Artwork by Hokusai

The Bear God Revisited

Coastal Japan waits for the next great wave

IN A 2011 ISSUE of the Japanese literary magazine Gunzo, the popular author Kawakami Hiromi rewrote one of her short stories to reflect the newly unleashed threat of a radioactive landscape. The basic outline of the original story, first published in 1994, is simple: A woman is invited to go on a walk with her neighbor, who happens to be a bear. On the way there, they pass rice fields. They reach a river, where they encounter a human father and son, who overexcitedly prod and pull at the bear’s fur. The bear dives into the river, catches a fish, and salts it for the woman. The bear and woman leisurely eat lunch together, then take naps by the shore. When they return home, the bear shyly asks for a hug, explaining that’s something they do where he comes from. They embrace. “May the Bear God bestow his blessings on you,” the bear says. “Oh yes, and salted fish doesn’t keep very well, so make sure you eat it all this evening.” The woman grills the fish for dinner, writes in her diary, and goes to sleep, contented by the day. In the new version, rewritten a week after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, everything is the same and yet different. The characters now live in a world irrevocably shaped by the “incident.” It is still a humid summer day, and the woman and the bear take the same path to the river. This time, however, the rice fields along the way have been turned up in an attempt at decontamination. When they reach the river, they encounter not a father and son but two adult men wearing full protective suits. The pair jab at the bear’s fur clinically, wondering about the animal’s supposed resistance to strontium and plutonium.

This time, when the bear catches the fish in the river, he uses bottled water to wash it. He explains to the woman that this type of fish feeds on the moss that grows on the bottom of the river, where cesium collects. Later, after returning home, they check their bodies with a Geiger counter. They still hug, but the woman is hesitant; bears don’t shower, of course, so his body will have collected high levels of radiation. In the end, she decides not to eat the fish. She leaves it by her doorway instead, on top of a shoebox. Before bed, she showers diligently and writes in her diary, taking note of her estimated levels of internal and external radiation exposure.

The story still ends with the same words as the previous version: “I tried picturing what the bear god looked like, but it was beyond my imagination. All in all, it had been a pretty good day.”


Low-lying Tago on the Izu Peninsula is one of the coastal towns most vulnerable to a tsunami.


The Japanese archipelago stretches across four major tectonic plates, making it one of the most seismically active areas on the planet. But even in a place where earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and other hazards are commonplace, the Fukushima disaster — or 3.11, as these events have come to be known — came as a stark reminder of the tremendous capabilities of the earth to surprise, to undo previous assumptions, and to destroy and remake worlds. The 3.11 disasters claimed almost 16,000 lives, displaced over 400,000 people, and widely devastated coastal areas. Nine years later, the damaged nuclear reactors continue to release lethal levels of contaminated water into the ground, and debris and detritus from life along the Sanriku coast continue to wash up on distant shores.

For Kawakami, the problem of radiation is a reminder of a more ancient — and sacred — understanding of nature and the cosmos. The bear in these stories is extremely polite, to the extent that he seems to come from a different world or era; the narrator calls him “old-fashioned.” The title of the original story, “Kami-sama,” indicates that the bear is a sort of everyday god, a participant in the animistic spirit of folk religious traditions. In a commentary published alongside these two stories, Kawakami explains the bear’s significance in this way:

Many such gods existed in ancient Japan. There were gods who presided over all aspects of greater nature: gods of the mountains, of the ocean and the rivers, of the wind and the rain. There were gods connected to daily life as well: gods of the rice fields, of human habitations, of the hearth, the toilet and the well. Gods who punished, animal gods. There were demons too, and giants, goblins and tree spirits that ranged across Japan, from the north of the archipelago all the way down to Okinawa. It would be an exaggeration to say that I believe in all these gods from the depths of my heart; yet when I wake on a heater-less morning in these days of electricity rationing and feel the warm rays of the sun pouring through my window, my immediate reaction is, “Aah, the sun god has returned.” In that sense, I still retain the sensibility of the Japanese of old. 

