A wave of imagination followed Japan’s meltdown

Tamaki Tokita is an academic who has done a study of Japanese and international literature written in response to Japan’s earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. Photo: Peter Rae Some of the many books of fiction written in response to Japan’s earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. Photo: Peter Rae

Ryoichi Wago, a poet and high school teacher in Fukushima, was one of the first writers to respond to the triple disaster – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown – that hit north-eastern Japan on March 11, 2011, killing at least 16,000 people.

After a few days in an evacuation camp, Wago went home and began to record his poetic impressions on Twitter: “Radiation is falling. It is a quiet night.” “The kitchen. I cleaned up the broken plates. As I put them in a box one by one, I felt miserable. For myself, for the kitchen, for the world.” His early tweets were published as Pebbles of Poetry in a Japanese journal, and he continues to tweet to 26,000 followers.

Five years later, Tamaki Tokita, an academic at the University of Sydney, is surprised by the wave of literature inspired by 3/11.

In her PhD thesis, just completed, she notes about 40 books already published in Japan, almost 30 of them novels, as well as short stories, poetry and films.

“People expect the early responses to be hasty and not as well thought out as later ones, but I found a lot of fiction that was quite imaginative.”

The few books that followed devastating earthquakes in 1923 and 1995 were non-fiction, the writers intent on interviewing victims and recording first-hand experience.

“That role is now taken by ordinary people who can post their experiences on social media,” Tokita says. “What was expected from authors was something more imaginative that would help people recover emotionally.”

Among the first published – in June 2011 – was Kamisama (God) by Hiromi Kawakami, a reworking of her 1994 story about a young woman on a picnic with a bear, now set in a post-disaster world affected by radiation.

Explaining her fable, Kawakami spoke of her “quiet anger” at the country she and her fellow Japanese had built, which had upset the “god of uranium” in the Shinto tradition of divine retribution.

While no 3/11 monster equivalent to Japan’s post-war Godzilla has reared up, there is a predictable taste for dystopian fiction showing a future changed by war, nuclear disaster, closed borders and totalitarian government.

“There has been a real conflict between, on one side, promoting the idea of people united and strong in the face of disaster, and on the other hand, people feeling suppressed from criticism of the authorities and expressing anti-nuclear sentiment,” Tokita says.

In his 2011 novel, A Nuclear Reactor in Love, Takahashi Genichiro imagines men making a porn video to raise money for victims of the disaster.

“He was also talking about freedom of speech, writing about sex as something hidden in Japanese society like nuclear power,” Tokita says. Proving his point, he was forbidden to use the book’s title in a university lecture.

The best of these books can be read without any knowledge of the events that inspired them, Tokita says, and most authors do not take an explicit pro- or anti-nuclear position.

“They just want to encourage people to talk and debate, which is new for Japan.”

Most of the authors were writing in Tokyo, she says, treating 3/11 as a national event and yet with the safety of distance to reimagine its outcome.

Tokita was in Auckland with her mother, finishing her undergraduate degree, when they heard about the disaster on the news. They couldn’t get through to family in Tokyo, where Tokita’s grandmother was forced out of her home after the water pipes broke.

“It caused her big stress and shock, and she died soon after,” Tokita says.

Famous Japanese writers, such as Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe and Haruki Murakami, have given their views to the media though not in books. But ripples of reaction have spread into comics, children’s books, and around the world.

Ruth Ozeki, a well-known Canadian-American novelist and Zen Buddhist priest, is among several English-language writers of Japanese parentage who have written on 3/11. A Tale for the Time Being, her Booker-shortlisted 2013 fable, follows the inquiries of a Canadian writer who finds a Japanese schoolgirl’s diary washed up after the tsunami.

“The English-language response is to want to know the Japanese way of thinking and how they manage to cope and keep rebuilding after all the disasters they’ve had,” Tokita says.

Tamaki Tokita will give a free talk, 3/11 in Literature and Film, at the Japan Foundation in Sydney on April 15 at 6.30pm.   

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on 苏州美甲美睫培训学校.