The End of Japan’s Sense of Security


Successive catastrophes in 1995 shocked Japan as the deadliest earthquake in decades was followed by unprecedented sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. Media sociologist Takeda Tōru examines how Japan has lost the sense of security it had during its growth years and suggests the way forward is to consciously build a new system of trust.

A Loss of Societal Trust

It has been 20 years since the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake hit on January 17, 1995, causing the deaths of 6,343 people in the Kansai area of western Japan. Two months later, on March 20, members of the Aum Shinrikyō cult released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 13 people and injuring more than 6,000. These successive catastrophes led to a collapse of trust in Japanese society.

Here I am following the sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s definition of “trust” as a mechanism for reducing complexity. For example, in a medieval village, everyone villagers might meet would be known to them since childhood, they would be able to grasp what the other was thinking, and nearly all responses would be predecided to the point of habit. However, in a modern, urban society, there are more opportunities to encounter those who are fundamentally different, and the diversification of value systems may make it impossible to know another person’s thoughts. If we go so far as to ask what another’s views are, there is no guarantee that the question will be understood, and even if a reply comes in the same language, there is no way of judging if the words are being used with the same meaning. With nothing to hang on to, continuing to guess what the other is thinking only leads to an infinite widening of possibilities—and, ultimately, no conclusions.

Amid the extreme complexity of contemporary society, overflowing with possibilities, trust becomes essential. Through a belief that others essentially think in the same way, we are able to choose how to act. In this way, trust is a means of making action possible in a world of high contingency.

The two catastrophes of 1995 destroyed this trust. At a time when the calamitous Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 had become a distant memory, the earthquake that struck Kobe and its surrounding area was a sharp reminder that the ground might shake violently underfoot and devastate the peace of urban life. Then the Aum attack brought the message that apparently ordinary fellow travelers on public transport could in fact be fanatical killers, wiping out trust in what were thought to be predictable daily routines.

Lost Souls in Search of Security

The long recession that followed the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble at the start of the 1990s was called the “lost decade,” but I personally believe the loss of trust had a deeper impact on Japanese society, going beyond the economic realm. At a time when the Japanese could no longer maintain the simple belief in progress, that “tomorrow will be better than today,” which had sustained the period of high growth, they found that they no longer knew what would happen in the future. This prompted them to turn away from outward acts, like the consumption that had previously buoyed the economy, and toward a more inward-looking stance, withdrawing into their shells for self-protection.

Perhaps I need to give a slightly more detailed analysis of the collapse in trust experienced by Japanese society. In Yamagishi Toshio’s Anshin shakai kara shinrai shakai e (From a Security-Based to a Trust-Based Society), for example, he distinguishes between “security” as a mental state oblivious to complexity and “trust” as the intentional reduction of complexity, predicated on uncertainty. Earlier, I gave the example of a medieval village. As postwar Japan steadily modernized, it maintained a similarly strong overall homogeneity in which uncertainty was forgotten amid the illusion that everyone was the same. That was a “security-based society.” But as successive disasters forced the country into an awareness of the complexity of society, this security was lost.

To be precise, security started to disappear even before the shocks of 1995. In Ōmu: Naze shūkyō wa terorizumu o unda no ka (Aum: Why Religion Gave Rise to Terrorism), the religious scholar Shimada Hiromi finds the cause for the rise of the Aum cult in the gradual disintegration of community in postwar Japan. This process obliged people to come face to face with a complex and real society; those who could not bear the burden needed to find some kind of deliverance. These lost souls were drawn to Aum Shinrikyō, he writes. Straying believers in search of security found the doctrine of Aum, which offered that security. To protect their doctrine and shared security they carried out their attacks. By doing so, these believers, so sensitive to the loss of security, destroyed the security of wider society.

The Difference Between Subway and Charlie Hebdo Attacks

The recent attack in Paris on the newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which published cartoons satirizing Islam, saw 12 people including the editor-in-chief lose their lives. While this was also the act of religious fundamentalists, it was of an entirely different nature from the Aum attack. Amid an outpouring of commentary in the media by Islamic specialists regarding the shootings, a Facebook post by University of Tokyo Associate Professor Ikeuchi Satoshi left a strong impression.

