Tag Archives: Japan

Fire From the Ashes: Short Stories about Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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Fire from the Ashes: Short Stories about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is an anthology of short stories by Japanese writers who experienced the Atomic bomb or lived during the era. The stories are presented and edited by Nobel Prize Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe. Through their stories a wide spectrum of the devastation is given in unwavering detail. Some of the stories take place within the raw carnage of countless burned people in a setting that is an almost surreal representation of the end of the world. Other stories tell of the aftermath in which people attempt to make sense of what happened, live with their injuries, internalize the death of their loved ones, revisit the bombsite, and experience ostracization within their own country.

In compiling this anthology I have come to realize anew that the short stories included herein are not merely literary expressions, composed by looking back at the past, of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945. They are also highly significant vehicles for thinking about the contemporary world over which hangs the awesome threat of vastly expanded nuclear arsenals. They are, that is, a means for stirring our imaginative powers to consider the fundamental conditions of human existence; they are relevant to the present and to our movement toward all tomorrows. (Kenzaburō Ōe)

This book is the cumulative result by a group of writers to intellectually confront the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the realities of living in an age of nuclear weapons. The stories themselves are written at the highest caliber of modern literature and done so with a degree of restraint that adds an immense solemnity. Nuclear annihilation is the ultimate method of dehumanization and self-destruction. It goes beyond all atrocities for at least in traditional genocide the killer must see the faces of their victims, and so acknowledge their humanity, before killing them. A nuclear weapon dropped from the sky or fired as a warhead from miles away is impersonal as ringing a doorbell. Japanese and American people, though tied by this historic event see it in a different light. Japan says it as an atrocity, while most Americans see it as a justified means to an end. Yet if take it on sheer numbers, a devastation of one-hundred 9/11’s in a single instant is still preferable to one Hiroshima or Nagasaki. That is to speak nothing about the agonizing effects of radiation burning and birth deformities that would ensue. This is not a defense of one atrocity over the other, but a condemnation of them all. The question of extinction vs. salvation raised in this book has not ceased to be relevant. The torch has been passed to our generation and it is up to us whether we will use it to cook for the hungry, or continue to crush it out on people from above.

The following writers are included in Fire from the Ashes: Masuji Ibuse, Tamiki Hara, Katsuzo Oda, Yoko Ota, Ineko Sata, Kyoko Hayashi, Mitsuharu Inoue, Hiroko Takenishi.

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“Amrita” by Banana Yoshimoto: Tokyo pop culture and Magical realism

Amrita is the latest book I’ve finished. What a trip! It’s sort of difficult to pin this one down. All of Yoshimoto’s books read like the dairy of a Japanese high school girl or college student. What keeps her work from becoming another piece of YA (young adult) kid’s stuff is her fascination with death and the psychological depth of her characters. This is her longest novel, weighting in at 366 pages. Something told me there was a special reason behind the extended length of this book. Her other works are much shorter. It sat in my library for months. I’d pass it by wondering if it was the right time to pick up Amrita. My assumptions were correct. Amrita was a bomb of a book that went off in my brain.

The story is told form the first point perspective of a young Japanese girl, Sakumi, who lives at home with her family. The death of two family members greatly impacts everyone. Sakumi later suffers a serious head injury in which she loses her memories. Piece by piece she stumbles upon her old life. This sounds like the plot line of a stereotypical daytime TV drama but Amrita is anything but shallow. The characters are flesh and bone. Even people who only make brief appearances have a complete life of their own. What is so interesting about this book is the strong supernatural element in the book. Everything will seem entirely normal and then something surrealistic will occur, but it will happen in a way that’s eerily believable. It is a place where telepathy and the ghosts of the deceased are just the tip of the iceberg. Yoshimoto weaves a tapestry of reality, and then stretches it until the threads begin to bust. This is Magical Realism.

