Printer Friendly

Post-3/11 Literature: Two Writers from Fukushima.

On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 pm, a major earthquake measuring 9.0 in magnitude struck the eastern part of Japan, in particular the Tohoku region centering on Fukushima, Miyagi, and Iwate prefectures. Within one hour, tsunami waves reaching record heights of forty meters breached Japan's Pacific coast, destroying many towns and villages in the area. The earthquake and tsunami claimed more than fifteen thousand lives, and many people are still missing. Moreover, due to the station blackout reportedly caused by the tsunami, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant experienced a meltdown, causing several hydrogen explosions and the release of enormous amounts of radioactivity into the environment. This nuclear crisis represents a historic catastrophe that exceeds the Three Mile Island accident of 1979 and reaches the frightening level of the 1986 accident at Chernobyl. Hundreds of thousands of people within twenty kilometers of the power plant were forced to evacuate, and many citizens are deeply concerned about the long-term effects of radioactive poisoning, especially for children.

What this triple disaster dramatized is the fact that Tohoku, or Japan's northeast, has occupied a peripheral place in Japan and its history. In modern times, this agricultural region often had to sacrifice itself for the industrial development of the nation, providing labor, food, and raw materials. The Fukushima Daiichi plant is a case in point. Operated by the Tokyo Electric Company, it supplies energy for the greater Tokyo area. Fukushima prefecture, however, belongs to the area of the Tohoku Electric Company, within the system of a government-granted regional monopoly of energy production and distribution by nine private companies. That is to say, Fukushima suffers from the consequences of the nuclear accident on behalf of the metropolitan population.


This crisis evoked various experiences, actions, and commentaries on the part of writers throughout Japan, most notably the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe and celebrated novelist Haruki Murakami. (1) However, two writers from Fukushima, Ryoichi Wago and Hideo Furukawa, provided a more immediate response to the disaster and have produced the most significant literary works so far. Their writings address the sacrificial logic of the nation that their native place had to suffer.

A winner of the prestigious Chuya Nakahara Prize, Ryoichi Wago (b. 1968) teaches Japanese language and literature at a Fukushima prefectural high school. While evacuating his family, he decided to remain in Fukushima despite the shortage of such necessities as food and gas. In the midst of dangerous aftershocks and high radiation levels, Wago fell into a profound sense of despair that "both Fukushima and Japan have now come to their end." (2) From within his "solitary confinement," which came about after shutting all his doors and windows, Wago threw "pebbles." With his Shi no tsubute (Pebbles of poetry), Wago sought to resist the debris produced by the earthquake and tsunami.

"Radiation is falling. A quiet night." "Can there be any meaning in causing us such pain?" "What does this disaster teach us? What can we believe if it teaches us nothing?" In the midst of frequent aftershocks, "Shh! It's an aftershock. Millions of horses gallop underground, crying." Still, Wago believes, "all nights eventually end."

Driven by a strong desire to communicate Fukushima's despair and hope, Wago chose Twitter for his medium. Once he began sending messages on March 16, he immediately drew 171 followers, and by the time his book was published in dune, he had attracted more than 14,000. His tweets appeared as an improvised poetry reading in cyberspace. Moreover, beyond the virtual community, he discovered other people's experiences and suffering during the crisis. In inscribing the words of others, Wago became a kind of dialogical medium himself. His Shi no mokurei (Silent prayer of poetry) and Shi no kaikou (Encounter of poetry), published simultaneously with Shi no tsubute, are records of his mourning and dialogues with evacuees and those directly affected. (3) A keen listener, Wago allows these others to speak in memorable ways. A man from the town of Tomioka, which the government ordered to evacuate, encourages other colleagues: "We must do our best, for something like this occurs but once in a thousand years" (Encounter). A father from the evacuated village of Iidate remarks, "Rather than asking 'why now?' we must be grateful that this happened at our time rather than that of our children."

