- Link to listen
- Notes and sources
- Ways to support the podcast
This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher.
Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works. All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. You can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.
Quick content warning: The events of 3/11 were terrible. We’re covering them in detail today.
[0:40] On March 11, 2011, at 2:46pm, one tectonic plate forced its way on top of another 45 miles (or 72 km) off the Eastern coast of Japan. It caused a 9.0 magnitude megathrust earthquake that lasted about six minutes. That’s the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan—the 4th most-powerful earthquake recorded since scientists started keeping records in 1900.
To give you a sense of the earthquake’s intensity:
This earthquake is now known as “Higashi nihon daishinsai” or “The Great East Japan Earthquake”.
[1:52] The Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a tsunami—a great wave—that may have reached heights up to 133 feet (more than 40 meters). It rushed as far as 6 miles (or 10 kilometers) inland at speeds up to 435 miles per hour. (That’s about 700 kilometers an hour, the speed of a passenger jet at cruising altitude.) And it caused massive destruction along more than 250 miles of Japan’s eastern coast. (That’s about 400 kilometers.) Some of Japan’s coastal cities were wiped away in minutes.
We think about the tidal wave just in terms of Japan. But an object in motion stays in motion… And the tidal wave reached Antarctica hours later, it broke off chunks of ice the size of Manhattan Island in New York City.
A few weeks after the disaster, the World Bank issued a report estimating that the financial damage from the earthquake and tsunami alone could reach $235 billion (American). That makes The Great East Japan Earthquake the most expensive natural disaster in history. But the disaster wasn’t over yet.
[3:07] The earthquake and tsunami also disabled the reactor cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The afternoon of March 12, one of those reactors exploded—creating problems with two others. Another exploded the following Monday. The next day, a third explosion released radiation at 10,000 times normal levels.
By April 9, the Tokyo-based company that ran the plant admitted contaminated water had probably leaked into nearby soil and water. A week later, Japanese authorities created a 12-mile “no-go” evacuation zone around the plant. (That’s about 20 kilometers). More than 300,000 people were eventually evacuated because of the meltdowns.
Three months later, the company finally reported leaks might have spread into the Pacific Ocean.
Collectively, people inside and outside of Japan refer to this series of disasters as “san ten ichi-ichi” or “3-11”
The government of Tokyo released official death numbers around the 10th anniversary of 3/11 in 2021. It reported 19,759 deaths.
And 2,553 missing. Most of the missing are presumed dead.
Hundreds of thousands of people who evacuated the area still haven’t returned home—many never will.
[4:45] We’re going to back up a little bit to look at the bigger picture of the affected region—Tohoku—and its place in Japan’s history and culture. It’s a region that has a complicated place in Japan’s politics and imagination.
Then we’ll move on to Japan’s response to the 3/11 disaster—with a special focus on the way Japan’s writers responded.
By the way, I’m using the term “Fukushima Fiction” today. That term comes from Rachel DiNitto’s book Fukushima Fiction: The Literary Landscape of Japan’s Triple Disaster. Dr. DiNitto is a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Oregon.
In English, “Fukushima” has become a kind of stand-in for the entire disaster. Fukushima is the site of the nuclear meltdown, but much of northeastern Japan was devastated by the triple disaster.
In Japan, some people have used the term shinsai bungaku or “earthquake literature” to describe the same set of stories—obviously “earthquake literature” doesn’t really express the full extent of the disaster either.
Today’s episode will end with the life and work of Hiromi Kawakami. Her story “Kamisama” has been translated into English as “God Bless You”. She revisited and rewrote the work “God Bless You” in response to 3/11. It was one of the first literary responses to the Triple Disaster.
[6:16] The word “Tohoku” is written with the characters for “east” and “north”. So it is literally the northeast of the Honshu, the largest island of the Japanese archipelago. Six of Japan’s 47 prefectures fall in the Tohoku region: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata.
The Tohoku region is an area of almost 26,000 square miles. (67,000 square kilometers). That’s about 30% the total landmass of Honshu—a space larger than the entire nation of Denmark.
It was once populated by the Emishi people. The Emishi were hunter-gatherers. They were also skilled horse-people.
The centralized Japanese government based in Nara made its first attempt to conquer the region in the eighth century. The Japanese government had a hard time doing this.
