I am very happy that Dolce Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 4 has begun. This will be my second year participating in this wonderfully managed challenge. There is a very good list of recommended books on the challenge blog. When I signed up for the challenge in July 2009 I planned to just read one Japanese novel to complete the requirements. I have now posted on 60 Japanese literary works This includes everything from novels by Nobel Prize winners, then century poetry, historical novels, great books about WWII and some books that may never be classics but were a lot of fun. In reading the Japanese novel in translation we have the possible advantage in that probably only the best and potentially best selling ones are translated so we already have a filtering process in place before we begin to select books.
Masuji Ibuse was born in Hiroshimi and, like Oe studied French literature and also had a deep interest in the work of Tolstoy. He was born 1898 and died 1993. During WWII he served in Singapore in the Japanese Army. His primary duty as writer for the Singapore newspaper The Straights Times. He wrote articles in which he depicted the occupation of the city by the Japanese as very preferable for the people to British rule via a diary he published. As time went on he stopped publishing his diary as he saw no point to doing it under military supervision. He also gave lectures on Japanese culture at a Singapore University. He was an unwilling inductee into the Japanese army and he showed his distaste for military life in his writings after the war. He did not directly experience the blast as he was in Singapore on August 6, 1845. He never was in combat (I have noticed many Japanese novelists were devoted readers of western literature.) In his early twenties he began to publish short stories in literary journals. He became famous as a writer for his only major work, Black Rain.
Black Rain is set in Hiroshima Japan from August 4 to August 15, 1946. On August 6 history was made when an atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. Black Rain centers on a woman who lived with her family in Hiroshima but was far enough from the bomb explosion to survive. A couple of days before the explosion the Americans dropped leaflets over the area saying they had a big surprise in the works for Hiroshima. The war weary residents just shrugged it off.
Everyone knew something terrible had happened. People knew the Americans had a weapon of a new magnitude but they were not sure how it worked. They knew the bomb did not just kill with its blast but left survivors with horrible injuries and a new illness the doctors did not understand. We travel with the woman as she goes in search for her relatives. Everywhere she sees the remains of the dead and the soon to be walking dead. Black Rain beautifully describes horrors. The book also makes use of fictional diaries, journals and conversations as well as first person and third party narration. After the bomb all sorts of rumors go through the city as people try to figure out what the Americans dropped on them. When it rained shortly after the blast the rain came down black and many felt it was an oil bomb to set the city up for fire bombing. Somehow everyone believed that if the Americans and their much feared potential fellow invaders, the Russians (looking for revenge for the Russo-Japanese War) took over Japan they had plans to castrate all the male citizens. (Maybe Ibuse was attuned to this sort of rumor from his work in the propaganda ministry.) The Japanese had even been told that the Americans were going to send in specially trained "Rape Squads" of black soldiers. Ibuse does a masterful job of capturing the feel of the first few days after the bomb. After the bomb attack for nearly the first time many Japanese soldiers begin to refuse to follow orders. Some people behaved very courageously after the attack and did all they could to help the victims.
Ibuse's account is harrowing and beautiful. I could not help but read on and on. There is no sense in which he blames the Americans for what happened. (I agree with the standard opinion that the bombing saved millions of lives on both sides and for sure the Japanese would have carpet bombed Australia, The Philippines and The USA with atomic bombs had they been the first to develop them.) There is no great screaming out of horrors in the book. If anything it is understated as the people walking through the city do not know how many were killed they just see local destruction.
As I read Black Rain I could not help but hope there will not be a need to write a similar book after another world war. As I thought that I began to wonder who would be left to write it. Black Rain was written 21 years after the first atomic bomb. I wondered how long it would be after a world war with full use of nuclear weapons before a beautiful book about it could be written, published and one day blogged about.
Kenzaburo Oe has written a wonderful non-fiction book about the bombing, Hiroshima Notes. I have previously posted on a short story by Ibuse, "Crazy Iris". Kenzaburo Oe admired this story so highly that he made it the lead work in his collection of short stories about the atomic aftermath, Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath.
I recommend this book without reservation and see it as must reading for anyone interested in the literary treatment of WWII from the Japanese point of view. I must point out that the print is very small and if you have a hard time with small print you will have issues with this book. I hate to say that as it is a wonderful work of art and it is sad some may miss out on the chance to read it.