Hiroshima: A New Raison d’Être
[Editor’s Note:]Professor Yoshida is teaching in the Department of German, Russian and East Asian Languages, Miami University, Oxford, OH.
No incident in history has had such an effect on the Japanese mind as the atomic bomb experience in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Numerous literary works such as memoirs, diaries, and illustrated texts have appeared. In addition, there have been documentary films, plays, pictures, museums and monuments. In 1989, for example, the movie director ShÇhei Imamura’s major motion picture was based on Masuji Ibuse’s celebrated novel, Kuroi Ame (Black Rain). Yet the theme seems inexhaustible. The diversity and the intensity of the experience caused by the bomb are not wholly part of the past. Many still suffer from bomb-related diseases. The records are revised constantly in countless works.
Hiroshima, the name of a city, now has a special meaning. Written in katakana, the set of syllabary used for foreign names, it clearly denotes the very first human victimization of the atomic bomb both in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the beginning of the atomic age. In katakana, Hiroshima has turned into a global metaphor for the fear of sudden death, radiation-related diseases, disfiguration, sufferings, and the precarious future under the mushroom cloud. The experience has changed the prospect of life, and diminished the human belief in the order of the universe. The significance of death, and the meaning of suffering from disease, popular themes in literature, have drastically changed in the Japanese mind, too. In the dichotomy of life and death, each served as the raison d’être for the other. How the atom bomb has altered that mechanism is reflected in the bulk of writings after the war, the genre known as Genbaku bungaku (Atomic Bomb Literature).
This can be illustrated in the writings of Tamiki Hara and Masuji Ibuse.
Tamiki Hara, a survivor of Hiroshima, vividly depicts his experience in his short stories. Hara actually represents the epitome of human suffering that spans two eras. In his works, Romanticism and reality of the nuclear age intertwine. Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain is a powerful novel dealing with the multiple consequences of the atomic bomb. Based on interviews with more than fifty survivors and painstaking research in numerous archives, written twenty years after the incident, the novel concerns the kinds of human problems that resulted from the long-lasting effects of the bomb.
Although both authors are fiction writers, their works demonstrate an interesting contrast. Hara’s attitude is personal, his writing being in the confessional mode known as shishÇ sets (the I-novel). Ibuse recreates the experience in a well-structured, objective full-length novel. Hara’s stories, written immediately after the bombing, are infinitely pessimistic; Black Rain suggests the advent of hope.
Against the Lure of Death
Tamiki Hara (1905-1951) was born in the city of Hiroshima. At the age of twenty-seven, he graduated from Keio University in Tokyo having majored in English literature. He ransomed a woman from the Yokohama red-light district but later was betrayed by her. Having failed in a suicide attempt, he married another woman the following year and settled down in Chiba-city in 1934. He started writing stories for various literary magazines, but he became less productive after his wife was stricken with tuberculosis in 1939. Upon her death in 1944, he moved to Hiroshima to live with his older brother’s family, only to experience the world’s first atomic blast. His "Natsu no hana" (Eng. tr. "Summer Flower"), which was awarded a literary prize, was completed by the end of 1945, but it was not published before 1947. Until he committed suicide in 1951, he wrote stories with images of death and the holocaust. The Complete Works of Tamiki Hara in two volumes appeared in 1965.
The paperback edition of Natsu no hana/Shingan no kuni (Summer Flower and The Land of Heart’s Desire, Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1973), is edited by KenzaburÇ Æ e, arguably the most important contemporary Japanese writer. As the foremost advocate of peace and humanism, Oe has posited in a collection of essays, Hiroshima nÇto (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1965; Eng. tr. Hiroshima Notes, Tokyo: YMCA Press, 1981), that the Japanese experience of the atomic bomb should be the basis for determining what kind of future we choose. With this philosophy, Oe arranges the Hara stories in three parts in such a way that they make sense as a series of interrelated stories. In the first, there are five stories, depicting Hara’s life with his dying wife. The three pieces in the second describe the atomic holocaust and the few days immediately before and after. The four stories in the last section treat the nightmarish hunger, the fears of nuclear-related diseases, and the terrible loneliness of the principal character.
The dominant theme in the first part is the disease of tuberculosis. The main character, a poet and writer, like the author himself, has very little practical ability to earn a livelihood and is too sensitive to cope with the harsh reality of the world. As in Rilke’s Monologue of Malte Laurides Brigge, the author’s favorite book, there is no plot per se in these stories, but the beautiful images, realistic or hallucinatory, are presented with delicate lyricism.