By the beginning of the 9th century, the central Japanese government did control most of what is now Tohoku. Most of the Emishi that remained became a part of broader Japanese society. Some of them immigrated north to the northern island of Hokkaido. There’s some debate about whether the Emishi and the Ainu people native to Hokkaido are related.
[7:36] Over the course of centuries, Tohoku became the bread-basket of Japan—or at least the “rice-basket”.
Most of the region isn’t especially suited, though, for wet-rice agriculture. That’s the way people in Japan tend to grow rice. That means Tohoku was also susceptible to famine when the weather ruined crops. But Tohoku was important to central Honshu and the wealthier, more prestigious centers of power.
The wealthier, more prestigious centers of power needed Tohoku to sustain its way of life—needed the resources to thrive. And Tohoku became dependent on the income it got from selling resources to the centers of power. That dynamic has led some scholars to call the Tohoku region Japan’s first colony or an “internal” colony.
[8:34] The Meiji Restoration in 1868 reinforced Tohoku’s position. The Meiji Government’s policy of “Civilization and Enlightenment” would need to “civilize and enlighten” Tohoku as well… at least in the ways that would benefit the Meiji Government—the people who were in power.
[8:53] Throughout the 20th century, for example, the Tohoku region also provided day laborers for projects in Tokyo. During the economic miracle—the high growth period of the 1960s—a lot of laborers came to Tokyo to find jobs. These laborers were known as “golden eggs”. They were like gold for their employers—cheap, young, almost interchangeable—and there seemed to be an unlimited supply.
Today, many people still think of Tohoku as a region continually exploited by Tokyo—and for some good reasons. The GDP per capita in Tohoku is below the average GDP per capita for the whole of Japan—and it’s less than half the average GDP per capita in Tokyo. We’ll come back to perceived disconnect between Tohoku and the rest of Japan in just a minute.
[9:48] The flip side of this kind of constant Othering, is that Tohoku also has a unique place in Japan’s culture.
Matsuo Basho is almost certainly Japan’s most famous haiku poet—at least outside of Japan. His The Narrow Road to the Deep North is about his travels through Tohoku. That book, by the way, is also translated as The Narrow Road to the Interior.
Incidentally, my favorite Bashō haiku takes place in Miyagi Prefecture. It’s about a place called Matsushima—it’s a group of islands. It doesn’t even require translation!
Aa matsushima ya
[10:36] After WWII, Tohoku was presented to the Japanese as an alternative to the militarized Japan of the 1930s and 40s. It became a kind of symbol of what Japan could be. In the words of historian Tomio Takahashi, the region represented “a Japan that [the Japanese] could be proud of”.
A decade later, during the high growth era, Tohoku came to represent a kind of “storehouse” for everything that was supposed to be quintessentially Japanese—for “old Japan”.
In 1970, Japan National Railways launched an advertising campaign called “Discover Japan”—and it was written… in English. They were trying to encourage Japanese people to travel domestically and explore their own country. Several of the destinations promoted in this campaign were in Tohoku, including places like Tono and Osorezan.
The campaign presented travel within Japan as cool—especially for young women. But it also made these destinations look so different, so exotic, so Other, that the average Japanese person would need to visit them the way they’d visit a foreign country. The message was something like, “Why bother to travel abroad? There are places in your own country that would be beautifully old fashioned and backward! How quaint!”
[12:06] Let me pause here to talk about a couple of Japanese ideas that get thrown around a lot when people talk about 3/11. I’m borrowing here from the work of Dr. Tamaki Mihic at the University of Sydney. She wrote an important and phenomenal book on Re-Imagining Japan after Fukushima. You should know that her book is free via a Creative Commons license. Check for a link on the episode page.
I like the way Dr. Mihic emphasizes these particular ideas. I think each illuminates problems with the relationship between Tohoku and the rest of Japan.
[12:43] The first idea that Dr. Mihic brings up is “kizuna” or a kind of “bond between people”. It’s really more relevant to personal or family relationships. But during the 3/11 disaster and the aftermath, it became almost synonymous with how “group-oriented” and “community-first” the Japanese are supposed to be.
If you’re American or British, you might remember how heavily the news relied on Japanese stereotypes in their media coverage. The Japanese aren’t even looting! There are noble elderly people volunteering to decontaminate radioactive sites! Yes, these are worthwhile observations. And I don’t mean to downplay anyone’s actions. What I’m trying to say is that the Western media coverage focused on these stories because they reinforced ideas that Westerners hold about what the Japanese are supposed to be like.
