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"Life-world": beyond Fukushima and Minamata.

Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist, writes that Japan has become part of the "World Risk Society" as a result of the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima (Beck 2011a). By "World Risk Society," he means a society threatened by catastrophic risks such as nuclear accidents, climate change, and the global financial crises that transcend national and social boundaries. According to Beck, such risks are an unfortunate by-product of modernity and pose entirely new challenges to our existing institutions (Beck 1999). As Gavan McCormack points out, "Japan, as one of the most successful capitalist countries in history, represents in concentrated form problems facing contemporary industrial civilization as a whole" (McCormack 2001, 5). The nuclear, social, and institutional predicaments it now faces epitomize the negative consequences of intensive modernization.

The stalemate over nuclear energy in Japan--the restart of the two (Ohi) reactors in 2012 and the massive citizens' protest against it--suggests that we are indeed at a significant crossroad. But what is the issue? A quick look at the antinuclear demonstrations shows that the slogan, "Life is more important than money!" is ubiquitous, suggesting that many citizens see a problem not only with nuclear power generation but also with something more fundamental: the prioritization of the economy over life. The fact that such an obvious proposition has to be raised as a point of protest indicates the depth of the problem. How is this rather extreme dichotomy between life and the economy to be faced at this point of modern history? And what will be Japan's contribution, if any, to envisaging a new kind of modernity?

In this article I explore these questions by drawing upon the notion of "life-world" presented by Ogata Masato, a Minamata philosopher-fisherman whose ideas developed in response to the Minamata disease disasters in the mid-1950s. (1) I discuss this concept in order to reflect on the relationship between nature and humankind in an attempt to envision a new kind of modernity that does not generate self-destructive tendencies as denoted by the notion of the World Risk Society.

World Risk Society Japan

The relevance of the concept of the World Risk Society is obvious with regard to the disaster unleashed at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on March 11, 2011. There is no question that substantial radiation has been released from the stricken reactors. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) estimated, based on data collected at the plant, that 900,000 terra-becquerels of radioactive materials (iodine-131 and cesium-137) were released into the atmosphere (TEPCO 2012a), which constitutes 17 percent of the fallout from Chernobyl (Obe 2012). An additional 150,000 terra-becquerels were released into the sea in the first six months after the accident alone (NHK 2012). An international scientific collaborative study estimated, on the other hand, that based on data collected from across the globe, cesium-137 equivalent to 43 percent of the Chernobyl emission was released into the atmosphere between March 11 and April 20, 2011, and that 18 percent of that release was deposited over Japanese land areas, with most of the rest falling over the North Pacific Ocean (Stohl et al. 2012). Brumfiel in Nature suggests that the vastly different estimates may be complementary rather than contradictory because the data were collected at different, mutually exclusive locations (Brumfiel 2011).

Experts fear that a catastrophe on an even larger scale could still occur. Koide Hiroaki, a nuclear scientist at Kyoto University, warns that Japan "will be finished" if approximately 300 tons of spent nuclear fuel (4,000 times the size of the Hiroshima atomic bomb) kept at the spent-fuel pool in the badly damaged No. 4 reactor building at Fukushima release radiation as a result of a cooling failure caused by, for instance, another earthquake (Koide 2012). If this happens, the entire Fukushima nuclear complex will become inaccessible, leading to radioactive emissions on a cataclysmic scale, perhaps eighty-five times as great as Chernobyl (Burnie, Matsumura, and Mitsuhei 2012). TEPCO reported previously that as of March 2010 there were 1,760 and 1,060 tons of uranium at Fukushima Daiichi and Daini, respectively (Kumano 2010). A simple calculation, based on Koide's estimate above, suggests that this is equivalent to 28,000 Hiroshima bombs. A "chain reaction" involving all six reactors and seven spent fuel pools at the complex was envisioned as the "worst-case scenario" by Kondo Shunsuke, chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, in his report submitted to the government two weeks after March 11. The report, which the government suppressed, concludes that if the chain reaction happens, the exclusion zone may have to be greater than 170 kilometers (Kondo 2011). Tokyo is 220 kilometers away from the plant. Kondo's report thus is largely consistent with Koide's prediction, although they hold opposite positions on the question of nuclear power generation.

A central problem is that of risk assessment. Whereas TEPCO insists that the No. 4 reactor building can withstand an earthquake equivalent to the quake of March 11 (TEPCO 2012b), various nuclear power experts are convinced that the company, with the Japanese government's connivance, is delaying quick action and displaying "unfounded optimism" about another nuclear accident (Tasaka 2012, 20). In fact, on October 12, 2012, TEPCO's president for the first time stated that the utility could have mitigated the impact of the meltdowns at Fukushima if it had diversified power and cooling systems by paying closer attention to international standards (Japan Times 2012). In relation to the risk posed by the spent fuel pool in the No. 4 reactor building, systemic inertia thus continues.

