Director-General Letter 2021/01/06 (Yasunari-Tsushin No.59)
“Thinking about the future”

Novel Coronavirus infection (COVID-19 related crisis) is spreading further in Japan and around the world. A state of emergency has been declared again in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

It may be frowned upon to say “let’s think about the future” in such a critical and urgent situation, but I feel that it is important to take a moment and "think about the future" in this particular occasion.

There are many countermeasures against COVID-19, such as avoiding the Three Cs and refraining from traveling, which have a certain scientific basis and are expected to have a certain effect. The development and production of vaccines are also progressing at a rapid pace. It goes without saying that science-based responses and countermeasures are important. However, we still do not have a clear answer as to what will happen to this pandemic and when it will end (or be brought under control). The impact on the economy also remains unclear.

Although the time scales are different, predictions of climate change (global warming) have become quite accurate due to the efforts of the IPCC, which is promoted by researchers from around the world. The IPCC has predicted with some degree of conviction that if the average temperature of the entire planet were to rise by more than 2℃ due to human activities, global environmental change would become quite critical (see Yasunari Tsushin No. 52 and 57 for reference). However, there is still a great deal of uncertainty that is beyond the reach of human knowledge, and we live with great anxiety about the unfathomable "future."

Seiichi Takeuchi, an ethicist, wrote a thoughtful essay in the face of the crisis of the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear accident, which occurred in March, 2011 (Takeuchi, 2012). I will quote some parts of the essay below.

The English word ‘crisis’ has the connotation of turning point or transition as well as crisis. (snip) I feel as though we are now being tested to figure out not only the way to overcome this crisis, but also how we can change it into a ‘good’ turning point.

He also cites the following statement by physicist Torahiko Terada (who was a leading scientist as a professor of Univ. of Tokyo for more than 100 years ago), with regard to the behavior of nature and natural disasters that are beyond human control.

“For those of us who live in a land where earthquakes, severe storms & floods occur frequently and unpredictably, the impermanence of (or constantly-changing) nature has become a genetic memory from our distant ancestors that permeates to the heart's core.” (Terada, 1935)

Terada apparently wrote this immediately after the Sanriku earthquake in the Showa period. "Terada seems to have had conviction that, even in the face of catastrophic disasters and calamities, people can cope with the crisis by bringing back the ‘genetic memories from their ancestors’ and always get back on their feet,” Takeuchi explains.

The current COVID-19 related crisis and climate change have both emerged as nature's behavior in response to human activities to some degree. In this sense, I think we can replace these challenges we face today with the natural disasters that Terada describes. Terada's statement "the more advanced civilization becomes, the more violent natural disasters become" (Terada, 1934) seems to apply to both the COVID-19 related crisis and the impact of climate change.

We, especially the Japanese, feel a certain sense of impermanence in the face of nature that cannot be controlled by human knowledge. It may be partly because animism from the Jomon period and Buddhism from the Nara period onwards are still alive somewhere in our spirit. The sense of impermanence corresponds to the word "hakanashi or hakanai(implying “fugacious or transient”" which is connected to the word "hakari-shirenai(implying “unfathomable”). " The word "hakaru" is a general term for the various functions of human knowledge (sense), including scientific knowledge. On the other hand, the word "hakanashi" has the connotation of receptivity for something that no one can "hakaru" (the great workings of nature, transcendental workings of gods and Buddha, etc.), and the feelings of irreplaceability that no one can ever "hakaru," that is the preciousness, sweetness, and joy of existing only once in the universe at this very moment. Takeuchi points out that this word may be the key to accepting and overcoming the crisis that we are currently facing. He also adds that it is not just a simple matter of choosing between the sense of “hakanasa” and “hakaru”, that means both the two senses are important and necessary in many occasions.

I believe that "thinking about the future" for us human beings is to continue the act of "hakaru" and to consider new possibilities with a sense of reverence for the "hakari-shirenai” of the earth (and the universe), which encompasses all living things and continues to evolve, involving repetitive disasters. Last but not least, I would like to ponder the words of the poet Hiroshi Osada: "To think is not to reason or logic-chopping, but to feel deeply. You will not be able to see anything if you cannot develop the ability to feel deeply within yourself.”

(translated by Megumi Arita and Tetsuzo Yasunari)