The Writing of Disaster - Literary Representations of War, Trauma and Earthquakes in Modern Japan

by Leith Morton (Author)
©2020 Monographs 274 Pages


This book analyzes the literature that emerged from World War II. It also examines the literature that resulted from the two major earthquakes that have struck Japan over the course of over the last hundred years. The small number of volumes previously published examining the literature of war and earthquakes in Japan have almost always focused exclusively on fiction while this volume focuses mainly on poetry. This volume breaks new ground in its attempt to draw together and analyze the literature produced by these tragedies as a single phenomenon. It provides a new template for the literature of trauma produced by such events as the earthquake that accompanied the tsunami and nuclear meltdown in northeast Japan in 2011.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1.“Amid the Frenzied Sea of Fire”: The Great Tokyo Earthquake and Literature
  • 1.1. The Event
  • 1.2. The Earthquake in Prose
  • 1.3. Ah Tokyo
  • 1.4. Earthquake Poetry Collection
  • 1.5. Aizu Yaichi’s Aftershocks
  • 1.6. Kubota Utsubo’s Shiny Leaves
  • 1.7. Yosano Akiko’s Poetry on the Earthquake
  • 1.8. Wakayama Bokusui’s Miscellaneous Poems on the Aftershocks
  • 1.9. Concluding Note
  • 2. Writing in Extremis: Wartime Tanka Poetry
  • 2.1. Writing against War
  • 2.2. Kawada Jun’s Wartime Tanka
  • 2.3. Tanka at War
  • 2.5. Tanka against War
  • 2.6. Conclusion
  • 3. War, Memory, Trauma, Fiction, Truth: Kusaba Sakae at Nomonhan, 1939
  • 3.1. Nomonhan: Victory or Defeat?
  • 3.2. Kusaba’s Noro Hills and War Memory
  • 3.3. Noro Hills, Volume One: Truth or Fiction?
  • 3.4. Noro Hills, Volume Two: Retrospection and Reality
  • 3.5. Brief Concluding Note
  • 4. War in China and the Pacific: Takamura Kōtarō, Kusano Shinpei and the Matinée Poétique
  • 4.1. Takamura Kōtarō’s War Poetry
  • 4.2. Matinée Poétique and 1946
  • 4.3. Kusano Shinpei’s War Poetry
  • 4.4. Conclusion
  • 5. Self-Censorship: The Case of Wartime Japanese Poetry
  • 5.1. Censorship and Self-Censorship
  • 5.2. Who is guilty? The Controversy over War Responsibility
  • 5.3. Miyoshi Tatsuji’s Self-Censorship
  • 5.4 Tsuboi Shigeji as a Resistance Poet
  • 5.5. Kaneko Mitsuharu: Self-Censorship or Plain, Old Irony?
  • 5.6. Takahashi Shinkichi: Uncomplicated Patriot?
  • 5.7. Brief Concluding Note
  • 6. “Sturm und Drang” in Tanizaki Junichirō’s The Makioka Sisters (1948)
  • 6.1. Flood, Storm and Typhoon
  • 6.2. Tanizaki and the Great Hanshin Flood
  • 6.3. The Great Hanshin Flood and The Makioka Sisters
  • 6.4 The Makioka Sisters and the Tokyo Typhoon
  • 6.5. Concluding Note
  • 7. The Trauma of the Postcolonial Hybrid: Ōshiro Tatsuhiro and Yuta
  • 7.1. The Postcolonial Condition and Hybridity
  • 7.2. Yuta and Ōshiro Tatsuhiro
  • 7.3. Yuta/ Hybridity/Trauma
  • 7.4 Postcolonial Hybridity: Matsuyo in the Labyrinth
  • 7.5. Brief Concluding Note
  • 8. The 2011 East Japan Earthquake and Literature: Contemporary Poetry Handbook 2011–2014
  • 8.1. The 3.11 Earthquake as History
  • 8.2. “Confronting the Great East Japan Earthquake”: Contemporary Poetry Handbook May 2011
  • 8.3. Contemporary Poetry Handbook June–December 2011
  • 8.4 Contemporary Poetry Handbook 2012–14
  • 8.5. Fiction and the 2011 Earthquake
  • 8.6. Brief Concluding Note
  • 9. Trauma and Catharsis: The 2011 East Japan Earthquake and Traditional Genres of Verse
  • 9.1. Trauma and Literature
  • 9.2. Selection of Tanka from Local and Anonymous Poets
  • 9.3. A Diary of the Earthquake in Verse
  • 9.4 Anatomy of a Tanka Masterpiece
  • 9.5. Poems from the Palace of the Dragon King
  • 9.6. Concluding Note
  • Reflections
  • Bibliography
  • Notes
  • Index

