Unrealistic Dreamer: Haruki Murakami on Fukushima


Unrealistic Dreamer: Haruki Murakami’s acceptance speech on receiving the Cataluña International Prize

The last time I visited Barcelona was in spring two years ago. I participated in a book-signing event and was surprised at how many readers queued up to wait 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 all over 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 wonderful city. I’m very glad to be back in this city, which has a rich history and a wonderful culture.

But I’m sorry that today I have to talk about something more serious than kisses.

This should be the way to assume our collective responsibility for the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These fundamental ethics and norms were necessary for us. We should send a social message, and this would have been a chance for the Japanese people to make a true contribution to the world. But we missed that important road, because we took the easy road of “efficiency” for our rapid economic development.

As you may 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 reduced by 1.8 seconds.

The damage caused by the earthquake itself was quite significant, but the tsunami triggered by the earthquake caused much greater devastation. In some places, the tsunami wave reached a height of 39 metres. Faced with such an enormous wave, even the tenth storey of buildings could not offer refuge for those caught up in its path. People living near the coast couldn’t escape, and about 24,000 people were killed, around 9,000 of whom are still declared missing. The great wave carried them away and we’ve not yet been able to find their bodies. Many were lost in the icy sea. When I stop to think about this and try to imagine what it must be like to suffer such a tragic fate, my chest tightens. Many survivors also lost their families, friends, houses, properties, communities and the very foundations of their lives. Whole villages were destroyed completely. Many people lost all hope for living.

Being Japanese means living with natural disasters. Typhoons pass through much of Japan from summer to autumn. 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 dangerously on the four huge plates at the eastern end of the Asian continent. It is said that we live on the very nest of earthquakes.

We can predict the timing and route of typhoons to some 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 occur 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 10 years time or tomorrow afternoon. No one can say with any certitude how extensive would be the damage if an inland earthquake were to strike such a densely populated city as Tokyo.

Notwithstanding this, 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’ve never heard that the population of Tokyo is in decline.

Why? You might ask me. How can so many people live their daily lives in such a terrible place? Don’t they go out of their mind with fear?

In Japanese, we have the word “mujo”. It means that nothing lasts forever. Everything born into this world changes and will ultimately disappear. There is nothing eternal or immutable on which we can rely. This view of the world was derived from Buddhism, but the idea of “mujo” was burned into the spirit of Japanese people, and took root in the common ethnic consciousness.

The idea “everything has just gone” expresses resignation. We believe that it serves no purpose to go against nature, but Japanese people have found positive expressions of beauty in this resignation.

We love the cherry blossom of spring, the fireflies of summer and the red leaves of autumn. We think it natural that we watch them avidly, collectively and as a tradition.  It can be difficult to make a hotel reservation near the famous sites of cherry blossom, fireflies and red leaves in their respective seasons, as such places are invariably milling with visitors.


Cherry blossoms, fireflies and red leaves lose their beauty within a very short time. We travel very far to watch the glorious moment. And we are somewhat relieved to confirm that they are not merely beautiful, but already beginning to fall, to lose their small lights and their vivid beauty. We find peace of mind in the fact that the peak of beauty has passed and disappeared.

I don’t know if natural disasters have affected such a mentality, but I’m sure that in some sense we have collectively overcome successive natural disasters and accepted things that we couldn’t avoid by virtue of this mentality. These experiences and this notion of beauty might affect us.

Most Japanese were deeply shocked by this earthquake, and we still have not been able to come to terms with the scale of the damage, even if we are used to earthquakes. We feel helpless and are anxious about the future of this country.

Ultimately we’ll revitalize our minds, stand up and rebuild. I have no real fears in this sense.

This is how we have survived throughout our long history. We can’t help by remaining frozen and overcome by shock. Broken houses can be rebuilt and broken roads can be restored.

In short, we rent a room on planet earth without any permission. Planet earth never asks us to live on it. If it shakes a little, we can’t complain about it, because sometimes shaking is one of the properties of the earth. Whether we like or not, we have to 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 rebuilt easily, such as ethics or standards. Such things do not have physical shape.  Once they are broken, it’s hard to restore them, because we can’t do so with machines, labour and materials.

