Speaker, Author and Professor
of Ethics, Intercultural Ethics,
Medical Ethics & Asian Philosophy

Japan’s March 2011 Disaster and Moral Grit: Our Inescapable In-between

Rowman & Littlefield Publishing, 2015

Cover Designer

Bill Borman

Back Cover

Japan’s March 11, 2011 triple horror of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown is its worst catastrophe since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Recovery remains an ongoing ordeal. This book uncovers the pivotal role of longstanding cultural worldviews and their impact on responses to this gut-wrenching disaster. Through unpacking the pivotal notion in Japanese ethics of aidagara, or “in-betweenness,” it offers testament to a deep-rooted sense of community. Accounts from survivors, victims’ families, key city officials, and volunteers reveal a remarkable fiber of moral grit and resilience that sustains Japan’s common struggle to rally and carve a future with promise and hope.

Calamities snatch us out of the mundane and throw us into the intensity of the moment. They challenge our moral fiber. Trauma, individual and collective, is the uninvited litmus test of character, personal and social. Ultimately, whether a society rightfully recovers from disaster has to do with its degree of connectedness, the embodied physical, interpersonal, face-to-face engagement we have with each other. As these stories bring to light, along with Michael Brannigan’s extensive research, personal encounters with survivors, and experience as a volunteer in Japan’s stricken areas, our degree of connectedness determines how we in the long run weather the storm, whether the storm is natural, technological, or human. Ultimately, it illustrates that how we respond to and recover after the storm hinges upon how we are with each other before the storm.

Excerpt From Chapter One

Nature has its unforgiving way of reminding us that we are inescapably in-between, situated within time and place. On Friday, March 11, at 2:46 p.m., a Goliath-like trembling, later measured at a magnitude 9 earthquake, erupted seventy kilometers, 43.5 miles, off Japan’s northeast Sanriku coast. There, the earth snapped at a sea-depth of eighteen miles. The underlying tectonic plates’ shift violently lifted the seafloor upward, generating enormous tremors that cracked and rattled the earth throughout a good portion of the large northeast region of Tohoku and along the Sanriku coastline. Japan’s Pacific coastline dropped 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) and moved Honshu, Japan’s principal island, eastward by 5.3 meters, or 8 feet. Japan is now one parking space closer to our West Coast.


“This intensely moving account not only teaches us invaluable lessons regarding our societal ability to respond to disaster but, in providing extraordinary insights into the meaning of vulnerability and suffering, it also demonstrates the absolute necessity of cultivating interpersonal  face-to-face connectedness and community in order to heal—a lesson that is particularly important in our individualistic, technology-saturated, digital culture.”

S. Kay Toombs, Baylor University and author of The Meaning of Illness

“With this engaging book, Michael C. Brannigan keeps a promise he made to his late Japanese mother—to learn more about the disasters of 3/11 and to share this with others. Brannigan effortlessly interweaves stories from the people he meets with his own rich knowledge of literature, legends, history, and philosophy to develop a philosophy of humans’ relation with nature. This book is not always optimistic, but always reveals Brannigan’s warmth and genuine concern for the people he encounters.”

Brigitte Steger, University of Cambridge

“In this pioneering work Brannigan opens wide the doors on a previously understudied subject in the humanities and social sciences—disaster, trauma, and recovery.   In this compelling and highly personal account, Brannigan, a volunteer in Japan’s relief and recovery efforts, writes about Japan’s unthinkable triple disaster– earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown of March 2011. He brings to this triple calamity a journalist’s eye for detail and the richness of personal testimony and interview. Yet the book is also intensely rich in ethics, philosophy, and social thought, for in Brannigan’s hands the triple disaster becomes a lens and frame for the interrogation of deep and inexorably intertwined layers of reality and awareness. Here we encounter the real dimensions of human suffering in Japan as a nation—once the model for rule-oriented social cohesiveness—and now increasingly adrift. Japan’s socio-cultural plight is the occasion for deep reflection about our “human in-betweeness”: What is the reality of our connectedness with the Earth and with each other, and can these unions sustain our need for meaning in the face of how our own precariousness? Addressing these issues with expertise in Western philosophy, Eastern thought, and Japanese culture, Brannigan demonstrates the importance of “moral grit” and with revealing comments about his own struggle to forge harmony between his Japanese and Irish-American heritages. A rich and rewarding read for anyone interested in ethics and philosophy, this book is a must for all concerned with disaster preparedness and response, victimhood, grief management, mental health, medical ethics, and public policy, as well as Japanese and cultural studies.”

Robert Paul Churchill, Elton Professor of Philosophy at the George Washington University