On hearing the opinion that terrorism happens because of anti-Islamic prejudice in the West, Ikeuchi remembered something his father Ikeuchi Osamu, a German literary scholar, had told him when he was a teenager. “‘Japan doesn’t have parks as beautiful as this. Europe really is amazing,’ one thinks at first. However, walk in the park every day and the same old lady is sitting on the same bench. The same old man always sits on another bench. Everybody is alone. Everybody is alone and comes to the same park at the same time every day, so they should talk to each other and sit on the same bench, but they don’t. They all sit on different benches and don’t even make eye contact. They don’t even seem to acknowledge each other’s existence.”

Solitude is the keynote for modern Western civilization. Each member of an individualistic society must face the fact that people are born alone and, even if they have their own family, they will ultimately die alone. Benches in European parks are for those people, Ikeuchi explains. Parks are large and beautiful to ease their solitude, if only a little.

The isolation within Western civilization is based on the assumption of the existence of other people incompatible with oneself. Westerners are not oblivious to the uncertainty others bring. For this very reason, some choose to be alone to avoid the risks of association and some are actively prejudiced and work to exclude; conversely, some make efforts to live harmoniously with others. In all cases, these are intentional actions aimed at building trust through the reduction of complexity.

The Paris attack was a response to this kind of action. Even a radical version of freedom of speech that includes blunt religious satire is surely a platform for working toward coexistence. Through the process of exchanging arguments, the uncertainty represented by others comes into clearer focus, bringing the chance for conciliation.

However, the gradual reformism achieved through this kind of speech brought, in the current case, gunfire and tragedy rather than counterargument. At a time when commentators anticipate a range of responses, the gradual reformism of the West—based on a society in which freedom of speech is considered essential and the existence of “others” is taken as a fundamental fact—faces a crucial turning point in how it works to recover a sense of safety and overcome the current state of affairs.

By contrast, the 1995 Tokyo subway attack arose from a security-based culture, Aum Shinrikyō, which denied the existence of others. And by destroying the image of security in Japan’s society, it succeeded only in increasing the hunger of that society for a more secure form of community.

The Internet’s Double-Edged Sword

The launch of Windows 95 in the same year allowed anyone to get connected to the Internet. This has become a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a platform for disclosure of previously inaccessible information from governments and corporations. In the sense that this transparency reduces uncertainty, it can increase social trust.

However, Japan’s receptiveness to the Internet eventually took a different path, one that became clear after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. A flood of information escaped the control of major corporations like TEPCO, the government, and the media. As soon as exaggerated warnings of the extent of radiation exposure and details purporting to expose government coverups appeared, they were shared widely and uncritically, with such comments as “I told you it was dangerous,” and “The government really was lying all along!”

Sharing information that showed the danger of radiation exposure and the corruption of government and big business was a curiously skewed psychological approach for those seeking security within like-minded groups. Within these groups, security was prioritized over attempting to discover the truth. This tendency led to the inconsistency of kizuna, meaning the “bonds” or “ties” between the people of Fukushima Prefecture and the rest of Japan, becoming a buzzword following the 2011 disaster, at the same time that anti-Fukushima prejudice lacking in scientific foundation was rampant, including claims that the area was no longer fit for human habitation and that its crops were deadly.

As these divisions show, secure communities do not extend to the whole of society. It is inescapable that the more people seek their own security, the more they seek to exclude and harm others. Japan should not, therefore, try to return to some unrealizable utopia of a secure society. Shimada concluded his above-mentioned book in the following way.

“It is true that solitude is hard and painful. However, we have escaped many bonds over a long history to attain it for the first time. . . . As we bear with and enjoy that solitude, we must use our own minds to think about what lies ahead.

It is worth listening closely to these words, two decades after the Aum Shinrikyō attack. As the Paris shootings have demonstrated, it is certainly not a smooth path to live alongside others. But we must walk that path without hoping for unattainable safety and security and try to build a system of trust with our own hands.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on January 16, 2015. Banner photo: Collapsed section of the Hanshin Expressway in Kobe following the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake on January 17, 1995. © Jiji.)

Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Kobe earthquake religion Aum Shinrikyō