Noah's stories in shaky archipelagos: Martinique, Haiti, Fukushima

In the third piece of our series on Fukushima (see Fabian Schäfer and Andy Chih-ming Wang) the Japanese anthropologist and cultural critic begins by thinking that he will have to go very far indeed to find words and memories strong enough to rival the actual phenomenon of this disaster. But as he mourns the passing of the Martinican philosopher, Édouard Glissant, the island of bliss gradually returns to him.

Ryuta Imafuku
8 June 2012

The archipelagic mind is everything which is opposed to the minds of system.  It accords with the tremble of our world. 

 Édouard Glissant. La cohée du Lamentin (2005)

Just after that crucial moment. The inertia of our everyday thought was shaken off all at once. Reality and words got entangled, discordant with each other. I was attacked by contradictory feelings and emotions: a need to keep my head and try to deal with the situation; a difficulty in responding properly. The agony of thinking itself. A desire to give up everything and disappear. My words seemed unable to find an appropriate place for landing. Ignoring the media’s clamorous repetition of horrible images and mourning commentaries, I sank into a depth of total aphasia I had never before experienced. 

March 11 is a very special time in Japan. Just one month to the beginning of the new academic year.  During the month of March, while witnessing the ongoing disaster of suffering among homeless people and spreading radioactive clouds, I had to dig out and prepare something solid for my new students from the dusty debris of words, the vacuum of consciousness.  However, what was quite impossible was to take refuge in the latest poems of a leading Korean-Japanese poet Kim Shi-Jong and translate his decentralized strange Japanese into English, yet another strange language to me. At that time, I think I wanted to withdraw from language itself as a familiar private possession.

April, however, came inescapably on time. How can I start my class? It was entitled, “The archipelago of Édouard Glissant”. I had decided in late February to honour the work of the Martinican poet/philosopher who had died just a few weeks before. I wanted to talk passionately about Glissant’s vision of “errantry” (errance) and “tremble” (tremblement) as a mode of creative wandering as well as an ancient intuition of profundity. But my feeling of mourning him was already inevitably imbued with a lament on this new disaster. How then can I start talking, I argued with myself? In what kind of language? The real earth tremor and the spiritual tremble coincided with one another, creating an interference. 

Delay and detour

I have a conviction that the Humanities is a language of delay. A language that never dares to react instantaneously without the sense of deep time. The Humanities is a language of detour, too. A language that never wants to take the shortest route to reach its object. Remain here at the point of entanglement while seeking revelatory words from elsewhere. Delay and detour. In order to preserve a historical profundity: in order to play with a spatial comprehensiveness. Confronting the aftermath of the devastating tsunami, I thought I had to go very far indeed to look for words and memories strong enough to rival the actual phenomenon. And it was at that critical point that I opened my class, to be faced by a group of new students eagerly asking for words of the most urgent explanation and consolation. I did not, could not give them any words like that. Demeure, Fukushima. Take your time, remain yourself, the island of bliss. That was the first true inner voice I heard, after the long silence. 

Demotix/Osakabe Yasuo. All rights reserved

Persimmons left unpicked, inside the Fukushima exclusion zone. Demotix/Osakabe Yasuo. All rights reserved

An etymological detour: Lafcadio Hearn in Japan

Today I have brought with me a book considered to be the oldest source in which the Japanese word ‘tsunami’ was first introduced to the western world and from whence it spread out into popular use worldwide.  The book is: Gleanings in Buddha-Fields by Lafcadio Hearn, published in Boston by Houton Mifflin and in London by Kegan Paul in 1897. The opening chapter is called ‘A Living God’, and the word tsunami appears in this half didactic, half mystical story. Hearn wrote this short piece just after the historical earthquake of ‘Meiji-Sanriku-Jishin’ in June 1896 which caused a devastating tsunami, swallowing whole northern Tohoku-Sanriku coastal villages in an instant.  

