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Death, the Japanese tsunami, and historical memory

Charles B. Strozier
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

(The short note is adapted from the book, Until The Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses [New York: Columbia University Press, 2011].)

Kai Erikson distinguishes natural disasters of the past from what he calls a “new species of trouble” in the contemporary world. He emphasizes two factors. First, such new trouble is caused by other human beings, which makes it hurt in special ways and generates feelings of “injury and vulnerability from which it is difficult to recover.” Hiroshima and the Holocaust, 9/11, and the Japanese tsunami last year are striking examples of such a new species of trouble. Each has effects beyond and very different from the havoc wreaked in earthquakes, floods, and other forms of natural distress, even though often what appears to be “natural” can be devastatingly destructive precisely because of the ways poverty and other decidedly unnatural factors place human beings in unsafe places without adequate safeguards against disaster.

Erikson’s second point is even more compelling. The most important aspect of the new disasters, he says, is when they involve some form of toxic contamination. Toxic disasters violate all rules of plot. Some of them have clearly defined beginnings, such as the explosion that signaled the emergency at Chernobyl, the sudden moment of realization that opened the drama of Bhopal, and the explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plants. Others begin long years before anyone senses that something is wrong, as was the case at Love Canal. But they never end. Invisible contaminants remain a part of the surroundings, absorbed into the grain of the landscape, the tissues of the body, and, worst of all, the genetic materials of the survivors. An all-clear is never sounded. The book of accounts is never closed.

Hiroshima and now the lingering effects of the tsunami and the release of inevitably an unknown amount of radiation have been entered into that book of accounts. The toxic air compromises the futures of countless thousands. Such never-ending suffering creates unique forms of mourning. Survivors struggle with physical sensations such as hollowness in the stomach, a lump in the throat, tightness in the chest, and at times other bodily sensations such as aching arms; feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, and self-reproach; thoughts of disbelief, confusion, and preoccupation; often a sense of the presence of the deceased, or paranormal kinds of experiences; behaviors such as sleep or appetite disturbances, absent-mindedness, social withdrawal, and loss of interest in life; dreams of the deceased, crying, and social difficulties in interpersonal relationships; and a spiritual searching for a sense or meaning that may involve hostility toward God and a questioning of one’s value framework.

Such mourners may live an entire life of grief, letting the sadness of loss become chronic and permanent. But what exactly is being mourned? Robert Jay Lifton answers:

He mourns, first of all, for family members and for others who had been close to him. And he mourns . . . for the anonymous dead. But he mourns also for inanimate objects and loss symbols—for possessions, homes, streets he had known, beliefs that have been shattered, a way of life that has been “killed.” In sum, he mourns for the own former self, for what he was prior to the intrusion upon it of death and death conflicts. For what has been taken from him . . . is this innocence of death, and particularly of grotesquely demeaning death.

Lifton is describing here the psychological experience of mourning by survivors of Hiroshima. Their entire world—and their bodies—was shattered in ways that are hauntingly evoked a year ago by the effects of the tsunami.

Such collective grief brimming with bereavement overload turns modern disasters into public tragedies. The vast accumulation of private events by their very magnitude overloads all survivors and witnesses. The synergy between private stories transforms an event into a collective experience of historical significance. In that process of turning private into public, the individual participant, whether as a survivor or a witness, blends the personal and collective in unusually complex ways. The experience of the individual inevitably dominates one’s own personal sense of tragedy and loss, but that experience is in turn aggravated and intensified by the sense that personal experience blends with the larger collective response. Similarly, the enormous suffering of the public tragedy reverberates in the mind of the individual in a way that intensifies a personal sense of loss.

Time comes in many shapes in historical memory.  When someone we love dies there is no question the first anniversary is the most painful and poignant.  Numerous cultural and religious rituals honor that revival of memory.  Collective death and rebirth follow an analogous pattern.  The first anniversary imposes itself.  After that for many years individual and collective mourning is erratic and entirely unpredictable.  There may be an upsurge of uncontrollable grief at year three, or six, or seven, triggered by the memory of the event or perhaps linked to other happenings in the culture.  The only certainty is that memory remains indelibly etched in the souls of survivors.

The tenth anniversary, as we have seen recently with 9/11, focuses attention on the future meanings of the disaster.  For roughly the first decade memory lies primarily in the hands of survivors and their families.  But at some point the making of public memory must shift beyond the individual survivor and into the hands of those historians, curators, architects, and others, with much more tenuous relation to the disaster itself but with responsibility for shaping the way the culture can, and must, remember.  No event, no matter how destructive, has inherent meaning.  It must be constructed.

The contrast of the 3/11 tsunami and 9/11 World Trade Center disaster illustrate the two ends of that crucial first decade in shaping memory.  There is nothing but confused pain in Japan right now, a kind of whirlwind of despair, as attempts are made to continue the ongoing process of recovery in the context of remembering. In the United States, we are at the other end of that first decade and are currently in the middle of that inevitably uneasy, sometimes awkward, transition from private to public that is central to the meaning of the tenth anniversary.  Survivors and family groups especially approach the handing over of the interpretive baton with ambivalence.  They will, of course, continue to play a key role for years, if not decades to come.  But now historians, psychologists, and other intellectuals inside the world of museums and those interested in such issues in the academy will begin to assume the primary responsibility for shaping the meaning of 9/11 for the next century (at least).