The hero’s sick wife, who dies in the fourth story, "Utsukushiki shi no kishi ni" (On the beautiful shore of death), represents the image of the romantic. In his Literary Diseases, Gian-Paolo Biasin argues that a romantic hero who dies from "the most spiritual of diseases, tuberculosis," affirms his exceptionality and spirituality. As elswhere, the metaphor of diseases is frequently seen in the literary tradition of Japan. For example, the eleventh century masterpiece Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) is full of beautifully emaciated and serenely dying characters.
The romantic quality of the wife in Hara’s stories is established through her thorough trust and confidence in him. She believes in his future as a writer. She constantly tells him about the beautiful images--mostly landscapes, skies, and stars that she has seen in her dreams. In turn, the husband tries to identify some of them with images he sees in reality. Furthermore, he, being sickly himself, is acutely sensitive to and affected by his wife’s condition: "Even the slightest stimulus or the smallest change in the weather affected his wife’s condition. Thus, the hero/narrator and his wife share the same spiritual experience.
The author not only creates this lyric, secluded, serene world of the couple, but he also saves the hero from the lure of death by the metaphor of disease. "He would be almost tempted, under the burden of life, to yield himself up to the quiet shore of death" (p. 50). "The fact that his wife was sick in bed seemed to secure at least one place in this world by which he could live" (p. 49).
The small, fragile world of romanticism built upon a fatal disease is undermined by apocalyptic visions. The beautiful images are juxtaposed to ominous mental images often presented in the form of dreams. In one of his wife’s dreams, all of the stars in the sky fell down. Such images of cosmic explosion and the sure signs of her deteriorating health combine to suggest the impending end of the age in which they live.
In the final moments when his wife is in her death throes, the hero tries to see something sweet and beautiful in death:
Even though his wife was suffering right in front of him, he did not know for sure if she would be blown away by the wind of death. He never dreamed that she would die before he did. Even if she was dying now, he hoped, she might, after the present agony, die a beautiful death.... He prayed fervently to be visited by the image of ideal beauty. (p. 59)
On the function of death in Romantic literature, the German poet Novalis writes that "Death is the principle that makes our life romantic. Death is--life. Through death life is reinforced." Death reflects life since it is the antithesis of life: life becomes more meaningful in the face of death. As for diseases, the poet argues that "diseases are the stimulus and the most interesting subject for our meditation and activity.... Only, we know little the art of using them." Neither Biasin or Novalis analyzes the romantic and spiritual quality of tuberculosis, but the quality seems related to the quiet life-style entailed by medical treatment of the disease long periods of rest at sanatoria cut off from worldly activities. As physical energy decreases, spiritual and mental activities intensify; one meditates and carefully observes people or nature. As emaciation progresses, all the indications of one’s physical being--plumpness and luster in the skin, for example--gradually disappear. Thus, by eliminating the physical part of one’s being, one can assume a spiritual and, therefore, romantic existence. No ugly disfiguration is attributed to this disease. Considered fatal, as cancer often is now, it was characterized by its gradualness instead of chilly suddenness, as in some cases of cancer. But shortly after new medicines were developed to combat tuberculosis effectively, the atomic bomb put an end to that Romantic age to which tuberculosis belonged.
The atomic bomb, called "Monster," dominates Hara’s second part. Having lost his beloved wife, his only reason for living, he had to experience firsthand what Hiroshima experienced. In his "Summer Flower," a first person narrative, he describes his personal experience in a vivid but restrained manner. The psychological impact of the first nuclear bomb disoriented the people of Hiroshima as well as the people of the world.
Everybody thought that it was only his house that was bombed, my sister told me, shuddering. He was amazed when he stepped out into the street to discover that all the houses around were flattened. Another strange thing was that the houses on the ground were demolished and yet there was no cavity, the kind that a bomb makes in the ground. It was shortly after the alarm had been cancelled that something had flashed with a light sound of "shu" as if magnesium was being burned. My sister had felt the ground under her feet turn over.... It was like a magic show. (p. 129) The kind of violence that this magic show demonstrated was beyond human comprehension. Living people were cremated instantaneously; others who seemed to be unaffected were soon to die because their internal organs were burned. Countless new types of calamities pointed to the awesome fact that the age of nuclear physics had arrived, but, nobody, including Hara, knew this. In the stories grouped in the second and third parts, death and diseases are totally different from those in the first section. They are diametrically opposite to what is romantic, quiet, and serene.
