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A year after Fukushima: Reactions of Japanese writers to the triple catastrophe 

Lisette Gebhardt (Japanese Studies, University of Frankfurt)

Work in Progress / Version of 24 February 2012


“Can you see Japan?”


“It must have sunk. Can’t you even see a wisp of smoke?”

“I can’t see anything at all...”

Komatsu Sakyô (1931-2011): Japan Sinks (Nippon chinbotsu), 1973


Twitter, newspaper articles, magazine essays and books: Writers speak out

Immediately after the events at Fukushima on 11 March 2011 writers began to discuss the situation in Japan. The first pieces of news that Japanese authors sent out to the world came from Tawada Yôko (Der Tagesspiegel, 14 March), Saeki Kazumi (The New York Times, 15 March), Murakami Ryû (The New York Times, 16 March) and Ôe Kenzaburô (Le Monde, 17 March). Soon after, it was Yoshimoto Banana (Der Spiegel, 18 March) and Kuroda Akira (FAZ, from 16 March) who spoke out, followed by Murakami Haruki (award acceptance speech in Barcelona, 9 June) and Takahashi Gen’ichirô (The Asahi Shinbun, 12 August 2011).
    For the past several months now Japanese intellectuals have turned their minds to the Great East Japan Earthquake (Higashi Nihon daishinsai) and its consequences. Numerous statements have been published, reflecting personal experiences of the tremor, which had a magnitude of 9.0, the tsunami and the nuclear disaster on the coast of Fukushima. Some are by authors who live nearby in the northeast, for instance Saeki Kazumi (*1959), Gen’yû Sôkyû (*1956) and Wagô Ryôichi (*1968); some are by writers such as Furukawa Hideo (*1966) who were born in the region; and others by writers who wish to make a clear statement of sympathy and commitment. Yû Miri (*1968) for example is planning to move to Fukushima to be able to report at close range. Writers like Yû who had arranged reading tours abroad prior to the events (Yû visited Germany in mid-May 2011) used these occasions to discuss the current situation in Japan. On 12 September several Japanese authors spoke to a Canadian audience at York University in Toronto about their experiences. This group included Furukawa Hideo and Kawakami Hiromi (*1958) as well as the translator Shibata Motoyuki (*1954) and the haiku poet Ozawa Minoru (*1956).
    Wagô Ryôchi, the lyrical poet, was probably the first to use a poetic form for his observations on what had happened. From 16 March onwards he published forty poems on Twitter under the heading Shi no tsubute (Pebbles of Poetry), which were later printed in well-known papers such as Asahi Shinbun and which are available in English in the online poetry magazine Arabiki.
    As early as July 2011 several long essays were published as monographs which explore Fukushima, the earthquake, the tsunami and the threat of radioactive contamination: Datsugenpatsu-shakai wo tsukuru 30nin no teigen (Thirty arguments for a nuclear-free society), written jointly by Ikezawa Natsuki (*1945), the musician Sakamoto Ryûichi (*1952) and others. September saw the publication of Taguchi Randy’s (*1959) Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukushima: Genshiryoku wo ukeireta Nihon (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukushima. Japan and nuclear power) and Ikezawa’s Haru wo urandari wa shinai: Shinsai wo megutte kangaeta koto (I won’t take umbrage at Spring: Thoughts on the occasion of the earthquake disaster). In December the slim volume Fukushima ni ikiru (Living in Fukushima) by Gen’yû Sôkyû was published by Futabasha.
    From April 2011 the literary magazines also focused on the triple catastrophe. En-taxi, a magazine that is published by Fusôsha (part of the media consortium Fujisankei Communications Group / Fuji Sankei Gurûpu) and now appears three times a year, gave its spring edition no. 32 of 26 April the title Kinkyû-tokushû higashi Nihon daishinsai (Special edition on the Great Earthquake in East Japan). It contains reports on Fukushima, among them extracts from an earthquake diary by Saeki Kazumi and notes by Maeno Kumiko (*1969), an antiquarian and owner of a literary café in Sendai. In addition this issue has thirty-five brief commentaries by various members of the literary community under the heading Sakka-tachi no ‘ano toki’ to ‘ima, omou koto’ (What the authors experienced ‘at that moment’ and ‘what they think now’). Also, there are pieces that for the first time approach the event of the earthquake in fictional form. Koike Masayo (*1959), poet, critic and author of short stories and novels, is present with a text that is part of a serialized novel (rensaku shôsetsu) which, as so often in Koike’s works, is about a music lover who, in this case, leaves her past behind and in view of the nuclear threat turns her back on metropolitan Tôkyô.