At that time, Hearn was living in Kobe. As a born journalist and storyteller, he could have depicted minutely the whole aspect of natural disaster and consequent social unrest as it unfolded. But interestingly he didn't do so.  Instead, he went back some 40 years in time and precisely retold a story of another tsunami which had been turned into a popular legend.  Let me quote the part where the word tsunami appears for the first time:

From time immemorial the shores of Japan have been swept, at irregular intervals over centuries, by enormous tidal waves - tidal waves caused by earthquakes or by submarine volcanic action.  These awful sudden risings of the sea are called by the Japanese tsunami.  The last one occurred on the evening of June 17, 1896, when a wave nearly two hundred miles long struck the northeastern provinces of Miyagi, Iwate, and Aomori, wrecking scores of towns and villages, ruining whole districts, and destroying nearly thirty thousand human lives. The story of Hamaguchi Gohei is the story of a similar calamity which happened long before the era of Meiji, on another part of the Japanese coast… (Lafcadio Hearn, ‘A Living God’, in Gleanings in Buddha-Fields. Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1897, p.16.) 

A very brief, but wonderfully exact and succinct definition indeed, of the natural phenomenon called ‘Tsunami’.  Hearn never takes up one single disaster as a sign of social crisis, but always sees a chain of catastrophic events, in this case tsunamis, which had occurred continuously and continually along Japanese coasts since the dawn of history.  For me the detour Hearn has taken here to think about the ongoing catastrophe is very suggestive. His actual, sincere concerns lead him to take a proper distance toward the latest calamity as it plays out. In the story, he makes reference to the popular experience of yet another historical earthquake: the ‘Ansei-Nankai-Jishin’ struck the southwestern part of Japan in the late Edo era of 1854. In revisiting this legend, he makes the most effective use of so many Japanese words and phrases. “"Taihenda!", "Kita!", "Tsunami!", "Ojiichan!" - people shouted and ran in all directions. But the village headman Hamaguchi Gohei wisely guided his people to the safe hill, saving all the lives in the village, and becoming as a result a living god worshipped by the villagers.  Hamaguchi has remembered and respected the old sayings about tsunami handed down from generation to generation so that he could find a way to escape the disaster. This is a person as the incarnation of a chain of wisdoms. Hearn wanted to hint that he is more than an individual, a kind of crystallization of the collective common-sense that can get through such a crisis.  

Behind the seemingly didactic aspect of the story, Hearn's writing also declares its mystical affiliations. He says that the ‘isolated country yashiro or miya’ which western people loosely render with words such as ‘temple’ or ‘shrine’ are actually untranslatable. Instead, to the western mind, the word ‘ghost-house’ will convey much more, because in those spirit chambers many of the lesser divinities are worshipped, ghosts of heroes, warriors, rulers and teachers who lived, loved, and died hundreds and thousands of years ago. Their   spiritual afterlife is preserved in the rustic empty chamber, sometimes embodied in elemental things like a stone, flower, or the wind.  

A feeling of spiritual connection with the dead and with nature’s animism prevails. They cannot be seen or heard, but this magnetic substance has an amazing and awful power in people's folk belief. Finally Hearn himself felt the sensation of being haunted by that power. In the story, he becomes a living god, bequeathing to us this mysterious description as a spiritual dweller in a small ghost-house. Hearn writes:

Elfishly small my habitation might be, but never too small, because I should have neither size nor form.  I should be only a vibration - a motion as invisible as ether or magnetism; though able sometimes to shape me a shadow-body in the likeness of my former visible self, when I should wish to make an apparition.  As is air to the bird, water to the fish, so would all substance be penetrable by the essence of me. (Lafcadio Hearn, ibid. p.5)

The reason that Hearn combines the folktale of tsunami and his own visionary transformation in the spirit world is clear to me. Hearn believed that the earthquake and tsunami, the very vibrations of land and ocean, reflect and resonate the tremble of the spiritual world, the vibration people feel through their everyday life amongst natural and supernatural forces. Hearn persisted in using the word tsunami in Japanese instead of using some explanatory word like ‘tidal wave’.  Obviously the word tsunami itself has its own spiritual content: it is a word charged with the invisible motion of vibration, ether, and magnetism.  Before being a physical and social disaster, it was proof of the tremble in which humans and all things in the universe come together in awe and in rejoicing.


Buddha statue with wooden stupa set up inside the Fukushima exclusion zone. Demotix/Osakabe Yasuo. All rights reserved.