Sociological Theories on Late/Second Modernity and the Question of Ethics

The inability of TEPCO and the Japanese government to take effective action in the face of a nuclear crisis, however, is to be expected to some extent if, as Beck maintains, world risk is an unfortunate by-product of modernity. After all, corporations such as TEPCO and nation-states such as Japan play a central role in pursuing economic development, which commonly correlates with maximizing corporate profit. Preventing future accidents will have to involve a transformation of the social system.

The concept of world risk society represents the conundrum of the era in which we live. Japan has been a highly industrialized society since around the 1980s, one that sociologists variously refer to as "late modern" (Giddens 1991), "second modern" (Beck 1999), or "liquid modern" (Bauman 2000). This era is distinguished from earlier modernity in that in the later period, individualization of social institutions advances, and social bonds, which connected individuals to modern institutions, weaken. In late modernity, living one's own life and pursuing individual life projects become the common denominators in advanced industrial countries (Beck 2011b). The question is what can provide an ethical foundation in the face of a world risk that can jeopardize our own existence, when the risk itself is the product of the social system in which we live (Beck 1999).

In order to explore this question, the report from the Ethics Commission for a Safe Energy Supply, which was convened by German chancellor Angela Merkel immediately after March 11, 2011 (3/11), and of which Beck was a key member, presents a significant point of reference. It reads,

The progressive destruction of the environment has prompted the call for ecological responsibility--not only since nuclear accidents and not only in this area. It is a matter of how humans interact with the natural environment and the relationship between society and nature. A special human duty towards nature has resulted from Christian tradition and European culture. (Ethics Commission for a Safe Energy Supply 2011, 11)

There are two significant points to note about this statement. One is that it draws upon a spiritual tradition, Christianity, as the foundation of its ethical position. The other is that it highlights Europe as the cultural basis of its ethics. While this ethical foundation may be suitable in the context of Europe, it raises the question of an appropriate ethical and cultural foundation in other world regions. Given the fact that Asia plays an increasingly significant role in relation to global warming and nuclear accidents, which are two key issues in the World Risk Society, it seems urgent to address this question now: What ethical foundation might Japan draw on to frame its future in response to the multiple crises posed by the 3/11 disaster?

Minamata and Fukushima in Japan's Modern History

The Human Toll of Two Disasters

In 1956 the Japanese government officially "discovered" Minamata disease, the large-scale methyl-mercury poisoning caused by industrial effluent from Japan's leading chemical company, Chisso. At that time Japan's rise to economic prominence was clear to all. Fifty-five years later the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi occurred, only days after China officially displaced Japan as the world's second-largest economy (Guy 2011). The incidents at Minamata and Fukushima thus coincided almost exactly with the beginning and end of Japan's period of what might be called super-modernization.

The political history of Minamata disease is marked by a sordid record of corporate denial, court battles by victims and supporters stretching over decades, and compensation for only some victims. In 2012 the Japanese government sought to bring closure to the issue by enforcing a strict deadline for applications for government compensation under a special law passed in 2009. When applications closed at the end of July 2012, over 65,000 people had applied to receive "relief measures" (Asahi Shimbun 2012). This number does not include about 3,000 victims who had been officially certified as Minamata disease patients before 2010, under the most stringent 1977 criteria, and some 11,000 sufferers who received a payout in 1995, during an earlier attempt to bring political closure to the Minamata disease problem. These figures are indicative--the tip of the iceberg, in truth--of the vast devastation caused by the industrial pollution in Minamata.

In response to the government push to achieve a "final and complete" solution yet again, individuals who have worked closely with the sufferers emphasize that Minamata disease has no end point (George 2012). Numerous people, including congenital Minamata disease patients across generations, some of whom now face the added challenges of advanced age, still suffer incapacity. Epidemiological studies by independent medical researchers, including one conducted in 2009, have repeatedly found expanding areas and increasing numbers of people affected by Minamata disease (Takaoka 2011). The most disturbing matter, however, is that those in power have not learned the lessons of Minamata disease nor applied them to either prevent or adequately deal with the 2011 nuclear disaster--most notably, failure on the part of the administration to take action to minimize harm and adequately compensate victims. In the case of Minamata disease, not until 1968, twelve years after its official discovery, did the government take action to stop discharge of the effluent--the same year when the Japanese economy became the second largest in the world. But not until 1973 did the first victims receive compensation, and only after protracted court struggles.

The crisis in Fukushima is even more serious in many respects. In Fukushima, the level of devastation is extremely high, and as of August 2012, approximately 111,000 people have been forced to evacuate by the government with no or limited prospects of returning to their homes (Reconstruction Agency 2012). The impact of the nuclear crisis is global rather than regional, and in respect to the ecosystem, it is not yet possible to determine its ultimate impact. The underlying power structure of the Japanese "nuclear village"--the collusive relationship among national and local governments, bureaucracy, industry, the mainstream scientific community, and the media--is more formidable than that of Chisso. Its power is reinforced by close links to the international nuclear regime. The causal link between exposure to the poison and illness is much harder to establish in the case of irradiation. Low-level irradiation does not result in distinctive symptoms as with Minamata disease. Radiation exposure takes many years to manifest as cancer, the cause of which is difficult to single out; also, the impact on the unborn, infants, and young children is unknown.

