Hiroshima and the World: "Atomic Bomb Literature" warns us about the future

by Urszula Styczek

Urszula Styczek
Urszula Styczek was born in 1960 in Warsaw, Poland. She is a lecturer at Hiroshima University, Hiroshima Prefectural University, and Hiroshima Shudo University and a specialist in atomic bomb literature and concentration camp literature. She earned her M.A. at Warsaw University in 1987, writing her thesis on “Studies on Atomic Bomb Literature”; her Japanese M.A. at Hiroshima University in 1995 with the thesis “The Anxiety Literature of Hara Tamiki”; and her Ph.D. at Hiroshima University in 2005 with the dissertation “The Anxiety of Human Existence--Concentration Camp Literature and Atomic Bomb Literature.” A member of several literary societies, Ms. Styczek is currently working with The Association of Citizens of Hiroshima on the Japanese translation of Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb by John Whittier Treat. She is also a member of Amnesty International.

"Atomic Bomb Literature" warns us about the future

Nowadays young people read less and less, especially literary works. Our civilization pushes us to live faster and faster, and we cannot find enough time to sit down, read something from the past, and then reflect on it. The outpouring of unnecessary information, often mass media coverage that is intellectually shallow, makes us deaf to the messages from the past. We are also shutting down to the warning passed on through literature.

The generations which do not know the threat of war are perhaps the luckiest, but also the poorest in experience. I, too, belong to a generation which knows the fear of war only from our parents’ stories, from films, and of course, from books. Still in the socialist period of Polish history (1945-1989), I was brought up in an atmosphere which displayed a deep gratitude toward the former Soviet Union for our “liberation” from Nazi Germany. The memory from my childhood was full of the fear of war, created by the mass media of those socialist days. At that time I felt anger toward the government for indoctrinating us to worry about war, but I now somehow feel grateful for the fact that it helped me become a person who is sensitive to war’s threat.

This is one of the mains reasons why, as a student of Japanology in Warsaw, I chose to write about atomic bomb literature for my master’s thesis, particularly the writer Tamiki Hara. (In Japanese, atomic bomb literature is known as “genbaku bungaku” and this term will now be employed.) After coming to Japan, I continued my research on Hara and completed my second master’s thesis on his prewar writings.

Like Hara, hundreds of genbaku bungaku works were written shortly after World War II by those who had survived the atomic bombings and the writers are known as “hibaku sakka.” They tried to record the tiniest details in order to transmit them to future generations that would not know this experience. Many of these authors died and their works died with them, completely forgotten, or nearly forgotten as in the case of Shinoe Shoda. Some kept writing until their last days of life, such as Sadako Kurihara. Others died young but left masterpieces of genbaku bungaku, like Sankichi Toge or Tamiki Hara. And some began looking back on the bombing while in their 50s, like Hiroko Takenishi, or in their 70s, like Kyoko Hayashi. Hayashi was 12 at the time, but could not write about her experience for many years as her memories remained too vivid. She began writing about the atomic bombing after already becoming a mature and well-known writer.

Tamiki Hara, whose short novel from 1946, “Summer Flowers,” has been translated into many languages, wrote about the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. “And corpses, flesh swollen and raw, lay here and there. This was without doubt a new hell, brought to pass by precision craftsmanship. Here everything human has been obliterated--for example, the expressions on the faces of the corpses had been replaced by something model-like, automaton-like. The limbs had a sort of bewitching rhythm, as if rigor mortis had frozen them even as they thrashed about in agony.”

In 1951, during the Cold War, Tamiki Hara committed suicide when he realized he could not write any more, completely depressed by the memories. But there was one female writer and essayist, Sadako Kurihara, who fought all her life for peace in the world as well as the rights for those, not necessarily Japanese, who suffered the atomic bombing. In “When We Say ‘Hiroshima’” she wrote: “In chorus, Asia’s dead and her voiceless masses spit out the anger of all those we made victims” and “we first must wash the blood off our own hands.”