Tidal after-effects: Tinian/The Marshalls 

Several hours after the March 11 earthquake in Tohoku offshore, the first and fastest aftereffects of the tsunami arrived at the shore of Tinian, one of three main islands of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Micronesia. The islanders took refuge, preparing for the worst. The effect was tangible, but fortunately it was very small.    

The direct relationship of the ocean and its trembling effects reminded me of the ironic history between the two Pacific islands, Japan and Tinian.    


Tinian North Field runway at present. It was the biggest base for US B-29 superfortress operations against the Japanese Home Islands in 1945. Photo by Kotoko Kaneta, 2011. All rights reserved.

In April last year, the prime minister of Japan and some government officials put forward out of the blue an idea to relocate some of the functions of Okinawa’s Futenma US base to the island of Tokunoshima, one of the more remote islets among the Amami archipelago, just north of Okinawa. People in Tokunoshima, upset at this, called almost half of the entire populace of the islanders together in opposition to this idea of relocation, an armchair theory which had to be swiftly abandoned by the government. By contrast, during this dispute, Guam and Tinian islands’ local government continued to show their willingness to relocate and take upon themselves the central function of Futenma, without for a moment forgetting the history that the two B-29 superfortresses, Enola Gay and Bockscar, had been launched from this former Chamorro island of Tinian to bombard Hiroshima and Nagasaki some 65 years previously.

The Tinian mayor De La Cruz, of native Chamorro origin, was strongly supportive of plans to relocate Futenma troops to the island, saying that Tinian had waited for many years for such a plan to help boost the island economy. But I have heard it said that the mayor also felt responsible for the fact that the existence of an air base on his island had ultimately triggered the worst nuclear tragedy human beings had ever experienced. 

Therefore, it was not strictly speaking a bid for redemption, but more than a gesture of mere goodwill, that prompted them to interfere in the power politics of big countries, to demonstrate the indigenous people's historical obligation of thinking about and sharing in the fateful burden of American bases in the context of Pacific geopolitics. Needless to say, the mayor's subtly nuanced proposition was totally ignored. 

One more important hint, to aid our speculation on what is happening in Fukushima and the rest of Japan in terms of radioactive contamination, lies in another Micronesian archipelago. Just after March 11, a friend of mine―Greg Dvorak, a vigorous scholar of Pacific Studies―was sent an email from a Marshallese friend of his who was himself a victim of the postwar American nuclear test in Bikini Atoll. It was his immediate response to the Japanese friends who had started to suffer from the same fate he had long been enduring. Let me cite a fragment of his letter:

"We in the Marshall Islands are all so sorry to hear about what has been happening in Japan. Please beware of the fallout, and teach your students about what happened to us down here. We are so sorry you have to deal with this from now on, and that as with us, the radiation will not go away in your lifetimes. But please let your students know that we Marshallese have experienced far worse, and they should know that it’s going to be okay. The people of Japan are in our prayers."

Dvorak recalls that when he read newspapers in mid-March 2011 about how many millisieverts of radiation were ‘safe’ or ‘not-safe’ within a year, he felt sick at the thought of how much of the knowledge we humans have about radiation and its effects on humans comes from scientific studies on the bodies of innocent Marshall Islanders who were subjected unknowingly to America’s cruel experiments.

According to him, for decades after the nuclear tests in the 1940s and 50s, American scientists and doctors collected medical samples from Marshallese survivors. Marshall Islander leaders claim that islanders were forced to resettle their land prematurely after the tests in order to serve as American “guinea pigs”. They criticize the doctors dispatched by the US Department of Energy who took unnecessary quantities of blood or removed healthy teeth from their bodies for experiments without sharing the results with the local population. Many individuals were taken to military hospitals in the United States and subjected to long periods of arduous, classified laboratory tests, not to alleviate their suffering but rather to produce data that could be used exclusively by the United States government regarding the effects of radiation on human beings. (For full discussion on the subject, see Greg Dvorak, “The wave which connected our islands”(“Watashi tachi no shima wo tsunaida nami”), in Ryuta Imafuku & Satoshi Ukai, eds. The First Lectures After The Tsunami (Tsunami no ato no dai-ikkou), Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten, 2012)