Note that Kawakami does not claim that people used to believe in these gods; rather, she asserts that the gods used to exist. As scholars of Japanese religion have often pointed out, belief is not the operating logic that shapes much spiritual practice in Japan. The very idea of a religious sphere as a distinct part of life, as in Judeo-Christian traditions, is quite different from the more diffuse traditions observed in Japan. As Kawakami expresses here, whether one believes in the gods is not important; one can still be moved to reverence by the touch of the morning sun.


I grew up in close intimacy with Japan, hearing stories from my father’s childhood there and spending summers in Tokyo and in the Japanese Alps with my paternal grandparents. The rest of the time, I lived in the midwestern United States with my parents and two younger sisters. The ground in Japan, I learned, was spirited. The earth might wake you up in the middle of the night with rattling and reverberations that traveled across the floor, through your chest and stomach, and up the walls and ceiling.

Nature there was uncanny in other ways, too. When I was in my early twenties, my family took a trip to the southern island of Kyushu to see Mount Aso, one of the most active volcanoes on the planet. We smelled the volcano before we saw it: the sharp, caustic stench of boiled eggs. At the time, it was possible to go right up to the edge of Naka-dake, one of the craters within the massive caldera, and to look down. It was otherworldly: pigmented lines of red, purple, and yellow coursing through rock, then spiraling down into a bubbling, steaming lake of pale emerald.


I am in Izu, trying to teach myself geology. But it is hard enough for me to keep the names of different stones and earth processes straight in English, much less in Japanese. Kaitei kazan: submarine volcano. Chinetsu: terrestrial heat. Keiseki: silica. Koganezaki: gold coin cape, where I am standing now. I have just moved here, to the western part of Shizuoka Prefecture, and I don’t yet know how to name the landscape.

A massive rock formation that resembles the head of a horse juts out from the coastline below. The horse’s eyes are placid, the face and neck golden, with shades of darker brown and terra cotta where the rock meets the turquoise edge of Suruga Bay. Along the ridge at the top of the horse’s head, wind-tossed pine trees create the look of a short, floppy mane. Tanaka-san, my host for the day and a geologist at the Izu Peninsula Geopark in Shizuoka Prefecture, points out an area along the horse’s neck. The rock face has been carved out, revealing a section of pale, bluish-gray stone. He tells me that people use that stone in the hot spring baths nearby because it looks so beautiful set against the water. The vivid colors here were formed through volcanic activity, he explains. The intense terrestrial heat and geothermal water created the other precious mineral deposits nearby too, such as silica — the mineral used to make glass — and gold. I nod in understanding, but all I can picture is a hot mass of lava bubbling out of the sea.


Early on in my fieldwork in Shizuoka Prefecture, a friend told me about the four potential disasters that worry residents in this part of central Japan. “Earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption, and nuclear meltdown,” she stated matter-of-factly.

The first of these potential disasters is so familiar to residents of Japan that it already has a name: the To-kai earthquake. The term To-kai demarcates a densely populated area of about 160 kilometers along the Pacific coast, smack in the middle of the nation’s agricultural and industrial heartland. The occurrence of a magnitude 8-plus quake along this stretch of land and sea is considered by most earth scientists to be a certainty — a question of when, not if. This long-awaited tremor will be caused by the slippage of the Nankai Trough, a subduction zone where the Philippine Sea plate thrusts under the Eurasian plate. When these tectonic plates make their move along the ocean floor of Suruga Bay, they will most likely generate a massive tsunami. The fatalities and damages from this tsunami are likely to be far worse than any caused by the quake itself. In the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeastern region in 2011, the vast majority of deaths were from drowning. In the wake of that event, government experts were forced to reevaluate their worst-case scenario models for the To-kai earthquake, and things did not look good — the latest report estimates that there could be a tsunami of over ten meters high across six prefectures, including Shizuoka.

If and when the To-kai quake hits, people living in communities along the coastline of Suruga Bay will have less than five minutes to escape before the giant wave comes hurtling toward their homes. Tago, the small fishing village where Tanaka-san and I are headed today, is one of those places.


When we’re done with our detour to Horse Rock, Tanakasan and I head back toward the car. It’s still early morning, but we don’t want to be late for the day’s main activity, a workshop hosted by a local disaster readiness organization.