Nonetheless, there are important similarities between Fukushima and Minamata. Both involve wide-scale and irrevocable environmental destruction caused by humans; both occurred as a result of placing excessive faith in flawed science; both were driven by the relentless pursuit of corporate profit and a warped vision of national development; both were promoted and supported by the media; both marginalized critical scientists; both sacrificed the well-being of local residents, reflected a deep-seated discrimination against rural people, and revealed the structure of dependence of the periphery on the core (Tokyo Shimbun 2011). Moreover, neither methyl-mercury nor radiation can be detected through our five senses, and victims are obliged to be dependent on the government and the offending industry for the release of data crucial to their lives, data often subject to manipulation (Johnson 2012).

Much in Common

Seen from a different angle, the commonalities between Minamata and Fukushima can be summarized as a breakdown of connectedness at a multitude of levels: family (e.g., the impact of death or health impairment of a family member, and loss of possessions); work (lost production and livelihoods); food (disruption of farming and fishing); and traditional and local ways of life, including a sense of connectedness with nature, past and future, ancestors and descendants. Both disasters caused deep schisms and paralysis in affected communities. Physiologically, Minamata disease destroys connectedness in the nervous system, whereas radiation from Fukushima severs the connectedness in DNA and cells. If one of the characteristics of modernity is the weakening connectedness of bonds between people and society, both Minamata and Fukushima epitomize it to an extreme, not only sociologically, but also biologically.

Is it any wonder then that connectedness emerged as a legacy of both Minamata and Fukushima? The devastation of the 3/11 triple disasters--the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown-- met with overwhelming sympathy, abundant aid, and offers of volunteer work from other parts of Japan and all around the world. Within the affected districts, people strove to revive the spirit of the community, for example, by efforts to salvage traditional festivals and seasonal events. The disaster created a sense of cohesion in Japan. At the end of 2011, the word kizuna, meaning bond or connectedness, was chosen as the kanji character that best symbolized the year of disasters. (2) Indeed, the triple disaster affected the people of Japan in profound ways. A public opinion poll conducted in 2012 by the Cabinet Office found that almost 80 percent of the 6,059 respondents indicated that they came to realize, after the 2011 disaster, the importance of connectedness with society to a greater extent than they did earlier (Cabinet Office of Japan 2012). (3)

The Legacy of Minamata: The Philosophy of Ogata Masato

In the case of Minamata, the word moyai (mooring boats) has become its legacy, although it took nearly forty years for it to emerge as a key concept. The word was first used officially in 1994 in a speech by the then Minamata mayor, Masazumi Yoshii. It was Ogata Masato, a Minamata fisherman and Minamata disease sufferer, however, who first proposed the concept as a keyword for the future. He is one of the "creative and persistent small leaders" within the community with whom "the Minamata patients have been blessed" (George 2001, 284) and one of the key persons in Minamata "who can create new knowledge" (Tsurumi 1998, 39). Ogata writes that moyai

comes from the verb moyau, which means "to tie two boats together," or "to moor a boat to a piling." For instance, when we fished for sardines, two boats of the same size would drag a net between them.... If a storm should blow up while we were fishing, we would tie our boat together with another and head for port. This, too, is called moyau. The other boat didn't necessarily belong to an acquaintance.... As we headed for port we would talk about our fishing villages, how the fish were running, and so on.... Moyai began as a fishing term, but it has been applied to other aspects of our daily lives.... It implies that a small group of people will go somewhere and also return together. Villagers enjoy going places together. (Oiwa and Ogata 2001, 173)

As Beck points out, different phases of modernity--pre-modern, first-modern, and second-modern--have coexisted in the process of the modernization of Japan (Beck 2011c). In post-Fukushima Japan, Minamata presents a vantage point with which to survey this multifaceted modernity. For Ogata this multiplicity has been his lived history and the foundation of a philosophy of life-world that puts the highest and absolute priority on life. As the recent antinuclear demonstrations suggest, ideas resonating with Ogata's may well be developed in the wake of Fukushima. Meanwhile, as Beck points out, "We need a new frame of reference for the world risk society [from] non-Western countries" (Beck 1999, 3). What is attempted below is to construct such a frame of reference by drawing on ideas that Ogata developed in his fifty-year struggle with Minamata disease.

I had the occasion to interview Ogata in January and August 2012. What follows draws upon these interviews as well as his two autobiographies, Rowing the Eternal Sea: The Story of a Minamata Fisherman (1996 in Japanese and 2001 in English) and Chisso wa watashi de atta (Chisso within, 2001). From these research materials, I suggest that

1. Ogata's philosophy of "life-world," developed from his critique of modernity, presents a notion of the world in which humans are part of the connectedness of all living beings, souls of the living and the dead, and animate and inanimate elements of nature.