    In September the periodical Bungei Shunjû (published by Bungeishunjû) printed the short story Mata tsugi no haru e – omajinai (Again until next spring – a spell) by Shigematsu Kiyoshi (*1963). The author describes from the point of view of her protagonist the city of her childhood that was swallowed up by the tsunami and her immediate impressions of the scene. From September 2011, half a year after the earthquake, publishers one after another launched special issues about Fukushima. The September edition of the journal Waseda Bungaku poses the question of what literature can do in times of catastrophe. There is a dialogue between Furukawa Hideo und Shigematsu Kiyoshi and a comprehensive panel discussion including Abe Kazushige (*1968), Kawakami Mieko (*1976) and the translator David Karashima (*1979) as well as the journalist Ichikawa Makoto (*1971). Furukawa, Shigematsu, Abe, Kawakami, Matsuda Akiko (*1979) and Makita Mayuko (*1980) contribute short prose pieces.
    In its May issue, Gunzô (a periodical for literature and criticism published by Kôdansha) has three specially commissioned features on the catastrophe, an interview with the literary critics Tomioka Kôichirô (*1957) and Yamashiro Mutsumi (*1960), and brief articles by Akasaka Norio (*1953) und Takahashi Katsuhiko (*1947), who calls his piece simply Higashi Nihon daishinsai. The June issue includes Kawakami Hiromi’s short story Kamisama, adapted to the Fukushima events (this story was also discussed in Toronto); while in December, Gunzô publishes Takahashi’s satirical novel Koi suru genpatsu (The nuclear power station in love) for the first time. The issue of January 2012 prints Ôe Kenzaburôs ‘last novel’, in which under the title Bannen yôshiki shû / In Late Style the doyen of nuclear critics describes the kind of family scenario that is so typical of him, combined with scenes from a village in the woods of Shikoku about which he has written before. Built into the narrative episodes are references to the recent disaster, for example when the protagonist says that “ever since March 11 I have spent day and night in front of the TV, mesmerized by the continuous images of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear mega-disaster.” The central character contemplates protecting his son Akari from radiation by taking him to a cave in his native Shikoku where the water rises from deep below and is not yet contaminated (Ôe 2012: 10). By thus introducing such glimpses of the present, Ôe turns the apocalyptic scenario with which his readers have been familiar for years into uncanny immediate reality.
    A collection of short prose narratives published in a special edition of the journal Shôsetsu Shinchô (Shinchôsha Publishing Co.) on 11 September also approaches the topic by fictional means. The seven authors of this issue were all witnesses of  the  Great East Japan Earthquake or the Great Hanshin Earthquake (Hanshin Awaji daishinsai): Tsutsui Yasutaka (*1934), Takahashi Katsuhiko (*1947), Arikawa Hiro (*1972), Kondo Fumie (*1969), Sena Hideaki (*1968), Mayama Jin (*1962) und Gen’yû Sôkyû with his short story Koorogi (The cricket); the latter two and Takahashi Katsuhiko write about the East Japan Earthquake. At the end of February 2012 Kôdansha Ltd. publishes a collection of essays, poems and fictional prose under the title Soredemo sangatsu wa, mata (And yet March is again).
    First examples of longer prose works are Furukawa Hideo’s novel Umatachi yo, soredemo hikari wa muku de (Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure), which was published by Shinchôsha on 29 July 2011, and Takahashi Gen’ichirô’s (*1951) Koi suru genpatsu (The nuclear power station in love) which, as has been said before, was first published in the journal Gunzô and then on 17 November 2011 as a book in a garishly yellow dust jacket. On 23 November Yoshimoto Banana’s Suito hiaafutâ (Sweet Hereafter) was published by Gentôsha, another piece of literature after Fukushima, which journalists tend to refer to as shinsai bungaku (earthquake literature). In February 2012 Sotooka Hidetoshi (*1953), the editor-in-chief of Asahi Shinbun, published an anthology of literary assessments of Japan’s situation as the country of earthquakes and nuclear power: Shinsai to genpatsu kokka no ayamachi – bungaku de yomitoku 「3•11」(The Earthquake and the nuclear state’s mistakes – literary insights into ‘3/11’). This book collects together literature of disaster by several writers such as Camus, Kafka, Steinbeck and Ibuse Masuji (1898-1993), the author of the Hiroshima novel Black Rain (Kuroi ame). Like the overview of literary renditions of disasters which was printed in Waseda Bungaku, 4/2011, Sotooka’s book is an attempt to discover what lessons can be learned from literature and to compare authentic impressions from the scene with literary representations.

