live in Jakarta, Santiago, or Los Angeles. Death may come in an instant, and such a cataclysm could be the most devastating that many nations face. But as our mind wanders outside the established encyclopedic pool of knowledge, we start to ponder why Japan is the only nation that has a mass suicide culture. Are there no common themes? Can there be some hidden threads we ignore at our own peril? Such questions may sound preposterous, but think again. Our human nature may be sending out signals in a way we still do not understand.

To learn more about ourselves, perhaps, we should take a deeper look at the animals surrounding us. Hours before the December 26, 2004 tsunami that ripped apart the seafloor off the coast of northwest Sumatra, a herd of elephants in the mountains of Thailand seemed to sense what was coming. They stamped the ground, tugged at their chains, eventually broke away and ran to the hills.

An hour before the wall of waves slammed Khao Lak, fifty miles from Phuket, another group of elephants, giving rides to tourists, began trumpeting. They reportedly grew agitated and began wailing. Just before disaster struck, they fled for higher ground.

Along the Cuddalore coast in southern India, where thousands of people perished, the India News service reported buffaloes and goats that had fled earlier were found unharmed. Flamingos, which normally breed at that time of the year at Point Calimere wildlife sanctuary, flew off before the tsunami hit.

Since then, there have been hundreds of reports of animals seemingly foretelling the massive 9.3 earthquake that triggered the Asian catastrophe—not just hours but sometimes even days before it occurred. These include tales of bizarre behavior such as dogs refusing to go for their usual morning walk. Wildlife officials reported that hundreds of leopards, tigers, antelopes, wild boar, deer, water buffalo, monkeys and smaller mammals such as bats, rats, and reptiles escaped unscathed.

Given all these evidence, it seems that most animals knew something was wrong. But not all. In addition to the more than 225,000 people killed in eleven countries, a large number of turtles, despite being a sea creature, were found dead in the debris along the shore of Indonesia’s Aceh province. Why did some escape while others didn’t? Maybe these turtles were not agile enough. Maybe, like humans, they couldn’t sense the coming disaster.

But many animals can sense the coming tsunami. Species of birds, dogs, elephants, tigers and other animals can detect ‘infra sound’—frequencies in the range of 1-3 hertz, compared with humans’ 100-200-hertz range. It appears many animals have sensory organs that monitor these micro-tremors and micro-changes that we humans cannot possibly monitor.

Elephants have acute nerves in the trunk and special bones in their feet. They are known to lay their trunks on the ground when an airplane or truck generates large seismic noise, as if to feel it. With their intelligence and ability to sense seismic vibrations in low frequencies, the elephants seem able to detect what direction the stimulus is coming from, how strong it is, and what evasive action to take.

In one study, Stanley Coren from the University of British Columbia started to investigate whether dogs behaved abnormally before a quake. Dogs’ olfactory senses are so sensitive—they’re even said to be able to smell fear—that it is possible they could notice chemical changes in the air before an earthquake. Coren’s results present an alluring hypothesis. He suggests that the kind of high-frequency sounds many dogs can hear are emitted before an impending earthquake, perhaps from rocks scraping or breaking underground.

Another theory is that animals respond to subterranean gases, such as radon and hydrogen, released from rocks before a quake, despite the fact that few experts accept such gases are released. A more exotic explanation comes from Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist and director of the Perrott-Warrick Project in London, which researches
unexplained human and animal abilities.

“I think animals are picking up on something that we are not,” Sheldrake says. “It could be electromagnetic, or perhaps even a sixth sense.”

If these animals hold such acute nerves that enable them to function as a sixth sense, we humans may also have that secrets, too, albeit of a different nature. Also, since not all animals have the same sense as elephants or dogs, we  hmans may have a diverse mix of sixth sense, which as I will point them out, differs from culture to culture.

Now back to the original theme, and may the question be worded differently: why have the Japanese always been fascinated with their archipelago sinking? There is, I feel, a sound psychology which I venture to say, is based on genetic or inherent information, albeit at the subconscious level. This concept has been classified as “psychic impression,” that is, gained from accessing the collective subconsciousness on the one hand, and the data of individual’s personal memory banks on the other. In such hypothesis, it is as if the Japanese were descendants of the mythical Atlantis.

Let us examine the history of written Japanese literature that can only be traced back to the eighth century. Although most of these incorporate myths, legends and epics and seem weird to westerners, they were all based on nature in some form or another.

In details, they told us in symbolic form the events of the seasons, which are particularly well defined in the Japanese calendar. Since rice and fish have always formed the staple diet of the Japanese, it was natural that their planting, harvesting and fishing seasons should find their place in their mythology. In these respects, Japanese myths resemble those of the West, and therefore are immediately comprehensible to the western mind. Yet, the theme of death has never fascinated the West the way it did with the Japanese.