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In writing this book I have been ably supported by many colleagues present and past, some of these scholars I will mention here but the exigencies of space prevent me from listing them all. I wish to express my profound gratitude to all who have arranged seminars and colloquiums, conferences and panels where I could present these chapters in their first incarnations as scholarly papers. I would especially thank my former colleagues at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tōkyō Kōgyō Daigaku) where I spent eleven happy and productive years teaching and researching Japanese, English and comparative literature before returning to Australia in late 2014. On many occasions, former colleagues including Inoue Ken, Inoue Masaatsu, Roger Pulvers, Alison Tokita, Hugh De Ferranti, Garvin Perram, Hashizume Daizaburō, Hattori Takakazu (recently deceased), Tokosumi Akifumi (recently deceased), Saeki Yasuki, Ishihara Yuki and Iguchi Tokio helped my research in many and varied ways.

I should also thank Hamashita Masahiro, Hokama Shuzen, Katsukata-Inafuku Keiko and Nakahodo Masanori at various Japanese universities for their assistance, especially relating to my research on Ōshiro Tatsuhiro. After 2015, Ōmura Azusa, at the Yamanashi Prefectural University, provided me with a number of opportunities to return to Japan to try out my ideas on various audiences, and I owe her a deep debt of gratitude. Also, in Japan, I have to express my deep gratitude to my colleague Suzuki Sadami at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken), who has helped me in ways too numerous to mention, as has the institution itself. I was involved with the International Association for Japan Studies (IAJS) for a number of years, and the various conventions held at universities throughout Japan enabled me to present my findings for the first time on many of the topics in this book. I thank my former colleagues in the IAJS: Iijima Takehisa, Tokunaga Mitsuhiro, Kimura Kōichi, Tomita Kaoru, Ian Ruxton and Nakajima Tomoko.

In Europe, I should also like to thank colleagues for providing venues where I was able to read early versions of certain some of the chapters: Over the years, the members of the Académie du Midi in France have helped in more ways than I can mention, especially by providing a most hospitable environment in which to try out my ideas; I thank in particular Roger T. Ames, Henry Rosemount (recently deceased), Graham Parkes and Helmut and Lalli Maassen. In Germany and France, Günter Wohlfart (now based in France), Hans-Georg Möller and Karl-Heinz Pohl have helped enormously, both in the past and present.

Towards the end of my period of residence in Tokyo, I was able to spend time with colleagues in the USA for lectures and at conferences and the like, and these visits helped to focus my research. I thank especially Jon Holt at Portland State University and Massimiliano Tomasi at Western Washington University. I am also grateful for the chance to discuss contemporary Japanese ←8 | 9→poetry with Jeffrey Angles (now at Western Michigan University) shortly before returning home to Sydney. Over a number of decades, I have worked with Rachael Hutchinson at the University of Delaware as a collaborator in a number of scholarly projects, some resulting in chapters in this book, and her insights have often changed my thinking to my advantage, and I offer her my most unqualified thanks.

