For centuries, Japanese authors, poets, and artists have mulled over the existential instability of their island life. The essayist Kamo no Chomei (1155-1216), in the Walden-esque Account of My Hut, wrote a long consideration of disaster and the importance of responding to the world's ills through retreat and nonattachment. In one passage, he discusses the earthquake of 1185, which he saw as an opportunity for man to meditate on "the vanity and meaninglessness of the world" -- an opportunity, he wrote, that few took advantage of.
Paul Anderer, the de Bary/Class of '41 Professor of Asian Humanities at Columbia University, says that this tendency to meet catastrophe with calm meditation is typical, dating back to the "Burning House" parable in the Lotus Sutra: "The world rightly seen is a burning house, and it is that because it's a fragile world, it's made the more fragile because of human greed and avarice and desire, and a way to deal with it is to curb desire if not to suppress it entirely." Above, an image from an 1876 earthquake in a Japanese village.
"Then there was the great earthquake of 1185, of an intensity not known before. Mountains crumbled and rivers were buried, the sea tilted over and immersed the land. The earth split and water gushed up; boulders were sundered and rolled into the valleys. Boats that rowed along the shores were swept out to sea. Horses walking along the roads lost their footing. It is needless to speak of the damage throughout the capital -- not a single mansion, pagoda, or shrine was left whole. As some collapsed and others tumbled over, dust and ashes rose like voluminous smoke. The rumble of the earth shaking and the houses crashing was exactly like that of thunder. Those who were in their houses, fearing that they would presently be crushed to death, ran outside, only to meet with a new cracking of the earth. They could not soar into the sky, not having wings. They could not climb into the clouds, not being dragons. Of all the frightening things of the world, none is so frightful as an earthquake." &mdash Chomei, Account of My Hut