I notice that one of the steep hills flanking the parking lot is crisscrossed in concrete. This is a form of defense against landslides, another common hazard in the region. The hill reminds me of the concrete that lines the riverbeds where my father grew up, in the Suginami Ward of western Tokyo. At one time, the metropolis now known as Tokyo was rich in rivers; people traveled the city in boats, like Venice. When Japan rebuilt after World War II, waterways across the nation were paved, dammed, straightened, or otherwise altered by river engineers. Some of this engineering had already started to occur in the Tokugawa period, but these efforts were ramped up after the war, in an effort to make nature’s uncertainties more manageable. To control flooding and increase habitable land, many urban rivers were reduced to thin trickles along canals.

But when my dad was a child, growing up in Tokyo just after the war had ended, these waterways were teeming with life. We were walking by one of these barren canals in his old neighborhood recently, when my dad stopped and gestured toward one spot along the bank. Laughing, he told me that he once crashed his bicycle there and came out covered in mud.


After a short drive, Tanaka-san and I arrive at the community center where the workshop is being held. We enter a big, nondescript room, with wooden floors, beige walls, and windows with a view toward the sea. The plan for today is to help residents prepare for the tsunami by making a detailed hazard map of the town. The event is free and open to the public, and I’ve been invited to participate and observe. Most of the participants are already there, and a few of them look at me curiously, not sure where I fit in. Although I am half Japanese, I am immediately dubbed a gaijin (foreigner) — not Japanese and certainly not from around here. I find a seat to the side, as Tanaka-san busies himself with setting up the projector and talking to the other organizers.


Whether one believes in the gods is not important; one can still be moved to reverence by the touch of the morning sun.


I have only met Tanaka-san once before today, but I know that he feels strongly about disaster preparedness. This morning he kindly offered me a ride for the two-hour journey from Ito-, the bustling eastern town where the geopark is headquartered, to the more rugged and less populated western coast. As we made our way up and through the mountainous heart of the peninsula, the conversation had turned to how he became interested in geology. He told me that when he was young, he witnessed the eruption of Miharayama, an active volcano on the nearby island of Izu Oshima. For several nights, he watched from the mainland, transfixed, as fiery red lava and smoke spewed into the sky and sea. Thousands of people had to be evacuated. It was frightening, but also thrilling. After that, he felt pulled toward volcanoes, and he went on to study geology at Shizuoka University, with a focus on nearby Mount Fuji.

An eruption of Fuji was one of the four potential disasters my friend had mentioned. Although the mountain has been dormant since 1707, it is still considered an active volcano. A recent study in the journal Science suggests that the 2011 megaquake in the northeast caused shifts in the earth’s crust that might spur Fuji to erupt again. If there were a major eruption, central Japan could be covered by a devastating amount of lava, pyroclastic flows, and volcanic ash. The iconic cone, long memorialized for its graceful form in woodblock prints, paintings, poems, and photographs, would be rendered unrecognizable.

One of the main appeals of living in and visiting the areas around Mount Fuji is the pleasure of soaking in the mineral-rich onsen, or hot spring baths. But, Tanaka-san told me, most people do not connect this experience with the ever-present threat of earthquakes and volcanoes. When people are relaxing in the onsen, he wants them to think about how these geological processes are connected. His point, as I understand it, is not to ignite fear, but to insist that people grasp the full and varied powers of the earth — the blessings as well as the dangers. Today, Tanaka-san’s task is to provide an introductory lesson in earthquake mechanisms and plate tectonics for the residents of Tago. He hands out colorful topographical maps to everyone in the audience, then launches into his PowerPoint presentation. The Izu Peninsula did not always exist as part of the archipelago known today as Japan. According to geological records, about 20 million years ago, Izu began as a collection of disparate volcanic islands located under the sea, south of the main island of Honshu. Over tens of thousands of years, these submarine volcanoes erupted continuously, slowly forming landmasses that emerged from the sea. These nascent islands combined into a larger landmass, which drifted its way northwest through tectonic shifting. This mass eventually collided with the main island, about 600,000 years ago. For several hundreds of thousands of years, volcanoes continued to erupt across the peninsula. The interplay of moving flows of water and lava formed a highly variegated landscape of towering mountain chains, deep gorges, wide plateaus, lakes, rivers, and dramatic cliffs. In the present day, most of these volcanoes are quiet, though the numerous hot springs dotting the landscape of the Izu Peninsula are constant reminders of the earth’s dynamism. The slow tectonic drama continues today, as the Philippine Sea plate continues to subduct under the Eurasian plate and the land continues to shift and transform.