Japanese viewers could watch foreign news with real-time translation. And these kinds of stories reinforced the idea that unity and cooperation are uniquely Japanese values. In fact, kizuna was such a prominent word in 2011, that it was voted the kanji of the year over the kanji for “disaster” and “quake”.
[14:05] The second idea that Dr. Mihic raises is “gaman”. Gaman comes from the verb ganbaru—“to persist” or “to hold on” or “to do your best”. If you’ve ever watched Japanese anime, you’ve almost certainly heard one character tell another, “Ganbatte!” It was a popular favorite in the international media’s coverage of 3/11.
One March 17 USA Today article cites a (non-Japanese) senior director at the Japan Society in New York City: “Suffering and persevering is a type of virtue in Japan… among the most commonly heard expressions there are gaman… gambaru… and shoganai (‘it cannot be helped’)”.
After the disaster, “Ganbatte Japan!” and “Ganbatte Tohoku!” were popular refrains.
[15:05] Now—why did I bring up these ideas? It’s clear from the rhetoric that has come from leaders in Tokyo that any kind of kizuna bonds between Tohoku and Tokyo are fairly weak. For one thing, there have been some extremely public and notable gaffes.
Right after the disaster, then-governor of Tokyo Ishihara Shintaro called the earthquake “divine retribution”. According to Shintaro, Japan could “use the tsunami to wash away egoism, to wash away the many years of crud built up on the hearts of the Japanese”.
(You might remember from earlier episodes just how much I dislike Tokyo’s ultranationalist, Akutagawa-winning governor—this is the same misogynist who described Mieko Kawakami’s Chichi to Ran as “egocentric, self-absorbed rambling” as well as “unpleasant and intolerable”.)
One of the problems with Ishihara’s remarks is that the worst of the “divine retribution” was visited on Tohoku—not Japan at large and certainly not on Tokyo. The reaction against Ishihara’s remarks was so heated he actually (gasp) retracted them! That was almost unheard of.
And then in August 2016, then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared at the closing ceremony for the Rio Summer Olympics. He popped out of a giant green pipe wearing Super Mario’s signature red hat to celebrate what Japanese politicians were promoting as “the Reconstruction Olympics”.
Maybe not a gaffe per se? But even a year after Abe’s appearance, more than half of the evacuees from Tohoku—that’s almost 120,000 people—still didn’t have permanent housing.
In April 2017, Reconstruction Minister Masahiro Imamura commented that the earthquake “was okay because it happened over there in Tohoku”. He later clarified, “Even in Tohoku, that terrible damage of 25 trillion yen was incurred. If it hit places near the Tokyo area, it would have been an unimaginable disaster”. He was actually forced to resign several days later.
[17:31] In the mind of many people in Japan, Tohoku is once again being treated as a kind of “national sacrifice zone”. Reminders to “Ganbatte Japan!” after 3/11 rang hollow. It seemed like Tohoku was the only place people were really being asked to endure. And how fair is it, really, to tell people to “keep doing their best”, when circumstances are so far out of their control?
Keep in mind that Tepco—the Tokyo Electric Power Company—is the one that owns the Fukushima Daiichi plant. It provided power to people living in Tokyo—not Fukushima or anywhere in Tohoku. And it’s pretty clear that TEPCO—the Tokyo Electric Power Company— bears most of the blame for the accident.
[18:23] And the 2020 “Reconstruction” Olympics? The process of labor[ers] leaving Tohoku for Tokyo repeated itself. In the 2010s, economic circumstances forced those laborers to leave behind unfinished rebuilding projects from 3/11. And construction costs in Japan rose for the 1st time in decades—by as much as 30%.
[19:00] In 2012, the Japan Science and Technology Agency released a fascinating study about press coverage of 3/11. Japanese people who watched TV four or more hours a day in March and April 2011 were at a significantly elevated risk of PTSD. Footage of the disaster was just so horrifying that watching coverage was traumatizing.
Many accounts of the disaster called it soteigai—“beyond imagination”. But imagining something is exactly what fiction is for.
[19:35] For the next few minutes, we’re going to talk about how Fukushima fiction has played a role in helping Japan come to terms with 3/11 and its aftermath.