One of the most significant motifs in Wago's writings is that of "native place": "Fukushima is us and we are Fukushima. Those of you who evacuate, those of you who leave your native place with a broken heart, please return. Don't lose Fukushima, don't lose Tohoku" (Pebbles). In addition to those who were forced to evacuate, many in Fukushima faced the difficult choice of either abandoning their hometown or remaining in these areas that were now contaminated by radiation. The tension between Fukushima and Japan makes itself felt throughout these writings. For example, noting cases of discrimination against certain evacuees when they were denied accommodation due to ungrounded fears of radiation, Wago writes, "This sad absurdity of Japan: love for your country, punishment from your country. Punishment for a crime one didn't commit, flower petals falling to the ground one by one ... Night" (Prayer). Elsewhere he laments, "Those who drive us out from our native place, cruel people who drive out us Japanese. They are 'we Japanese.' I have now discovered that our nation is like this." (4) Needless to say, this "absurdity" is symbolized by the very existence of the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Another voice from Fukushima, Hideo Furukawa (b. 1966), received the Yukio Mishima Prize for Love (2005). He is also known for his collaborations with musicians and playwrights. In spring 2011, English translations of his works appeared in the first annual English-language edition of Monkey Business, a Japanese literary journal edited by Motoyuki Shibata, the renowned translator of American literature. Included in this volume are Furukawa's short story "Monsters" and his lengthy interview with Haruki Murakami. (5)

Furukawa was staying at a hotel in Kyoto when the earthquake struck, far from the events of that day. He was shocked by the horrific images of tsunami waves repeatedly shown on television. "That is 'this world,' I thought. It's there in the television, while I am in the world beyond. The world of unreality. I am asking myself despite being unprepared to ask myself: Why am I not a victim?" (6) In his 2008 meganovel of more than seven hundred pages, Sei kazoku (The holy family), Furukawa had narrated a tale of siblings staged in "Tohoku as [a symbol of] the region that was chased after by the historical Japanese country." (7) He had in mind the fact that the ancient Yamato Court regarded people of the region as foreign and sought to subjugate them. Thus Fukushima, or Tohoku more generally, was already a fatal theme for Furukawa. In an interview with Motoyuki Shibata, Furukawa admits that the nuclear disaster temporarily disabled his language as a novelist: "The only thing I can do is directly go to the site and explore the possibility of first-person prose." (8)

Deciding to take a short trip to Fukushima prefecture with his editors, Furukawa produced an extraordinary text, "Uma tachi yo, soredemo hikari wa muku de" (Horses, the light is still pure). Furukawa was concerned with the cities of Soma and its southern neighbor Minami-Soma, since he had written about them in The Holy Family. This area, which used to be the domain of the Soma clan, one of the oldest feudal lords in medieval and Tokugawa Japan, is located north of the Fukushima power plant.

During Furukawa's 2011 visit, it appeared as if everyday life on the streets and in the stores remained normal. In the coastal areas, however, Furukawa encountered the real damage of the disaster. Everything on the horizon was covered with water:
 I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the sense of this
 power. My field of vision was too broad. It's everything, I
felt. The
 power of everything.... To my shame (which was such that I even had
 urge to spit at myself), I considered it a spectacular
 scene. An
 air raid, I thought. Or again, ground zero of an atomic bomb.

After looking around a shrine in MinamiSoma, Furukawa suddenly finds Gyuichiro Inuzuka, the main character of his novel, sitting in the back seat of his car. He is bewildered but says to himself, "Write this down. I must write this down. Write that Gyuichiro Inuzuka was here. He was the fifth person in the car, the fifth of us. Write that the eldest son from The Holy Family ... was riding with us." In the novel, this character and his younger brother were followed by the police, with the latter arrested in the city of Soma. "Listen," Gyuichiro explains, "my brother let me go. Outside time, as it were. Yeah, it doesn't matter either, whether it was outside time or outside narrative. But you might want to consider this possibility: If I for a moment fled to the outside of narrative, it may actually be the case that I am here." (9)

In the 2011 text, The Holy Family returns to the world of its author as reality. The distinction between the author and his work is blurred, putting into question the commonsensical notion of fiction. The literary critic Toshifumi Jinno commented on this point, arguing that the text "changes from what is not fiction into fiction." (10) This gesture also functions to introduce into the novel a toxic reality. "This contact," Furukawa continues, "is proof of the best post-3/11 fiction."