Messages to the world

Saeki Kazumi, a writer from Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, is as yet not well known in the West. His article “In Japan, No Time Yet for Grief“, which was translated for the New York Times of 15 March, describes how he lived through the earthquake and offers the English speaking world a first assessment of the event. In doing so Saeki raises topics which continue to be central in subsequent reports. For a start he rejects the Japanese cliché, repeated by some of his colleagues,  according to which the people of the North in particular always remain unperturbed and restrained in the face of horrific events. “In the maelstrom of an unimaginable disaster there was no time to feel grief, anguish and rage” (Saeki 2011). He thus rebuts early on a view which was to become a stereotype throughout Japan as well as in much of the international press. Nor does he hesitate to address head-on the matter of the stricken nuclear power plant and to challenge the fatal technological choice for which a high price had now to be paid. In Le Monde Ôe Kenzaburô (*1935) remarks that Japan has suffered another nuclear catastrophe and that Japan’s history has entered a new phase. The historical perspective which the Nobel laureate opens up is a reminder of Japan’s responsibility for the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the same time Ôe criticizes once more the concept of a peaceful use of nuclear energy. He is planning, he says, a great final novel in which he will attempt nothing less than a rewriting of Japan’s recent history. The experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be woven into the narrative fabric and the problem of how to do justice to the views of nuclear victims throughout the Pacific region and of today’s victims of radiation will be given serious attention (Ôe 2011).
    Writing in the New York Times, Murakami Ryû (*1952) takes a more optimistic line and considers the crisis as a chance for improvement. In his deliberations he strongly criticizes Japan’s self-satisfied consumer society and says: “But for all we’ve lost, hope is in fact one thing we Japanese have regained. The great earthquake and tsunami have robbed us of many lives and resources. But we who were so intoxicated with our own prosperity have once again planted the seed of hope. So I choose to believe“ (Murakami Ryû 2011).
    Murakami Haruki (*1949) initially did not respond to questions by the press and it was only on 9 June, when he was awarded the Catalunya Prize for his work, that he spoke up. Like Ôe, this internationally recognized author who has been repeatedly named as a possible Japanese candidate for the Nobel Prize points to Japan’s difficult legacy after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He suggests that the promises made at the time to the victims of the atomic bomb were not taken seriously enough and that therefore the Japanese citizens of today bear their share of responsibility for the recent nuclear catastrophe. It was not only the government and the electric power groups who were guilty but all those who had blindly trusted the efficiency of nuclear reactors. In particular Murakami levels his criticism at the fact that the nuclear lobby’s propaganda was only too willingly swallowed and that the myth of a safe technology was given credence. Greed and complacency had won the upper hand and it was widely assumed that there was no alternative to nuclear power. Anyone who dared to cast doubt on nuclear energy was dismissed as “out of touch with reality and a dreamer”. For the future he calls for the rejection of nuclear power and the courage to be “out of touch with reality and a dreamer”. Murakami holds on to the hope that Japan will overcome the consequences of the catastrophe. It is possible, he argues, to take the recovery after the Second World War as a point of reference and to make a fresh start at rebuilding the country (Murakami Haruki 2011). He donated the prize money of 80,000 euros to the victims of the catastrophe.

“Fukushima literature” in translation

The journal Waseda Bungaku, not wishing to stand aside, currently sponsors the “Japan Earthquake Charity Literature” project which it is possible to follow on the website of the Waseda Bungaku Editorial Department. It is the editors’ intention to present on their website works by Japanese writers in English translation. In December, Ichikawa Makoto, the director of the journal, explained that “This program aims to give serious thought to the disaster and accident, then bring these words that were born, directly or indirectly, through this thought process, to people across the world. We hope that after reading these texts you will choose to make a donation to the Red Cross in Japan or in your country or another charity. We hope that these pieces, written for ourselves as much as for anyone else, will reach people around the world, and eventually, in some small way, also serve to help the people in Northern Japan who are now working hard to rebuild their lives” (Ichikawa 2011).
    Waseda Bungaku asks anyone who accesses these texts to make a voluntary donation. Among the contributors to this campaign are Furukawa Hideo, Abe Kazushige, Kawakami Mieko, Toh EnJoe (*1972), Fukunaga Shin (*1972), Yoshikawa Yasuhisa (*1951), Aoki Jungo (*1979), Matsuda Aoko (*1979), Murata Sayaka (*1979), Nakamura Fuminori (*1977), Nakamori Akio (*1960), Kinoshita Furukuri (*1981), Makita Mayuko (*1980), Kashimada Maki (*1976) and Shigematsu Kiyoshi. The site will remain accessible until March.
    A year after Fukushima two publishers had anthologies of works by Japanese writers in translation in their programme. An English anthology is due to appear on 31 March under the title March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Meltdown. Its editors are Elmer Luke and David Karashima, who works for the Nippon Foundation and is co-founder of the Read Japan Initiative, an association of writers, translators, publishers and universities that promotes the translation of  Japanese literature. This project was realized with the help of the publishing companies Kôdansha, Vintage Publishing und Harvill Secker. A Japanese anthology, mentioned earlier, will appear on 25 February under the title Soredemo sangatsu wa, mata. It will contain contributions by numerous authors, ten of which will be printed here for the first time.
    In its English translation edition the following titles are listed: “The Island of Eternal Life” by Tawada Yôko, “The Charm” by Shigematsu Kiyoshi, “Nightcap” by Ogawa Yôko, “God Bless You“, 2011 with postscript and original 1993 version by Kawakami Hiromi, “March Yarn” by Kawakami Mieko, “Lulu” by Ishii Shinji (*1966), “Grandma’s Bible” by Ikezawa Natsuki, “Pieces” by Kakuta Mitsuyo (*1967), “Sixteen Years Later, in the Same Place” by Furukawa Hideo, “The Crows and the Girl” by Brother & Sister Nishioka, “Box Story” by Akikawa Tetsuya (*1962), “Hiyoriyama” by Saeki Kazumi, “Ride on Time” by  Abe Kazushige and “Little Eucalyptus Leaves” by Murakami Ryû. There are also three contributions that were originally written in English: “One Year Later“ by  J. D. McClatchy, “Dream from a Fisherman’s Boat” by Barry Yourgrau and “After the Disaster, Before the Disaster” by David Peace. In the publisher’s announcement of the book we read: “On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake occurred off the northeastern coast of Japan, triggering a 50-foot tsunami that crushed everything in its path − highways, airports, villages, trains, and buses − leaving death and destruction behind, and causing a major radiation leak from five nuclear plants. Here eighteen writers give us their trenchant observations and emotional responses to such a tragedy, in what is a fascinating, enigmatic and poignant collection”.
    A French anthology of translations of ten texts from Japanese magazines is called L’archipel des séismes. Ecrits du Japon après le 11 mars 2011 (The archipelago of earthquakes. Texts from Japan after 11 March 2011; to be published on 24 February by Editions Philippe Piquier). Among the contributors are Tanikawa Shuntarô (*1931) und Kakuta Mitsuyo; the editors are Corinne Quentin of the Bureau des Copyrights Français in Tôkyô and Cécile Sakai.