I have witnessed and am still witnessing the panic of the Japanese people as they worry about the everyday quantity of radiation, using expensive or unreliably cheap Geiger-Müller counters to detect the radiation level in their sphere of everyday activities, principally in order to protect their small children from direct exposure. The constantly uncertain numbers and figures soon overwhelm the most balanced mind, starting to spread outside our control. Facts and rumours circulate and thrive paradoxically on the same groundwork. But as our oceanic history testifies, these numbers have their own source in the brutal deeds of empire, a calculation at once totally authentic and scientific, but false and inhuman at the same time.  

Noah’s prophecy: Günter Anders' allegory 

In a stimulating collection of essays entitled Petite métaphysique des tsunami published just after the devastating Sumatra earthquake and tsunami in December 2004, a French philosopher of science, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, newly deploys the prophetic thinking of a somewhat forgotten German Jewish philosopher, Günter Anders, on our nuclear crisis.  As we know, Anders who was a cousin of Walter Benjamin and the first husband of Hannah Arendt, worked in the fields of philosophy and ethics in the age of technology, focusing on the theme of the effects of mass media, the nuclear threat, and the experience of the ‘Shoah’ known to every one living on this planet. We Sons of Eichman, and Hiroshima is everywhere are some of his book titles, suggesting his allegorical, inclusive, almost archipelagic vision of all sorts of historical phenomena all over the world. In another book Burning Conscience: the case of the Hiroshima pilot, Anders exchanged letters with an ex-Tinian-based pilot Claude Eatherly who, as one of the main pilots of the seven B-29s, participated in the Hiroshima mission responsible for the loss of thousands of innocent citizens. After the war, Eatherly was the only one who admitted his crime against humanity, and turned aside to engage in pacifist activities, especially those dedicated against nuclear armaments and technology. However, as we know, the US government and the public sentiment of war heroism suppressed and silenced his sincere conversion and action, and finally Eatherly was quarantined in a mental hospital in Texas as a person driven mad by the trauma of war.  

Knowing all this, Günter Anders started to exchange letters with Eatherly, trying to save  this postwar Hiroshima-Tinian Noah from the violent blockade of consciousness he had endured and from the flood of discursive nightmare. With this project, Anders simultaneously published a series of open letters to the son of Adolf Eichman, persuading him to renounce a world in which humans wilfully make themselves blind for the sake of being seen to obey commands.

Rather than systematic argument, Anders preferred to convey his philosophy by telling allegorical stories and fictions. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, in order to think about the possibility of a minimal metaphysics after the tsunami, cites Anders' version of the story of Noah, thus:

Noah was tired of playing the prophet of doom and of always foretelling a catastrophe that would not occur and that no one would take seriously.

One day, he clothed himself in sackcloth and put ashes on his head. This gesture was only permitted to someone lamenting the loss of his dearest child or his wife. Clothed in the habit of truth, as if plunged in mourning, he went back to the city, intent on using to his advantage the curiosity, malignity and superstition of its people. Within a short time, he had gathered around him a small crowd, and the questions began to surface. He was asked if someone was dead and who the dead person was. Noah answered that many were dead and, much to the amusement of those who were listening, that in fact they themselves were dead. Asked when this catastrophe had taken place, he answered: tomorrow.

Seizing on this moment of attention and disarray, Noah stood up to his full height and began to speak: the day after tomorrow, the flood will be something that will have been. And when the flood will have been, all that is will never have existed. When the flood will have carried away all that is, all that will have been, it will be too late to remember, for there will be no one left. So there will no longer be any difference between the dead and those who weep for them. If I have come before you, it is to reverse time, it is to weep today for tomorrow's dead. The day after tomorrow, it will be too late.

Upon this, he went back home, took his clothes off, removed the ashes covering his face, and went to his workshop. In the evening, a carpenter knocked on his door and said to him: let me help you build an ark, so that this may become false. Later, a roofer joined with them and said: it is raining over the mountains, let me help you, so that this may become false.” 