2. The philosophy is based on Japan's cultural tradition of animism and may provide a spiritual basis for Japan (and possibly other parts of Asia and beyond), constituting an ethical foundation equivalent to that of the Christian tradition and European culture.

3. The philosophy has the potential to provide Beck's "new frame of reference" for the "world risk society" (Beck 1999, 3) by directly addressing the lacuna in (Western-made) social science: spirituality and nature.

Ogata's Critique of Modernity

Ogata Masato was born in 1953, three years before the "official discovery" of Minamata disease. He is the youngest child of Ogata Fukumatsu, a leader of local fishermen whose own father died from acute Minamata disease when Masato was six. Masato's parents, eight of his siblings, and their children have all been officially certified as Minamata disease patients. Masato himself applied for certification and dedicated himself as a key member of the Minamata Disease Certification Applicants' Council for over a decade (1974-1985).

Masato gradually became skeptical about the true meaning of compensation, however. He withdrew his application for certification, which was a prerequisite for compensation, and left the movement. More than twenty-five years later, he explains his thoughts on compensation with extraordinary clarity:

The biggest problem I had was why everything was decided by money. There has been a massive devaluation of compensation. The first compensation [in 1973] ranged from 16 to 18 million yen per patient, but in 1995, it was 2.6 million, and then, 2.1 million (US$ 26,000).... With the compensation being slashed like this, the biggest problem is the very fact that the existence of life itself is calculated and converted into a commercial value. The government sees compensation as a "cost." It is the same for TEPCO in relation to the nuclear disaster. (Interview, January 15, 2012)

This deep skepticism about money, especially in its relationship to life, constitutes Ogata's most fundamental critique of modernity. This led to an even more difficult question: "If not money, what?" (Oiwa and Ogata 2001, 98). The answer he gives is as follows:

The original meaning of "nintei" (certification), I think, is to "mitomeru" (certify) a person's existence. In the final analysis, the question is whether or not the person's existence is cherished in an equal dialogical relationship in which you ask a question and get a response. What sufferers want essentially is proof that they are cared for. But such matters as certification of patients and environmental pollution are turned into a question of criteria. If the existence of sufferers is cherished, we wouldn't have been left alone suffering to begin with.... My father died within two months of onset of the illness. When I think about what my deceased father would have wanted to say, I think that it would be "I am human!" He wouldn't have wanted to be certified as a Minamata disease patient! (Interview, January 15, 2012)

Ogata's skepticism about money, however, does not make him simply an advocate of a pre-modern lifestyle, or an outsider to modern life. Quite the contrary. He definitely sees himself as part of the system of modern society. Moreover, he realizes, reflexively, his own position in relation to Chisso, the perpetrator of the disease. This realization did not come easily to him. It meant shifting his position completely from the safety of being a victim-sufferer-patient-plaintiff, who expects and accepts the responsibility of others, to someone who admits to being on the side of the "accused," the system that caused Minamata disease. It turned his life upside down to the extent that it caused him to have a nervous breakdown. In retrospect he writes,

Our everyday life is part of a large and complex system which is extremely difficult to get out of. We are very much dominated by the values of the era that caused Minamata disease. In the past forty years, I myself bought a car and started to drive, and at home we have a television and a fridge, and the boat I use for work is made of plastic. Many things in my home are made of materials from chemical factories like Chisso.... If we narrow our thinking to only Minamata disease, Chisso is responsible. However, in a historical sense, we are already "another Chisso." This society which has pursued "modernization" and "affluence" has been ourselves, has it not? A big question seems to me how we can break ourselves from our own spell and liberate ourselves. (Ogata 2001, 49, emphasis added) (4)

Ogata answered that question, with respect to energy, by seeing renewable energy as a way that an economic system might enable us to live more in tune with the life-world. Yet he also recognized a conceptual knot: In the relationship between modern human existence and nature, a purely technical solution is not possible. Thus he embraced an even more fundamental shift, namely, from within human society alone (as "another Chisso") to a broader system of the life-world of which human society is a part. (5) "I was awakened to the life of nature," he told me in the interview. Ogata writes,

I was beginning to see that everything is interrelated.... Grass, trees, birds, the sea, fish, human gestures, and words--expressions of nature to which I had grown indifferent--all seemed to offer subtle hints.... I was drawn to the hills. When I spoke to the trees, they would answer. Of course, they didn't use human words. It was more like the voice of the wind, explaining to me in a different way what it meant to be alive. I was participating in a communion of living spirits, in an exchange of feelings unencumbered by words. (Oiwa and Ogata 2001, 99)

This awakening of his senses became the foundation of Ogata's philosophy of the life-world.

