I expect the earth to move and the buildings to shake

Published 24 August 2011 in:

Photo: Catarina Axelsson/MFA

Japan has gone through an amazing development since I first set my foot on Japanese soil in January 1972. I had travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway across the huge Eurasian land mass and continued by ship along the Japanese sea cost. The whole trip from Stockholm to Yokohama took two weeks and both the freezing temperatures in Siberia and the cold political climate in the Soviet Union made my arrival in Japan feel liberating. The streets of Yokohama were busy and full of life and different bright colours greeted me from shop signs and motor vehicles. While the streets were busy, people struck me as being both disciplined and polite. The society seemed to rest on a mixture of dynamic vitality and quiet reflection.

Today, the cities of Japan look quite different compared to 1972. The buildings are taller, the streets have changed directions, new blocks have been created and ambitious infrastructural plans have been realized. But the mixture of vitality and reflection is still there.

When I arrived in Yokohama I had just finished reading a book from the 1890s by Lafcadio Hearn on various cultural and social phenomena of Japan. In it there was a story of ancient Japan that touched me greatly and which to a certain extent can explain why the Japanese people behaved in the way they did after this year’s tragic earthquake and devastating tsunami.

There once was a village high up on a mountain slope next to the sea, Lafcadio Hearn wrote. The people of the village had all gone down to the beach to collect sea shells and other useful things. All except the village headman, who was of age and stayed in the village. Suddenly, in the distance, he could see a huge tsunami approaching. The villagers on the beach were too far away for him to communicate by shouting or waving. He had to warn them in a way that was clearly visible and causing an immediate reaction. So, he set fire to his own house. When the villagers saw the fire they all rushed back up the hill as fast as they could to help him extinguish the fire. Thus they were saved from the destructive wave.

Tsunami is a Japanese word and there have always been earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan. In fact, the famous great buddha statue in Kamakura was once covered by a large wooden building that was destroyed by a tsunami many years ago. We don’t have earthquakes of similar magnitudes or tsunamis in Sweden, but as a Swede I feel a great affinity for the way the villagers and the village headman interacted.

It is with great anticipation that I now begin yet another diplomatic posting in Tokyo. This time as ambassador. I expect the earth to move and the buildings to shake many times during my coming stay, but I also expect the affinity the Swedes and the Japanese feel for each other and their respective societies will be reconfirmed over and over again.