In April 2011, the Japanese government established the “Reconstruction Design Council”. According to reports, the committee’s goals included inspiring “sufficient motivation” to the Japanese people to help them face reconstruction. Another was to “convince foreign nations of the outstanding quality of Japanese knowledge”.
One of the items the committee took up was the official representation of the disaster. It’s known, for example, that the government suggested journalists and writers take advantage of words like fukko (“reconstruction”) and kibo (“hope”). They should also use soteigai—the word for “unimaginable” or “unforeseeable” that we mentioned just a minute ago.
They shouldn’t use words like muryoku (“powerlessness”). Zetsubo (“despair”). Merutodaun (“meltdown”).
[20:44] A member named Genyū Sōkyū was both a priest and an Akutagawa-winning writer. In an essay, he claims the government wanted to keep radioactive contamination off the committee’s agenda entirely—it was “too great a problem”. Many of the committee members weren’t pleased. And this is part of the reason I prefer the term “Fukushima fiction”. Just because it reinforces the way writers in Japan really stood up for the inclusion of radioactive contamination in the response to 3/11.
In late April 2011, a literary critic named Minako Saitō called on authors to “express their 3/11 experiences through literature”—and, it was effectively in the face of the official government position.
[21:33] Just a quick side note: I’m not sure where to put poet Ryoichi Wago in our story today. He’s a poet. I don’t normally cover poetry. Japanese poetry is not something I know much about. But Wago and his work are an important part of this story—so let me mention him here.
As early as March 16, 2011, he was publishing poetry about the disaster on Twitter. Wago teaches Japanese language and literature in Fukushima Prefecture. And a lot of his poetry highlights the way Tohoku is left out by the rest of Japan, as we discussed earlier in his episode.
This is an excerpt from one of his poems:
Those who drive us out from our native place, cruel people who drive out us Japanese.
They are “we Japanese”.
I have now discovered that our nation is like this.
A new volume of his poetry in English translation came out in February 2023. Since Fukushima was translated by Ayako Takahashi and Judy Halebsky.
[22:40] To me, what’s especially noteworthy about writers and 3/11 is that writers felt like they had a special role to play, something only that only they could do.
Haruki Murakami, for example, spoke about the work authors could do when he accepted the Catalunya Prize in Barcelona that June. I’m going to read you a long quote from that speech:
The work of repairing damaged roads and rebuilding houses is the dominion of the appropriate experts. But when it comes to rebuilding damaged morals and ethical standards, the responsibility falls on all our shoulders…
And he’s talking there to everyone, all of us.
In this great collective effort, there should be a space where those of us who specialize in words, professional writers, can be positively involved. We should weave together with words new morals and new ethical standards. We should plant vibrant new stories and make them sprout and flourish. These stories will become our shared story.
[23:48] There were also authors who were also motivated by a desire to help victims materially. Many writers collaborated on collections to help raise funds and/or awareness. I can think of 3 prominent ones that are available in English:
2:46—Aftershocks—Stories from the Japan Earthquake is a “Twitter-sourced charity book about how the Japanese earthquake at 2:46 on March 11, 2011 affected us all”. It came out in English and includes work by Yoko Ono, William Gibson, Barry Eisler, and Jake Adelstein. And it was out within four weeks of the disaster.
March Was Made of Yarn is an anthology of seventeen works by Japanese and non-Japanese authors. It was edited by David Karashima and Elmer Luke. And it was published on January 1, 2012 simultaneously in Japan, the UK, and the US.
The third collection I can think of is called Shinsai to fikushon no ‘kyori’: Ruptured Fiction(s) of the Earthquake. The effort was coordinated by Makoto Ichikawa of Waseda Bungaku and published in 2012. All the stories were written in Japanese. It was published as a dual-language collection in Japanese and English with work by some pretty big-name English-language translators. It also includes two stories translated into both Chinese and Korean. (FYI, I had to buy my edition from a Japanese bookstore and have it shipped from Japan.
[25:25] Before we move on to Hiromi Kawakami [see 30:00], I want to mention a few examples of Fukushima fiction that are available in English—and from North American and European bookstores. I’ve picked these titles because they’re important, and they represent important themes in Fukushima fiction.You can find a more complete list of what has been translated on the episode page. Note that only a tiny portion of Fukushima fiction has been translated into English.