For the first time I saw a crowd of people indescribable people. As my brother and I walked along the river, the setting sun made the landscape look pale. Along the river bank, people were casting their shadows on the water. They were lying barely breathing with faces so swollen that it was hard to tell if they were male or female. The facial swelling made their eyes look narrow, as if pieces of thread were lying across their faces; their lips were horribly inflamed; their limbs exposed painfully. As we were passing among them, these weird people talked to us in whispering, gentle voices, "Give me some water," or "Please help." (p. 131)
The disfiguration and mutilation of the atomic bomb victims is directly associated with the sudden loss of human dignity which, in turn, signifies the degeneration of the human race. The disfiguration leading to death invariably evokes the notion of God’s death: when God was alive, the disfiguration of leprous Christians could be cured by the Savior’s touch. The unprecedented magnitude of disaster from a single bomb suggests the apocalyptic ending of the world, the visions and images of which have been interwoven into the lyric presentation of Hara’s romantic stories. Individual death turns into mass death, communal death, and the romanticism of life is negated. Tamiki Hara was forced to live through two traumatic experiences in succession: the ending of the romantic age and the beginning of the Godless nuclear age.
While witnessing the calamities in Hiroshima, Hara discovers his raison d’être, his mission as a writer. He whispers to himself, "I was struck by the fact that I was still alive and by the meaning of it all. I must write down these things for the sake of future generations" (p. 128). He keeps writing about the various fates of people who died in agony, or about the bereaved who are suffering from atomic bomb diseases contracted from the deceased. His attempt to see hope is doomed. In "Hi no kuchibiru" (Lips of Fire), a young girl, a precious image of happiness and health, is to be overshadowed by the image of a grossly disfigured woman who asks for water. He repeatedly indoctrinates himself, "I have to live, not for myself, but for the dead. I must live (to give voice) to the grief of the dead."
This new raison d’être for Hara is altogether different from the old one as defined by Novalis. What kept Hara alive is his sense of responsibility to write about Hiroshima where death and diseases are completely stripped of any romantic notion. He kept writing until finally he succumbed to the lure of death; he lay down on the track of the Tokyo Railway System and a train ran over his body.
If a Rainbow Appears,
Masuji Ibuse was born in 1898 in a rural village in Hiroshima Prefecture. He enrolled in 1917 in the Literature Department of Waseda University in Tokyo but never finished his course work. Instead, he read Tolstoy and Chekhov extensively and studied writing as a disciple of the poet and novelist Haruo Sato. He established himself as a professional writer when he sold his first short story to a literary magazine in 1927. He received the Naoki Prize in 1938, and the Noma Prize in 1966 for Kuroi Ame (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1966; Eng tr. Black Rain, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1969). In August 1945, Ibuse evacuated his home in Tokyo to avoid nightly air raids, and he returned to his native village in Hisoshima Prefecture. Fortunately his village was far enough from the doomed city.
Black Rain is a novel with a distinct structure, told in a narrative notable for its masterly use of temporal switches. The image of water and trees as a metaphor of life underlies the novel and subtly suggests the advent of hope at the end. The narrative begins several years after the bomb. Shigematsu Shizuma and his wife, Shigeko, worry about the possible radioactive contamination of their niece Yasuko, which threatens to hinder a marriage proposal. Wishing to prove that she is not contaminated, Shigematsu starts to make a fair copy of her diary, which testifies that at the time of the bombing she was far from the city. In order to emphasize how mild Yasuko’s experience was, he also transcribes his own scribblings from that disastrous time. This narrative motivation makes Shigematsu’s role in the novel twofold. He not only records his own and other peoples’ past experience, but he is also the main character in the narrative present, around whom the past evolves into the future.
This setting suggests the polarity of life and death; Yasuko, as a young girl signifying the prime of life, is seeking a prospective husband. A marriage is immediately linked to the notion of the life reproduction, the continuation of life into the future. Opposed to this, there is the atom bomb, the ominous image of death and annihilation of the mankind. For Shigematsu, the narrative motivation is none other than his all-out struggle for life, which gradually turns into his raison d’être. Ironically, life becomes impossible without the fear of the atom bomb.
Numerous episodes exemplify the infinitely multiple nature of the experience. It is possible, however, to place them in categories. In the experience of sudden death, a sentry stands dead with his rifle at order, his back propped against the embankment, his eyes wide open. Another example provokes a keen sense of the contrast between life and death: "We had sighted from some way off the body of a woman.... As I drew closer, I saw a baby girl of about three who had opened the corpse’s dress at the top and was playing with the breasts." 
