Mudshit: Sacred Cesium Ground as an Allegory for 3/11

On March 11, 2011, the 9.0-magnitude Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a powerful tsunami that swept the Tohoku region in Northeastern Japan. Residents had less than ten minutes to flee from a 133-foot wave that rushed to shore at speeds up to 435 miles an hour.

The earthquake also triggered three meltdowns at the nearby Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Because of the radioactive fallout, some of the hundreds of thousands of people evacuated will never be able to return home.

Ten years later, anger still simmers beneath the surface about what is widely viewed as Tokyo’s failure to deal with the emergency and its aftermath.

Twelve Zodiac Signs: Ox by Takeuchi Seiho

Sacred Cesium Ground

More than other translated works of “Fukushima fiction,” Sacred Cesium Ground is almost a direct allegory for the situation on the ground in Tohoku in the months following the “3/11 Triple Disaster.” Through its use of symbolism, Sacred Cesium Ground is an allegory not only for the aftermath of 3/11, not only for the consequences of generations of neglect of the Tohoku region, but also of the structural problems in Japanese society that left Japan open to a disaster of 3/11’s magnitude in the first place.

The Cows: The people of Tohoku

The novel opens with Nishino (we’re never privy to her first name) beginning a short stint as a volunteer at The Fortress of Hope. The “fortress” is a farm that has taken in irradiated cattle that the government ordered local farmers to cull. These cows are essentially “living debris” leftover when the floodwaters receded.

Using animals to stand in for people is… problematic. Especially when you’re dealing with a group of people who have already been marginalized. In this case, using beef cattle as a symbol for the people of an entire region reminds us that the people of Tohoku were treated as resources—things rather than people—since long before 2011.

In the words of The Fortress of Hope’s ideological leader

“All of us abandoned and forgotten peoples. The thinning out and culling. In the same way that the cattle are being ‘disposed of’: aren’t we too, right now, receiving the same treatment.”

The Fortress of Hope: Tohoku Itself

From the outside, the Fortress of Hope looks like a powerful symbol of Tohoku’s resilience. (The Fortress of Hope is loosely based on the Ranch of Hope, sited within the 20-km Exclusion Zone set by the Japanese government.) Before Nishino arrives, she has imagined it as “some kind of utopia.”

But Nishino discovers the harsh reality about The Fortress of Hope and Tohoku itself soon after she arrives: “this was a space summarily cut loose and left to its own devices.”

Tohoku has a complicated relationship with the rest of Japan. Some scholars even classified the region as an “internal colony.” Tokyo has used the region’s resources and people for centuries, most recently as a site for nuclear power plants. The Fukushima Daiichi Plants were, for example, run by a Tokyo company to meet Tokyo’s electricity needs.

In the weeks that followed 3/11, the Japanese were inundated with calls to “Fight on Japan!” At the time, government leaders presented a united front: all of Japan would work together to recover and rebuild. The messages were messages of hope.

Miko Mari: Opportunistic Japanese politicians

On Nishino’s final day at the farm, she hears that they expect a visitor—the up-and-coming, young and trendy political hotshot Miko Mari. She is “the first politician who had been put on the public stage by a producer, a guy known for promoting bands.” Mari doesn’t expect more from her visit than a photo op with the ranch’s cutest calves and a few soundbites.

Mari herself isn’t really a villain; she doesn’t care enough about the Fortress to be a villain. But her advocacy for Tohoku is all show. The people at the Fotress can’t count on her for any meaningful relief anymore than the people of Tohoku can count on politicians to keep their promises.

“Mudshit”: The radioactive fallout from the Fukushima power plants

Nishino doesn’t resort to profanity often—at least in English translation—but she pulls no punches when she describes the filth at the Fortress of Hope.

This mudshit is no ordinary ranching runoff: it is contaminated by radioactive fallout. The novel’s grotesque climax reminds us that the shit is also made up of the bodies of the dead. One character describes what happened to the cows who starved to death after 3/11: before they could be rescued 

Bodies in a big tub, full of piss…There was so many flies the air looked black. So many, when you breathed they came into your nostrils and you couldn’t open your eyes. On the ground at your feet, big fat maggots, everywhere. You couldn’t walk without stepping on them; when you stepped on them they would go poppop.

Later, Nishino falls into the muck. She scoops up a handful for the horrified politician. “Take a good look at this,” she insists “This is evidence of life.”

She continues:

This mudshit, this cesium mudshit, this filled-to-the-brim proof-of-cows-that-had-lived-and-had-been-abandoned—I thrust it before [Mari’s] eyes.

What about Nishino?

Nishino, stands in for all of Japan’s marginalized people.

Rachel DiNitto, author of Fukushima Fiction: The Literary Landscape of Japan’s Triple Disaster observes that “the narrative thrust of the story appropriates the nuclear disaster in order to tell Nishino’s personal narrative.” DiNitto’s criticism is generally more nuanced, but this comment rather misses the point. The long-term cost of the 3/11 disaster—broken communities, irrecoverable careers, mental illness, nuclear fallout—are borne by Tohoku residents precisely because they are, have always been, Japan’s marginalized.

