This blog is written by Elizabeth Chappell who is currently completing a PhD at The Open University based on her original interviews with survivors (hibakusha) of Hiroshima.
Elizabeth has published fiction and non-fiction in, among others, Wasafiri, Japan Society Review, Japan Times, Contemporary Review, The Conversation and Auto/biography (The British Sociological Journal). Her anthology of writing on Japan, Japan: Through Writers’ Eyes, was published by Eland in 2015.
Image credit - Cover of Issue 102, Summer 2020 Special Issue: Japan: Literatures of Remembering
I have just finished organizing the online launch of my co-edited special issue of Wasafiri: Japan – Literatures of Remembering, which will take place in August. This weekend, however, I was supposed to be in Tokyo, Japan, as I had received an invitation to launch the publication in person with my colleagues at Waseda University. Due to the disruption caused by COVID-19 the event was postponed – but the online launch will include poet Mimi Hachikai, her translator Kyoko Yoshida, fiction translator, Stephen Dodd, manga and anime expert Rayna Denison. It will be hosted by the Japan Society with the title Remembering the Future.
To explain this title, let me scroll back a few years. Three years ago, in the middle of writing my PhD for The Open University, I started a dialogue with the founder and then-editor of Wasafiri (now Professor Emerita at The Open University), Susheila Nasta, about remembering and Japan. At the time, this was only the germ of the idea which became the Wasafiri special issue, Japan: Literatures of Remembering. As we looked forward then, we thought with certainty that the 2020 the Olympics would take place this summer in Tokyo – hence we were able to affiliate ourselves with its associated Japan-UK Season of Culture. But we also chose 2020 because it marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War and indeed the official end of World War Two. I knew there were opportunities to translate previously untranslated fiction and non-fiction, possibly drawing on a recent 20-volume collection on war and literature published by the Japanese publisher Shueisha between 2011-2013. The four series into which the twenty volumes are separated stretch as far back as the first Sino- and Russo- Japanese wars in 1894-5 and 1904-5, right up to the more recent Korean and Vietnam wars and invasion of Iraq. Many of the writers in this collection are ethnically diverse writers (such as Korean, Okinawan or Chinese).
Wasafiri, writes Maya Jaggi in a recent article in the magazine (2019: 34:4, 3-7), has built its reputation on championing writers who ‘write back’ - she quotes the title of The Empire Writes Back edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (1989). Many of these writers featured in its pages (who include the now Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro), she says, were ahead of the curve in anticipating the current ‘global turn’ in the arts and literatures. The magazine’s prescience, as Jaggi writes, represented ‘an enlargement’ and an opening up of discourse to new worlds of the imagination. With an eye to the future, then, this seemed an appropriate platform from which to reflect on the Japanese past at the same time as allowing us to introduce a broader range of writers than those usually reflected in Western publications on Japan. This could in turn point to a future above and beyond Japan’s ethnically homogenous cultural exports.
My co-editors for this project were Yasuhiko Ogawa, of one of Japan’s longest standing literary translation projects Japan Literature Publishing Project (JLPP) who run an annual translation prize, and Hiromitsu Koiso, a literary translator and poet. Our co-edited issue is not only diverse in terms of its contributors, but it also contextualises remembering in different ways. For instance, the month of August (coincidentally when World War Two ended) is the traditional time for paying respects to the ancestors in Japan and other parts of Asia. A traditional literary trope is the soliloquy of the widowed spouse to the deceased over the ancestral bones which need to be ‘picked’ out and cleansed; however, one of our poets who will be reading at the online launch, Mimi Hachikai, casts this instead as a daughter’s angry address to her dead father due to his silence over his wartime experience. Her poem Bone Picking (‘kotsushiroi’ 骨拾い) is translated in the magazine by Kyoko Yoshida. Novelist Hideo Furukawa in Warriors’ Dreams (the title drawn from a famous poem by Bashō) translated in the special issue by Morgan Giles, talks about the raising of ghosts of Japan’s feudal past in the wake of the so-called ‘triple disaster’ of nuclear meltdown, earthquake and Tsunami in the northern region of Japan, Tōhoku (in 2011).
