The translation below was produced as part of the Collaborative Translation project entitled Planting Seeds Together – inspired by Haruki Murakami’s acceptance speech for the Catalunya International Prize, 2011.
As an Unrealistic Dreamer
Haruki Murakami’s acceptance speech on receiving the Catalunya International Prize 2011
The last time I visited Barcelona was in spring two years ago. I took part in a book-signing event, and was surprised at how many readers queued up for my autograph. It took more than one and a half hours to sign for all of them, because many of my female readers wanted to kiss me. It all took quite some time.
I’ve taken part in book-signing events in many other cities throughout the world, but only in Barcelona were there women who wanted to kiss me. If only for this reason, it struck me that Barcelona was a quite extraordinary place. I’m very glad to be back here in this beautiful city, which has such a rich history and wonderful culture.
But I’m sorry to say that today, I must talk about something more serious than kisses.
As you surely know, at 2:46 pm on March 11, a massive earthquake struck the northeast area of Japan. The force of this quake was so great that the earth spun faster on its axis, and the day was shortened by 1.8 millionth of a second.
The damage caused by the earthquake itself was quite extensive, but the tsunami triggered by the earthquake caused much greater devastation. In some places, the tsunami wave reached a height of 39 metres. In the face of such an enormous wave, even the tenth storey of normal buildings would not provide refuge for those caught in its path. People living near the coast had no time to escape, and about 24,000 people lost their lives — some 9,000 of whom are still reported missing. The great wave that broke the barriers carried them away, and we’ve not yet been able to find their bodies. Many were most likely lost in the depths of the icy sea. When I stop to think about this and imagine that I too could suffer such a terrible fate, my chest tightens. Many survivors lost their families, friends, houses, properties, communities and the very foundations of their lives. Entire villages were destroyed completely. Many people have lost all hope for living.
I think that being Japanese means living with natural disasters. From summer to autumn, typhoons pass through much of Japan. Every year they cause extensive damage, and many lives are lost. There are many active volcanoes in every region. And of course, there are many earthquakes. Japan sits precariously on the four tectonic plates at the eastern extremity of the Asian continent. It is as if we are living on a very nest of earthquakes.
We can predict the timing and route of typhoons to a greater or lesser extent, but we can’t predict when and where an earthquake will occur. All that we do know is that this was not the last great earthquake, and that another will surely happen in the near future. Many specialists predict that a magnitude 8 earthquake will strike the Tokyo area within the next twenty or thirty years. It may happen in ten years time, or it may strike tomorrow afternoon. No one can predict with any certitude the extent of the damage that would follow if an inland earthquake were to strike such a densely populated city as Tokyo.
Despite this fact, there are 13 million people living “ordinary” lives in the Tokyo area alone. They take crowded commuter trains to go to their offices, and they work in skyscrapers. Even after this earthquake, I haven’t heard that the population of Tokyo is on the decline.
Why? You might ask. How can so many people go about their daily lives in such a terrible place? Don’t they go out of their minds with fear?
In Japanese, we have the word “mujō (無常)”. It means that everything is ephemeral. Everything born into this world changes, and will ultimately disappear. There is nothing that can be considered eternal or immutable. This view of the world was derived from Buddhism, but the idea of “mujo” was burned into the spirit of Japanese people beyond the strictly religious context, taking root in the common ethnic consciousness from ancient times.
The idea that all things are transient is an expression of resignation. We believe that it serves no purpose to go against nature. On the contrary, Japanese people have found positive expressions of beauty in this resignation.
If we think about nature, for example, we cherish the cherry blossoms of spring, the fireflies of summer and the red leaves of autumn. For us, it is natural to observe them passionately, collectively and as a tradition. It can be difficult to find a hotel room near the best known sites of cherry blossoms, fireflies and red leaves in their respective seasons, as such places are invariably milling with visitors.
Why is this so?
The answer may be found in the fact that cherry blossoms, fireflies and red leaves all lose their beauty within a very short space of time. We travel from afar to witness this glorious moment. And we are somehow relieved to confirm that they are not merely beautiful, but are already beginning to fall to the ground, to lose their small lights or their vivid beauty. We find peace of mind in the fact that the peak of beauty has been reached and is already starting to fade.
I don’t know if natural disasters have affected such a mentality. I’m sure, however, that in some sense we have been able to collectively overcome successive natural disasters and to accept the unavoidable by virtue of this mentality. Perhaps such experiences have also shaped our notion of the aesthetic.
The overwhelming majority of Japanese people were deeply shocked by this earthquake. While we may be accustomed to earthquakes, we still have not been able to come to terms with the scale of the destruction. We feel helpless, and are anxious about the future of our country.
Ultimately, we’ll summon up the necessary mental energy, pick ourselves up and rebuild. In this regard, I have no particular worries.