It’s also worth noting that Nishino identifies as a cow herself; she doesn’t just emotionally connect with the cows but is, in a meaningful sense, one of them. She notes how the language of the temp agency she once worked at (“human capital” and “human resources”) connotes that the workers are, like the cattle, merely a means to an end. In a flashback to a scene of domestic abuse, her husband calls her a cow. She simply accepts it:

I had become a cow. With the hooves of my front feet, I was skillfully holding the chopsticks and the rice bowl.

Why, Nishino asks herself, does she always go back to her husband?:

Why did I accept that change each and every time? I knew I was going to be betrayed yet again in the future. What was I hanging on to?

Her quiet resolution to leave her husband at the end of the novel is a hopeful note for Japanese society. Maybe Japan, too, rid itself of a system that leaves so many behind.

Get Started Reading Japanese Fiction

These aren’t necessarily the “best” or most important Japanese novels, but they are my personal favorites. All ten together can give you a pretty good taste of what Japanese literature has to offer.

The Woman in the Dunes (1962) by Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe’s favorite writers include Franz Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe. It shows. The Woman in the Dunes is about an amateur entyologist who, alongside a mysterious widow, is thrown in a pit of sand. The two spend their days literally digging for their lives so the sand doesn’t bury them in their sleep. At the end of the novel, the reader is left wondering whether a 9-5 lifestyle is really any less futile.

Life for Sale (1968) by Yukio Mishima

A darkly comedic novel by one of Japan’s most important modern writers, Life for Sale is about a twenty-seven-year-old salaryman. After he botches his attempt at suicide, he advertises in the newspaper that his life is up for grabs. Interacting with buyer after buyer, the protagonist discovers that selling his life is more difficult than he thought. (Mishima is as controversial as he is important. Two years after he published Life for Sale, he took a hostage and tried to convince the Japan Self-Defense Forces to overturn Japan’s post-WWII Constitution. When he failed, he committed seppuku—ritual suicide.)

Read more about Life for Sale.

The Samurai (1980) by Shusaku Endo

Endo’s novel Silence is far better known in the West, especially after the 2016 film, but I prefer The Samurai. It’s based on the real-life story of a 17th-century diplomatic mission sent from Japan to Rome. Many of Endo’s stories take up the question of whether East can really co-exist with West.

Hybrid Child (1990) by Mariko Ohara

Hybrid Child is hands down the strangest book on this list—a glimpse into the world of Japanese, feminist sci-fi. A (male) robot ingests the body of a young girl murdered by her mother and incorporates her spirit. Centuries later, Sample B #3 takes on a planet-running, maternal AI system who has gone insane. The novel is not to be confused with the one-shot manga, Hybrid Child by Shungiku Nakamura.

Out (1997) by Natsuo Kirino

Be warned that this novel is not for the faint of heart—or the weak of stomach. In this crime thriller, suburban housewives find themselves running a business disposing of bodies for the Japanese mafia. Although Kirino doesn’t like to be pegged as a feminist, Out certainly highlights the cultural and structural problems that hold women back in contemporary Japan.

In the Miso Soup (1997) by Ryu Murakami

“The Other Murakami” is a literary virtuoso in his own right. The protagonist of In the Miso Soup gives a tour of Tokyo’s red-light district to a very odd American visitor. Gradually, the protagonist begins to suspect his client is actually a serial killer. Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a commentary on the “haves and have-nots” in Japanese society as well as how the Japanese think about Americans. Like Out, In the Miso Soup contains scenes of graphic violence.

The Memory Police (1994) by Yoko Ogawa

Originally written in 1994, The Memory Police was only published in English in 2019. It is a dystopian novel with a premise that’s just plain creepy. Some unknown force is making residents of an unnamed island forget things—even themselves. The English translation was a 2019 National Book Award Finalist.

Kafka on the Shore (2002) by Haruki Murakami

At least outside of Japan, Murakami is probably the most famous Japanese author writing today. Some people suggest starting with his debut novel, Norwegian Wood, but I prefer Kafka on the Shore. A magical realist romp, the novel features an oedipal love triangle and talking cats. Be forewarned that many readers, English-speaking and Japanese-speaking, find Murakami inscrutable.

If Cats Disappeared from the World (2012) by Genki Kawamura

Genki Kawamura’s first novel, If Cats Disappeared from the World, sold more than two million copies in Japan. When the protagonist discovers he has only days to live, the Devil shows up to make him an offer: choose one thing to disappear for everyone in the world in exchange for an extra day of life. If you’re looking for a satisfying and uplifting Japanese novel, start here.

Convenience Store Woman (2016) by Sayaka Murata

The konbini is a ubiquitous part of Japanese life. Convenience Store Woman is about a thirty-six-year-old woman who fights the societal norms that tell her she can’t keep working at a convenience store, a job she has loved for eighteen years. It’s a humorous look at the cult of success in modern Japan—a cult that probably looks familiar to many American readers.

Read more about Sayaka Murata.

Bonus: A Tale from the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Okay, I’m cheating here. A Tale for the Time Being is written in English by a Japanese-American-Canadian Zen Buddhist priest. As if that weren’t enough qualifications, Ruth Ozeki is also an expert on medieval Japanese literature like The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book, both of which show up in her writing. In A Tale for the Time Being, detritus that washes ashore in Canada in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukishima disaster creates a mystery across time and space.