Haruki Murakami talks about being Japanese, the idea of mujo

I think that being Japanese means living with natural disasters. From summer to autumn, typhoons pass through much of Japan. 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 precariously on the four tectonic plates at the eastern extremity of the Asian continent. It is as if we are living on a very nest of earthquakes.

We can predict the timing and route of typhoons to a greater or lesser 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 surely happen 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 ten years time, or it may strike tomorrow afternoon. No one can predict with any certitude the extent of the damage that would follow if an inland earthquake were to strike such a densely populated city as Tokyo.

Despite this fact, 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 haven’t heard that the population of Tokyo is on the decline.

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

In Japanese, we have the word “mujō (無常)”. It means that everything is ephemeral. Everything born into this world changes, and will ultimately disappear. There is nothing that can be considered eternal or immutable. This view of the world was derived from Buddhism, but the idea of “mujo” was burned into the spirit of Japanese people beyond the strictly religious context, taking root in the common ethnic consciousness from ancient times.

The idea that all things are transient is an expression of resignation. We believe that it serves no purpose to go against nature. On the contrary, Japanese people have found positive expressions of beauty in this resignation.

If we think about nature, for example, we cherish the cherry blossoms of spring, the fireflies of summer and the red leaves of autumn. For us, it is natural to observe them passionately, collectively and as a tradition.  It can be difficult to find a hotel room near the best known sites of cherry blossoms, fireflies and red leaves in their respective seasons, as such places are invariably milling with visitors.

Why is this so?

The answer may be found in the fact that cherry blossoms, fireflies and red leaves all lose their beauty within a very short space of time. We travel from afar to witness this glorious moment. And we are somehow relieved to confirm that they are not merely beautiful, but are already beginning to fall to the ground, to lose their small lights or their vivid beauty. We find peace of mind in the fact that the peak of beauty has been reached and is already starting to fade.