Japan. Its literature and art have been part of my world since before I could read, or hold a pencil, a paint brush or even a crayon. From the prints my mother framed and hung in our house—Degas‘ “L’Absinthe,” Mary Cassatt‘s “Mother and Child,” both painters heavily influenced by Japanese art, and a long-forgotten scene of a pagoda at night—to the child-friendly haikus in our picture books, from Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen to the films of Akira Kurosawa—Japanese culture has influenced how I’ve looked at things for most of my life.
But since last Friday, the postcard that’s been on my refrigerator for the past year, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” by Hokusai (1760-1849), looks different: The giant waves, which appear to dwarf Mt. Fuji, gives the impression of tsunamilike height. In fact, it’s merely a perspective that affords the most drama. “They are more accurately called okinami, great off-shore waves,” reads the caption for the Wikipedia file. During Hokusai’s lifetime, no major earthquakes struck Japan.
The news from Japan regarding the impending nuclear disaster caused by the real tsunamis last Friday is grim. My sister emails to say she reached the husband of her old friend from grade school; he teaches at the University of Tokyo and says they and their new grandchild are “ok.” But today the U.S. urges “deeper caution,” and evacuations have increased. Another Japanese friend assures me her family and friends are safe.
As I write this, the Wall Street Journal reports that “the Obama administration said U.S. citizens within 50 miles (about 80 kilometers) of the reactors should evacuate,” and European Union Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger has warned of possible “catastrophic events” and told the European parliament “the site is effectively out of control.” Today, along with using military fire trucks to spray water on the spent fuel rods, authorities have deployed “helicopters and water cannons in a race to prevent perilous overheating in the spent rods of the No. 3 reactor.”
It does not sound okay to me.
Looking at some of the footage of Friday’s devastation, I was reminded of many scenes from the films of Akira Kurosawa: the spectral emptiness of segments of Dreams, the end-of-the-world desolation of the garbage dump in Dodesukaden, the nihilism and blood-red plains of Ran. But it still came as a surprise when, reading back over his 1982 memoir, Something Like an Autobiography (Knopf, 1982), I found a chapter devoted to the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1923, which devastated Tokyo, Yokohama, the surrounding districts of Chiba, Kanagawa, and Shizuoka, and caused widespread damage throughout the Kantō region. It took place when Kurosawa was 13 years old. “It was a terrifying experience for me,” he writes, “and also an extremely important one. Through it I learned not only of the extraordinary powers of nature, but extraordinary things that lie in human hearts.”
When the quake was over, his older brother urged Kurosawa to accompany him on a tour of the damage. He remembers:
I set out to accompany my brother with the kind of cheerfulness you feel on a school excursion. By the time I realized how horrifying this excursion would be and tried to shrink back from it, it was already too late…For an entire day he led me around the vast area the fire had destroyed, and while I shivered in fear he showed me a countless array of corpses.
After he and his brother finally return home, Kurosawa imagines that after seeing “corpses charred black, half-burned corpses, corpses in gutters, corpses floating in rivers, corpses piled up on bridges,” and as far as the eye could see … not a living soul,” he will have nightmares or be unable to sleep. Surprisingly, he slept “like a log.” His brother explains that by shutting out what frightens us, we end up being frightened. “Looking back on that excursion now,” he writes, “I realize that it must have been horrifying for my brother too. It had been an expedition to conquer fear.” Those landscapes must never have left his mind.
Kanagawa Prefecture makes another appearance in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, where author Haruki Murakami mentions Kanagawa as his home (he also has a studio in Tokyo). Murakami wrote the six stories that make up After the Quake (2000) in response to the Jan. 17, 1995 earthquake (6.9 as compared to the one last week, which registered 9.0) that killed 6500 people, known as the Kobe, or Great Hanshin, Earthquake.
The only online versions of the extraordinary opening story, “UFO in Kushiro,” are excerpts, one of which you can read here; or you can read much more of the book, but with some pages missing, at Google books. (The story ran in the March 19, 2001 New Yorker; you can view all of it only with a subscription.) A man’s wife watches the earthquake on the news, barely able to get up for food or drink. Though she has no relatives in Kobe, she can’t tear her attention away from the scenes of “crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways.” After five days, she disappears, leaving her husband a note:
I am never coming back, she had written, then went on to explain, simply but clearly, why she no longer wanted to live with him.
The problem is that you never give me anything, she wrote. Or, to put it more precisely, you have nothing inside you that you can give me. You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air. It’s not entirely your fault, though. There are lots of women who will fall in love with you. But please don’t call me. Just get rid of all the stuff I’m leaving behind.
In “Honey Pie,” the narrator describes his daughter’s nightmares after the Kobe quake.
“I think she saw too many news reports on the earthquake. It was too much for a four-year-old. She wakes up around the time of the quake. She says a man woke her up, somebody she doesn’t know. The Earthquake Man. He tries to put her in a little box—way too little for anyone to fit into. She tells him she doesn’t want to get inside, but he starts yanking on her arm—so hard her joints crack—and he tries to stuff her inside. That’s when she screams and wakes up.
“…he’s tall and skinny and old. After she’s had the dream, she goes around turning on every light in the house and looks for him: in the closets, in the shoe cabinet in the front hall, under the beds, in all the dresser drawers. I tell her it was just a dream, but she won’t listen to me. And she won’t go to bed until she’s looked everywhere he could possibly hide. That takes at least two hours, by which time I’m wide awake. I’m so sleep-deprived I can hardly stand up…”
The now looming nuclear disaster is a chilling reminder of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945.
Kazuo Ishiguro‘s first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), narrated by a Japanese widow living in England, draws on the destruction and rehabilitation of Nagasaki. The narrator of An Artist of the Floating World (1986), is an artist living in Nagasaki (Ishiguro’s hometown) who cooperated with the Japanese government during World War II to produce propaganda; Ishiguro employs the unreliable narrator to heighten the tension between the innocence the character claims and the disgust his son feels over his father’s complicity during a shameful period. Ishiguro famously used this same technique with the butler in The Remains of the Day.
But one of the most underrated and powerfully confusing novels he’s written to date is The Unconsoled, which traces the nervous breakdown of a pianist in a Kafkaesque, unending attempt to reach the concert hall where he’s scheduled to play. The repeated attempts, the way he continually finds himself other than where he should be, his memory lapses and anxieties, create an atmosphere of vertigo; at the same time, it is more dreamlike than any other book I can think of.
Earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis, fire, and volcanoes, the bombs of 1945, terrorism and now a nuclear threat: it doesn’t seem possible that a culture could keep rebuilding and sustaining the love of beauty and art Japan has so far succeeded in doing every time disaster strikes. Over at Foreign Policy, I found this quote:
Susan Napier, professor of Japanese literature at Tufts University, says, a common thread throughout much of the cultural response to disaster is a sense of “mono no aware”—the Japanese notion that transience brings its own beauty: “It’s precisely because things don’t last that they’re beautiful, [and] it’s because of that that we have this intense feeling about the world.”