Amrita was a very enjoyable book that reads very modern despite being almost 20 years old. Sometimes I feel that her writing is better geared towards women readers because of her feminine style. When you read Amrita, you are in the mind of a young Japanese girl that thinks and talks like one. The quality though, is that of an experienced young writer. I believe Yoshimoto wrote this around the age of thirty. The greatest quality of this book is the voice. It is soft but strong. The story puts Sakumi through a lot of pain. The agitation in her soul is clearly reflected in her literary voice. Her inner strength is remarkable. What keeps the Amrita universe going is love. Whether it’s being shared between family, friends, or lovers, love is a central theme in this book. Yoshimoto’s genuine understanding of love allows her to create and destroy it as she wishes. She uses it to paint a sublime canvas. Magical, is how I describe Amrita.

You don’t have to be familiar with Yoshimoto’s older works to fully enjoy this one. Do not hesitate to experience the life contained in these pages.

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Blowing up houses could save America

When my brother and I were kids, we used to lift weights in the backyard. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a bench press and a few dumbbells. At the time, we lived in Madera, CA, which was hotter than the devil’s asshole. It was so hot that one day, I forgot to bring my radio back inside. When I finally remembered it later that night, the sun had literally melted the face. It reminded me of one of those Salvador Dali paintings with the melting clocks. My brother and I waited until sundown to do our weightlifting in the cool evening.

One day, my father called out to us, “Hey! Your mom needs help bringing in the groceries.” Neither of us were exactly jumping away from the Nintendo 64 to run to the car. Considering that it would be us both who would eat the majority of the food, my dad must have been a little pissed off to see us dragging our feet while grumbling about it. That’s when he looked at us and said, “You expect me to believe that you can lift all those weights but can’t pick up some grocery bags?” My father has a gift of calling bullshit with precise style.

Fast forward about 15 years. I’m watching the second presidential debate with my wife in our small Okinawan apartment. Obama and Romney are slugging it out, each trying to convince America the other guy is a complete asshole. I’m skeptical of what both politicians expect us to believe, but I tend to lean Democrat. The debate ends with Obama being the projected winner. Afterwards, I reflect on what a powerful nation we are militarily and the global influence that is derived from that might. I also get thinking about how downright shitty it is to be living back home. Isn’t that a weird contrast? Power house military, poverty house country. What the hell is that? That’s when the story of my dad popped in my head.

“You expect me to believe that you can lift all those weights but can’t pick up some grocery bags?”

That’s what I’m saying to the U.S. government. Both parties. You expect me to believe we can maintain almost a 1,000 military bases worldwide in 130 nations but you can’t take care of 50 states? Let me make myself clear that I’m criticizing the U.S. government and not our servicemen and women, who are slammed hard by these inadequacies. I’m sure Obama and Romney would have some sly response filled with nationalistic rhetoric that sounds like the right thing to say. But like my dad, who watched his two weightlifting sons bitch and moan about lifting a few grocery bag out of car, I call bullshit on every excuse they give. I’ve seen what our government is capable of doing, fixing America is not out of their reach by a long shot.

I suggest we begin a new campaign for the armed forces. We’ll send them into the worst ghettos in America and have them destroy all the shit-hole houses and embarrassingly old schools, then build a ton of new ones. Why stop there when there’s so much work to be done? We could prop bases that feed all the homeless people on the street, especially the countless who are veterans, and give them a hand to regain their shattered lives. This new military could take volunteers from all the Americans who have found a rejuvenated sense of patriotism. The government could even weigh in with the first real bailout in history, by restoring all those foreclosed homes lost by unchecked corporate greed. Unlike the last bailouts, which were more accurately an act of pillaging, let’s hold those we help responsible with a fair deal of, “we’ll help you if you help us.” That way we all become stronger.

You can look at my vision and laugh. Say it’s unrealistic. My question to you is, why? We’re the most powerful nation on the planet, why can’t we make this happen? And if it’s not a question of capability, but of political foot dragging, then maybe we should stir up some motivation. And if it has to do with downright corruption, then those individuals are traitors. Run them down like stray dogs and bring them to justice. What I am proposing is a return to our interests, the interests of ordinary Americans. You get what I’m saying?

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