The second experience is that of disfiguration. A young boy whose face is swollen beyond recognition like a football cries to his older brother, "You must know who I am!" (p. 51). The ghost-like posture of suddenly blinded people and a crowd of severely wounded soldiers moving in procession together with the suffocating smell of dead bodies disintegrating form an undeniable vision of the Apocalypse. Thus, Hiroshima becomes a metaphor for Doomsday, when the balance of nature is destroyed, symptomatic of the decay of the Universe. Shigematsu records: "The bomb seemed to have encouraged the growth of plants and flies at the same time that it puts a stop to human life" (p. 191).
Shigematsu’s diary shows that as soon as the news of the bombing spread, civilians from the neighboring areas, individually and in groups, rushed to Hiroshima on a rescue mission. This quickly turns into a mission of carrying bodies to the make-shift crematoria along the river banks in the city. Shigematsu, Ibuse’s hero, becomes an instant Buddhist monk just by learning a few scriptures. He justifies his overnight priesthood: "I had no qualifications for guiding the souls of the dead.... yet at the very least, I told myself, my reading of the sutras should be a prayer for their salvation" (p. 134). There are many similar episodes showing the devotion of just "ordinary people" to the wounded. Medical care is nonexistent, even though a few doctors do their best in spite of their own injuries. Many of those who come to participate in volunteer activities or to look for lost members of their families fall ill and die more quickly than the direct victims.
Inspite of her uncle’s wishful thinking, Yasuko, too, becomes gravely ill, probably as the consequence of her visit to the ruined city. Having no need to keep silent any longer, I have described these things as they occurred. My reason is that the talks on my niece Yasuko’s marriage, which were rapidly approaching an agreement, have quite suddenly been broken off. Yasuko has begun to show symptoms of radiation sickness. Everything has fallen through. By now, it is neither possible nor necessary to go on pretending....
Her eyesight has deteriorated rapidly, and she complains of a constant ringing in her ears. When she first told me about it, in the living room, there was a moment when the living room vanished and I saw a great, mushroom-shaped cloud rising into a blue sky. I saw it quite distinctly. (p. 219)
Shigematsu cannot help facing the mushroom cloud squarely. All the aspects of his life centers around this monstrous cloud. Life is entirely at the mercy of radiation sickness.
What makes this work more than a documentary study of "Hiroshima" what makes it transcend the fact and elevates it to the status of artistic creation is Ibuse’s success in giving literary expression to the enormous experience. Death in the atomic age is no longer a romantic raison d’être determining the value of life but the desperate one. Without eliminating it, life is impossible.
When Shigematsu transcribes his own journal, retells or quotes other people’s records, he often makes comments or corrects mistakes in the old records. The incidents and episodes took place several years before the narrative time, whereas the voice of the transcriber, Shigematsu, (often the same person as the author of the original journal) belongs to the time segment of the narrative present. The authorial voices of the original journal and of the transcriber are in the first person. Thus, Ibuse successfully creates a flow in which the time segments of the present and past are interwoven each other. Furthermore, this time continuity is broken up once in a while by a several-page description of the present life of the Shizumas; the major incidents in these inserted parts involve the carp raising business of Shizuma and his friends, the marriage proposals for Yasuko, and her subsequent illness. There are sixteen portions inserted throughout the novel, some are several pages and some only a few lines long. They are usually set apart by double spacing, but once Ibuse ignores this self-prescribed rule deliberately when Shigematsu finds out about Yasuko’s sickness. The fusing of the two time segments here by integrating the narrative present into the past is a cogent device to present the causality between the atom bomb and the illness of Yasuko resulting from it.
Ibuse’s techniques involving both the temporal scheme and plural narrative voices are indispensable in order to mold the enormous and diversified experiences of the atomic bomb into a single configuration. Ivo Vidan, a Yugoslav literary theoretician, posits in his essay, "Time Sequence in Spatial Fiction," that a distorted chronology is necessary in order for a work to evolve in the reader’s mind into a concrete composite image:
Consecutive narration has been broken up or distorted by the authorial voice or a fictional narrator, or complicated by internal or external relationships between two or more voices. In any case, the inner time continuity does not proceed in its natural order and is instead problematized both by the order substituted for it and by the way the reader’s consciousness experiences this problematization. This requires that the story should be felt as being not spontaneously related, but deliberately organized through the medium of an implied narrator, or several narrators or one personalized narrator.