Being Human in the Life-World

It was not just humans who suffered and died in the Minamata incident. Vast numbers of other creatures, including fish, cats, birds, and domestic pigs died (Ogata 2001), and rich ecosystems such as tidal zones were destroyed (Oiwa and Ogata 2001). These "other lives" have rarely been part of the mainstream Minamata discourse. (6) Ogata points out that it is the same with regard to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. The damage humans inflict upon other living things is rarely discussed, and if it is mentioned, it is primarily as "trouble"--the trouble caused by a loss of their commercial value, the danger we face as a result of contaminated food, or the nuisance associated with life that needs to be destroyed. It has been reported that almost 3,000 cows, 30,000 pigs, and 600,000 chickens as well as numerous pets were left behind to starve to death in the nuclear exclusion zone at Fukushima (Yomiuri Online 2011). A recent international study found that there has been "a negative consequence of radiation for birds immediately after the accident on 11 March" (Moller et al. 2012, 36). After shifting his position from that of a victim of industrial pollution to that of being part of the social system that caused it, Ogata began to think about the responsibility of humans toward other living things, noting that compensation "means nothing to fish or cats." "So how can we take responsibility?" he asked. And he answered by saying that "by being aware of the tsumi [sin] of having poisoned the sea, by facing the fact itself" (Ogata 2001, 68).

Ogata's sense of responsibility as a human being came with a sense of loss of connectedness with the life-world (Ogata 2001). Underlying his notion of life-world is the tradition of animism, which is epitomized by the word gotagai, a word from the Minamata dialect that means "we're all in this together." As he explains, the word "doesn't mean simply that we humans rely upon each other for our existence but that plants and animals are also partners in this life. Gotagai includes the sea, the mountains, everything. Human beings are part of the circle of gotagai; we owe our existence to the vast web of interrelationships that constitute life" (Oiwa and Ogata 2001, 164).

What we see here is not an image of humans controlling other living things from above, but something more humble, a vision of people as being part of a complex and mutually supporting web of life. In Minamata, wrote Ogata,

We caught lots of fish every day, and we lived on them. We were nurtured by the fish and the sea. We would wring a chicken's neck a few times a year to eat them, and once every few years we might also have caught a mountain rabbit to eat. We lived by killing creatures. There was a sense that we were given life by other lives. In this way of life, I think people knew the depth of the sin of killing. (Ogata 2001, 62)

Ogata's philosophy is a call to regain our sense of connectedness with this vast world of life. But to fully understand it, we must discuss yet another layer of connectedness, that is, connectedness with the soul. This is the dimension of his Minamata discourse that challenges most deeply the current modes of perception, analysis, and evaluation of social phenomena in mainstream Western social science.

Connectedness with the "Soul"

Further pondering the meaning of the Minamata disease incident, Ogata believes that it goes beyond politics. He says, "The Minamata disease incident has left a question that cannot be dealt with as a political issue. Actually, it is the biggest and most fundamental question.... That is the question of the soul" (Ogata 2001, 67). Ogata holds that modernization, including mechanization, has "devoured the soul" (tamashii), the very basis of connectedness. For him the soul is the essence of life that enables humans to be connected with other living things and with nature. He considers it the duty of humans to use this sense of connectedness to preserve and maintain the life-world. His notion of soul can then be understood as something like the energy that connects people with other living things and with nature, which altogether constitutes the whole of the life-world.

With this holistic notion of the relationship between humans, soul, other living things, as well as inanimate nature in the life-world, Ogata and sixteen other Minamata disease sufferers established the Association of the Original Vow (Hongan no Kai) in 1995. The Original Vow for them is a spiritual concept. The statement of the association begins,

Once Minamata Bay was the treasure chest of our sea. Here schools of fish came to spawn. The young fry matured here and then returned to repeat the cycle. The bay was like a womb. In what is now landfill between Hyakken Port and Myojin Point, the silver scales of sardine and gizzard shad shimmered in the sunlight. Mullet leapt. Shrimp and crab frolicked in the shallows. (Oiwa and Ogata 2001, 122)

Landfill was used to cover the area where pollution was most severe. Fish from the area, which were contaminated with high-concentration methyl-mercury, were caught and stuffed in 2,500 oil drums and buried underneath the landfill as "polluted fish." For Ogata, this landfill symbolizes "the depth of human sin" (Oiwa and Ogata 2001, 122). On the field of the reclaimed land, members of the association have enshrined small stone statues of Buddha and other deities, including "Totoro," a special Minamata deity for deceased children and other young lives lost. The statement of the association continues, "It is our deepest wish that this land of disease and death be transformed into a Pure Land of the spirit, where all creatures may be consoled" (Oiwa and Ogata 2001, 122). Only then may connectedness begin to be restored.

