Hideo Furukawa, one of Japan’s most celebrated authors, has said that “Literature is part of a country’s history.” Yet in writing this history, how far can a writer trust the evidence of their eyes? In this provocative essay, Furukawa reminds us that everything can be looked at in more than one way, and what we think we see might not be the full picture.
Literature as a Third Eye
by Hideo Furukawa
translated from the Japanese by David Boyd
Typically, an adult’s eyes are about six centimeters apart. Whatever the exact distance, though, the right and left eyes see things from different places.
My point is, as far as sight is concerned, we’ve never lived in “one world.”
The same goes for sound.
The left ear opens about 180 degrees to the left. The right ear, 180 degrees to the right. Meaning that what one ear hears is basically nothing like what the other ear hears. But we take those two different worlds of sound and make them into one. In our brains, I mean. Still, it all starts with two worlds.
The only difference between our eyes and ears is that we can shut our eyes whenever we want. I mean, we can choose to stop seeing — just by using our eyelids. Beyond that, we can even shut one eye and leave the other one open. When it comes to hearing, though, the only way to keep the sound out is to cover our ears with our hands.
Okay, now let’s go back to the eyes.
There’s the world the right eye sees.
And the world the left eye sees.
From slightly different angles, these eyes present the world as two different worlds.
This is what we call parallax.
Why do we see like this? What does it do? Well, it gives our world depth. Having two eyes prevents us from simplifying things, from seeing everything around us two-dimensionally.
I guess you could say that seeing through two eyes is what makes us human.
This is what we have in common. This is our “one world.” Our two eyes. Parallax. In a way, it limits us. In another way, though, it’s a great fortune — a blessing.
But sometimes we forget about our good fortune.
Sometimes we forget that we’re seeing through two eyes. We convince ourselves that it’s been one world all along.
Okay, I’ll stop being so abstract. Let me give you a concrete example of how seeing through two eyes is a blessing. I was born in Japan, in a place called Fukushima. Maybe you’ve heard of it. In 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake ravaged Japan. Fukushima was among the hardest-hit places. But the quake was just the beginning. After that, after the collapsed buildings and landslides, came even more disaster. The earthquake caused a tsunami, and the tsunami caused a meltdown at a nuclear reactor in Fukushima. I won’t go into detail here, but — in the wake of those disasters — the company that ran that power plant was sharply criticized.
There were massive protests. People wanted TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, to take responsibility.
I was invited to a number of protests and asked to sign petitions.
I said “no.” Politely, of course. But I didn’t take part.
I want you to imagine a kid. This kid lives in Fukushima, not far from the Pacific Ocean, with the rest of his family. Then, one day, the quake hits. The kid’s house is destroyed, but he manages to make it out. Outside, he hears the warnings — there’s a tsunami coming. A lot of people hear the warnings. Still, no one imagines that the tsunami on its way to the coast will be more than ten meters high. Things like that don’t happen. Thirty minutes after the quake, when the tsunami hits, the kid’s all right, but a lot of his friends and family are swept away. No one saw that tsunami coming, including the people at the power plant. When the tsunami hits, damage to the reactor causes a meltdown, sending radioactive material into the air.
Like I said, the kid finds his way to high ground. Some of his loved ones, though, don’t make it.
And his house is gone.
Beyond that, because of the meltdown, the government gives orders to evacuate the area. All residents are forced to leave home, ASAP.
So the kid goes someplace safe, somewhere uncontaminated.
Where the kid ends up, everyone’s furious. They’re mad at TEPCO. TEPCO did this, they say. Their corporate culture did this, they say. This was a man-made disaster, they say. Everyone wants to see TEPCO go down, and the most extreme people are shouting things like DIE, TEPCO! DIE!
Anyway, back to the kid. I haven’t told you anything about his dad yet. He works in energy. Nuclear energy. It’s a big business back home, after all. Yeah, he works with TEPCO.
The kid’s dad is fine — thankfully — but he’s still at work, at the plant in Fukushima, doing everything he can to get the reactor under some kind of control (all the while being exposed to massive amounts of radiation).
Elsewhere, what’s his son hearing? That TEPCO’s evil. The plant’s evil and everyone who works there is evil.
Those people tell the boy, “Poor Fukushima! Poor you!”
But those same people shout, “Nuclear power is evil! TEPCO is pure evil!” Then they whisper to one another, “Everyone from Fukushima’s contaminated… I’m not sure I want them getting too close, really.”
This is what I want you to see: Japan. Spring, 2011. Through two different eyes.
You look through your right eye and TEPCO is pure evil.
You look through your left eye and the TEPCO-run plant is a workplace for lots of locals. A place that supports Fukushima families. A place that, for some, is kind of like home.
Remember — we’ve got two eyes. Obviously, a world in which TEPCO appears as pure evil is a world without depth. But it really doesn’t matter which eye you’re using — right or left: looking through one eye is looking through one eye. When someone’s relying on just one eye like that, what’s the best way to remind them that they’ve got another eye?
For me, words can do that. Or, you know, the many forms of expression that can call images to mind — literature, music, art.
I’d like to say a little more. It has to do with religion in Japan. What do Japanese people believe? Well, a couple of different things. We’ve got Shintoism. And we’ve got Buddhism. Shintoism is a pretty primitive way of thinking. It tells us that gods reside in almost everything in the world. The word “god,” by the way, is just another name for something that exists beyond the power of men. Take thunder, for example. We can’t control thunder. Or at least there was a time when we couldn’t. Maybe we can generate thunderbolts now, but we couldn’t before — not even a hundred years ago. In Shintoism, that makes thunder a god. Maybe like Thor in Norse mythology.
But, in Shintoism, it isn’t just thunder. The rivers and mountains are gods, too. They’re all gods. Meanwhile, Buddhism — coming from India, by way of China — teaches us that the Buddha nature resides in pretty much all things. What it takes to become a Buddha can be found in those same rivers and mountains. A tree can become a Buddha and so can a blade of grass. Well, that’s how Buddhism has come to be understood in Japan, at least.
Thousands of gods, millions of Buddhas. That’s how Japan (or, you know, Japanese culture) has been for ages. Somewhere along the way, the gods and Buddhas got mixed up — and Japan ended up where it is now, where no one really knows what they believe any more.
So — what’s the big difference between gods and Buddhas? Putting it extremely simply, Buddhas make it a point to save those who have lost their way. Gods, though, are just as likely to punish the lost. With thunderbolts. Or earthquakes. Or tsunamis. These disasters are the work of gods.
Earthquakes kill. They kill the innocent. They kill without discretion.
The tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 ended many lives. Cruelly.
That being the case, the gods responsible are evil. And if evil is beyond the power of men, then evil itself has to be a god.
For me, this is what seeing through two eyes means.
What happened was obviously a tragedy — caused by evil. But that evil is also a god.
We have two eyes and we see two worlds. That which is evil in one world isn’t necessarily evil in the other. That has to make sense. It makes sense to me.
I don’t believe in an all-powerful God, though, so maybe what I’m saying sounds totally absurd to somebody who does. But, for me, terrorism — now spreading across the whole globe — seems to start with people (not you, or maybe, yes you) losing track of the fact that this world of ours has always really been multiple worlds.
In my eyes, the rivers are gods. And Buddhas. The mountains are gods and Buddhas.
For me, everyone is a god and a Buddha.
You might think something’s wrong with my eyes for seeing you in this divine light. Well, if it helps, just think of it as a third eye — something beyond the right eye and the left eye, another way of seeing. Really, I think that’s what quality literature is supposed to be.
A third eye.