Positions of healing, positions of protest

“After Fukushima” many Japanese writers consider it their foremost obligation to find words commensurate with a disaster of global dimensions. Some invoke the country’s historically rooted responsibility in all nuclear matters and the willingness of the citizens of a mature democratic nation to engage from now on more energetically in all decisions about energy policy. Others wish to communicate their sympathy with the victims, to lend support and to give them hope for the future.
    In her article “A long way”, Yoshimoto Banana (*1964) underlines her intention to foreground the therapeutic aspect in her future literary work and to help assuage the trauma of 3/11: “Never before have I been so happy and grateful to be able to make a contribution, and as long as I live I will write and share my thoughts and feelings with other people” (Yoshimoto 2011a).
    A similar literary approach to “Fukushima”, based on the articulation of feelings and the message of rebuilding in a spirit of togetherness, can be seen in the poetry of Wagô Ryôichi: „We are Fukushima. / We won’t give up on Fukushima. / The light of Fukushima, the clouds of Tohoku, the history, the lives, the kindheartedness, the fathers and mothers, the Abukuma river, the twinkling of the stars, the smiles of children, ... we believe in all those „Fukushimas“. / 3.11. In order to seize “Fukushima” back from that day, we shall come together in the middle of August to make a declaration to the world. / We will not give up our dreams, we will not give up on ourselves, we will not give up on Fukushima, we will not give up on Japan. / Let us look up to the blue skies of Fukushima. / To the light and the clouds and the lives. / To father sky. / To mother earth. / In the fields of Fukushima, / in the grounds of Fukushima, / for the heartbeat of Fukushima, / for you, / we will be waiting” (Wagô 2011). Basically there is nothing to object to in these lines, which emphatically evoke a renaissance of the stricken region and of Japan as a whole through the forces of nature, nor can one disapprove of the legitimate perception of literary work as bibliotherapy. And yet, in the context of Fukushima, one wonders where there might be a kind of literature that comments on political developments, leading towards the strengthening of a critically aware public in Japan.
    Yoshimoto rejects the political aspect categorically: “As a writer I do not wish to deal in political platitudes. Instead, I attempt in my creative work to capture – not simply for my own sake – the bright, glittering light of life. What helps us in difficult times is people whom we love, with whom we share our food and not least music, films, books. We immerse ourselves in another world, let our hearts roam freely for a while, regain energy before returning to harsh reality. This is balm for the tortured soul” (Yoshimoto 2011a).
    It smacks of toeing the official line when she adopts a forced jaunty optimism and praises the competence of Japanese engineers and of the Japanese in general, witness her article in a Spiegel issue of mid-March 2011. She endorses the policy of restricted information in the official media, saying that one ought to keep smiling and have confidence in the state. It is possible to interpret Yoshimoto’s support of the government as an attempt to counteract an atmosphere of panic and despair, but the dividing line between spreading optimism and making nationalistic noises is a tenuous one.
    Gen’yû Sôkyû, a priest at the Fukujûji Temple in Miharu-machi, plays an important role. He is one of fifteen committee members of Higashi Nihon Daishinsai Fukkô Kôsô Kaigi / Reconstruction Design Council (東日本大震災復興構想会議), alongside the architect Andô Tadao (*1941) and Umehara Takeshi (*1925), the controversial cultural critic. As a winner of the Akutagawa Prize, Gen’yû is the only writer of reputation who was granted an official voice about Fukushima. His collection of essays, Fukushima ni ikiru published on 4 December 2011, is divided into four chapters, which deal respectively with the events following 3/11, the perception of Fukushima by Tôkyô (chapter 3), reconstruction and that which has been lost (2) and the decision to remain in Fukushima in spite of everything (4). The author sets out in some detail what he saw after the earthquake and what his thoughts were when he first heard of the destruction of the nuclear reactor. He then explains why he decided to stay on in the temple together with his wife, and comments on the inadequacy, as he sees it, of the measures taken by the government and by the electric power company TEPCO, which was in charge of the nuclear plant. He further addresses the questions of information brokerage, the reaction of the media and the plight of the people of Fukushima, the unprecedented challenge that they were faced with, their relocation and resulting isolation. He speaks about the growing number of tragic suicides (zetsubô-shi; Gen’yû 2011: 72), mainly of elderly persons, and the terrible deaths by freezing which were a consequence of houses being cut off from the gas supply after the disaster. It is a serious problem, Gen’yû argues, if the damaged social community cannot restabilize itself and many isolated people die lonely and unnoticed deaths (kodoku-shi).