(Jean-Pierre Dupy. Petite métaphysique des tsunamis. Paris: Seuil, 2005, p.10) 

What an acute allegory in our age of nuclear crisis! Mourning for the future.  It's not a matter of fact, knowledge, or even ethics, but it is the system of beliefs that gives our future the necessary ontological force. It is not the choice between progress or decline, unexpected accident or technological prevention, but the ultimate acceptance of the unity of generation and degeneration. Future catastrophe might not occur, by chance, but it is still in our most profound imagination, a probability. We can only believe that it certainly will happen: but that it is just possible that it won’t happen, coincidentally - that minimal incident inherent in all accidents. Meanwhile, believe and act. There must be many Noahs in our world without firm words, with vague ashes on their heads  

A delay: ten seconds or eternity in Haiti

Let us make a very short interlude of 10 seconds, which felt like cosmic eternity to a Haitian writer living in exile, Dany Laferrière. On January 12, 2010, a devastating 7.0 earthquake struck the capital city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Laferrière, by then a Quebecois resident, was coincidentally there at the time, and happened to see the beginning of what became a record-breaking calamity. He bears witness to the longest 10 seconds in his whole life:


The city of Leogane destroyed by the Haiti earthquake, January 2010. Demotix/Tbijou. All rights reserved

During these ten seconds, I was a tree, a stone, a cloud or the quake itself. What is certain was that I was not the product of a culture any more. I had a deep sensation of being a part of the cosmos. 

(Dany Laferrière. Tout bouge autour de moi. Paris: Grasset, 2011)


Tremble (tremblement): Edouard Glissant's utopia 

Let's go back to the tremble, le tremblement, our tremor, seismic and spiritual. 

In his later years, Édouard Glissant passionately discussed and tried to elaborate his important notions of "errantry", "opacity" and "tremble" (in Une nouvelle région du monde, 2006). Contrary to the modern straightforward logic which seeks transparency, the tremble requires errantry and opacity.  This opacity is never ambiguous, it is a relationship in which one person or place calls on another person or place in its own right and freedom.  Identification in relation to the other also includes identifying with the change which is therefore derived from that exchange. There, many people, many places touch each other, develop a rapport, and tremble together, just like Banyan leaves trembling in the stormy wind. Filao needles whispering by the coral shore echo a groaning voice from the sugar cane fields behind.   

Glissan's island, Martinique, has experienced violent hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions for many many years.  

Through the collective memory of the catastrophic forces of nature, Glissant first of all captures his strategic notion of the ‘tremble’ as a sheer natural tremor, and consequently the wisdom humans have to learn from the seismic tremble of the earth.  This involves a total acceptance of the primordial energy of all things in the universe, and a sincere confrontation with the ‘Tout-Monde’ (the ‘Whole-World’) which has been and will always be trembling and shaking from the past to the future. 

Moreover, at an ethical level, it means the tremble found in our inner crust.  It's a process of creative vibration which occurs in the course of recognizing and understanding innumerable differences between the self and the other.  To respond deeply to the other's call and urge, is to experience this intersubjective trembling.  In other words, the tremble is the vibrant relationship to the other. Herein lies a clue to why we should put behind us the centralizing power of subjectivity, an inevitable source of our intentional, or involuntary violence.

In his last book entitled Earth, Fire, Water and Winds: Anthology of the Whole-World poetry (2010), Glissant included an impressive fragment of the story about the New Orleans hurricane disaster in 1856 retold by Lafcadio Hearn. While living in New Orleans in the 1870s and 80s and having travelled widely in the vast Mississippi creole/cajun delta, Hearn almost became possessed by the mysterious folklores and legends told by local fishermen. Their stories were full of drowned bodies and missing peoples violently swept off by the mighty force of the ocean. As Hearn listened to one fisherman-storyteller, and also to the clamouring of the coast in the background, there flashed back to him a recollection of some Breton legend: that the Voice of the Sea is never one voice, but a tumult of many voices - voices of drowned men, the muttering of multitudinous dead, the moaning of innumerable ghosts, all rising, to rage against the living, summoned by the great Witch call of storms…. (Lafcadio Hearn. Chita: A Memory of Last Island. Harper's Brothers, 1889) 

Another trembling, outer and inner, physical and spiritual, subtly felt by both Lafcadio Hearn and Édouard Glissant. Glissant wrote in the preface of his anthology:

The ‘Tout-Monde’ is at once the mud and the ash, the libation and the elevation, the earth and the fire, the water and the secret wind. The depression and the exhaustion, the purification and the inspiration: once again the earth and the fires, the water and the wind, are brutal. In these elements dwell the human mind, people's suffering, the fight and the abandon, what you cry over and what you mediate.