Ogata's sense of connectedness is not only with nature and the souls of the deceased; it includes connectedness among people, all of whom he calls his "spiritual community":

The spiritual community is like an old-fashioned country stew, in which each person has a different face, physique, character, and age. Some would be disabled. But regardless of their characteristics, all would have valuable roles to play. No one would be dispensable. In such a society there would be no discrimination. To acknowledge each other's differences is to acknowledge our essential equality. (Oiwa and Ogata 2001, 172)


The strength of Ogata's notion of spirituality is that it is not other-worldly. Instead, his concept of spirituality is firmly rooted in this world, which includes not only intangible but also observable aspects of nature and people. The spiritual community Ogata describes above depicts a community where each individual is accepted and cherished for his or her very existence regardless of physique, quality, or ability, including disabled Minamata disease sufferers. Ogata writes elsewhere that he remembers his father welcoming intellectually handicapped people to his house, people who otherwise would have nowhere to go. He cherished (kawaigaru) them by protecting them from being bullied (Ogata 2001). Ogata's notion of the spiritual community also reminds the author that congenital Minamata sufferers--many in wheelchairs with severe disabilities--have often been called "treasure children" (takarago) (Oiwa and Ogata 2001, 162). (7) Minamata, however, is also a place where discrimination against such sufferers has been strong. Ogata's notion of a spiritual community, where other people's differences are appreciated as their essential qualities, is like his prayer. He uses the word moyau (to moor) to say, "moyatte kaeroo" (let us moor together to return) (Oiwa and Ogata 2001, 173).

Ogata believes that "the heart of the Minamata question lies in their call to live together in a world where life is revered and connected" (Ogata 2001, 63). Here lies the essence of his philosophy: to regain the sense of living together in a spiritual world where life is revered and connected. But how is it possible to reconcile this notion of the life-world with the reality of highly materialistic late-modern society? Is such a notion compatible with the everyday life of an advanced industrialized society? Or is it possible only by pursuing a hermitlike "hikikomori" life, after denouncing aspirations, comforts, and sense of progress, which are key to modern living?

The Life-World for a New Modernity

The Life-World and the System-Society: Dialogue

Ogata asks, "How [can we] break ourselves from our own spell and liberate ourselves from the spell of the 'system-society' driven by the pursuit of affluence?" By system-society he means a composite of legal and institutional systems that support modern society (Ogata 2001, 49). He does not suggest that we should give up living in the system-society in pursuit of living in the life-world. Rather, he sees the relationship between the two as "right foot and left foot": Both are indispensable for walking. The question is how to live within this potentially contradictory dual structure, for there really is no escaping it. Ogata explained to me,

But precisely because of this, I think it is necessary to have our own time in "cosmic-time," in order to relax and refresh, and find and regain a sense of our true selves. I think that each person is like a small universe and that it is possible for each of us to find our own way, existentially, to connect to the cosmic-time where life is eternal. It seems to me that living this duality provides a very important hint for us to remain and regulate ourselves as humans. To put it differently, we work in the system-society to earn our living, and we live in the life-world to live our life. It's like doing two-sword fencing, or having two different, top and bottom, streams of wind, or a double helix structure in one's life. (Interview, August 25, 2012)

But while living in two worlds, Ogata emphasizes, we must know where we stand, "where you put your center of gravity" and "where you point your soul." As he told me,

Sadly, I myself cannot escape from the money economy or the economic system. I use my mobile phone and my boat is equipped with GPS, for instance. Although I cannot escape from the system, I am still resisting stubbornly. What is it that I am defying? There is only one point ultimately. It is where you put your "trust"... in the system-society or the life-world. (Interview, January 16, 2012)

Intangible Heritage: Animism

The strength of Ogata's philosophy lies in its dual historical backgrounds. One is the history of contemporary Japan through which he has lived, from Minamata to Fukushima, a period of radical modernization that now faces an undeniable turning point. The other is the cultural tradition of Japan inherited and transmitted for centuries: animism. His philosophy is based on what UNESCO calls an "Intangible Heritage." It is similar to the Okinawan value of Nuchi du takara, the affirmation of the supremacy or sanctity of life (McCormack 2009). Animism is also similar to the ancient Shinto heritage, in which a polytheistic/pantheistic world accommodates an infinite number of kami (gods or deities) as "a natural force or manifestation of energy or life-force within given objects or places, and spirits and signs of spiritual energy within the world" (Reader 2001, 40). In this tradition, nature is spirituality, and spirituality is nature. Not at all solemn or abstract, Ogata's spiritual world is crowded with many types of spirits, living and dead, human and others, including plants and inanimate entities in nature such as mountains, rivers, and the sea. It is an eternal world full of diversity, all connected by the soul. (8)

Animism is not unique to Japan. Its primordial-indigenous tradition merged with Taoism from China to constitute a strong cultural heritage of East Asia and beyond. Ogata's philosophy can be considered as a late-modern version of this cultural heritage and thus has a potential to provide environmental ethics widely relevant to Asia. If, as the German Ethics Commission for a Safe Energy Supply points out, environmental ethics should be drawn from a spiritual tradition, an animistic culture might be as appropriate in the East as Christian tradition and European culture is in the West.