    In the third chapter he gives an account of his phone conversations with the Japanese government, his appointment as a member of the Reconstruction Design Council and his impression of the opening speech by Umehara Takeshi. The honorary chairman of the Council, he says, announced that debates would take place on a high intellectual level which would instill confidence in the Japanese people (Nihon kokumin wo yûkizukeru; S. 106) and arouse the motivation necessary to undertake the task of reconstruction. Furthermore planning would have to be excellent “so as to convince foreign observers that Japanese know-how had been of the highest standard” (gaikoku ni taishite Nihon no chie wa rippa data); the results were to be published in persuasive form in English, French, Korean, Chinese, etc. (pp. 106-107). Umehara has made similar statements elsewhere. He perceives the Fukushima disaster primarily as a “catastrophic failure of civilization” (bunmeisai) which testifies to the arrogance with which technology has been handled in the modern era. The time has come to adopt an altruistic kind of thinking. Gen’yû concurs with this view, but in addition would like the relation between city and country to be given due consideration. He is greatly surprised when on the morning after the meeting of the Council the media announced the introduction of a reconstruction tax, something on which no decision had been taken by the assembled intellectuals. His “face hot with anger”, the priest wonders why that meeting was ever held (p. 110). In the end Gen’yû comes to the conclusion that the situation in Eastern Japan has to be met with “frontier spirit” (S. 93), and he calls for a number of short- and long-term measures regarding stress and trauma handling, future medical care in the region of Tôhoku and relevant research centres. Planning is also necessary with regard to the gradual decontamination of the environment and in the longer term concepts for the conversion of energy supplies to renewable sources. On no account does the priest want to give up Fukushima and his country.
    In December 2011 the journal Subaru published a discussion between Gen’yû Sôkyû and Nakazawa Shin’ichi (*1950), a similarly controversial cultural anthropologist and journalist known as a “spiritual intellectual”. In his role as  Zen priest and representative of his region, Gen’yû speaks about Mujô kara no sai-shuppatsu (A new departure in the spirit of the mujô principle). Nakazawa Shin’ichi on the other hand had caused a stir in the debate about Japan’s future after Fukushima when his book Nihon no daitenkan (Japan’s dramatic shift) was published by Shûeisha in August 2011 and when he announced the formation of a Green Party. Both men have in common their opposition to nuclear power and the wish to develop sustainable energy systems. Nakazawa speaks of his disappointment at the lack of progress in the Reconstruction Design Council where the views of clergy and philosophers obviously had little chance of winning recognition against the arguments of the technocrats. Again Gen’yû refers to Umehara and his critical discourse about modern civilization which in its early stages, he says, pointed in the right direction. Nakazawa points out that a dialogue seemed impossible between the camp of the cultural thinkers and the advocates of technology and that this traditional dichotomy could be traced right up to the modern era in Japan. At the same time both underline the remarkable ability of the Japanese people to make a fresh start and following the tradition of the “spiritual discourse” they both invoke the powers of Japan’s natural world. There have been others, however, who from the start promoted a clearer view of things, rejecting the myth of the Japanese collective and of the country’s natural world and other incipient nationalist views. Among these was the psychiatrist und journalist Kayama Rika who in an article published in the journal Aera uses the words “reconstructive nationalism” (fukkô nashonarizumu; Kayama 2011) with regard to the widespread use of phrases like “Keep going, Japan” (ganbare Nippon!), “Now: time to be one” (ima , hitotsu ni naru toki), “Japan is a strong country” (Nihon wa tsuyoi kuni da) and “Onward to the re-birth of a new Japan” (atarashii Nihon no fukkô e). Her foremost intention is to defend the people in the stricken region.