2011’s Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure might be one of the most important and direct literary responses to 3/11. In English, it has the subtitle “A Tale That Begins with Fukushima”.
Horses, Horses is an example of the most direct kind of Fukushima fiction. It takes place in Tohoku. The characters and events are deeply embedded in the region. And the action is a direct, explicit response to 3/11. It was written by Hideo Furukawa, who is a Tohoku native. It was translated into English by Doug Slaymaker, with the help of Akiko Tanenaka.
In Horses, Horses, a semi-autobiographical narrator travels to his childhood home near Fukushima after the disaster. It’s a stream-of-consciousness book—it follows the thoughts of the narrator as they jump from one idea to another, almost at random. It’s also a magical realist book. Most notably, the protagonist of Furukawa’s most famous novel, The Holy Family, shows up in the back of Furukawa’s rental car.
[27:02] Other examples of Fukushima Fiction are more indirect. I think Yoko Tawada’s 2014 The Emissary is almost certainly a work of Fukushima Fiction. (The Emissary was also translated as The Last Children of Tokyo.) It’s the same translation under both titles by Margaret Mitsutani.
In The Emissary, Japan has been devastated by some kind of man-made catastrophe. As a result, the “aged-elderly” seem almost immortal. The children of Japan are feeble and disabled. It’s heavily implied they’ve all been poisoned by radiation.
We’ll take a look in just a minute at Hiromi Kawakami’s “God Bless You, 2011”. It’s another story where some vague event caused a terrible nuclear disaster. Because Kawakami wrote the story in March 2011, the connection is more obvious—even if it’s not any more explicit.
[27:58] Fukushima Fiction also transcends the Japanese language. Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is one of my very favorite books. Ruth Ozeki is a Japanese-American-Canadian Zen Buddhist priest. Her novel is a brilliant, quantum-magical-realist story. It connects a fictional version of Ozeki with a teenager who may or may not have been killed on 3/11. So it’s Fukushima fiction… but it’s also part metafiction, part coming-of-age story, part return narrative, part sci-fi, part disaster narrative, part Zen meditation, part exploration of the meaning of life… I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
[28:43] Today, in 2023, I think we should maybe even be talking about post-Fukushima fiction—fiction that incorporates the events of 3/11 into the way the world is now.
Trinity, Trinity, Trinity by Erika Kobayashi was first published in 2019 in Japan. It was published in English translation by Brian Bergstrom in 2022. While the book takes up 3/11, it also connects Fukushima to Marie Curie, the Nazis, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Los Alamos… When I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, I described it as “something like a next-step in Japanese atomic literature… A chronicle of radioactivity, beginning with the discovery of [pitchblende]… in Saint Joachim’s Valley during the 15th century”.
And finally, it’s worth noting that some authors believe all fiction after 3/11 is post-Fukushima fiction. Keiichiro Hirano writes thrillers. He has spoken publicly about how the disaster inspires all of his fiction—even though he never explores 3/11 in any of his books.
[30:00] Hiromi Kawakami was born in 1958. (Let me just clarify here, that she is not related to Mieko Kawakami.)
1958 is the year that Kenzaburo Ōe won the Akutagawa Prize for “Prize Stock”. Hiromi Kawakami is nine years younger than Haruki Murakami—and eight years older than Banana Yoshimoto.
Kawakami was born and raised in Tokyo. She graduated from Ochanomizu Women’s College, also in Tokyo, in 1980. She’s a scientist by training. Her university thesis was about the reproductive cycle of sea urchins.
After graduation, she started writing and editing for a Japanese science fiction magazine. Then she taught middle and high school science. When her husband needed to move for work, Kawakami started to stay home. But she continued to write.
Kawakami began writing literary fiction—that high literature—in the early 90s. In 1996, she won the Akutagawa Prize for her short story “A Snake Stepped On”. That story has been published in English translation in the collection Record of a Night Too Brief, translated by Lucy North.
In 2001, she won the Tanizaki Prize for Sensei no kaban or “Teacher’s Briefcase”. We haven’t really talked about the Tanizaki Prize. It’s an annual award for a full-length work of fiction or drama “of the highest literary merit” by a professional writer. Sensei no Kaban is better known in English as Strange Weather in Tokyo, translated by Allison Markin Powell. It is a beloved story of many readers of Japanese fiction in translation.
