Japanese Take Care Of Each Other Amid Crisis

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Writer Pico Iyer has lived in Japan on and off for 23 years. Three weeks after arriving to live at a Zen Temple in Kyoto in 1987, he met his wife, who is Japanese. Iver tells NPR's Guy Raz it was through his wife's family that he came to understand the role of national disaster in Japanese culture and history.

GUY RAZ, host:

Though writer Pico Iyer has lived in Japan for 23 years, he splits his time between Kyoto and his other home in Santa Barbara. He told us he just missed the earthquake...

Mr. PICO IYER (Author, "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama"): By hours. I left last Thursday night. And within five hours of my arrival in California, I was getting emails about the earthquake. And, in fact, while I was there last week, there were the first tremors and I began to hear concerned emails from friends in California from the same area three days before the very big quake.

RAZ: Iyer's family is okay. They are still in Japan, including his wife who is Japanese. They met 23 years ago.

Mr. IYER: Yes, my third week in Japan.

RAZ: After Pico had gone there as a young man to study at a Zen Buddhist temple. And it was through his wife's family that Pico Iyer came to understand the role that national disasters play in the Japanese national consciousness. For one, they were all from Hiroshima.

Mr. IYER: Very soon after I met my wife in 1987, I began to hear the stories of, for example, her aunt running around the city in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear bomb, children crying out for water, and she knew that if she were to give them water, they would die all the more suddenly.

And so I think one of the things that came home very forcibly was the delayed effects in the way that even the survivors decades later were feeling and suffering the consequences in their lives that unalterably been changed not just by going through the experience, but by the residual effect of radiation.

RAZ: We have this image of Japan in the United States and in the West as this highly advanced, technologically advanced country, the first among the first world countries, and yet some of the images seem so different from that image, almost as if parts of Japan appear similar to the developing world. Did that surprise you to see those pictures?

Mr. IYER: Not necessarily. And what always strikes me is that just as you say the surfaces of Japan are highly developed, but behind that surface, there's something very old-fashioned.

In some ways, it's a deeply traditional culture that still believes in the gods, that still goes to the shrine to pray for everybody every day, that still sees the individual as a very tiny speck on a much larger canvas. And I think those kind of things are advantages.

RAZ: As somebody who has lived there for more than two decades, can you give us a sense of the extent to which the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the aftermath of it is seared into the Japanese consciousness, even obviously with the many - the majority of people who did not directly experience it?

Mr. IYER: Yes. And, as you know, Japan is a very elderly country. So in that sense, there's still quite a lot of people who are more than 65 and a half years old and did remember it and go through it.

But more than the nuclear event of 65 years ago, the whole experience of having gone through huge losses in war and then rebuilding their country, that would be strong in the Japanese imagination, and that's the kind of image that even contemporary kids would have grown up on.

Just yesterday, I got to report form Sendai, which, of course, is the large town closest to the earthquake and the tsunami. Very touching accounts of everybody banding together. If one household has water, they'll put up a sign and tell all their neighbors, please come in and we can share your water with us. Everything in Japanese society is almost preparing them for that banding together.

RAZ: That's Pico Iyer. He's the author most recently of "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the 14th Dalai Lama." He spoke to me from his home in Santa Barbara.

Pico Iyer, thank you.

Mr. IYER: Thank you so much.

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