This cultural heritage, however, has not been part of Japan's intensive modernization. As a consequence, we see a situation where many people in Japan feel as if they are compelled to make an unreasonable choice between life and the economy. At this historical crossroad, Ogata sees a new possibility emerging to redress the conflicting relationship between the life-world and the system-society--through the systematic introduction of renewable energy.

Renewable Energy

According to Ogata, the tension between the life-world and the system-society stems from the relationship between nature and contemporary human civilization as a whole. With the triple disaster in 2011, this tension came to a head. But, he remarks, there has been "a historical push" to redress the problem, as people came to realize how important it is to live with a sense of safety. Today, Ogata sees a possibility of reducing the tension further by shifting toward green energy. We have now reached the stage, he says,

where we cannot sustain ourselves without maintaining a balance with nature. We cannot but realize that the tipping-point is near. This is not just the case in relation to the nuclear crisis. It is also the case with global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, water pollution, kosa [airborne sand] from China's spreading deserts, and photochemical smog, etc. With these global issues, how to maintain a balance with nature has become an economic question. Before, economy and nature were conceived separately, but now, nature has become the first thing to consider for the economy. (Interview, August 25, 2012)...

Renewable energy, Ogata says, increases the compatibility of the life-world and the system-society. Ogata is especially positive about solar energy, which, unlike wind, has no conceivable harm to humans. In his words, there are "no worries about pollution." He also sees the positive impact it might have on local autonomy. Ogata, however, is apprehensive about the system-society that alternative energy supports. He says,

In my neighborhood, contracts have been signed to build two mega-solar stations. One is on reclaimed land that has been left idle because some factories moved overseas. The other is a pasture used as a cattle farm before. Because agriculture cannot be sustained economically, rice paddies, mountains and fields have been neglected and gone wild. Building solar power stations usually means just putting solar panels on the land that is least valuable. Now, it feels as if nature is being integrated into the commodity economy in a different way. Increasingly, nature, mountains, and the sea are being looked at through an economic lens, and it feels as if our sense of awe of nature is weakening. Maybe it can't be helped, but I fear that our reverence toward nature is fading away. (Interview August 25, 2012)

He implies that the same thinking should apply to renewable energy. If greater com-modification of nature indeed leads to a diminished sense of awe, there is perhaps more reason to treat nature more mindfully with dignity and respect. In Ogata's philosophy, this approach means feeling connected with the life-world and having a sense of responsibility toward it from within.

In fact, the duality of the life-world and system-society does not mean that they simply coexist. During our interview, Ogata repeatedly talked about the significance of maintaining dialogue: for one person to ask a question and for the other to respond. For Ogata, the "Chisso within" has been a significant other with which he maintains a dialogue, in contrast with Chisso Corporation, which avoided dialogue with sufferers at all costs. For Ogata, it is dialogue that makes us human. The life-world is like a sounding board with which individuals can hold inner dialogues, raise existential questions, and seek ethical references to live more meaningfully in a highly industrialized, late-modern world. At the same time, the life-world is not just an abstract spiritual world; it is the tangible world of nature. The uneasiness that Ogata expresses about the diminishing sense of awe of nature is a cautionary note from the life-world, a composite of spirituality and nature, about the commercialization of nature.


Ogata's philosophy of the life-world is, more than anything else, a critique of modernity. He questions the two most fundamental premises of modernity: its money-centered social values and its exclusion of matters related to spirituality. There seem to be three interrelated levels in the incongruity between modernity and spirituality. The first is empirical: Modernization and mechanization, Ogata has said, have "devoured the soul" from everyday life. To put it differently, modernity has a capacity to "de-spiritualize" cultures (Flanagan 2007). The second level is historical--that is, one of the key features of modernity has been to pursue freedom from the oppressive power of religious institutions, as epitomized by the Nietzschean claim that "God is dead." Third is epistemological, which is most relevant in the context of this article.

Social science, and sociology in particular, is a product of modernity and has operated with secularism as its basic assumption, putting spiritual matters outside its boundary. Spirituality is understood to be something belonging to an "other reality," as against "this world" (Berger 1969). Issues of animism, among others, have been treated in sociology "with the utmost reserve, if not disdain" (Flanagan 2007, 1), as if it is magic. The elimination of magic, according to Max Weber, is "one of the most important aspects of the broader process of rationalization" (Parsons 1930/1974, 222)--that is to say, the key to modernity.

On the other hand, the critique of modernity has been presented within social science itself as one feature of postmodernism. For Lyotard, in particular, questioning of a meta-narrative, in this case the fundamental premises of social science, defines the postmodern (Lyotard 1979). He sees in the "little narrative" the potential to produce a new kind of knowledge that opens up our imagination to the unknown, something that has been outside the epistemological boundaries of existing knowledge and thus outside the legitimate sphere of (social) scientific knowledge (Lyotard 1979). The "little narrative" of Ogata presents this possibility of creating a new knowledge, as Tsurumi Kazuko discerned (Tsurumi 1998). Founded upon the intangible cultural heritage of Japan that is shared with other indigenous cultures, Ogata's philosophy directly addresses problems of modernity based on his firsthand experience as a key person in the historic Minamata disease incident, on the very front line where modernity and the indigenous culture of Japan collided.