The western coastline, where we are today, is the oldest part of the peninsula. Buried in the white cliffs along the western coastline are the fossils of ancient sea creatures, signaling that all of this was once under the sea. Flat land is rare around here, and it’s clear from the topographical maps how human settlements have made their way into the nooks and crannies between mountains. In Tago, the densest residential areas lie very low and close to the shoreline, directly in the line of a potential tsunami. The goal today is to practice escape routes, to see if the designated evacuation sites can be reached within five minutes. Then, we will carefully walk through town, observing the environment around us for anything that might present a danger or form an obstruction.

With our maps, notebooks, pens, and cameras in hand, we set out in small groups, organized by neighborhoods. I join a group of several women who lead the way up a newly built road that curves along the side of a mountain. At the front door of one of the houses, we set the timers on our cell phones. Walking at a brisk speed, we make it to the evacuation site easily, 1.8 minutes. From the hill, we have a straight view out to the cape, where most of the other residents live. We look over the gray, red, and blue rooftops, densely packed together all the way out to the fishing dock.

As we carefully plot our paths to safety, we think of being awoken in the middle of the night by the clattering of windows and the crashing of dishes. What will it be like to run out of the house all of a sudden in our pajamas? Will there be time to put on shoes? What will we carry with us? What — or whom — will we leave behind? There is a philosophy that disaster preparedness specialists are trying to teach people in Japan: tsunami tendenko. Literally, this translates as: “Go separately.” Run to higher ground and don’t look back. Save yourself.


A sign (left) warns of the danger of tsunami. Residents of Tago (right) prepare by plotting escape routes to higher ground.


After about two hours, we reconvene at the community center. People seem energized, both by the walk and by the data. Back at our tables, we set to work. Each group spreads out a large map and crowds around, wielding colored markers. We have been given a key to follow: Dotted lines are for concrete and stone walls that could crumble. Thick lines are for mountains that might slide. Wavy lines are for roads that will become impassable. An X is for spots that are dangerous for any other reason. A heart is for buildings taller than ten meters, where people might take refuge.

Tanaka-san consolidates this information, projecting the findings as bullet points on the screen. We end the day talking about specific, concrete actions that can be taken. Many concerns will require funding and support from higher levels of government, but he encourages everyone to be proactive, to think about what they can do at the individual level. All of these findings will be shared with officials in charge of disaster management, and a new hazard map will be distributed to the community. Still, there were a lot of absences. Many older residents didn’t come, unconvinced that they should care about preparing for a disaster. Many of them say: When the wave comes, there’s no escaping. This is not the first time I’ve heard this sentiment. I recognize in it a familiar trope about Japan — that people here are resigned and complacent. But I think it’s more that they are ambivalent; they do not know how the planet might act, what they might or should do in response, how their world might look after everything changes. The notion that existence is marked by impermanence, that everything is in radical flux, is central to Buddhism. It is also familiar to students of geology. Transience applies equally to the shifting of mountains, the movements of waves, and the short lives of humans.

In the back of the room, near the racks of fold-up chairs, a large painting catches my eye. The scene depicts a father and son at the beach. In the background, the sun sets over the water, bathing the sky in deep oranges, purples, and blues. But what really stands out are the tetrapods. These interlocking concrete structures, which look like giant toy jacks, are commonly used in coastal engineering to protect against erosion and tsunamis. Tetrapods have become ubiquitous in postwar Japan; estimates suggest that more than half of the nation’s coastline has been altered by concrete.

