Japan’s Literature of the Apocalypse

Japan’s Literature of the Apocalypse

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Apocalyptic images from Japan have held us in thrall since March 11: a shattering earthquake in the northeastern part of the country, followed quickly by the massive, unstoppable black wall of water that swallowed coastal settlements, and then by the chain of fiery explosions that damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant, leaking unknown amounts of radiation into the environment. Tens of thousands of people have been lost. Although Japan is used to periodic earthquakes, the scale of this tragedy is still staggering.

How do Japanese people deal with such events? I have lived in Japan for 10 of the last 40-odd years, have studied and taught its literature and culture. Yet even so, there are so many kinds of Japanese that no easy answer is possible. Certainly, social cohesion, a sense of deep ties to the members of one’s immediate community, living and dead, is a factor, especially in rural areas like those hit by the tsunami. So too is a spiritual heritage, Buddhist in origin, that emphasizes the impermanence of all things, and the benefits of resignation. Japanese are hardly unemotional or stoic; they simply recognize that some things are beyond their control, and hide their feelings well.

Another sort of coping takes place at the imaginative level. Japanese literature since 1945 has gone through what we might call three stages of apocalyptic writing. The first, so-called atomic-bomb literature, was largely suppressed until the end of the American occupation in 1952, and reached its peak with the publication of Masuji Ibuse’s classic novel, “Black Rain,” in 1966. Yet, like Holocaust literature, it is relevant to people in all times and places.

Poet Tamiki Hara, who was in Hiroshima on that fateful day, struggled valiantly to capture the inexpressible in verses like this:

In the fire, a telegraph pole
At the heart of the fire. A telegraph pole like a stamen,
Like a candle,
Blazing up, like a molten
Red stamen.
In the heart of the fire on the other bank
From this morning, one by one,
Fear has screamed
Through men’s eyes. At the heart of the fire
A telegraph pole, like a stamen.

(Translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite, “The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse”)

Ibuse’s “Black Rain,” written two decades after the bombing, is a sensitive, deeply moving novel that has special relevance to the events unfolding in Japan today. It is made up of the journal entries of an older man, his wife, and their young niece, who is attempting to find a husband. Potential suitors turn away, however, when they discover the girl was exposed to the highly radioactive black rain that fell on the city after the blast. As a matter of fact, the social stigma (read “pollution” in the Japanese cultural context) borne by those who, either directly or through their parents, were touched by the bombings lasted for half a century, a prejudice that doubtless sharpens the fears of those who may have been exposed to the fallout from the Fukushima plant.

Whereas Ibuse’s “Black Rain” is reflective and understated, drawing from the rich local culture that helped the inhabitants of Hiroshima regain their bearings in a world turned topsy-turvy, examples of the second wave of apocalyptic narrative, like Ryu Murakami’s novel “Coin Locker Babies” (1980) and Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime film “Akira” (1988), based on his manga (comic) series, portray the apocalypse as the violent cleansing of a corrupt and decultured world.

This is the dark yet gleeful symbolic revenge of Japanese youth during an era of smug material affluence, the so-called “bubble years,” when the system their parents had built seemed unassailable. Although the authors – and most of their audience – were born after the war, the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be felt in the sheer power and scale of their destructive vision, as skyscrapers topple and bodies pile up on the thoroughfares of a dystopian futuristic Tokyo.

The events that led to the third wave of Japanese apocalyptic literature took place in early 1995, right around the time the bubble began to burst. The first was a major earthquake that struck the Kobe-Osaka area in January, killing more than 6,000 people. Then, barely two months later, members of a religious cult called Aum Shinrikyo unleashed a sarin gas assault on the Tokyo subways, killing 11 and injuring many more. Suddenly, the idea of an apocalypse was real again. Moreover, the very symbols of Japan’s heralded yet now fading success – the skyscrapers, elevated highways, and educated citizenry (many Aum members had advanced degrees, or saw themselves as spiritual seekers) – were implicated in the devastation.

Kobe-bred writer Haruki Murakami had participated in the apocalyptic boom of the 1980s with entertaining and imaginative novels like “Wild Sheep Chase” (1982) and “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” (1985). Nevertheless, he chose to treat the effects of the subway gassings in a work of non-fiction, “Underground” (1997), in which he interviewed scores of victims and then, later, cult members as well.

Murakami then turned his attention to the Kobe earthquake, publishing a collection of short stories, titled “after the quake” (2000), that probed the earthquake’s impact on people physically far removed from the event. Yet, Haruki does so in an outwardly playful manner – “super-frog saves tokyo” is one story’s title -- though his intent is deadly serious.

What narratives will emanate from the present tragedy? The question seems trivial with hundreds of thousands homeless, and aftershocks still shaking Japan. Unlike the atomic bombings, there is no perpetrator, and thus no compelling moral message other than the need to restrict or possibly even eliminate nuclear power, a difficult task in a country with few other options. Yet new voices will and must emerge, for without them there is no way for the Japanese, and us, to deal with the engulfing walls of water and poisonously smoldering reactors that appear as if in a dream, and yet which are so terribly real.


An earlier version of this article appeared in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper on March 26.

Ted Goossen teaches at York University in Toronto. He is the editor of the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories. His latest publication, "Monkey Business," the English version of a Japanese literary magazine, comes out in April 2011.