Since August 1945, the writers who survived and those who recognize the value of genbaku bungaku have made efforts to prevent this literature from completely vanishing from people’s memories. These efforts have been undertaken all over Japan in the form of exhibitions in local museums of literature or public libraries. The other way to prevent genbaku bungaku from disappearing from our memories is through publishing. The number of publications of hibaku sakka locally is quite large, but perhaps because only a small number of copies of each edition are printed, they are difficult to find in bookshops or libraries. These exhibitions and publications, as well as symposia and lectures on genbaku bungaku, meetings with hibaku sakka, and articles on the authors who have been writing about the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all aim to educate younger generations about the history of Japan.

Nowadays there are two forces in the literary movement of genbaku bungaku in western Japan. The older activists have formed an association in order to present genbaku bungaku to as many people as possible, mainly through the Internet, while a movement of younger scientists have organised themselves into an effective group. The aim of the first, founded in December 2000, is to preserve the memories of hibaku sakka from being forgotten. The group consists of Hiroshima citizens, including journalists, university professors, writers and poets, as well as ordinary citizens, and is called The Association of Citizens Calling for the Literature Museum in Hiroshima. A very similar association, The Association of Preservation Data on Hiroshima Literature was established in the 1980s by a professor from Hiroshima University, Fujihiko Komura, but it later disbanded. Fortunately, the professor’s efforts weren’t in vain, as the new group has been continuing his splendid work by collecting numerous materials on Sankichi Toge, Tamiki Hara, and the other hibaku sakka. At the same, its efforts to build a facility where literary exhibits can be held, or to obtain such a facility from the municipal government, are still unrealized.

Hiroshima is known as “a city of peace” but hardly could be called “a city of literature.” For my colleagues and I, who seek to preserve the literary masterpieces of genbaku bungaku, it is a very regrettable situation, regarding the fact that neighboring cities such as Fukuyama, Onomichi, Yamaguchi, or even Tsuwano, all have museums of literature. The only place in Hiroshima where hibaku sakka can be studied is the Hiroshima Municipal Library, in a small room at the very back of the second floor.

The other group involved with genbaku bungaku, The Society of Genbaku Literature, was founded at around the same time, in December 2001, and is still growing in size. Consisting of mostly younger scientists from western Japan, they gather four times a year in Fukuoka and are successfully publishing the annual “Journal of Genbaku Literature.” In their discourse, the members seek to widen their interests to include post-war problems.

These two groups show that there is hope for attracting further interest in genbaku bungaku, as not only the older generation is involved in their activities. The younger scientists, who are working hard to develop their expertise in this literature, are trying to find new ways to draw the attention of youths in Japan and abroad.

The world is becoming one. The message of the writings by the hibaku sakka some 60 years ago concerned only Japanese society. Through their works they attempted to warn the Japanese people about the consequences of using nuclear weapons. They wrote about the fear of using atomic bombs against innocent people. In 1950, Tamiki Hara composed a poem when it was thought that the next nuclear bomb would be dropped over Korea. “The child now homeless will be homeless tomorrow, too; (…) Wretched, stupid, we lead ourselves on to destruction, bodies and souls, not knowing enough to stop one step this side of destruction. Tomorrow once again, fire will pour down from the skies.”

His message, although written so long ago, is still true today. With the world becoming smaller, making distant places easier to reach, the situation is now more dangerous. The messages conveyed through these literary works by ordinary people, not famous politicians or film stars, might touch our hearts more readily, might wake us up to do something concrete for a more peaceful world. In particular, the voices from Hiroshima should be expressed even more strongly to respond to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and the Palestine-Israeli conflict, as well as Asia’s biggest danger, North Korea, which may have the capacity to use nuclear weapons.

If I, as a Pole, wish to shout, “No more concentration camps, like Auschwitz,” I also have the duty to demand that the camp at Guantanamo Bay be closed. Moreover, as a citizen of Hiroshima, I have another duty: to demand that nuclear weapons throughout the world be abolished. In doing this, my voice must be directed to the main rulers of the world, for only they have the ability to threaten us with nuclear war. First, though, I would like to encourage young people to read genbaku bungaku, because in this literature we can see our sorrowful future if we do not stop the nuclear arms race.

(Originally published on July 27, 2009)

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