    Not everyone in the literary and cultural scene in Japan resorted to emotional effusions of local and national patriotism in their desire to inspire the country with optimism. It is true that Murakami Haruki in the speech he delivered in Barcelona also speaks of public spirit and uses the metaphor of the rural collective which with its “modest, rustic, patient work” restores its “shattered values”, but elsewhere he emphasizes the fact that he sees himself as a “citizen of the world”. As this suggests, his thinking goes beyond narrow national boundaries: “The damage is not confined to Japan alone. It grieves me deeply that our neighbouring nations could also be affected.” Speaking to an international audience, Murakami reflects on a Japanese mentality which can endure natural disasters and apparently sublimate them aesthetically. In doing so he also draws on the concept of mujô which, he says, is “rooted deep in the Japanese soul” and has “remained unchanged since time immemorial”. Murakami’s deliberations on the static powers of mujô make one feel somewhat uncomfortable, and the image of the writer who “sows the seeds of new tales” which are like “songs sung by the sower in the field” “inspiring people with their rhythms” (Murakami 2011) is no doubt unfortunately chosen because of its ethno-romantic overtones, yet his characteristically tentative tone becomes more assertive and direct when it comes to nuclear energy.
    Katayama Kyôichi (*1959) also looks at the broader picture when in an article published in Asahi Shinbun on 4 July 2011 he considers the repercussions of the catastrophe with a view to “Japan and the world”: “Radioactivity, once set free, cannot be eliminated again. Radiation spreads across the globe and, whether we like it or not, it becomes a common concern for all mankind. Nuclear radiation which originated in the Chernobyl accident can be detected everywhere in Japan. This time it is Japan that has done the same and while people in other countries felt commiseration and held out a helping hand to the victims of the earthquake, all the world looks censoriously at the nuclear disaster and its consequences. As yet, an end of the meltdown is not in sight. If the nuclear plants that were temporarily shut down are started up again Japan stands to lose the trust of the international community forever” (Katayama 2011).
    The most consistent anti-nuclear activist turns out to be Ôe Kenzaburô. He has joined the writers Ochiai Keiko (*1945), Setouchi Jakuchô (*1922) and Sakamoto Ryûichi in recent anti-nuclear campaigns such as Sayonara Genpatsu 「集会さよなら」. Demonstrations took place in September at the  Nihon Seinenkan and in the Meiji Park in Tôkyô. In an interview with the taz on 3 April Ôe repeatedly criticized Japan’s one-sided fixation on science and economic interests. It was this attitude, he argued, that made it possible for nuclear energy to be accepted although this cannot be separated from its use in nuclear armament, with the same potential dangers. Once again he warns: “Does not the recent catastrophe make it clear beyond doubt that the Japanese with their interest in nuclear energy have betrayed the atomic bomb victims of Hiroshima? The cenotaph in the Peace Memorial Park of Hiroshima bears the vow: ‘Rest in peace. We shall not repeat the error.’” Regarding his current literary project, on which he was working when the events of Fukushima took their course, he says: “The radioactive cloud will spread over the whole of Japan and my novel will probably mark the difficult final stage in my life as a writer. It is to end with the words: ‘Let us look at the stars.’ Which means to take a step out of  hell” (Ôe 2011a).
    No doubt the Nobel Laureate of 1994 must feel that the warnings which he had uttered for many years and his critique of the nuclear state proved justified in a horrific way, and so he adds to his literary cosmos the real dimension of the apocalypse. Other critical writers also look beyond bibliotherapy and strive to develop a language which permits an adequately complex literary response to what has happened. Henmi Yô (*1944), the poet and journalist and winner of the 1991 Akutagawa Prize, comes from the town of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture. In his volume of poems Me no umi (The sea of eyes) of November 2011, which was recently awarded the Takami Jun Prize, he declares that it is not the avoidance of verbalizing problems or some superficial friendliness which helps people who are afflicted by a catastrophe, but earnest, meaningful words which capture the essence of the tragedy. It is important to find such words in the face of the continuous chants of morale-boosting slogans. A central theme in “The Sea of Eyes” is the proximity of death and the dead and it captures an aura of madness which is in opposition to the official narrative of healing and reconstruction. The poet sensed this aura in the summer following the catastrophe and it conjures up in his imagination images of destruction, disorientation and violence. The feature Gareki no naka kara kotoba wo – watashi no ‘shisha’ e (2012; Words from the rubble – for my “dead”) appeared on 10 January 2012. It is based on a reportage about Fukushima and tries to do justice to the daily horror there. Like Furukawa, Henmi strives for an adequate language after 3/11, a language that does not endlessly reiterate the litany of “How can we bring about Japan’s renaissance?” but that, following the model of the post-war writers, is capable of creating something that correlates to the silence of the “dead” (shisha) (Henmi 2012).

Early examples of fictional prose

There are three prose texts of a certain length that mark the beginning of the history of shinsai bungaku or post-Fukushima literature in Japan, namely Yoshimoto Banana’s Sweet Hereafter (published on 23 November by Gentôsha), Furukawa Hideo’s Umatachi yo, soredemo hikari wa muku de (Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure), published on 29 July by Shinchôsha, and Takahashi Gen’ichirô’s novel Koi suru genpatsu genpatsu (The nuclear power station in love) published on 17 November by Kôdansha.
    Takahashi, incidentally a native of Hiroshima Prefecture, approaches the topic in his characteristic manner of grotesque parody, full of mockery against the norms of the Japanese media world, and thus preempts from the start any kind of high-flown rhetoric in this book that has the radiation warning symbol on its lurid yellow cover. The story, which aims to debunk and ridicule Japanese society and its acute nuclear problem, begins with the activities of the male protagonist who intends to find money for a charity in support of the Fukushima victims – by donating the revenue from the production of an adult video which he pushes enthusiastically.
    One of the epigraphs of the book is “Crazy Star” and another “I dedicate this book to all the dead … a rather frivolous claim”. The reader quickly realizes that Takahashi’s “Nuclear power station in love” is not a conventional piece of writing that promises “healing” and as if to warn him or her once more, we read on page seven: “It is needless to say that this is pure fiction. Occasional congruence with reality is coincidental. Should you believe that what you read here could actually happen, you need your head examined. Surely such a mad world cannot exist. You are therefore advised to go to a psychiatric hospital immediately. Now! At once! This is the only piece of advice that I can give you. Well, so long…” (Takahashi 2011: 7).
    By attaching to words typically used in the energy debate after Fukushima – for example jika hatsuden (individual “home-made” production of electricity) – connotations of masturbation and thus creating a pornographic context, he pokes holes in the soothing official phraseology of the future managers in the energy sector. Takahashi becomes even more direct when he denounces breezy nationalistic mantras like Ganbare, Nippon (Press ahead, Japan!) and Nippon wa hitotsu (Japan is united!) as meretricious slogans but generously leaves it to everybody to accept them if he or she does not find them objectionable. He also challenges the gesture of charity, quoting official statements such as ”All the proceeds from this work will be donated to the victims of the catastrophe” (Wareware wa, kono sakuhin no uriage wo subete, hisaisha no minasan ni kifu shimasu; 17) and then asking how much is gained by such lip service. Does this not, he asks, cover up the immutable misery of the victims and the fact that things cannot be redressed so easily while at the same time giving the donors a clear conscience and providing their organisations with a promotionally effective image.
    Furukawa Hideo, on the other hand, is full of empathy for the region stricken by the catastrophe. The protagonist of “Horses”, who is a first-person narrator, has much in common with the author, not least the fact that both are writers and that the narrator, like Furukawa, has written a novel entitled Seikazoku (The Holy Family) published by Shûeisha in 2008. “Since that day”, which is an allusion to the earthquake of 11 March, the central character has lost his sense of time. We are told, however, that he reads a story from Seikazoku at a charity event in Shibuya, where he meets a girl from Fukushima. The urgent call to travel to the northeast of the country, which he receives early on in the narrative, becomes a leitmotif. “The voice uttered a simple command: Go there!” (Furukawa 2011: 5). One month after the catastrophe the author in the story sets out for Hamadôri in Fukushima Prefecture where he finds a devastated landscape and the evidence of the disaster.
    The alter ego/protagonist encounters people and horses and wonders what words to choose as an author to describe the situation. In doing so he remembers Miyazawa Kenji (1896-1933), the well-known writer who like himself came from Tôhoku, and this makes the narrative persona think of the philosopher Umehara and his role as a member of the Reconstruction Design Council, where in his opinion he rightly refused to accept the government’s suggestion to leave to one side the problem of nuclear contamination in planning for the reconstruction of the region (p. 47). It is then through the inspiration from Umehara’s reception of Miyazawa in his book Nihon no shinsô (1983; Japan’s deep layers) that the “author” wants to observe and report. He decides to write about the animals in the threatened region, about the island of Japan, its past and its present in which the island, seemingly still isolated from the rest of the world, has to serve its time and eke out its lonely existence. “Bin Laden. He could have been killed. But of course we are not in this position. We, the eye witnesses of the Japanese tragedy. What shall we do? There is no one for us to hate. And so all that is left to us is hope” (p. 109).
    Furukawa’s text is a fragmented one, with its thematic leaps and the frequent changes of register from autobiographical literary self-references to reportage on Fukushima to comments on the state of the nation, bibliotherapeutic ambition and definitions of his position as a writer. The author draws on the narrative traditions of the Tôhoku region and at the same time he has his alter ego stress the importance of novel writing as an undertaking for the future. Both author and protagonist are as keen as they are unable to identify a spiritual point of reference that might give strength to the region as well as the whole of Japan.
    True to her pledge, Yoshimoto Banana emphasizes in Sweet Hereafter the healing function of her writing. In this story about a young couple who are involved in a serious car accident, she seeks to create an atmosphere of consolation. When her partner dies, the young woman is at first thrown into deepest despair and finds herself confronted with apparitions, but she has to overcome her trauma and muster the courage to live on.

Continuities, changes of position, outrages: A new literature after Fukushima?

One year “after Fukushima” it remains an open question whether Japanese literature is about to take on new directions and to prove itself a suitable medium of reflexion, breaking free from the bestseller-producing mechanisms of recent years and taking a political stance again.