In the painting, the son perches on one foot, with his other leg kicked out in front. The boy’s arms are outstretched, trying to keep his balance. The father, a fisherman, stands behind the child. His hands are in his pockets, his stance strong and assured. But the expression on his face seems less certain. He is deciding what to do next — whether to reach out and catch the child, or let him continue leaping.


For communities in northeastern Japan that continue the slow process of rebuilding, questions over how to best meet uncertainty persist, in debates over memorialization, land use planning, and disaster management. Despite considerable controversy among residents, when I was living in Japan, the state started building some 440 concrete seawalls along the Sanriku coastline, stretching for nearly four hundred kilometers — a massive public works project that some disdainfully refer to as “the Great Wall of Japan.” Some people would prefer to keep living near the coastline with a clear, unobstructed view of the sea, even with the risk that it entails. For others, the best way to prepare for another tsunami would be to build on higher ground, away from the sea altogether.

I spoke with a geoguide at the Izu Peninsula Geopark about this way of thinking. She was a preschool teacher, but in her spare time she loved to read about volcanoes, dinosaurs, and fossils. When I asked for her thoughts on disaster preparedness, instead of immediately turning to readiness drills or supplies of emergency goods, she spoke of the need to understand geology and the history of past disasters and land use practices, to stop building in risky areas. To her, this awareness of the earth’s unsteadiness seemed to provoke not only fear, but also curiosity, awe, and appreciation. By doing our best to be cautious and to accommodate the earth’s movements, she suggested, we might actually be better prepared for whatever may come.

At the national level, these concerns have taken a few different forms. For one, policymakers are discussing “Disaster Resilience Education,” an emerging paradigm that encourages residents to preserve histories of local disasters and get involved in activities to protect their own neighborhoods and landscapes. In recent years, several pieces of legislation have been put into place to bolster this approach. As outlined in an instructional handbook released by the Cabinet Office, the first major change, a revision to the Disaster Countermeasures Basic Act made in June 2012, “specifies an obligation to residents to hand down to younger generations the lessons of disaster resilience.” Public organizations and private companies doing disaster prevention work are required to participate in efforts to educate the public.

Another notable piece of legislation, passed in March 2013, speaks more directly to the problem of fatalism. This legislation provides guidelines for how schools can nurture a “zest for life” (ikiru chikara, literally “power to live”) in their curriculum. In sixth grade, the guidelines state, students will be encouraged to make observations of nature and to study earthquakes and volcanoes as part of a resilience mindset. The Ministry of the Environment has recently thrown its support behind a related framework, called ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction, an initiative designed to make communities less vulnerable to natural hazards. In a handbook released in 2016, the agency argues that this approach aligns with traditional modes of managing nature, such as protecting sacred groves at Shinto shrines and preserving histories of past disasters through folklore and place names. They advocate green infrastructure to mitigate against hazards, such as planting coastal forests to manage soil erosion and buffer against sand and wind; using the water in rice paddies as temporary reservoirs in times of emergency; and relying on bamboo trees along riverbanks to prevent flooding.

These approaches also emphasize the need to “connect disaster resilience with having fun.” The handbook includes a quote from a group based in Kanmaki in Nara Prefecture that recommends incorporating disaster training into festivals and other social events, like making mochi rice cakes. The idea is that residents can become better acquainted with one another while also becoming “more resilient and in tune with nature.” The hazard map-making workshop can be understood as an example of this emergent mode of readiness training; there, the main point of the exercise is for participants to walk around, relying upon their perceptions to map and appreciate anew the contours of their familiar landscape. The goal is not only to prepare for a future tsunami, but also to demonstrate how a deeper awareness of geological processes can contribute to living a more fulfilling and connected life in the present.


Izu’s precarious geology also creates precious minerals and stones, which are mined and quarried.


Back in Tokyo, I have a glimpse of what a “fun” vision of readiness looks like when I attend a disaster preparedness (bo-sai) fair. This event is set up on the grounds of a community center in the neighborhood of Sangenjaya, where I am living for a time. Although I had expected a rather dry atmosphere, with lectures on safety and booths hawking emergency goods, the feeling in the air is exuberant. Children are running around, practicing how to use fire extinguishers. Young couples sit on the ground together, learning how to perform CPR on dummies. Cute costumed characters representing the local police and fire departments wander around, waving and posing for photos. I follow a family with a toddler into a tent, which turns out to be a temporary smoke maze. Bombarded with white smoke, we are instructed to duck down and feel our way out with one hand holding a damp handkerchief to our faces.