Yet this mutual reflection of the author and his work, reality and fiction is further complicated by "history" in a concrete sense, one that is radically different from the official, or authorized, version of state history. As Furukawa writes, "I am very uncomfortable with such so-called history" ("Horses"). Furukawa makes daring use of sensational language: "Our history is strictly one of killing." He describes the massacres of tens of thousands of people by such warlords as Nobunaga Oda and Hideyoshi Toyotomi to highlight the violence underlying the official history of "we Japanese."

Here, Gyuichiro narrates a wholly different history from the perspective of horses, for which this locale is known. Horses as livestock were not only used for cultivation and transportation but for military purposes as well. In fact, he explains, horses determined the form of warfare throughout world history. In the Japanese archipelago, smaller, native horses disappeared when larger horses advanced from the Korean peninsula together with the ancestors of the imperial family, a point that official Japanese history refuses to recognize. Since the Meiji era, however, as larger, Western horses were imported, these "Japanese" horses became hybridized and eventually were rendered nearly extinct. Thus horses in modern Japan are almost Western in kind. As Gyuichiro warns, "Don't believe in historical dramas that claim to be realistic. Don't believe in movies with spectacular battle scenes or dramas with samurai warriors. These are all lies." In other words, all the horses that appear in these dramas are the large, Western kind that did not exist in those historical periods.

The history of the Soma clan as warriors is intimately related to horses--the clan always traveled on horseback. In the ritual of Soma nomaoi (chasing after wild horses), hundreds of soldiers clad in traditional battle gear ride across an open field. This annual event still continues today and has been designated a national treasure of folk culture. This equine narrative is far from irrelevant with regard to the current situation in Fukushima, as many horses, cows, and domestic animals were abandoned during evacuation and later even slaughtered due to radiation poisoning. Fortunately, however, the 2011 festival took place in July, thanks to the efforts of the citizens of Soma and Minami-Soma.

Yet why must Gyuichiro narrate a history of the Soma clan? What kind of building stands, he asks, at the south end of the domain? Like the castle of a feudal lord, it is now a nuclear power plant called Fukushima Daiichi.

Thus, the genealogy of horses and Soma as narrated by Gyuichiro historicizes Japan's modern nation-state while demythologizing the putative unity of "Japan" itself. Yet this project does not present Fukushima prefecture or the Tohoku region as an alternative principle or entity that would replace Japan or Tokyo. Such would be the simple antimodern negative of nationalism. Instead, Gyuichiro breaks with any spatiotemporal unity and continuity: he freely moves between the period of civil wars and the present day, and jumps from space to space through the topos of torii (a shrine gateway). "He is now on the grounds of a shrine. Once he passes through a torii, he then appears in a different shrine. Emerging from a torii, he is 'there.'" The torii thus acts like a time portal.

While writing his text, Furukawa made a brief trip to New York City for the launch ceremony of the English edition of Monkey Business, which happened to coincide with the killing of Osama bin Laden. Under these circumstances, Furukawa visited Ground Zero. He was thus led to compare the two countries. The tragedy in the United States ten years ago involved an external enemy, whereas the tragedy in Japan does not. "We, those who were part of the tragedy in Japan. / What should we do? / We cannot hate anyone. / If so, this is the only hope. / The only thing we can do is to keep walking, without hating someone. / Walking without thinking of revenge." Here we can see Furukawa's resistance to a mechanism of nationalism that claims its unity through opposition to an external enemy. What Furukawa thus means by "we" cannot be a monolith of the "Japanese people." Instead, Fukushima reveals the difficulty or even impossibility of the nation as a coherent unity.


Does Furukawa's text represent reportage, a novel, or a history? Such distinctions are beside the point. Once overwhelmed by the unprecedented reality of the disasters, his literary imagination tried to respond to it by nullifying the self-evident distinctions between the three. In so doing, he radicalized his imagination. "I've come to realize," Furukawa tells us, "something that had never occurred to me: being a writer is a sort of political activity. I think I will continue writing and living with this awareness." (11)

The works by Ryoichi Wago and Hideo Furukawa represent the first literary attempts to respond to the catastrophe in Fukushima. It is significant that both address problems inherent in the structure of the nation. Since there is still no definite end in sight in terms of containing the effects of the accident, no one knows how "Fukushima" will continue to influence the terrain of Japanese literature. However, it is important to recognize that the works of these two writers make a strong case for rethinking the very notion of "Japanese literature."