[31:00] Hiromi Kawakami wrote Kamisama in 1993. As a matter of fact, Kamisama was her 1st published literary work. Kamisama has been translated into English as God Bless You, but the title literally just means “God”.
Kawakami’s 1993 “God Bless You” opens in medias res—in the middle of the action with no explanation—“The bear invited me to go for a walk to the river, about 20 minutes away.”
This is a real, full-grown, male bear. And he has moved into apartment 305, three doors down the hall from the narrator. This is magical realism—the kind we talked about a few episodes ago. Magic that coexists along with the every-day. No explanation whatsoever.
The bear has also made the old-fashioned gesture of presenting the narrator with “moving-in noodles” and packets of postcards.
“He sure wants people to like him,” the narrator thinks to themselves, “But then you probably have to do that if you’re a bear.” (Most people assume the narrator is a woman—the story never specifies. I’m going to use female pronouns from now on just to make things easy.)
It turns out they may have a vague connection through the narrator’s uncle. The bear calls it a “karmic bond” or the bonds of fate—further evidence that this is an old-fashioned bear.
By the time they get to the river, the narrator and the bear are both hot. They meet a boy and his dad who have been swimming in the river. Neither of them treat the bear like a person:
“Daddy, it’s a bear!”
“Right you are”
“A real bear!”
“A bear for sure.”
“A bear! A bear!”
They never look the bear in the eye. But the boy yanks the bear’s fur and kicks his legs. Finally, he shouts “Punch!” and kicks the bear in the stomach before running off.
The bear is surprisingly good natured about this:
Good grief. But young people don’t mean any harm, you know. I mean, human beings are of all sorts, but children have no real malice.
The bear turns to the river and begins to fish. He does it very well. He is a bear, after all. He guts the fish, cleans it, salts it, cooks it… and gives it to the narrator: “A memento of our day together.”
It turns out that the bear has prepared for everything. Not just the cooking supplies, but out of his bag, he pulls a towel for the narrator to take a nap on.
He offers to sing her a lullaby. He’s disappointed when she refuses. But when she wakes back up, he’s sleeping beside her.
They return to her apartment. “What a fine outing!” he says.
Before he goes, he awkwardly asks, “Would you mind if we hugged? Where I come from, that’s what we do when we say goodbye to someone we feel close to. If you don’t like the idea, of course, then we don’t have to.”
The narrator accepts the hug. Who could resist?
And the bear expresses his hopes that the bear god might bestow his blessing on her.
Some readers are puzzled by this charming and mostly-happy story. Perhaps the boy and his father represent the way Japanese society—all societies, really—mistreat people who are different?
Dr. Mihic at the University of Sydney offers this explanation:
The fact that the bear’s traditionally Japanese actions appear odd and old-fashioned shows how much Japanese society has changed and how little kizuna there remains in Japanese society.
So we’re back to that kizuna bond again. The one that seems broken between the people of Tohoku and the people of the rest of Japan.
[35:42] The editors of March Was Made of Yarn describe “God Bless You, 2011” as “the 1st literary piece to emerge in Japan from the stunned silence after March 11”. Hiromi Kawakami revisited her famous 1993 story just weeks after 3/11. The story was published in the literary journal Gunzō that June.
The characters and broad outline of the plot of “God Bless You” are the same—but the tragedy is in the differences.
By the way, March Was Made of Yarn includes both versions of “God Bless You” as well as a “postscript” from Kawakami. But “God Bless You, 2011” is printed first. I would strongly suggest you flip ahead and start with the original 1993 story. “God Bless You, 2011” is available for free online, but it’s worth buying the book to read the original 1993 version first. It’s also worth buying the book because all of the other stories are magnificent.)
Again we open in medias res—“The bear invited me to go for a walk to the river, about 20 minutes away.” But this time the narrator clarifies that she hasn’t gone out yet without her protective clothing. It’s hot—and now she’s going to try.
The narrator has been wearing protective clothing since “the incident”, the narrator will be “clad in normal clothes that expos[e] the skin”. The Japanese phrase here for “the incident” is “ano koto” or literally “that thing”.
The bear is her neighbor again, but now there are only three people still living in their building. The shared connection has changed too. Maybe the narrator is friends of a friend of a friend the bear met at an evacuation center.