This is how we have survived throughout our long history. This time as well, we certainly will not remain frozen and in a state of shock forever. Broken houses can be rebuilt, and broken roads can be restored.
You might say that we are living as uninvited guests on planet earth. Planet earth never asked us to live here. If she shakes a little, we can’t complain, because shaking from time to time is just one of the earth’s natural behaviours. Whether we like it or not, we must live with nature.
What I want to talk about here isn’t something like buildings or roads, which can be rebuilt; but rather about things which can’t be reconstructed easily, such as ethics and values. Such things are not physically tangible. Once they are broken, it’s difficult to restore them, as this cannot be achieved with machines, labour and materials.
What I’m talking about concretely is the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
As you probably know, at least three of the six nuclear reactors damaged by the earthquake and tsunami have not yet been restored, and continue to leak radiation around them. Meltdowns occurred, and the surrounding soil has been contaminated. Water that probably contains high levels of radioactivity has been dispersed in the surrounding ocean, and the wind is carrying radiation to more distant areas.
Hundreds of thousands of people have had to evacuate their homes. Farms, ranches, factories, commercial centres and ports are now deserted, having been completely abandoned. Those who lived there may not ever be able to return. It also grieves me to say that the damage from this accident is not limited to Japan, but will spread to neighbouring countries as well.
The reason why such a tragic accident occurred is more or less clear. The people who built these nuclear plants had not imagined that such a large tsunami would strike them. Some experts pointed out that tsunami of similar scale had struck these regions previously, and insisted that the safety standards should be revised. The electrical power companies, however, ignored them. As commercial ventures, these companies did not want to invest massively in preparing for a tsunami which may occur only once every few hundred years.
It seems to me that the government, which is supposed to ensure the strictest possible safety and security measures for nuclear plants, downgraded these safety standards in order to promote nuclear power generation.
We should investigate this situation, and if mistakes are found they should be rectified. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to leave their land, and have seen their lives turned upside down. We are angry about this; such anger is only natural.
For some reason, Japanese people seldom get angry. We know how to be patient, but aren’t very good at showing our anger. We are surely different from the people of Barcelona in this respect. But this time, even the Japanese people have become seriously angry.
At the same time, we must be critical of ourselves for having tolerated and allowed these corrupted systems to exist until now.
This accident cannot be dissociated from our ethics and values.
As you know, we, the Japanese people, are unique in having experienced nuclear attacks. In August 1945, US military aircraft dropped atomic bombs on the two major cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the deaths of more than two hundred thousand people. Most of the victims were unarmed, ordinary people. Now, however, is not the moment for me to consider the rights and wrongs of this.
What I want to point out here is not only that two hundred thousand people died in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear bombing, but also that many survivors would subsequently die from the effects of radiation over a prolonged period of time. It was the suffering of these victims that showed us the terrible destruction that radioactivity has brought to the world and to the lives of ordinary people.
We had two fundamental policies after World War II. One was economic recovery; the other was the renunciation of war. We would forego the use of armed force, we would grow more prosperous, and we would pursue peace. These ideas became the new policies of post-war Japan.
The following words are carved on the memorial for the victims of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima:
“Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.”
These are lofty words indeed, which recognise that we are in fact both victims and perpetrators at the same time. This is true where nuclear power is concerned as well. Insofar as we are threatened by the force of nuclear power, we are all victims. Moreover, since we unleashed this power and were then unable to prevent ourselves from using it, we are also all perpetrators.
Sixty-six years after the nuclear bombings, the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors have now been spreading radioactivity for three months, contaminating the soil, the ocean and the air around them. No one knows how and when we can stop this. This is the second source of devastation caused by nuclear power in Japan, but this time nobody dropped an atomic bomb. We, the Japanese people, paved our own way for this tragedy, making grave errors and contributing to the destruction of our own lands and lives.
Why did this occur? What happened to our rejection of nuclear power after World War II? What was it that corrupted our goal of a peaceful and prosperous society, which we had been pursuing so diligently?
The reason is simple. The reason is “efficiency”.
The electrical power companies insisted that nuclear plants offered an efficient power generation system. In other words, it was a system from which they could derive profit. For its part, the Japanese government doubted the stability of petroleum supplies, particularly since the oil crisis, and promoted nuclear power generation as national policy. The electrical power companies spent huge amounts of money on advertisements, thereby bribing the media to indoctrinate the Japanese people with the illusion that nuclear power generation was completely safe.
Before we knew it, 30 percent of electricity generation was being supplied by nuclear power. Japan, a small island nation frequently struck by earthquakes, thus became the third leading nuclear power-generating country, without the Japanese people even realizing what was happening.
We had gone beyond the point of no return. The deed was done. Those who doubted nuclear power generation were now asked the intimidating question, “Would you be in favour of power shortages?” Japanese people had come to believe that reliance on nuclear power was inevitable. Living without air conditioning during a hot and humid Japanese summer is almost akin to torture. Consequently, those who harbour doubts about nuclear power generation came to be labelled as “unrealistic dreamers”.