In 2018, I was invited to Trier University in Germany as a senior Research Fellow in residence in the DFG Kolleg Research Group (Russian-language Poetry in Transition) for six months, and this stay in Germany at Trier University not only provided an ideal venue to discuss Japanese poetry but also permitted visits to several other university campuses where I was able to further refine my ideas on Japanese verse. At Trier I thank again Karl-Heinz and Linda Pohl, two special people, and, above all, Henrieke Stahl-Schwaetzer, the director of this massive research project on contemporary poetry (the formal project title is far too modest). Also special thanks to Andreas Regelsberger in Japanese studies and Christian Soffel in Sinology at Trier (also Kolleg members) who helped in numerous ways. I was able to return to Trier in 2019 to refine my ideas even further with colleagues in the Kolleg, and I thank the scholars and postdoctoral researchers whose own work challenged me and made think more deeply about my subject; in particular, Ralph Müller, Peter Geist, Friederike Reents, Angelika Schmitt, Yuri Orlitski, Matthias Fechner and Anna Gavryliuk, whose day to day assistance also proved invaluable. Jasmin Böhm, a PhD student in modern Japanese literature at Trier, was particularly helpful in aiding me in navigating the campus, and its offices; her assistance is much appreciated. Thanks go also to Katina Baharova whose organizational skills made my stay in Trier much easier. I also thank in particular my old friend Finn Riedel in Weimar, Helmut and Lalli Maassen in Pont, my colleagues in Japanese and Chinese, especially Jana Rosker and Luka Culiberg, at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia and Zhiyi Yang at the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main.

Also, in 2018, I was appointed as an Honorary Associate in the Department of Japanese Studies, School of Languages and Cultures, the University of Sydney. This appointment has helped enormously in providing me with extensive access to academic databases and other resources at the Fisher Library in the university, and I am most grateful to the generosity of my colleagues in Japanese studies—especially Rebecca Suter—at Sydney University for their invitation to rejoin my old alma mater as a researcher. I should also like to thank, at Sydney University, Mats Karlsson, Yasumoto Seiko, and former colleagues Sakuko Matsui and Hugh Clarke for their friendship and assistance over the years, and also Michael Carter, another former colleague, for his sage advice. At the Australian National University in Canberra, I thank Carol Hayes for all her support and friendship over many years.

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Very early versions of a number of these chapters have been published in various journals and books over time, and I should like to thank the editors for their permission to republish. Also, I should like to thank the several Japanese authors, and their families, who have generously supported my research over many years by giving permission to translate. I also wish to thank Ekaterina Evgrashkina for her editorial assistance. Finally, I thank my wife Sachiko who has accompanied me on every step of this scholarly journey, and whose research assistance has been invaluable.

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“Between the vast insanities

That men so cleverly invent

It may be here, it may be here,

A simulacrum of content”

(from) “The Bungaloes” by William Plomer1

In the past few years a number of book-length English-language studies of the cultural dimensions of disasters in modern Japan have appeared in print.2 The question arises: Why do we need another? The reason is that none of these books concentrates solely on literature, as this book does, and only a few of the volumes treat the disaster spawned by World War II—the most destructive military conflict in Japanese history. This volume has a deliberate focus on both the literature that emerged from World War II, with four chapters on this topic, and also the literature that resulted from the two major earthquakes that have struck Japan over the course of over the last hundred years—incorporating the writing inspired by one of the major floods of the prewar period— with another four chapters investigating these subjects. One additional chapter examines the fiction of a well-known contemporary Okinawan author.3 Also, in this volume, World War II encompasses the Japanese military excursions onto the Asian continent, and thus includes the so-called “Fifteen Years’ War” (1931–1945) in its purview. The small number of volumes previously published examining the literature of war and earthquakes in Japan have almost always focused exclusively on fiction, but this volume has an equal focus on both poetry and fiction. In this sense, this volume breaks new ground in its attempt to draw together and analyze as a single phenomenon the literature produced by these tragedies.4

The literature borne out of war, earthquake and flood, similarly literature that dramatizes disasters, has been explored in some depth by scholars of European literature—Maurice Blanchot’s famous 1980 book L’Ecriture du Désastre (translated as The Writing of the Disaster)—is emblematic, and also by scholars of English literature: Kate McLoughlin’s Authoring War (2011) and Christopher Coker’s Men at War (2014) are two representative studies of war literature.5 Nor do I need to gesture to the many distinguished studies of the Holocaust and modern literature, which have poured forth from presses over many decades, or the select group of books in English on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and literature.6 Yet the topic of disasters (especially dealing with the disaster of World War II) and writing, save for the important exception of atomic bomb literature, hardly figures at all in English-language studies of modern Japanese literature.7 Thus this volume is charting a pioneering path rather than ploughing the well-tilled ground of previous scholarship.