By the time they get to the river, they both know they’re contaminated by radiation. The narrator has taken care earlier in the year. She can still “afford some exposure”. The bear says he’s bigger, so his maximum dose is higher.
And this time, there aren’t any children to cause trouble here—malicious or not. In fact, there are “no children left anywhere in the area”. Presumably, their parents have evacuated all of them.
The impersonal strangers this time are adult men.
“It’s a bear, isn’t it.”
“I envy bears.”
“Bears can handle strontium. Plutonium, too.”
“What do you expect? They’re bears.”
“So that’s why? They’re bears.”
“Yeah, because they’re bears.”
When they leave, the bear assures the narrator that he isn’t, in fact, resistant to strontium and plutonium”. As the reader probably already knows, that is a ridiculous claim to make about a fellow mammal.
After the nap, that super-prepared bear now pulls from his bag a Geiger counter to scan the narrator and then himself. And the narrator finds the beeping of the Geiger counter “familiar”.
The radiation complicates that hug. The narrator tells us, “The fact that bears don’t take baths mean[s] there [will] probably be more radiation on his body”.
But she continues, “it [has] been my decision from the start to remain in this part of the country, so I [can hardly be squeamish”.
At the very end of the story, the narrator takes a shower and records the estimate of radiation she has received that day. It’s .03 millisieverts on the surface of her body and .19 millisieverts of internally received radiation. That puts her annual totals at 29 and 17.8, respectively.
According to critic Yōichi Koromi, many contemporary Japanese readers would immediately realize that the narrator had exceeded her annual limit. The narrator doesn’t seem alarmed; perhaps her government has deemed this normal? That doesn’t seem like an unlikely explanation.
In April 2011—not long after Kawakami finished writing the story… actually before the story was published—the Japanese government raised “acceptable” annual exposure from one millisievert to twenty millisieverts. It returned “acceptable” to pre-disaster levels in August 2012.
[39:57] Earlier in the episode, we talked about Japanese writers’ reactions to 3/11. This is how Hiromi Kawakami described hers in the postscript to “God Bless You, 2011”:
My reaction to all that I saw and heard in the aftermath of the earthquake was, “Why have I kept myself in the dark all these years, never attempting to find out what I should have known?”
[40:25] So why read Hiromi Kawakami?
Hiromi Kawakami is part of an important generation of Japanese women writers who have defined and shaped 21st-century Japanese fiction. She and her contemporaries—writers like Yoko Ogawa and Yoko Tawada—have been hugely influential on the last thirty years of Japanese writing.
She’s one of the writers picked up by the group of translators, Strong Women, Soft Power—three translators we talked about in an earlier episode. These women have pushed hard to make Japanese women’s writing available to an English-speaking audience.
Hiromi Kawakami is also one of my very favorite Japanese authors.
Her work in English is incredibly diverse.
You can find a list of work by Hiromi Kawakami, including several things you can read for free, on the episode page.
As always, buy your books through our Bookshop.org page to support the podcast. I’ve also posted a list of “Fukushima Fiction” titles like Horses, Horses…, The Emissary, and A Tale for the Time Being on the episode page.
Today, I’ve been reading from Ted Goossen and Motoyuki Shibata’s translation of “God Bless You” and their translation of “God Bless You, 2011”. Those were both published in March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown.
You can also read “God Bless You, 2011” for free on Granta magazine’s website. Links to both on the episode page.
If you want to support Read Japanese Literature, please consider. Leaving a review on your podcast app of choice.
You can also become a supporter through Patreon for as little as $3 a month. Remember that subscribers get early access and bonus content with every episode. Thank you so much to our new supporters! Find out how you can join them at patreon.com/readjapaneseliterature.
I tried to find ways to support people in Tohoku still recovering from the events of 3/11. I found several organizations doing good work. Unfortunately, their websites are in Japanese. I’ve put their link on the episode page anyway in case donating is an option for you.
We’d love to hear from you about the podcast. There are so many ways to stay in touch:
Thank you to Sharon Dormier at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for her continued and invaluable help with sources. Thank you to the Japanese Literature group on Goodreads and the Japanese Literature group on Facebook. Thank you [to] the Japanese literature Twitter community.
And thank you as always to Producer Khaim for today’s music, @khaimmusic and khaimmusic.com.
Donate to support Tohoku: