What of Japanese Literature After 3/11?

One year ago today I was sitting in front of my computer in Norman, Oklahoma when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck. A stream of real time comments by twitter users in both Japanese and English quickly grew into a flood of first person reports and warning messages washing across the Internet. By morning, formal news articles and youtube videos had joined the news stream, spreading word of the disaster throughout the world. Sitting in my room across the sea, I wasn’t sure what to make of the situation. The earthquake’s magnitude was being revised over and over again, and yet the death count was practically insignificant (there were a number of sources saying that if the earthquake had occurred in any other country, the number would have been unfathomable–of course, over the next week numbers would skyrocket). At the time, the Fukushima nuclear plant had not yet run away with everyone’s attention. But Tohoku had unquestionably been hit by a natural disaster of monumental proportions. However small the death count provided during the first 40 hours after the quake, I had personal reasons to worry. My first experience with Japan had been a short trip to Sendai, where my host family still lives today. After seeing news of the quake I had immediately contacted my host brother, who was studying in Tokyo, to find out if everyone was ok. I also tried to contact one of my university friends who was studying abroad in Yamagata at the time of the quake. As could only be expected, around 35 hours would go by before I got word from either of them. In the days immediately following the quake and tsunami, I watched with horror as death tolls climbed and word of the Fukushima situation grew both direr and more contested. Shocked by the magnitude of the disaster, there were many people in Japan and abroad that were left despairing that Japan had ended. But from where I sat at my computer sifting through tweets, video footage, and news reports, the overwhelming sorrow and urgency kept imparting me with the same thought: that from out of this horrific disaster, Japan was bound to produce new literary treasures; from the rubble, the mass graves, the lists of missing people, the friends and family of traumatized survivors, and the invisible clouds of radiation that combed over farmland and weaved through shaken houses and into the lungs of innocent children would come new art, new emotion, and new lessons. That week in my Japanese film class, my professor showed us Shohei Imamura’s “Black Rain” (黒い雨). The film foreshadowed how those who had suffered from the Fukushima disaster would be treated by their fellow Japanese when they attempted to evacuate to other towns and other prefectures. Earlier this morning I received an e-mail from the same professor, Dr. Takeshi Kimoto (University of Oklahoma) and felt encouraged to write this entry while I sat listening to the temple bells that were ringing out around my apartment in memory of the disaster. In the January-February edition of World Literature today Dr. Kimoto has an articled titled “Post 3/11 Literature: Two Writers from Fukushima.” The article points to Ryoichi Wago, with Shi no Tsubute (Pebbles of Poetry), Shi no Mokurei (Silent Prayer of Poetry) and Shi no Kaiko (Encounter of Poetry), and Hideo Furukawa’s Uma-Tachi yo, Soredemo Hikari wa Muku de (“Horses, the Light is Still Pure”), as two authors that represent “the first literary attempts to respond to the catastrophe in Fukushima” (p. 18). I have yet to read either of these authors, although I recently picked up some of Furukawa’s writing and hope to start reading it in the near future. More than just introducing these two writers, however, I thought that the article was particularly interesting because it picks up what I have heard labeled as “Tohoku-gaku” (東北学), which is one local school of thought that reexamines Japanese history, exploring how the Japanese in central Japan have suppressed and/or exploited those living in more remote areas. As Dr. Kimoto points out, Furukawa was interested in this kind of thought, exploring it in his works before 3/11, but Furukawa claims that it was only through his post 3/11 writings that he really came to understand writing as a sort of “political activity” (also from p. 18). Personally, I’ve always welcomed writing as a political activity (let’s be honest, writing is always political). However there are a lot of people out there who are displeased by any writing (especially writing with a visible political tilt) done on the subject of 3/11 and the nuclear issue. Which brings me to a brief story I heard about another author who has refocused their writing post 3/11. Earlier this week I was reading up about how there had been some bashing regarding award winning poet and author Arthur Binard’s title for a lecture in Saitama on International Women’s day. The reason that I looked up the happening was because one of my friends who is heavily involved in the 反原発 (han-genpatsu, “anti-nuclear”) movement had been going on about how the cancellation of Binard’s lecture (about how to realize safety in the post 3/11 world) was a suppression of both Binard, and of expression on the Fukushima issue. The title of the lecture that Binard put forth was 「サイタ サイタ セシウム ガ サイタ」(“It’s bloomed, it’s bloomed, the cesium has bloomed.” The words are a play on the opening lesson from a 1st grade textbook that was issued before the war. Here, ‘cherry blossoms’ has been replaced by ‘cesium.’ According to Binard, the following line was 「ススメ ススメ ヘイタイ ススメ」”March! March! Soliders, march!”). The 30~40 complaints that the event’s host received based on the title of the lecture claimed that the title was insensitive to those suffering. According to my friend, the dispute and cancellation was only taken up by one local newspaper in the country (the Niigata Nippo). While a good bit could probably be said about the title-bashing situation in general, one of the things that really stood out to me while I was looking through the various online forums discussing the issue, was that several comments criticized Binard (who has been living in Japan for at least 18 years and is an acknowledged Japanese language poet) by saying that it was too bad that he had been caught up writing about 3/11, as it had spoiled his work. I, for one, hope that writers keep on writing about the quake and its after effects. Any criticism of an author for doing so feels like it betrays all that has happened here in Japan since that fateful day one year ago. I can’t help but feel that there is a large population of people who believe that everyone (especially those who have suffered as a result of the Fukuhsima nuclear issue) should just suck it up and go on living without demanding any significant changes. The Japanese government has also expressed this view to some degree or another through policies or statements, and I’ve even seen footage of victims being criticized and belittled during governmental sessions and hearings. The quake and tsunami were a horrific tragedy, offering opportunities born from the losses of many. This post turned out to be more rambling and negative than I had meant for it to be, but I guess it can’t be helped. In any case, as my Japanese reading skills improve, I’ll definitely be keeping one eye on literature that deals with the Great East Japan Earthquake.



  1. Thank you for your nice blog post on your own reaction to the March 11th disaster and interesting explorations of related writings and ideas. I am looking forward to delving into the Fukushima writers you mentioned–and also following your blog more!
    The title of the Saitama lecture reminds me of the controversial New Yorker cover after the disaster last year: The cartoonist drew nuclear particles following down from cherry trees.

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