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This book will examine only a select number of literary representations of war, flood and earthquakes in twentieth and twenty-first century Japan. The literary works all fall into the two categories of prose, both fictional and nonfictional, and poetry (inclusive of free verse and such traditional varieties of verse as tanka and haiku).8 My selection of the disasters treated in the book is, I trust, judicious, since the literature produced by the two most destructive earthquakes to strike Japan over the course of over the last hundred years and the most terrible war ever experienced by Japan in its long history are all subjected to detailed scrutiny. Nonetheless, other tragedies exist that are not dealt with here.

For instance, the literature of the Russo-Japanese conflict of 1905 is not treated within these pages. And, because of the manifest need for a much greater depth of analysis than can be permitted in a broad study of disaster such as this volume represents, nor do I examine literature dealing with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (although this book does make use of some of the methodologies employed by scholars to analyze these tragic events). Literary works arising from the earthquake that struck the Kobe region in January 1995 and which resulted in over 6,000 deaths are not examined here either, despite the fact that this was the third most destructive earthquake to strike Japan over the last hundred years. And the impact on literature of a host of other tragedies also escape the attention of this volume—this is not because they are not worthy of mention but due to the exigencies of space and, in many cases (but by no means all), their relatively slight impact on literature compared to the disasters actually analyzed herein, the decision has been taken not to subject them to scrutiny. In general, the reasons outlined here, and, above all, the limitations of space, will suffice to explain why my investigation is limited to the specific events chosen for study in this book. Hence this investigation of the literature of Japan’s wars and disasters over the past hundred years cannot be described as completely comprehensive, and my hope is that this book will stimulate further research on this topic.

There are extensive studies of World War II and literature in the Japanese language, and I have necessarily drawn upon these important studies in this book. Fewer studies exist of natural disasters and modern Japanese literature but because of the impact of the massive earthquake that struck the northeastern coast of Japan on March 11 2011, and which subsequently spawned the horrific tsunami that took many lives, a number of works have emerged in recent years; in consequence this event has given a significant boost to such scholarship—many new volumes on this subject will appear no doubt in the Japanese language in the near future.9 Nonetheless, I have tried to work from primary sources—literature published during times of earthquake and war, or not long after, or faithful reprints thereof—as much as possible in an attempt to capture the sense of the times and also to express my own viewpoint on these issues, as a researcher working from a comparative perspective outside ←12 | 13→the Japanese language discourse. In this volume, primary sources also refer to the original versions of literary texts published during wartime as, until very recently, postwar reprints often differed significantly from a number of the wartime originals due to self-censorship on the part of the authors.10

The focus will be on the literary works examined in this book, and while on occasion I will cite various works on trauma and disaster written from the broader perspective of anthropology, medical science or the sociology and history of medicine and also psychological and psychiatric studies, my only purpose in doing so will be to help elucidate the contents of the literary works under examination. My expertise is solely in the field of literature and this book will not attempt to draw any conclusions on issues relating to trauma caused by war and disaster outside of the implications expressed in the works of literature themselves.11

The experiences of war and disaster discussed in these literary texts are based on real, historical events experienced by the authors and thus have strong connections to history, but the chief emphasis will be on how these historical events are manifested in the literary texts under investigation. In the course of literary analysis, I will make reference to the historical events that inspired the literature and provide some documentation of the historical reality, but the examination of these events as history is not the prime focus of this book.12