Connectedness emerged as a response to the devastation in Minamata and Fukushima at the beginning and end of radical modernization in Japan. It is a response born of ancient cultural wisdom. In the post-3/11 world, the tradition of connectedness expressed in late-modern Japan may open new epistemological possibilities in social science.

The sense of "connectedness that an individual feels to everything that is other than self" is spirituality (De Souza et al. 1). And enriching one's soul by having one's own god has been a definite trend in the modern world (Beck 2008). Ogata's philosophy is very much in line with this trend in a world that might be called postmodern. In his philosophy, however, this connectedness is not based on a one-to-one relationship with one's own particular god. Rather, it is based on a strong sense of being connected organically to a rhizome-like life-world. It thus presents a philosophy that is counter to the "individualization" (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2001) and "new individualism" (Elliott, Katagiri, and Sawai 2012) that is sometimes perceived in today's Japan. Precisely because of this, it is possible, paradoxically, that a greater need will arise to restore a sense of connectedness at a different level in everyday life.

Every philosophy and every social theory is culturally and historically specific. While the impact of the increasing economic power of Asia is felt all over the world, no ethical framework to support its sustainable development has been identified as yet. Ogata's philosophy may provide a first step for us to start imagining a new way of perceiving everyday life for a different kind of modernity, and to do this may demand an epistemological change in the social sciences. But perhaps there is nothing new in that. Sociology did not exist before Durkheim, who identified the existence of social phenomena sui generis that are independent of the actions and intentions of individuals in society (Durkheim 1895). Would it be going too far to say that recognition of the existence sui generis of the life-world might be the precondition for a new modernity where sustainable development is possible?


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Shoko Yoneyama is senior lecturer in Asian studies, School of Social Sciences, University of Adelaide, and the author of The Japanese High School: Silence and Resistance (1999). She can be reached at shoko.yoneyama I am grateful to Gavan McCormack for introducing me to the work of Ogata Masato; to Okura Shonosuke, who introduced me to Ogata Masato and thus the opportunity to conduct rare interviews with him; to Ogata Masato himself, who shared his thoughts and ideas freely; to Kimura Hiroko, who was indispensable to her fieldwork in Minamata; to Kato Takeko, director of Hot House, a facility to support congenital Minamata disease sufferers; to Mark Selden and Katalin Ferber for their critical comments; and to Shirley Leane for her editing and encouragement. An earlier version of this article can be found at --YONEYAMA/3845, and appears here with the permission of the author and

(1.) The term "life-world" has been used in philosophy and sociology to refer to the subjective and conscious dimension of everyday life (Husserl) including the phenomenological aspects (Merleau-Ponty), sometimes in contrast with the "system-world" (Habermas). Ogata's discourse can be called phenomenological, and he also talks about the dichotomy of the life-world and the "system society." With these similarities, it will be interesting to examine Ogata's philosophy in relation to the Western philosophical tradition, though that subject is well beyond the scope of this article.

(2.) The kanji was chosen in the annual poll for the kanji character conducted by Japan's Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation (BBC News Asia 2011).

(3.) Respondents were over twenty years of age and were randomly selected from 350 also randomly selected cities, towns, and villages in Japan.

(4.) All translations from Japanese to English are mine.

(5.) Ogata's terminology, "seimei sekai" or "inochi no sekai," becomes "life-world" when translated into English, which happens to be the same phrase used by Habermas. Both are the same in that life-world is conceived as the antithesis of the "system world/society." While the life-world of Habermas refers to people's everyday life, however, Ogata's notion covers a much wider spectrum, including the biological, ecological, and spiritual world of all beings living and dead.

(6.) Except in the work of such Minamata residents as Ogata Masato, Ishimure Michiko, and Sugimoto Eiko.

(7.) A strong counterexample to this would be the case of the fourteen-year-old "school killer" in Kobe in 1998 who murdered a small child and displayed his decapitated head at the gate of his school, in order to demonstrate to society how his "existence has been erased" by the school society. The incident has had a prolonged empathic impact among Japanese youth ever since (Yoneyama 1999).

(8.) This image of the spiritual world has been adopted in many ways, including anime films by Miyazaki Hayao, most notably Spirited Away (2001) and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008). A strong feature of Miyazaki films is the presence of numerous spirits and (mostly lovable) monstrous beings that live in the unseen world, especially in nature. There are other famous Japanese manga and anime films in which beings from the invisible world play central roles, such as GeGeGe-no-Kitaro by Mizuki Shigeru and, more recently, A Letter to Momo (2011) by Okiura Hiroyuki.
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Date:Dec 22, 2013
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