What I’m talking about concretely are the Fukushima nuclear power plants.

As you may know, at least three of the six nuclear plants damaged by the earthquake and the tsunami have not yet been restored and continue to leak radioactivity around them. Meltdown occurred and the surrounding soil has been contaminated. Water contaminated by radioactivity, has been drained to the surrounding ocean. The wind is spreading radioactivity to wider areas.

Hundreds of thousands people had to evacuate their homes. Farms, ranches, factories and ports are abandoned, deserted by all.  Those who had lived there may not be able to return.  I’m really sorry that the damage from this accident will spread across the country.

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 specialists pointed out that tsunami of similar scale had struck these regions previously and insisted that the safety standards should be revised, but the electrical power companies ignored them, because the electrical power companies, as commercial ventures, didn’t want to invest significantly in preparing for a tsunami which may occur once in hundreds of years.

The government, which should manage the safety of nuclear plants with strict regulations, appears to have downgraded the safety standards in order to promote nuclear power generation.

We should investigate these reasons, and if we find mistakes, they should be rectified.  Hundreds of thousands people have been forced to leave their lands and seen their lives overturned. It is right that we must be angry about it.

I don’t know why Japanese people rarely get angry. They are good at being patient but aren’t very good at getting angry. They might be different from Barcelona citizens. But now, the Japanese people will grow seriously angry.

At the same time we have to be critical of ourselves, we who had allowed or tolerated these disordered systems.

This accident is related to our ethics and norms.

As you may know, we, the Japanese people, have known the experience of nuclear attacks. In August 1945, US bombers dropped nuclear bombs on the two major cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the death 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 protracted period. We’ve learned what terrible destruction radioactivity caused to the world and to ordinary people from the victims of the nuclear bombs.

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 nuclear bomb in Hiroshima.

“Please rest in peace. We will never make the same mistake again.”

These are lofty words. These words mean that we are victims and assailants at the same time. Faced with nuclear power, we are victims and assailants. Since we are threatened by the force of nuclear power, we are all victims. Since we use it and couldn’t prevent ourselves from using it, we are also all assailants.

Sixty six years after the nuclear bombing, Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plants have been spreading radioactivity for three months, and contaminating the soil, the ocean and the air around them. No one knows how and when we can stop it. This is the second source of devastation wrought by nuclear power in Japan, but this time nobody dropped a nuclear bomb. We, the Japanese people, caused this, we made our own mistakes, we have contributed to destroying our own lands and lives.

Why did this happen? What happened to our rejection of nuclear power after World War II? What spoiled our peaceful and wealthy society, which we had been pursuing so constantly?

The reason is simple. The reason is “efficiency”.

The electrical power companies had been insisting that nuclear plants offered an efficient power generation system. It was the system from which they could derive profit. And especially following the oil crisis, the Japanese government doubted the stability of petroleum supplies and had been promoting nuclear power generation as national policy. The electrical power companies had spent huge money on advertisements to bribe the media to impress the Japanese people with the illusion that nuclear power generation was completely safe.

And thus we found that 30 percent of electricity generation came to be supplied by nuclear power. Japan, which is a small island nation frequently struck by earthquakes, become the third leading nuclear power generating country, without the Japanese people even noticing.

We had gone beyond the point of no return. The deed was done. Those who are afraid of nuclear power generation are asked the intimidating question “Would you be in favour of power shortages?” Japanese people began to think that it was inevitable that we relied on nuclear power. It’s almost torture to live without air conditioning in hot and humid Japan. Those who have 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, offer us a vision of hell. This is the reality.

The so-called reality, upon which those who promoted nuclear power generation insisted, isn’t reality at all, but just superficial “convenience”. They replaced the problem, by referring to “convenience” as “reality”.

This is the collapse of the “technology” myth, of which the Japanese people had been proud, and the defeat of our Japanese ethics and norms, which had allowed such deception. We blame the electrical companies and Japanese government. This is right and necessary, but at the same time we should accuse ourselves. We are victims and assailants at the same time. We have to consider the fact seriously. If we fail to do so, we’ll make the same mistake again.