Another suggested explanation for this character trait is a constant exposure to natural disasters. Look at the map of Japan—it is composed of a necklace of islands. Surrounded by nature in its most violent aspects, they are exposed constantly to natural forces, like wind and floods, eruptions and earthquakes, and other phenomena like thunder and lightning. To the west lies the Sea of Japan, which separates the islands from Korea, Siberia and China. To the east, the great thundering Pacific, with its devastating typhoons and great surf, rolls all the way to Hawaii and the west coast of America. Yet, other nations are exposed to natural disasters, too, and such violent nature is the same all over the world. The Netherlands have been threatened by the sea for generation, but the Dutch never entertain or develop any psychic impression at the subconscious level that the Japanese have.

To the Japanese, human existence seems unstable, insubstantial, brief and dreamlike, an illusion, liable to be swept away at any moment, without warning. Literature and art lies at the heart of almost every culture, but to the Japanese, dramas, horror films and other works of art have featured the archipelago in catastrophic theme-destroyed by earthquakes, floods, fires, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis or killer waves. An entire genre of kaij? movies has given rise to the theme of destroying the mega-metropolis of Tokyo as much as possible. The most famous being Godzilla, other well-known kaij? include Mothra, Rodan, Varan, Gorath, and King Ghidorah. Coincidentally, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seem to reinforce the idea that life is as fragile as the cherry blossom. Perhaps this is the background to the Shinto teaching that the death warriors faced was simply a brief passage to the world of the kami.

Westerners commit suicide, too. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Cunningham’s The Hour bear testimony to this, but suicides in the West are isolated, far apart and haven’t been elevated into a national passion. In Japan, it is an engrossed fascination. Every aesthetic aspect of the process of death is being choreographed to the minutest detail. Every movement, every detail, is planned and intensely willed, utterly enhanced in rigidity, giving the impression of absolute ease and control. Every step of disemboweling performed is a slow, agonizing ritual and superb theatrical spectacle.

During this suspense, the audience is deeply satisfied by the artistic formality of the proceeding and the stylizing movements, and agonized by the long-drawn-out realism of the presentation. We feel the sword slowly stirring in our own bowels, and the final coup de grace when, with a well-considered gesture, perfectly timed and controlled, the self-slaughterer steps forward and, with his dagger, neatly severs the jugular vein. Such denouements are agonizing to watch, tingling with our innermost sense of emotions and feelings, but satisfying and gratifying at the end of it all. It is this welled deliberation and intense control in artistic flair that westerners find most difficult to understand and accept, but it is the essence of Japanese art.

In Noh plays, the protagonist appears first as a human being and then as a ghost. This structure of concentrating on a single character and allowing him to interchange between this world and the next is unique. Since the point of contact between these two different worlds is death, this theme has always been its central focus and passion.

In Hagakure, a passage on seppuku reads: Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, muskets, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.

The Tale of the Genji, the story of the life of an imperial prince—his birth, upbringing, his loves, his exile, his promotion, in his old age, and his desire for the afterlife—is a connecting thread running throughout the novel.

Kabuki, the popular theater of Japan, began in about 1603 and is still flourishing in temple-like scenic Kyoto and amidst the bustles of modern Tokyo. What is its secret? This drama has its rules and conventions, but its most enduring feature is the practice of ritual suicide. Not only is this accepted, but often glorified as well.

Although by no means are all Kabuki plays concerned with this subject, seppuku is a formidable essence. The centerpiece of the action is to cut the belly, which is considered the bodily abode of the soul and the center of all thought and emotion. The spectacle is to produce in the viewer the catharsis—which Aristotle claimed was the chief purpose of ritual death—a cleansing of the mind and soul through sorrow and terror. The children of the samurai class were taught from an early age not to fear death, and that one day they might have to take their own lives in this way.

Kabuki’s most celebrated seppuku comes from Chushinguru, in which Lord Enya is ordered to commit suicide for the capital offense of drawing his sword in the Shogun’s palace. With great formality, two tatami mats are first laid out bottom-side up and covered with a white cloth. Enya, dressed in the pale, off-white clothes of death, kneels on the mats and draws the shoulder wings of his formal clothes tightly under his knees.

Proper etiquette dictates that the wound should not be exposed after death, and the taut cloth will pull his body forward as he drops dead. He wraps paper around the upper part of the dagger so that he can grip it with both hands and, feeling for the bottom of his cage, plunges the dagger into the left side of his left abdomen. He then draws the knife across to the right and makes a final small upward cut. The process is a slow, agonizing death, and to dispatch himself he withdraws the dagger and cuts his jugular vein. At the first sight of pain, there is his trusted second, or the kaishaku, standing nearby, poise, who will strike his head off.

But seppuku is not limited to a single person. When Kamakura was captured in 1333, the twenty retainers who were left behind ran out to the middle gate, crying aloud, “Our lord has killed himself. Let all loyal men accompany him!”

Then these retainers lit a fire in the mansion, quickly lined up together in the smoke and cut their bellies. And not willing to be outdone, three hundred other warriors cut their bellies and leapt into the consuming flames. Suicide, considered deeply virtuous, is thus a collective psyche. It has become a national fascination. Perhaps, just as the
family is a model for the state, the seppuku of an individual is a microcosm for the nation.