And so we arrived where we are today. Nuclear power plants, which were supposed to be efficient, instead offer us a vision of hell. This is the reality.
The so-called “reality” that has been proclaimed by those who promote nuclear power however, isn’t reality at all. It is nothing more than superficial “convenience”, which their flawed logic confused with reality itself.
This situation marked the collapse of the myth regarding Japan’s technological prowess, of which the Japanese people had been so proud. In addition, allowing this distorted logic represented the defeat of existing Japanese ethics and values. We now blame the electrical companies and Japanese government, which is right and necessary. At the same time however, we must also point the finger at ourselves. We are at once victims and perpetrators, and we must consider this fact seriously. If we fail to do so, we will make the same mistake again.
“Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil.”
We must take these words to our hearts.
Dr Robert Oppenheimer, who was the primary architect of the development of the atomic bomb, was appalled by the devastation inflicted upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the nuclear attacks. He once said to President Truman, “Mr President, there is blood on my hands”.
Truman took a clean and neat white handkerchief from his pocket and said, “Go ahead and wipe them.”
Of course, there is no clean handkerchief in the world large enough to wipe away so much blood.
We, the Japanese, should have been unrelenting in saying “No” to nuclear power. This is what I believe.
We should have been working to develop alternative energy sources to replace nuclear power at a national level, by harvesting all existing technologies, wisdom and social capital. Even if people throughout the world had mocked us, saying, “Nuclear power is the most effective power generation system, and Japanese people are really stupid not to use it”, we should have retained the aversion to nuclear power that was triggered by our experience of nuclear weapons.
We should have made the development of non-nuclear power generation the cornerstone of our policy after World War II. This should have been the way to assume our collective responsibility for the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Japan, we needed strong ethics, strong values, and a strong social message. This would have been a chance for the Japanese people to make a real contribution to the world. We neglected to take that important road, however, preferring to pursue the fast track of “efficiency” in support of our rapid economic development.
As I mentioned earlier, we can overcome the damage caused by natural disasters, however dreadful and extensive they might be. And sometimes our spirits may grow stronger and more profound through the process of overcoming. This is most certainly something that we can achieve.
It is the job of experts to rebuild broken roads and buildings, but it is the duty of each of us to restore our damaged ethics and values. We can start by mourning those who died, by taking care of the victims of this disaster, and by nurturing our natural desire not to let their pain and injuries have been in vain. This will take the form of a carefully crafted, silent and painstaking endeavour. We must join forces to this end, in the manner of the entire population of a village that goes out together to cultivate the fields and plant seeds on a sunny spring morning. Everyone doing what they can do, all hearts together.
We, professional writers, who are versed in the use of words, also have a positive contribution to make toward this large-scale collective mission. We must connect new ethics and values to new words, thereby creating and building new, vibrant stories. We will then be able to share these stories. They will have a rhythm that can encourage people, just like the songs which villagers sing while planting their seeds. We rebuilt Japan, which had been completely destroyed by World War II. We must now return to this same starting point once again.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this speech, we are living in a changing and transient “mujō (無常)” world. Every life will change and ultimately fade away. Human beings are powerless in the face of the greater forces of nature. The recognition of the ephemeral is one of the basic concepts of Japanese culture. While we respect the fact that all things are transient and understand that we live in a fragile and precarious world, at the same time we are imbued both with a silent will to live and with positive minds.
I am proud that my works are highly regarded by the Catalan people, and to have been awarded such a prestigious prize. We live a long way from each other and speak different languages. We have different cultures. But at the same time we are citizens of the world, who share the same problems, joy and sadness. That’s why stories written by a Japanese author have been translated into the Catalan language and Catalan people have embraced them. I’m glad to share the same stories with you. Dreaming is the day job of novelists, but sharing our dreams is a still more important task for us. We cannot be novelists without this sense of sharing something.
I know that the Catalan people have overcome many hardships, while living life to the fullest and retaining a rich culture through your history. I believe that we have many things to share.
How wonderful it would be if we, in Japan and Catalonia, could build a house of “unrealistic dreamers” and forge a “community of spirit” that would transcend both country and culture. I believe this would be the starting point for our rebirth, as we have both experienced many natural disasters and wanton acts of terrorism in recent times. We must not be afraid to dream. We should never allow the crazed dogs named “efficiency” and “convenience” to catch up with us. We must be “unrealistic dreamers”, who stride forward vigorously. Human beings will die and disappear, but humanity will prevail and will be constantly regenerated. Above all, we must believe in this force.
In closing, I will donate this prize money to the victims of the earthquake and the accident at the nuclear plant. I am deeply grateful to the Catalan people and to the Generalitat de Cataluña for offering me this award and this opportunity. I would also like to express my deepest sympathies to the victims of the recent earthquake in Lorca.