“Please rest in peace. We will never make the same mistake again.”

We have to carve these words in our minds.

Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, who was a leading contributor to the development of the atomic bomb, was terribly shocked by the appalling conditions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the nuclear attacks. He told President Truman “Our hands are bloody.”

Truman took a clean and neat white handkerchief from his pocket and said “Wipe your hands with this handkerchief.”

But of course there is no clean handkerchief in the world large enough to wipe away so much blood.

We, the Japanese, should have been saying “No” to nuclear power. This is my opinion.

We have to develop alternative energy sources to replace nuclear power at a national level, by gathering all technologies, wisdom and social capital. Even if people throughout the world were to laugh at us and say, “Nuclear power is the most effective power generation system, and Japanese people are so silly that they don’t use it,” we have to retain the allergy to nuclear power triggered by our experience of nuclear weapons. We should have made the development of non-nuclear power generation the main policy after World War II.

This should be the way to assume our collective responsibility for the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These fundamental ethics and norms were necessary for us. We should send a social message, and this would have been a chance for the Japanese people to make a true contribution to the world. But we missed that important road, because we took the easy road of “efficiency” for our rapid economic development.

As I mentioned, we can overcome the damage caused by natural disaster, however dreadful and extensive it might be. And sometimes our minds grow stronger and deeper through the process of overcoming. We can achieve this.

It is the job of specialists to rebuild broken roads and buildings, but it is the duty of all of us to regenerate damaged ethics and standards. We start by mourning those who died, by taking care of the victims of this disaster and by a natural desire to not let their pain and injuries be in vain. This will take the form of an ingenious and silent handiwork, requiring considerable patience. We have to join our forces to do so, in the manner of the entire population of a village that goes out together to cultivate the fields and to plant seeds on a sunny spring morning. Everyone doing what they can do, all hearts together.

We, professional authors, who are versed in the use of words, can positively contribute to this large-scale collective mission. We should connect new ethics and standards to new words, and create and build new, lively stories. We will be able to share these stories. They will have a rhythm, which can encourage people, just like the songs which farmers sing while planting seeds. We had rebuilt Japan, which had been completely destroyed by World War II. We have to return to this starting point.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this speech, we are living in a changing and transient world “mujo (??)”. Every life will change and ultimately fade away. Human beings have no power in the face of the greater forces of nature. The recognition of the ephemeral is one of the basic concepts of Japanese culture. Although we respect the fact that all things are transient and understand that we live in a fragile world full of dangers, at the same time we are imbued 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 great prize. We live a long way from each other and speak different languages. We have different cultures. But at the same time we are the world citizens, who share the same problems, joy and sadness. Stories written by Japanese authors have been translated into the Catalan language, and Catalan people have embraced these. I’m glad to share the same stories with you. Dreaming is the day job of novelists, but sharing dreams is a more important job for us. We cannot be novelists without the sense of sharing something.

I know that the Catalan people have overcome many hardships, have lived life to the full and retained a rich culture in your history. We must share a lot of things.

It’s really wonderful that you and we equally can build “the house of unrealistic dreamers” in Japan and Catalonia and “the moral community”, which are open to every country and culture. This is the starting point for our rebirth, since we experienced many natural disasters and acts of terrorism recently. We must not be afraid to dream. We should never allow the evil dogs named “efficiency” or “convenience” to catch up with us. We must be “unrealistic dreamers”, who go forward vigorously. Human beings will die and disappear, but humanity will prevail and will be regenerated forever. Above all we must believe in this power.

Finally, I will donate this prize money to the victims of the earthquake and the accident of the nuclear plants. I am deeply grateful to the Catalan people who give me such an opportunity and to the Generalitat de Cataluña. Let me also express my deepest sympathies to the victims of the recent earthquake in Lorca.




Haruki Murakami (born January 12, 1949) is a Japanese writer and translator.  His works of fiction and non-fiction have garnered him critical acclaim and numerous awards, including the Franz Kafka Prize and Jerusalem Prize among others.


Source: http://www.senrinomichi.com/?p=2541


Join discussion: leave a comment