Cut to March. I was due to meet Wasafiri’s editorial team on 20 March to compile the complex proofs (for more than 100 authors) as publication was set for June 1, an immoveable date. But we still needed to decide on some delicate orthographic and cultural issues, including name order and accenting. Names are often printed in Japanese order in Western publications – family name followed by first name, but we decided instead, that for accessibility and to avoid confusion, the Western name order should be used. I was afraid such culturally sensitive elements could go awry without standardization across the proofs.
Another culturally sensitive area for us, perhaps unsurprisingly, was author contracts. In Japan, authors can still have verbal rather than written contracts with publishers, as, in a less hyper-individualised culture than the UK, the publisher’s word is still trusted. But, if a contract is to be signed, all its implications need to be carefully assessed: a signature in Japan has a different bearing from the UK as author Mieko Kawakami, whose interview we feature, writes in an article in Granta on Japan in the time of COVID-19.
Hence, by 20 March, there was still a lot to discuss and a face-to-face meeting with all the co-editors would have helped. Instead, a flurry of emails followed (I counted 60 in one week) – to sort out all the major outstanding issues. But, as the Wasafiri office was by now out of bounds due to COVID-19, Wasafiri files had to be transferred from the Queen Mary University of London computer server, and due to no-one’s fault, original cover designs were mislaid.
A week later we knew that the launch could not be held in Japan and we also did not know if the magazine could actually be printed. We were listening to daily updates from the news with COVID-19 cases rising daily, and we thought even print manufacturing might come to a halt. I was comforted by turning to the title I have kept beside me for creative inspiration (rather than source material) throughout writing the PhD - The Plague by Albert Camus. I couldn’t help feeling like the narrator, who, also at the mercy of news announcements, writes that he and his fellow citizens ‘felt as though they had been sentenced for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment.’ (Camus: 1947: 85)
As a student of French existentialist literature in Paris in the 1950s, Albert Camus, who my colleague Dr Sandip Hazareesingh wrote about in his contribution to this series, was also one of the inspirations behind my literary mentor for my PhD research, Nobel Prize-winner Kenzaburo Ōe, whose non-fiction work on the survivors of Hiroshima, Hiroshima Notes, is unsurpassed. Although Ōe had not experienced the bomb himself, he interviewed scores of survivors (known as hibakusha) who had experienced the bomb directly, many of whom, he writes, asserted their ‘right to remain silent until death’ (Ōe 1965: 16).
That silence on the part of the first generations who experienced the mis-en-abyme of catastrophe that was World War Two from the Japanese perspective, is what Ōe and the post-war so-called ‘third generation’ were reacting to in their writing. I reflect on this in my article which is also published in the special edition, ‘Hibakusha Memory: Between the Generations’. Ōe, more than anyone in Japan’s post-war era, engaged in dialogue with minority writers and writers from all over the world in an open soul-searching about what could be construed as ‘Japaneseness’. And he and his successors in the literary arts have helped propel many diverse Japanese voices – including ethnic Okinawan, Korean, Ainu, hibaku-, Chinese, buraku-, and female writers – into the limelight.
But why is this issue significant now? Because COVID-19 is surely just one recent symptom in a much longer-term dis-ease which is being revealed. As a student of the arts and humanities I believe it is more vital than ever that we re-make and rejuvenate cultural memory and for that it is necessary to retell stories of colonial wrongs, rooted in dark and difficult pasts across cultures for the future. ‘So, you haven’t understood yet,’ comments Rambert, the investigative journalist who in classic style himself succumbs to the infection which is The Plague. ‘Understood what?’ The doctor, Rieux, asks. ‘The Plague ... you haven’t understood that it means exactly that – the same thing over and over again.’ (Camus: 134)