Charles B. Strozier is a professor of history, John Jay College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and can be reached at

  1. Sharon Traweek permalink

    These are powerful topics for teaching STS approaches (and others). I teach about contested public memory practices worldwide. Students are quite intrigued by the powerful role of material culture (artifacts, tools, techniques, records, media) and cultures of expertise/authority in contested public memory practices. We discuss cases when people could not participate in their usual ways honoring birth and death, including material culture practices; we explore multi-generational family and community efforts to regain public memory practices in spite of regimes of erasure.

  2. Kristina Buhrman permalink

    I think this is a powerful aspect of disasters, and I want to thank Strozier for his contribution. The memory of the disaster also, to be self-reflexive about it, will shape how academics research matters. The common use in the US of “Fukushima” as a short-hand for what happened on March 11th of last year shows some of our common pre-occupations, as much as it refers to a historical event.

    As someone trained to study the premodern, I always want to more fully investigate claims of novelty in the modern period. The technological context is of course different, but the idea of contamination (although of a different, not as toxic, sort) and of lingering trauma can, I think, be found in some records of much earlier disasters. (And of course, man-made disasters from natural hazards are nothing new.) I’ve not read Erikson, so I’ll have to take a look at him to be able to fully evaluate his argument. For now I just raise a note of hesitancy on the novel claim.

    Memorialization, even regular memorialization, is also not new–but the media context is. Every year since the JAL 123 crash, and also since Kobe, there are memorials that are well covered in the Japanese news media. The JAL 123 crash memorials are more private, yet the public is allowed a chance to glimpse the event once more, through images of lanterns and the words of the victims’ family members. Even major unsolved murder cases (or thefts) come up for less regular review in the news media.

    We’ve only just reached the first year past the disaster, so much of how March 11th will be memorialized is, as you say, still to be determined. As I was reminded through your comparison, it was only with the 10-year anniversary that the memorial for 9/11 was opened, and that cannot but shape how American public memory will develop going forward. What museums or memorials–or symbolic images, such as the ippon matsu–will arise in Japan in the future have yet to be determined. And future disasters (as there, unfortunately, will always be), too, will reshape our memory. After the end of World War 2, the existing artifacts and displays at the 東京都復興記念館 (known as the Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum in English, but more literally “Tokyo Reconstruction Memorial Hall”) were supplemented with information about the Tokyo air raids and their destructive power. The past is constantly being rewritten in our present. Already the 869 Mutsu tsunami which hit the same area over 1100 years ago has been revived in public memory.

  3. Kenji Ito permalink

    As for historical memory of 3.11, one conspicuous aspect that seems to be emerging is that, both in and outside Japan, there is a strong tendency to emphasize the nuclear accident rather than the other damage done by tsunami. This itself is political in a few different ways. The overemphasis of the nuclear issue is, at least partially, motivated by the perspective of those who live in Tokyo and other metropolitan areas where there was little damage by the earthquake or the tsunami, and the life was much more affected by the nuclear accident. In other words, it might be partially caused by ignorance or indifference of those who live in Tokyo and other large cities toward the life of people in the areas of Tohoku hard hit by the tsunami. At the same time, this very fact can be used politically to downplay the severity of the Fukushima-1 nuclear accident. After 3.11, some claimed that no one died because of the nuclear accident while many died because of the tsunami. Or, yesterday on 3.11, near the venue of an anti-nuclear rally, I witnessed right-wing activists on sound trucks criticizing the rally, claiming that people should quietly mourn the death of the earthquake/tsunami casualties rather than gather to protest nuclear energy.

  4. Chuck–this is a valuable contribution to the conference, thanks.

    I am struck by this sentence:
    “Such collective grief brimming with bereavement overload turns modern disasters into public tragedies.” It strikes me that globalized mass media and social media have simultaneously made “bereavement overload” possible not only by making it possible for people around the world to watch a disaster unfold in real time, but ALSO because we now have access to very private community-level, neighborhood-level, and personal suffering that would not have been possible until quite recently. I wonder if this broadens the base of potential political action for change? We are seeing a re-evaluation of nuclear power around the world right now, in part because of the degree to which Japanese suffering has been so terribly “available” through multiple media.

    Your observation about the one-year and 10-year marks for memory are poignant–I’m thinking here of Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking,” and wondering if it applies to disaster memory as well? The idea being that as the first “everything” since the disaster/death takes place, those left behind have to relive the tragedy. The first month since the disaster, the first birthday since the disaster, the first season change since the disaster, and so on. I know that between the 1st and 10th anniversary of September 11 there were pitched battles over who could/should mourn, and who should be mourned, and how it was best to memorialize. I wonder if those familiar with Japanese disaster memory will tell us their thoughts on this: what are the 1-year memorials like in Japan? Will there be a public memorial, multiple memorials? Will they focus on the victims of the earthquake/tsunami, the nuclear accident–separately, or as one?

    Much to consider here–excellent work.

    Scott Gabriel Knowles

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