Unlike Tamiki Hara, Ibuse is sometimes optimistic. This comes from the fact that Ibuse’s raison d’être is to see Yasuko recover from the disease. The record of a young physician, juxtaposed to that of Yasuko’s illness, for example, seems to foretell Yasuko’s future. The physician, though severely injured right under the blast, miraculously recovers after a long, painful fight against the disease. Perseverance is one of the traditional values that the author seems to believe in to bring about hope. He also uses traditional symbols like "tree" and "water."
When Shigematsu puts the records straight for posterity, he chooses the traditional writing materials (brush and sumi) rather than the more convenient pen and ink, so that the writing may not be faded or discolored in the future. This consideration itself not only presupposes the continuation of life in the future, but also leads to the symbolic presentation of the natural source of life, the tree of life. Ibuse’s tree of life is called Kemponashi.
Shigematsu and his wife Shigeko examine an old letter written in pen and ink. The letter is a thank-you note sent by a Tokyoite to Shigematsu’s great grandfather, who had sent two ounces of the Kemponashi seeds to the person in Tokyo at his request. The great grandfather put the letter in the heirloom box since a letter in Western ink was rare at that time. The ink is found discolored and Shigematsu is convinced that sumi surpasses it in durability. Here Ibuse’s hero longs for the endless continuation of human race.
"The Kemponashi is a noble tree" (p. 43), the authorial voice tells us. Shigematsu’s great grandfather had had in his garden five great Kemponashi, and naturally Shigematsu likes the tree. When his relatives come to Hiroshima shortly after the blast, thinking that Shigematsu and his family were all dead, they place a few Kemponashi seeds in the ruins of his house, a symbolic gesture of the desire for regeneration.
He [Shigematsu] had been so thirsty that day. He would have given anything for a drink of water. He had turned a tap by the roadside, and steaming hot water had come out, too hot to drink directly, too hot to cup in the hands.... His head full of such memories, he took up his brush, and set to work. (p. 44)
The rivers in Hiroshima were full of dead bodies on that day. People who jumped into the water were simply burned to death by the flames sweeping fiercely over the surface of the water. For several months the fish in Hiroshima rivers were contaminated by radiation. Thus, the image of fresh, clean water running through Ibuse’s novel becomes a sort of requiem. The image of water is a metaphor of life. The carp raising business by Shigematsu and his friends is reported as successful in those inserted short segments. Even the grim news of Yasuko’s illness is juxtaposed to the episodes of the healthy growth of baby carp. In the last chapter, Shigematsu describes August 15, the day of Japan’s surrender. As the radio emits the Emperor’s edict of surrender, Shigematsu finds in the factory complex a clear, refreshing stream with a myriad of baby eels swimming upstream in it. After he finishes the transcription of his journal, Shigematsu goes to his hatchery pond and finds everything in order. He looks up and says, "‘If a rainbow appears over those hills now, a miracle will happen.... and Yasuko will be cured,’.... even though he knew all the while it could never come true." (p. 300)
"Hiroshima" has emerged from under the mushroom cloud as a new reality of the nuclear age. Ibuse and Hara treat that reality as a literary theme. Their major assumption in the midst of the unprecedented calamity is "No matter what, life must go on." Hara’s mission as a writer to record his experience presupposes the audience in the future. Ibuse’s hero, too, never doubts the continuation of the human life. Nevertheless, life is never the same in face of the new reality of "Hiroshima:" the atom bomb destroyed Hiroshima, but the works of Ibuse and Hara have turned the ruined city into a powerful image and metaphor representing a new raison d’être
[Author’s Notes: All the translations from Tamiki Hara’s works are mine.]
 "Summer Flower" is included in The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath, ed. and intro. KenzaburÇ Æ e (New York: Grove Press, 1985).
 "The Land of Heart’s Desire" is also included in the above volume.
Gian-Paolo Biasin, Literary Diseases:Themes and Metaphor in the Italian Novel (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1975), p. 6.
 Tamiki Hara, Natsu no hana/Shingan no kuni (Summer Flower and The Land of Heart’s Desire,] ed, KenzaburÇ Æ e, (Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1973), p. 18. Subsequent quotes are all from this edition.
 Novalis, Fragmente, in Shcriften, III, passim, quoted in Biasin, p. 7.
Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain, tr. John Bester (Tokyo, New York, and San Fransico: Kodansha International, 1983), p. 107. Subsequent quotes are all from this edition.