So far there has not been any spectacular outcry of protest. By and large writers have remained faithful to their genres, their style and their intellectual outlook. It is for this reason that Ôe Kenzaburô, the writer of conscience and awareness of the past, has had a kind of well-deserved renaissance. He is currently present on many forums. In the prevailing atmosphere his unswervingly critical attitude towards the use of nuclear power has earned him much respect. The work in progress which he has repeatedly referred to as his “last novel” will no doubt be a central text of the post-Fukushima era, not least because he manages to articulate his critical intellectual position without compromising the literary quality of his work, so that it is also accessible in other countries.
    The Nobel Laureate is a representative of an old Japanese elite of democratic and pacifist intellectuals with a highbrow bias whose political agenda on the whole meets with general approval. By contrast, the emotional reflexes of a coterie of new regional or “homeland” writers seem to be inadequate. Authors like Furukawa Hideo and Wagô Ryôichi are doing their best to find an acceptable literary approach to the subject of Fukushima, and yet they ultimately leave unanswered the question of what might be an appropriate form with which to come to terms with the catastrophe, at least aesthetically. Some writers such as Kawakami Mieko in her story “March Was Made of Yarn” choose a surrealist mode to make apparent the dissolution of certainties after 3/11 and this is doubtless a more ambitious and more successful way of writing about what happened. In “March” the reader is introduced to a married couple’s ordinary daily life when suddenly the woman makes an uncanny discovery: the world seems to be made of yarn and the threads that all the objects consist of are beginning to unravel…
    While the bibliotherapeutic approach promises to heal the wounds inflicted by the Fukushima catastrophe, doubts remain whether literature that aims to cope with the trauma is actually capable of doing justice to the horrific reality of “Fukushima” on all levels. It is a balancing act between on the one hand offering consolation and encouragement to the Japanese public and on the other hand  casting light by literary means on the political, economic and historic background of the events; as a consequence some of what is said amounts to little more than largely predictable commonplace statements. It is sometimes surprising how similar some of these statements are and certain texts seem to reveal the desire of their authors to secure for themselves an advantage in the medial struggle of the post-Fukushima era. Occasionally this rhetorical field of forces gives rise to a strange ambivalence and some commentaries suggest more or less openly that the catastrophe possibly implies an opportunity for the future. According to this way of seeing things, Fukushima could lead to a revision of the still widespread consumerist mentality in Japan and it might mark a turning point after the turmoil of the 1990s and the subsequent phase of economic stagnation, accompanied by fears of social decline.
    The well-known cultural philosopher and advocate of Japanese subculture Azuma Hiroki (*1971) is particularly adept at the rhetoric of the “afterwards” as a means of invoking national advancement and as a remedy against futile laments at a time of growing social problems. Under the heading “For a Change, Proud to be Japanese“, he wrote in the New York Times that a new kind of solidarity had developed and that Japan would now tackle difficulties decisively (Azuma 2011).
    Azuma’s standing, however, is not sufficient to make him the nation’s recognized intellectual leader. Given the present crisis it is sad to think that for many intellectuals and writers the only point of reference seems to be the conservative Umehara Takeshi, who busily promotes his own cause. In the present review at least two writers refer to him. Is it possible then that the intellectual camp, if it wants to position itself against the dominant technocrats, has nothing more to offer than Umehara, a “spiritual intellectual” and “courtesy scholar” who recently admitted to his implication in the nuclear industry? Or does the kowtowing before the honorary chairman of the Reconstruction Design Council imply the desire to gain access to the inner circle of power? Also, it is possible that within Japan’s circumscribed insular living space and the discourse with its powerful plutocratic hierarchies one tries to avoid damaging one’s own position as much as possible. Financially independent artists with a wide international radius of action find it easier to voice their opinions freely. This is true, for instance, of Sakamoto Ryûichi and Murakami Haruki.
    Takahashi’s text represents an encouraging response to the rising patriotism, which is by no means shared by all Japanese but is largely a creation of the dynamic political and media apparatus. Takahashi follows a tradition in Japanese literature which attacks the dominant system with laughter, frequently enhanced with sexual metaphors, and which strives to achieve liberation without being ideologically fraught. Given the narrow discursive space that is Japan one cannot give enough praise to impudent parodic pronouncements such as those by Takahashi or statements like the ones by Katayama Kyôichi with their global perspective.
    Japanese literature which attacks the dominant system with laughter, frequently enhanced with sexual metaphors, and which strives to achieve liberation without being ideologically fraught. Given the narrow discursive space that is Japan one cannot give enough praise to impudent parodic pronouncements such as those by Takahashi or statements like the ones by Katayama Kyôichi with their global perspective.


Prof. Dr. Lisette Gebhardt

Johann Wolfgang Goethe University

Department 9: Languages and Cultures Japanese Studies - Project Nuclear Narrations - Senckenberganlage 31, 60325 Frankfurt / Main


Tel.: 069 / 798-23287

Fax: 069 / 798-22173

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