As I make my way through the crowd, I see families lining up outside what looks like a carnival ride. Built into the side of a cheerily painted yellow semitruck, an earthquake simulator allows users to feel what it’s like to experience a 7.0 shindo quake — the highest intensity on the seismic scale used by the Japan Meteorological Agency. Riders take off their shoes and climb into a room with an overhead lamp, table, and chairs, where they are instructed to take cover under the table and protect their heads. The floor in the simulator starts to shake, the lamp above swings wildly, and adults and children alike grip the legs of the table and squeal.


Later, when I have the chance to go into one of these earthquake simulators, I find myself yelling out too. At the push of a button, the floor starts jerking us around — slowly at first, then more aggressively. We grip the railings, struggling to not fall over. “Kowai! Frightening!” we all yell out, repeatedly. But there’s something else, too — a kind of rare joy, the kind that comes from being reminded that we are always at the mercy of elemental forces.


On that trip that I took with my family to southern Japan, after visiting Mount Aso, we stopped in nearby Beppu, a town famous for its geothermal sand baths. We lay on our backs on the beach, under some umbrellas, as women piled hot black sand over our bodies. I don’t recall what ailments the volcano was supposed to heal, but I do remember the sensation of being rendered immobile. The women started at our feet, steadily making their way up to our torsos and necks, until a deep layer of sand covered everything but our heads. Pinned down by the weight, I panicked. My breathing quickened; beads of sweat pooled at my temples. But eventually I gave up on trying to escape and allowed myself to relax, to appreciate the feeling of my skin and bones being pulled back to the earth.


Toward the end of my fieldwork, I return to the western coastline of Izu. This time, I am there with my research assistant, Yuri, to conduct interviews with some of the geoguides who work and volunteer at the geopark. We meet Kanda-san at a café near Horse Rock. Over the past few years, she has become very involved with the volunteer disaster preparedness group that organized the hazard map-making workshop in Tago.

Kanda-san tells us that this area has the largest aging population in all of Shizuoka Prefecture. Over 40 percent of the population is over sixty-five years old. Many people who live here think that when a tsunami comes, there is no point in even trying to escape. It’s muri — unreasonable or ridiculous. She wants the map-making exercise to help them feel that they can find ways to survive, even if they only have a few minutes before the wave comes. Sometimes, she says, participants tell her that the workshops have changed their perspective. “Chotto hikari ga mieta— We could see the light a little bit,” they say. Later, I read an article that Kanda-san has written for a local newspaper. She writes that people also tell her, after these workshops, “Chiki wo shiru koto wa bosai wo shirukoto.” This sentence translates roughly as, “Local knowledge is disaster preparedness knowledge.” As they walk through their own towns and landscapes, residents come to realize the value of what they already know.

At the interview, Yuri and I share a plate of “geo desserts” made to mimic some of the stones and minerals found in this area. I am finally getting a little better at the names of things. We ingest green tuff (cream puff dusted with matcha powder), silica (sliver of cheesecake), and the yellow stone of Koganezaki (mango soft-serve). After polishing off the sweets and saying goodbye to Kanda-san, we walk out to Horse Rock. Evidently, the face of the rock is eroding quickly. Nothing is permanent, as I’ve learned. But for now we stand, reverent, as the sun god kisses the tops of our heads. The wind moves the pine trees, and the golden horse looks out over the gleaming bay, unmoving. O


Subscribe to Orion Ad

Emily Sekine is a writer, researcher, and editor at the journal Sapiens. She is working on a book about the cultural uncertainties surrounding seismic and volcanic processes in Japan.


  1. What a wonderful article. Incredible mixing in Japan of people and government acknowledging the reality of disasters.
    I would like to find a way to live this way to in Sydney.

Submit Your Comments

Please Note: Before submitting, copy your comment to your clipboard, be sure every required field is filled out, and only then submit.