Japan in many ways is the land of myth, of cozy self-assurances, national delusions and unfounded assertions. Incredulous claims, such as racial homogeneity and the absence of a class system, are commonplace. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, the head of Rakuten declared that there was no crime in Japan. The myth of nuclear safety was one of the most insulting because of its transparent falsity.
The poems in this anthology dismantle the claim that nuclear power is a safe, cheap, and infinite. The book begins with a quote from a speech given at Hertford College Chapel, University of Oxford, last year, by the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto: “Adorno said, ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ I would like to revise it and say, ‘Keeping silent after Fukushima is barbaric.’ “
Sakamoto’s message was clear: “People and nukes cannot coexist, whether it be for weapons or electricity.”
We all remember March 11, 2011, with unbidden clarity, the day the death toll began to rise, while officials prepared their alibis. Given that the subjects for verse have always included death, grievance, loss and infirmity, it should come as no surprise that poets have turned their attention to the nuclear industry, one whose fuel rods and radioactive cores offer the promise of mass energy, but also human annihilation.
Chapter 1 of this collection, titled “Catastrophes Foreseen,” contains as the name suggests the most prescient works in the collection. In “A Letter from the Shroud,” Hisao Suzuki, predicting the inevitability of disaster in northern Japan, wrote in 2001, “The government and electric power companies never speak the truth/The establishments keep hiding the cracks in their technology.” After reading this anthology, you realize just how much knowledge and wisdom existed before the disaster at Fukushima, and how little heed was paid to it.
The sense of an obscene transgression taking place against nature is voiced in a work by Mariko Fukuda, in which she asks, “How would you explain to God/what mankind has done?” The book contains an unusually high representation of poems by women, something that is not always true of such collections. Spanning the generations, there are recent works from poets born in the 1920s and the 1980s.
The parallel between nuclear energy and the atomic bomb is a constant theme. For one of the foreign contributors, David Krieger, atomic bombs are not weapons but a “symbol of an imploding human spirit … a fire that consumes the air of decency.” The yoking of Nagasaki, Hiroshima and Fukushima is vindicated by the thought that they could all have been avoided. There were alternatives, but impatience and disregard for civilian lives in the first instance, greed and hubris in the latter, resulted in tragedies, though all of those who perpetuated these acts remained sublimely protected behind their governments or organizations.
For most people in Japan, the quick succession of events that took place on March 11 were like a napalm bomb detonating behind the eyes, a wakeup call to the extraordinary insanity of constructing nuclear facilities on the world’s most earthquake-prone terrain.
Many of the poems are stark, anti-euphemistic works that do not flinch from unpalatable realities. In his poem “To the New Generations,” Jun Nakamura writes, “We have to apologize to you/for your damaged genes/Cesium detected in your body/your thyroid swollen gland.” Aiko Kitamura compares the deplorable conditions of workers at nuclear plants with her own experience at Toshiba, where a neglectful management permitted employees to be exposed to the effects of organic paint. Listening to these accounts, you wonder just how many more stories will come out of the woodwork.
The subjects of these poems may be chilling, but the aggregate message of the anthology is optimistic: that finally the membrane of silence has been rent apart.