From 1944, Japanese warriors engaged in a new operation of that we know as kamikaze, a desperate attempt to save the motherland. In the final flourish of the tradition of the samurai way of death, young pilots were trained before they took off for their suicide missions. With a headband, tied around their foreheads, these warriors piloted their cramped and doomed aircraft on their one-way journeys, immersed in evocative themes from their heroic past that link the kamikaze squadrons and their weapons to the world of ‘cherry blossoms,’ or the ‘chrysanthemum on the water’—the eternal symbol of fallen heroes.

“The way of the samurai,” wrote the author of the Hagakure, “is to be found in death.”

Let us refocus to humans in general for a moment. We are no doubt familiar with our five senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste. In addition to these senses, we were born with extra-sensory perception, which includes psychic abilities such as intuition, telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance, psychic abilities, sometimes collectively referred to as our sixth sense. Extra-sensory perception (ESP) is defined as the ability to acquire information by paranormal means independent of any known physical senses or deduction from previous experience.

Sometimes our intuition is irrepressible, such as when we insist, “I don’t know how I know, but I just do. Trust me.” Most of the time, however, these intuitive hits come in discreet and quiet ways, gathered from physical sensations, dreams, and pieces of memories entwined with mental wanderings. And often, they turn out to be true. Intuition flourishes when we pause, notice, and listen a little more deeply. Intuition is inborn, and it is sharpened by learning how to decode the information that resides within our brains and bodies.

Many people literally get a “gut feeling” before something bad happens. Our viscera warn us of danger even if our conscious mind doesn’t always get the message. Although this concept implies sources of information unproven by science, popular belief in ESP is widespread. If so, the Japanese seems guided by such artistic instinct that differs quite distinctly from the West. Maybe that’s the essence of the Japanese character. Maybe it is not too farfetched to postulate the significance of our cultural diversities. Maybe, each nation has its own destiny. So think again. It may seem tomfoolery on first thought, but such strange anomalies may be as mystifying as the eastern coast of South America fitting into the western coast of Africa like a piece in a giant jigsaw puzzle before the theory of continental drift was accepted.

Now, consider the topography of Japan. The land is literally sinking, too. The alarming extent of this environmental disruption was brought to light as early as 1971 when periodic geographic surveys undertaken by the Geographic Survey Institute of the Ministry of Construction discovered that the islands are sinking. Land sinkage has long been an accepted hazard in Tokyo, Osaka and Niigata where the land has been irresponsibly drilled to tap underground water for factories, hotels and massive apartment blocks. Several parts of these cities are already below sea level, ominous signs pointing to imminent disaster. In a way, Japan is preparing ritual suicide on a national scale, and literally digging her own grave.

In the Western psyche, it is Hollywood’s preference that the ending be happy after some tidy resolutions, the tendency to show admirable, virtuous heroes overcoming evil by individual effort. This is the Hero’s Journey, a theme deeply entrenched in European literature or in films. Perhaps these drew people in this special way because they reflected the underlying theme of the Judeo-Christian psyche. In the midst of adversity, they long for a Special One in an ultimate deliverance. This Judeo-Christian psyche is further enhanced by Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”

But Japanese are unique in their own ways. Although the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung described such innate nature as “universal psychic dispositions,” it isn’t universal in any sense. Anthropology has shown us that cultures are a lot less in common than we think and, as proven above, the Japanese inherent character diverts into an opposite direction from the West. Death, honorable suicide and the art of making such theme have profoundly manifested the uniqueness of the Japanese psyche, or we may say, its collective subconsciousness.

Granted that this ominous psyche is unique to the Japanese, maybe the thought that their archipelago may experience a colossal calamity isn’t that preposterous after all. We could have viewed all their characteristics in isolation without any cohesive theme. We need to take a broader approach and scrutinize them from a more distant perspective like the way we study the Nazca Lines of Peru. The themes and connecting threads may have been there all along. We just need a fresh outlook. Maybe we have been too close and have been blinded. Maybe the other people—Taiwanese, Philippinos, Indonesians, Chileans, or Californians—along the Ring of Fire don’t have that same ominous sense that the Japanese have after all. If so, these non-Japanese might surface along the shore like the turtles did along the shores of Aceh. So the question may take another form, “Are the Japanese sensing a devastating end to their archipelago?”

©) Joel Huan, author of Over Mount Fuji (available from Amazon and Barnes&Noble)

Or if you like to write to me, my email is (no space): eqlunn at gmail.com

~ by Joel Huan on December 1, 2009.

2 Responses to “Over Mount Fuji – Addendum (42) –”

  1. Thanks Ashley,
    I’d included this article because it seems to be the missing puzzle in a bizarre mystery. It’s like a puzzle that could possible solve the Nazca Lines of Peru. But this is another mystery of Japan!

  2. Dear Joel, interesting premise about the Japanese. 60 Minutes had covered the aspect of the Moken villagers sensing the Tsunami.

    I myself have written about animals being impacted by the effects of solar flares and other magnetic anomalies in The McDuffys, one of my trilogy of Det. Chevalier novels. Let me think about it. . .Ashley

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