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Erasing the bloody wounds of war

by Richard Torrance

Monumenta Nipponica

IMAG(IN)ING THE WAR IN JAPAN: Representing and Responding to Trauma in Postwar Literature and Film, edited by David Stahl and Mark Williams. Brill, 2010, 375 pp., $179 (hardcover)

This anthology is as incisive and demanding of consideration as any that I have read. The central question reframed again and again in “Imag(in)ing the War in Japan” is how the literary arts, narrative and film in particular, deal with cruelty, atrocity and brutality on an unimaginable scale.

While establishing the premise that “the moment [the author] calls up a former experience, an element of fictionalization intrudes,” the book’s introductory essay also sets out a range of arguments for the importance of remembering history’s atrocities, justifying what for most is the profoundly unsettling, if at times fascinating, experience of writing and reading literature about war.

The chronological ordering of the essays is a surprise. The anthology begins with the teaching of the Holocaust and the atomic bombings to today’s students, proceeds to the contemporary author Murakami Haruki, and then moves on to the postwar writer Mishima Yukio. It does not deal with writers who directly experienced terrible physical suffering until the middle of the volume. The book concludes with a discussion of anime representations of war set in the future and created well after World War II ended.

Ordering the volume according to the dates of the historical incident described rather than the age of the artist is an inventive way to emphasize that World War II remains alive even among the current generation. The idea that the postwar period has ended is betrayed by this volume as nothing more than a fruitless invocation.

Among the essays in this abundant collection is Alan Tansman’s discussion of a class he taught titled “Jewish and Japanese Responses to Atrocity.” Can the Holocaust and the atomic bombings be compared? If so, can we not compare the sufferings of the Vietnamese with those sent to Auschwitz, and so on? Does this not lead to the facile comparison of all instances of mass suffering caused by war?

Tansman concludes that he learned a great deal from his students and that the course was a productive failure. I submit that it takes courage to pose an ethical question that one cannot really answer oneself. Richly informed by the ideas of those who have thought dispassionately about human suffering, this essay is required reading for any teacher who truly wishes to allow students to think about human atrocity on a mass scale.

When teaching the works of Mishima Yukio, I find there are always a few students who think “Patriotism” is the finest piece of prose writing they have ever encountered. Still others register nothing but disgust. For those of both persuasions, I recommend Dennis Washburn’s essay, which concludes: “Unable to take in the totality of death, the reader is made witness to a terrible beauty.”

The problem is that if one doesn’t get it, the deaths of the husband and wife in “Patriotism” just seem silly and overwrought. Nonetheless, Mishima’s continued presence as a cult figure in Japan, and to a lesser extent in the United States, testifies to the lasting damage caused by the unceasing violence from 1931 to 1945.

In one of the book’s most informative essays, Angela Yu introduces an important new writer, Okuizumi Hikaru. In her treatment of the detective and science fiction of Okuizumi, Yu characterizes this author as one of the “growing number of critics who insist that war- and postwar literature has not come to an end but should be an ongoing project, given the number of unexplored issues of war memory and guilt.”

Among the more recent treatments of the war and the suffering it engendered, Okuizumi’s works are exceptional in managing to impart the seriousness of the ethical and philosophical issues involved.

Karen Thornber is one of several contributors who discuss Japanese atomic bomb literature. She notes that there have been thousands of works on the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by survivors and others. A small minority holds that precisely because Japan has been the only victim of nuclear weapons, it has a right to build and maintain them.

The vast majority, however, are associated with the peace movement, fully acknowledging Japan’s crimes while also holding the U.S. culpable for the atomic bombings and the ensuing violent actions against civilians, from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. The aesthetic of suffering presented in several of the other essays in the anthology is seen here as something profoundly distasteful.

Contributor Christine Wiley cites Yoshikuni Igarashi’s argument that Japanese “postwar narratives more often than not ‘erased’ the trauma of war.”

If anything, the diversity of responses to that trauma represented in “Imag(in)ing the War in Japan” disproves such assertions. The anthology will serve as an excellent basis for critical discussions concerning how historical catastrophes are lived.

This article has been excerpted from Monumenta Nipponica 65:2. Monumenta Nipponica Vol. 66, No. 1 (2011), of Monumenta Nipponica will be available this summer. For contents of current and previous issues of the journal, see the MN website: monumenta.cc.sophia.ac.jp