The essence of literary analysis is the assumption that the work of literature is essentially a fiction, in some cases related to real events, but which goes beyond the boundaries of historical truth to express a deeper truth (in the minds of most authors, at least), a truth delving into the human mind and imagination. The beautiful and terrifying lies that fiction or art conjures up define the subject of this study. This comment also applies to a degree even to works of non-fiction as the few works of non-fiction studied in these pages largely consists of an individual’s remaking of oneself through the act of recollection as expressed quite deliberately in essay or memoir form. That is, the essay is a conscious recasting or re-dramatizing of events that have already occurred, and in the skillful hands of the writers scrutinized here, represents a re-imagining of event that approaches literature (“beautiful or terrifying lies”), and in some cases can clearly be recognized as an important literary creation. My understanding is that one of the most important purposes of history is distinguish between the truth and a lie, but literature asks the reader to imagine a lie more truthful than historical reality, and in this it operates on a different set of critical parameters than utilized by historical analysis.13

These remarks may be seen as a protective coloration for a book that does not aspire to or intend to be read as history but they should be read rather as an affirmation of the power of literary narratives to inspire, amaze and move the reader in ways that, by and large, only literature (or in a broader sense, art) does consistently, and has this as its chief purpose. The renowned literary ←13 | 14→critic Michael Riffaterre has argued that “truth in fiction is not based on an actual experience of factuality, nor does the interpretation or the aesthetic evaluation of fictional narrative require that it be verified against reality”. Riffaterre emphasizes verisimilitude, “a system of representations that seems to reflect a reality external to the text” as one means of evaluation but this is far from the only one, especially when applied to poetry.14 Riffaterre notes that “narrative truth is thus a linguistic phenomenon; since it is experienced through enactment by reading”.15 I agree with Riffaterre about the basic nature of literary truth as a linguistic phenomenon, which is why I seek out the subtle differences in rhetoric, tone and register in the texts under examination, keeping a keen eye on the language of the text in my attempts to decode the various meanings inscribed therein. As Riffaterre suggests, “fiction relies on [semiotic] codes”, which he defines as “arbitrary conventions that can be identified independently of the narrative”. 16 The various genres of Japanese literature— whether poetry or prose—have their own critical conventions, which therefore assign codes to the act of reading these works. One purpose of this book will be to clarify and scrutinize these conventions or codes so as to arrive at the most informed and correct readings of these works. This is especially the case with the some of the works examined in chapter three: readings of poetry composed under a complex form of social duress by kamikaze pilots about to embark on their last journeys.

Reading poetry is a complex act of hermeneusis, and to broadly summarize my approach in this book to the interpretations of the many examples of verse analyzed herein, I quote from Peter Verdonk’s 2013 work The Stylistics of Poetry:

I subscribe to the view that a poem, and for that matter all other literary genres, can be regarded as a verbal composition which represents an utterance or discourse between the author and the reader. Discourse may be defined here as a context-dependent interpersonal linguistic activity whose form depends on its social purpose, which in our case is a message in a certain literary form transmitted from author to reader.

Working in reverse order, I think it can be argued that the tenet that literature is a mode of discourse falls in with […] the stage of the reader’s response and of pragmatics, in which readers, as verbal creatures, display their habitual communicative behavior by responding to the poet’s verbal structure. Readers do so because the verbal structure encodes a discourse in which a speaker invites them, and sometimes even provokes them, to create conceivable contexts for it. On this point, the literary pragmaticist fully agrees […] that the reader is a vital link in the poem’s discourse and that, as he puts it, the poem does not exist in a practical sense at all, if there has been no successful reading. Again, in literary pragmatic terms the poet’s text becomes a meaningful discourse only at the time when it is being read, that is, when the reader starts to build up interpersonal and socio-cultural contexts by imagining plausible circumstances and motives which could have given rise to the discourse gradually taking shape.

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Indeed, it is an established fact that language in use, that is discourse, is governed by a wide range of contextual factors, which may extend from the phonological, grammatical and semantic context […] to broader contexts such as the situation within which the discourse occurs, the identities, beliefs, attitudes of the participants and the relations holding between them. Even more broadly, readers might also take into account any social, psychological, historical or cultural contexts if these prove to have a bearing on the act of communication.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (February)
Catastrophe Studies Wartime Poetry Nomonhan Battle Okinawan Fiction Japanese Literature
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 274 pp.

Biographical notes

Leith Morton (Author)


Title: The Writing of Disaster - Literary Representations of War, Trauma and Earthquakes in Modern Japan
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276 pages