(Édouard Glissant. La terre le fou l'eau et les vents: Une anthologie de la poesie du Tout-Monde. Paris: GALAADE, 2010)

This is the principle of the tremble, the precondition for our shaky ‘Whole-World’. A site where the ‘Chaos-Monde’, ‘Echo-Monde’, or ‘Diversite-Monde’ vibrate and spiral. It is an assumed geography in which our errantry and tremble take place, brutally and gracefully. The vision of the tremble urges us to dive deep into our intuition.  It can light up the old wisdom, all the relations that have occurred between the human being and all elemental things in the universe.    

The vision of the tremble resists the bias of systematic thinking toward transparency and consistency.  According to Glissant, it seeks the magnetic ties between the lands, the land and the people, and among the people -  just like the relationship Lafcadio Hearn sensed in the ghostly, etheric atmosphere in his anthropomorphic imagination.  The tremble happens sometimes devastatingly, but usually very subtly. It is the faintest sign hard to recognize with our ordinary senses. However, the fragility is what makes it resistant, and the fugacity guarantees its durability.  Glissant, like a future Noah, tries to save our globally unitary world, by presenting his vision of "le tremblement" which will again fragment our world so that each part can have their own music and poetry, responding and echoing with each other, like the archipelago in our oceanic solidarity.

The agony of rhyming: a brief epilogue    

When the nuclear meltdown was found in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, and the radioactive contamination was spread out in its surrounding areas, it did not take us long to start talking about the continuum which was Hiroshima and Fukushima, the oldest and most recent experience of nuclear disaster Japan has faced during these 65 years.  In this juxtaposition of the two place names, there were many different contexts and connotations to be found. The similarities seemed very profound, but the facile connection of two different catastrophes also seemed dangerous. Before making these names of the so-called ‘cursed places’ into a secret code to designate the worst human tragedy, we must consider their peculiarities, the singular importance of their people, their individual dignity, specific sorrow and joy.

The rhyming of Hiroshima and Fukushima is painfully sad.  It’s a dreary coincidence that both names end with the same suffix ‘-shima’.  ‘Shima’ in Japanese usually means ‘island’, but its semantic origin primarily lies in the more general meaning of ‘isolated area’ or ‘enclosed area’, not exclusively that of an island surrounded by the sea.

In the Amami and Ryukyu archipelago, ‘shima’ primarily means one's native village, one's place of origin, most likely surrounded by mountains, rocks, rivers, and oceans.

Place names are essentially the reflection of people's sense of land as it is made up of elemental forces.  Hokkaido's old indigenous name, Ainu-mosir, meant the quiet land of humans.  The Ryukyu archipelago in their dialect is ‘Uruma’ - which means the timespace between coral reefs.  Haiti, in Taino language, meant the island of many mountains. And our Fukushima, it is the island of bliss, or alternatively the island of blowing winds. These are the reflections and incarnations of the people's love and awe which they pay as a tribute to the elements which tremble and vibrate eternally.

So, Fukushima doesn't have to bear the ordeals of this coincidental rhyming with Hiroshima.  It is not even coincidental.  If I paraphrase Günter Anders' aphorism, ‘shima’ is everywhere: the founding sensation with which to name one's place in the vibrating echo of things. The tremble.    

Noah will be our future child who has already survived the tsunami of our Genesis and Apocalypse.


Destroyed shrine abandoned inside Fukushima exclusion zone. Demotix/Osakabe Yasuo. All rights reserved

A version of this paper was first given at the International Symposium on “Humanities after Fukushima: Dialogue between Cultural Studies and Philosophy in the Post-Nuclear Age of Critical Junctures”, organized by Birkbeck College and the London Asia Pacific Cultural Studies Forum in October, 2011

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