Saga over using firewood from tsunami-hit area in Kyoto bonfire shows cultural gap
When I was living in Kyoto as a student decades ago, I often climbed Mount Daimonji, one of the sites for Gozan no Okuribi, a traditional bonfire festival in this ancient capital.
It is hard labor, but a significant event to bring a large quantity of firewood up to the mountain and set it alight in the shape of the kanji character, "dai" ("big").
When I heard that firewood from a pine tree from the tsunami-hit city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture would be used for the bonfire I was impressed as it is a good ceremony to express condolences to disaster victims. 今年は岩手県陸前高田市の松を燃やすと聞いた時は、鎮魂の儀式としていい考えだと感心した。
Gozan no Okuribi is a ceremony to send off the spirits of the dead, who Buddhists believe come home to stay with their relatives during the Obon holiday period in mid-August before returning to heaven.
However, the plan was cancelled after the organizer of the event as well as the local government wavered over whether to go ahead with it due to radiation concerns.
In the end, small amounts of radioactive cesium were detected in the surface of the firewood, and the organizer and the local government had no choice but to bow to some local residents' arguments that burning Rikuzentakata firewood could spread radiation in the city and that it could taint water in Lake Biwa, which is used for drinking.
It is highly questionable whether such criticism has any scientific basis, but Gozan no Okuribi is a religious festival.
Scraping the surface of the firewood to remove cesium would never convince local residents who long for "pure" fire.
It is difficult to coordinate views between the festival organizer and worried local residents.
Takeo Kuwahara, a French literature expert who lived in Kyoto for many years, wrote in his book, "Gakumon no Sekai" ("The World of Academics") that Kyoto residents are often described as "wicked," "individualistic," "cold" and "calm," just like the French.
But let's put aside comparisons between Kyoto residents and French people now.
Some people have criticized the Kyoto Municipal Government and the organizer as being "narrow minded" over the latest case, while others have appreciated their decision as "calm judgment not being overwhelmed by emotion."
Others may call the decision a typical response by Kyoto.
Personally, I think the decision is regrettable because I wonder whether they should have been so afraid of such small levels of radiation.
At the same time, however, I have no intention of making light of the ancient capital's sensitiveness and culture.
As a former resident, I have the impression that Kyoto, which is situated in a basin, forms a unique space both topographically and culturally, and that various things -- both tangible and intangible and good and evil -- gather and accumulate there, just like a satellite dish facing the sky.
Therefore, careful behind-the-scenes efforts to persuade relevant parties to accept the burning of Rikuzentakata firewood in the festival should have been made in advance.
But rather than blame the relevant parties, I would like to think the latest case has called into question how the entire nation should wisely handle radiation.
I prayed to the Kyoto bonfire on Aug. 16 that firewood from quake- and tsunami-hit areas can be burned in the Gozan no Okuribi festival next year and that the ongoing nuclear crisis, which continues to release radiation into the air, will be settled at an early date.
(By Hiroshi Fuse, Expert Senior Writer)
毎日新聞 2011年8月18日 東京朝刊