Quake Aftermath Highlights Japan's Tug-of-War Between Nature and Technology

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Athit Perawongmetha / Getty Images

A small shrine stands in one of the areas destroyed by the tsunami in Sendai, Japan

Flying to Niigata, a northern Japanese city a few hours' drive from the earthquake zone, I opened the All Nippon Airways in-flight magazine and read an article in Japanese. It was a multipage ode to the rakkyo, a Japanese shallot that is usually eaten pickled. The story detailed the laborious planting, harvesting, cleaning and pickling that the little onions go through. My grandmother used to pickle her own rakkyo, and I thought back to the red plastic bucket full of brine and pungent bulbs that she kept under her sink. It also occurred to me that for non-Japanese an entire article in a major in-flight magazine on pickled alliums might seem very strange.

In Japan, though, food is fetishized. The obsession has to do, in part, with Japan's traditional reverence toward nature — an attitude that has survived the nation's other, better-known fixation: technology. Many Japanese surnames are made up of landscape-based characters, like mori (forest), yama (mountain), ishi (stone) and matsu (pine). The national religion, Shinto, is based on nature worship. The earth's bounty in the form of food is duly revered too. In that context, a loving article on the life and times of the rakkyo makes perfect sense.

As Japan marks the first month after the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the country's struggle between its technological heart and natural soul continues. Brave workers are racing to limit the dangers from the radiation-spewing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was damaged by the natural disaster. Farmers near the radiation zone have been forced to dump tainted milk and produce. And fishermen can no longer depend on the ocean's generosity since their boats were smashed into splinters. Japan faces a long recovery process from nature's temper tantrum, yet the nation is also depending on the grace of the natural world to help it renew spiritually. Even as villagers stared out at an ocean of detritus littered by the tsunami, cherry blossoms, the harbinger of spring, bloomed. My mother in Tokyo, recalling the pale flowers, sighed: "Even when things are so bad, the sakura are so beautiful, aren't they?"

Yet anyone who has been to Japan recently knows there isn't that much nature left anymore. Japan today is a country of unbelievable ugliness punctuated by astonishing beauty. A few decades ago, it was the other way around. The geological instability that has caused so much tumult over the past few weeks also thrust up an island chain of uncommon loveliness: mossy mountains, pine-covered cliffs, cold and clear streams.

Now, though, Japan is swathed in concrete. Riverbeds are paved and mountain faces are encased in man-made materials, while massive pylons stalk the coast. Part of the fixation is due to a doomed, recessionary attempt to stimulate the economy through construction projects. Another part is an understandable urge to gird the nation against the vagaries of earthquakes, landslides, typhoons and other natural calamities. Hence all the seawalls and landslide barriers. Safety trumps splendor.

Tohoku, the region of Japan that was devastated most by the earthquake, was one of the few places that still looked like the Japan of yesteryear: little houses and fishing boats crowding coves like scenes out of woodblock prints. But even there, in places where Tokyo residents would go to rediscover nature, seawalls often obscured views of the ocean. Beyond the charming holiday veneer, some of these coastal towns were just the usual blur of convenience stores, pachinko parlors and 100-yen shops.

Rural Japan, the place of myth where farmers lovingly plucked rakkyo out of the soil or massaged beer-fed cattle, was dying even before the tsunami swept many of these villages into oblivion. Growing vegetables in modern Japan was not an easy life, which explains why some Tohoku residents eagerly jumped at the opportunity to profit from putting nuclear power plants amid their paddy fields. That uneasy balancing of technology and nature has been thrown into even sharper relief by the events of March 11: twin natural disasters that triggered a thoroughly modern, radiation-tinged crisis.

Nevertheless, the Japanese spin on a Thoreau idyll lives on, whether in the minds of harried Tokyo residents or foreigners taken with haiku about ponds and frogs and water. (Of course, agricultural subsidies have helped maintain the myth, too, giving an unnatural lease of life to small, family-based farms.) In a country where technology has timed to the millisecond everything from train arrivals to toilet flushes, the unpredictability of nature, with its mercurial seasons or weather patterns, can seem like a reprieve. And even if it is not always welcomed, nature will still inflict itself on a country that has tried in vain to rise above it.