Sand from the debris dances continuously. I gradually realize that the debris is made of tens of thousands of pieces that are not "debris." A house from which only a tiled bathroom remains. Another house consisting only of the roof and some beams. Or again, a roof alone lying flat on the ground. Roof tiles mercilessly strewn about. We get back into the car and move on.--Hideo Furukawa, "Horses, the Light Is Still Pure"

Write this down. I must write this down. Write that Gyuichiro Inuzuka was here. He was the fifth person in the car, the fifth of us. Write that the eldest son from The Holy Family, who is both inu (a dog) and gyu/ushi (a cow), was riding with us. But if I write that, it will be fiction. These sentences will become a complete fiction. I have pride. So far I have not said anything untruthful. Even if I wavered, I did not lie. By making this writing a definitively genuine thing, I hoped for some kind of definitive salvation. I still do. I'm resolved to paraphrase it as the repose of the soul. These are my utmost limit. These "accumulations," which reached more than ninety pages in Japanese writing paper, are my outer limit. Even so. Even so? Write.--Hideo Furukawa, "Horses, the Light Is Still Pure"

Editorial note: To read about how Kesennuma's Miyawaki Shoten bookstore overcame the effects of the tsunami, turn to the Outpost on page 80.

Editorial note: To consult a top 10 list of contemporary Japanese authors, visit the WLT website. While there, read an exclusive online story by Hiromi Kawakami, one of the authors featured on the list.


University of Oklahoma

(1) See Kenzaburo Oe, "History Repeats," in the New Yorker, March 28, 2011, and Haruki Murakami, "Speaking as an Unrealistic Dreamer," in the Asia-Pacific Journal 9:29, no. 7 (July 18, 2011). In discussing the nuclear accident in Fukushima, both writers invoke the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

(2) Ryoichi Wago, Shi no tsubute (Pebbles of poetry) (Tokyo: Tokuma shoten, 2011), 5.

(3) Ryoichi Wago, Shi no mokurei (Silent prayer of poetry) (Tokyo: Sinchosha, 2011) and Shi no kaikou (Encounter of poetry) (Tokyo: Asahi shimbun, 2011).

(4) Ryoichi Wago, "I tweeted 'words' in a closed room" in Asahi jaanaru: genpatsu to ningen (Asahi journal: nuclear power plant and humans) (Tokyo: Asahi shimbun, 2011), 113.

(5) See Hideo Furukawa, "Monsters," translated by Michael Emmerich, 6-17, and "Pursuing Growth: An Interview with Haruki Murakami," translated by Ted Goosen, 64-115, in Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan 1 (2011).

(6) Hideo Furukawa, "Uma tachi yo, soredemo hikari wa muku de" (Horses, the light is still pure) in Shincho (July 2011), 97. A book version later appeared with the same title from the publisher Shinchosha.

(7) Furukawa, "Uma tachi yo," 95.

(8) Motoyuki Shibata and Hideo Furukawa, "Hideo Furukawa, April 21, 2011," in Monkey Business, Japanese edition, vol. 14 (Tokyo: Village Books, 2011), 55.

(9) See also Hideo Furukawa, Sei kazoku (The holy family) (Tokyo: Shueisha, 2008), 335-6.

(10) Toshifumi Jinno, "'3.11' and Pest-3.11 Fiction," in Subaru (August 2011), 259.

(11) Shibata and Furukawa, "Hideo Furukawa, April 21, 2011," 64.

Takeshi Kimoto is Assistant Professor of Japanese in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics at the University of Oklahoma. He received his PhD in East Asian Literature from Cornell University in 2010. His teaching and research interests broadly include modern Japanese literature, intellectual history, and film. He is currently working on Japanese Romantic writers of the 1930s and 1940s. His publications include "Antinomies of Total War" in Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique (Spring 2009).
COPYRIGHT 2012 University of Oklahoma
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Kimoto, Takeshi
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
Previous Article:The Courtyard of Colegiata del Salvador.
Next Article:Like two pairs of glasses: Eva Stachniak on writing between cultures.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters