CQR Books

Share on Facebook
Post to Google Buzz
Bookmark this on Yahoo Bookmark
Share on reddit

My Postwar Life

New Writings from Japan and Okinawa

Elizabeth McKenzie, editor

Foreword by Karen Tei Yamashita



Purchase on Amazon

“The war haunts everything.  It is the blot that names:  zainichi, hibakusha, Okinawan, nisei, renunciant, POW, comfort woman, Merikan, juri.  War’s occupation will control and censor every outcome, will obliterate the aftermath of starvation, black markets, and prostitution, will reinstate the zaibatsu and create an economic miracle and subservient ally.  The artists and writers here were and are the born-into recipients of all this.  This is their memory.”

–from the Foreword by Karen Tei Yamashitaauthor of I-Hotel, National Book Award Finalist

This selection of new work by some of Japan’s most eminent observers and artists offers a richly nuanced perspective on the complex relationship between Japan and the U.S. in the long aftermath of war.

Over 100 photographs and illustrations/Reader’s Guide Included

(Scroll down for reviews of My Postwar Life)  

Annotated Table of Contents  

From the opening words of Nagasaki. And Scattered Islets of Time we are suspended in the rich voice of cultural anthropologist Ryuta Imafuku and the essence of “Nagasaki Time” emerging from Shomei Tomatsu‘s renowned and haunting photographs. At 11:02 am on August 9th, 1945, the city of Nagasaki ruptured, and this essay unfolds the half-century journey of one artist to catalogue that rupture. Through Tomatsu’s lens we are able to witness the striking damage forever imprinted on the land and the people of Nagasaki. One moment, suspended in time forever.

Blast by Goro Takano is a kaleidoscopic dreamscape in the guise of an obese, senile writer struggling to navigate the spaces between delusion and inspiration, creation and violence.

The Diary of Noboru Tokuda: A Soldier in the Imperial Army, is the illustrated journal kept by Tokuda during his time stationed as a soldier on the islands of Seram and Kai. Upon his return to Japan, he explained the drawings to his wife, who annotated them in beautiful calligraphy. Through his sketches of life in the Imperial Army we are able experience time on these strange and elegiac islands. Tokuda includes everything in his sketchbook from local fruit to stories of starvation and abandoned bombs found laying about the island.

In Last Time I Saw You by Kentaro Yamaki, a Japanese veteran divulges the secrets of war to his loved one, unveiling the horrors of his time spent stationed in Papua New Guinea. Touching on the vast estrangement felt by soldiers returning home after war, Last Time I Saw You weaves a remarkable tale of hardship, loss, and most importantly, hope.

In The Deleted Line by Deni Y. Bechard, Yukio, a translator for a large publishing company is visited by an old karate master, who comes in search of lines missing from a textbook on the Battle of Okinawa that Yukio translated. In the series of events that unfolds, Yukio is faced with a past that he cannot erase.

The Emperor and the Mayor: A Conversation with Hitoshi Motoshima by Stephen Woodhams is a provocative interview with Hitoshi Motoshima, former mayor of Nagasaki and celebrated survivor of an assassination attempt, who offers a unique perspective on destruction and the dropping of the bomb.

Never before translated, Don’t Arrogate Hiroshima! is Hitoshi Motoshima‘s call to action and reconciliation for Japan. Centering on the controversial nomination of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial as a World Heritage site, Motoshima lays out some of the often overlooked circumstances surrounding the dropping of the bomb.

A Landscape of Words by Akutagawa finalist Tami Sakiyama delves into the rift between personalized local language and standardized urban language, inviting us into her memories of growing up on an Okinawan island filled with dialects. By confronting the standardization of language, Sakiyama is able to open a space for the protection and inclusion of traditional dialects.

The Silver Motorcycle by Katsunori Yamazato is the entrancing story of a young man’s summer spent working for his unraveling aunt, who he refers to solely as “the woman.” In the scorching heat their relationship unfolds in an unimaginable way.

An Exchange For Fire by Christopher Blasdel, director of the U.S.-Japan Creative Arts Program, recounts the touching story of American poet Craig Arnold who journeyed to Japan on pilgrimages to Mt. Aeta and Sakurajima, both active volcanoes. Consumed by his passion, Craig disappeared, never to be found.  This is his story, and the story of community that came together to find him.

C-Lit and Yaoi Desire by Mari Kotani discusses the popular manga Song of Wind and Trees and its main character, an over-sexed young man who is drawn in the popular shojo style. Through an in-depth analysis of the text and comparison to other forms of media, Kotani is able to outline the new archetype of the homme fatale and the C-sensibility.

Tales from Fin de Siecle Japantown: The Japanese Working Students of San Francisco by Takayuki Tatsumi traces the paths of the author’s great-grandmother, who left Japan for America at age sixteen and became one of the first female Tufts graduates, and grandfather, who went to America and then London, working to establish himself as a banker. Through these personal stories and other examples the author examines the dawn of the self-made Japanese working student.

In Superflat Tokyo, noted critic Roland Kelts delves into the world’s most densely populated metropolis, home to a wild hybrid of cultures, ideas, and individuals. Through an analysis of artist Takashi Murakami’s work, Kelts opens the door on the ever-changing city, welcoming us to fill it “with our densest dreams.”

The Atomic Bomb Survivors: A Jungian Contribution illustrates aspects of Janice Nakao’s intensive study of the hibakusha. Through the personal narratives of survivors, she traces the long-term psychological impact of atomic trauma, and presents therapy based on the work of American psychiatrist Robert J. Lipton for survivors to cope with their extreme experience.

In his poem Walking, Keijiro Suga leads the reader along paths lined with the silent presence of the dead; through fields where ancient things have gone to rest. These paths are paved with opposing elements, carved from the space “between the mud and the sky,” “between the mineral and vegetal world,” and filled with the final words of fallen soldiers. In this land of impossible schisms, the poet leads us to a place of unity.

In the full-length play Park City by avant garde playwright  Masataka Matsuda, the main character Shima becomes increasingly fixated on the link between his name and Hiroshima as he journeys there for the first time. Matsuda wraps us in different dimensions of temporality as we follow Shima on his dreamlike journey through the city, into the heart of an international tragedy.

Zainichi Poet Kim Shi-Jong beautifully captures the complex relationship between human memory and the memory that exists outside of ourselves in Behind the Summer Rain.  At the Heart of the Pale Blue Sky is the haunting lament of a voiceless narrator, abandoned by language and therefore without place, purpose, or the ability to atone for debt. In Oh, April, my Distant Days! Shi-Jong weaves together beautiful sequences of images (a raven on the forked branch of a tree, a burning village, the “white dust through the flowering apricots”) that speak to the seeming impossibility of existence beyond extreme tragedy.

The poem Gama by Okinawan poet/activist Ben Takara reveals how the islands of Okinawa and their sacred caverns came to foster both life and death. A Matter of God calls upon a child to return to its native village in the spirit of renewal, to hold tight to the gift of language and wield it as a tool of praise and regeneration.

In Passing into Twilight Alley by Tami Sakiyama, we wind our way through the narrator’s memory to the mystical alley known as Akou-kurou-gai, the state between brightness and darkness. In this twilight place we bear witness to events that unfold between the unlikeliest of strangers.

In The Art of Passing Through Walls by Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani, a young girl named Rika travels to the mountains of Aomori to meet her grandfather for the first time and “discover her roots.” What Rika gets is much more than she bargained for, and in the heart of the mountains, her family’s secrets begin to unfold.  With illustrations by Manga artist  Kentaro Sasaki.

In the striking phantasmagoria Dream Corridor, Kyoto Journal editor Stewart Wachs tells the story of how he came to dwell in Japan. By following his night visions and the echoes of a past life Stewart began a journey towards transformation and unity.

Small Fish by Iona Sugihara is the story of four lives that intertwine across generations. Shizu and her granddaughter, Ellie, and Duane and his grandson, Leon. The hidden pain possessed by the grandmother and granddaughter overlapping with brutality and joy.

Disaster Memories by Hiroshi Fukurai is a comprehensive look at Japan’s most pressing current nuclear threat: the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Through a discussion of the tragic earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011 and the ongoing deception by Fukushima and government officials, Fukurai (whose hometown of Natori was wiped out by the tsunami) calls for a critical evaluation of nuclear policy and national sovereignty.

The Hiten Project: Zero Gravity Dance presents the choreography of Setsuko Ishiguro. Performed on the International Space Station as a “prayer for world peace,” dancers move through zero gravity in an imitation of Hiten, traditional Buddhist figures of praise.


Reviews of My Postwar Life 

The Asian American Literary Review

by Anna Kazumi Stahl
My Postwar Life: New Writings from Japan and Okinawa. ed. Elizabeth McKenzie. Chicago: Chicago Quarterly Review Books, 2012. 328 pp.

Anthologies on war and its effects can move us, certainly, and they can also do the important work of revising the partial, biased, or even explicitly incorrect narratives we may have been taught about influential historical events. This anthology not only moves and revises, but it also orchestrates what I would call a “multi-dimensional experience”—we can read the two-dimensional text on the page, but the experience also acquires a sense of palpable spatial volume as we are invited to skip around inside it to read a poem from the later pages first and then pick up an essay with similar terms from the beginning, or to read texts while looking back and forth at the photos from differing sections. Add to this the fourth dimension of time, the play of memory against current reconsiderations, the cobbling together of historical moments and today’s experiences, the folding of time’s fabric in on itself so that—like in Malick’s The Tree of Life—it might double and repeat insistently, or expand to encompass eons in one stretch, or suddenly, shockingly shrink to focus on a pinpoint realization. More than the opposite of the thinking inherent in the “Superflat” aesthetic, this collection includes it, incorporating it along with other modes, so that ultimately, one is brought into a different way of constructing and treating meanings.

The case in point is post-World War II from the Japanese perspective, but it is also the workings of memory, collective and individual, in more encompassing terms. In that light this anthology’s particular way of arranging its contents has special value as it invites us to read using intuition as much as reason, being as attentive to logical progression as we are to nuanced echoing and reiterations in images. We can begin to see from new angles; we can be surprised, perhaps even awakened. This is why I find My Postwar Life so pertinent to our age. As it has us skip actively from essay to poem, from image to narrative, from page 30’s “bamboo stalks imprinted” to page 176’s “dreamlike touch,” we become more able to navigate less stable conceptual terrains, such as political memory (war history, national history), with suppler and more intuitively acute minds.

The order of the book’s various pieces is intriguing. In a dissembling but in the end enlightening gesture, the table of contents is organized by genre but the pages have a different order, a more poetic one, whereby we read and topics emerge and pass, only to resound in echoes a few texts later, perhaps being treated first in a clear-eyed chronicle and then later dropping through lines in blank verse, or having appeared first insistently in the epigraphs of photos and then being treated in a critical analysis, or as a noticeable absence in a soldier’s diary (“Old town Manila was diverse and multi-colored” and “The native people came close and held up a bunch of bananas shouting `Trade, trade,’” the soldier writes in 1943, and one flips back and forth between his pages wondering, “Where is the War in this diary”?) that then unexpectedly unfurls with forceful explicitness in the first-person discourse of a veteran. This kind of thing also prompts an unexpected but constructive doubt about how I may too quickly presume prescribed values for fiction versus eyewitness testimony. One might ask: how could My Postwar Life be relevant to me if I am not related to anyone Japanese, not interested in anything Japanese, not even all that into Japanese food or fashion or fads? The answer could be as (non)abstract as that idea that a molecule exhaled by Socrates as he spoke his apologia is present in molecules you or I might breathe in today. The answer could be as (non)abstract as that other idea so poignantly expressed in the washing ashore of a Japanese boy’s soccer ball—battered and faded, but still legibly signed—onto Middleton Island in Alaska, more than a year after March 11, 2011. The answer could be as (non)abstract as the idea of an ancient gene pool shared by East Asians and Amerindians, or as that of depleted uranium used in the U.S.’s “Desert Storm” operations coming home now on a soldier’s boot or wristwatch or hairs and, hence, entering a Starbucks just ahead or after you. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but on the other hand: yes, I do.

Karen Tei Yamashita notes in her foreword how “war haunts everything” and historical time “folds” into the now. Interestingly, the other text that prefaces the main contents—by Elizabeth McKenzie, the compiler—talks of the book as an almost intimate endeavor, relevant to a “me” and “my father,” before going on to set in motion the powerfully and delicately orchestrated symphony of diverse elements that comprise the anthology. This is a set of text experiences (readings as well as images) that works less like a book (numbered pages advancing in order from 1 to 324) and more like a theatre piece. Yet it goes a step further still, to be less like a theater piece or a film (which would advance progressively and linearly from an “Act I” or a minute “00:01” through to “The End”) and ultimately more like an installation piece, which you walk through and view/read on your own, going right or left or circularly as per the order your body’s pace and your day’s mood allow, and the message(s) of which you understand by observing its parts and intuiting their meanings belatedly and interrelatedly.

Everyone may have had that anguished thought of the half-century folding over onto itself, so the 1945 A-bombs came crashing through the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe, but the labyrinthine braided threads of victimhood-versus-guilt challenge us—when we read the testimony of a foot soldier whose mind is clouded with nationalist and fundamentalist strictures, or perhaps less extremely when we later read of a poet’s inspired hunger for volcanic formations and his sudden vanishing in an apparent fall from a volcano’s ridge. Throughout the selection of texts and documentation, there are subtler echoes that catch our attention and get us reflecting in new ways about what we read: at one point we are handed off from an eyewitness’ authoritative domain to the presence of multiple circling pseudo-guides at the Hiroshima Peace Park. Indeed, the careful selection presents us consistently with illuminating, mobilizing complexities: we go from a broadly drawn and persistently significant Japanese-North American problematic to more complex layers beneath or within that problematic—such as the troubling, insufficiently addressed status and history of the Ainu minority in Japan, or (as the volume’s title itself makes palpable enough) the odd inside-outside status of Okinawan cultural heritage vis-a`-vis a Japanese national story. In a most powerful essay covering reportage and family history, the layers of the nuclear plant’s catastrophic crisis are peeled back from “tsunami-born tragedy” to reveal other dimensions: suspect complicities between government and industry, dangerous echoes between a rhetoric of community solidarity and a nationalist racism, and at a very intimate core: the settling and (for?) employment of a people whose culture had once been based in a flowing mobile relationship with tides and fish in aquatic migrations.

From analytical monograph to rhapsodic poem, from photodocument to fantastical fiction, the collection harbors and involves those many discourses using a transversal logic to wonderful advantage. It plays different modes of expression and different approaches off one another, so that in the gaps and transition spaces the reader him/herself begins also to reflect and to produce on the topic of history’s consequences and the murky mouthpiece called memory.

If there ever were an anthology that is like a memory park, this is it. One wanders through it, learning as one goes. The cover already sets the tone of active interpretive reading/viewing as the key: its evocative abstract image can suggest nerve endings and synapses as much as trees, whether they be barren branches in a devastated postwar landscape or one hundred cherry trees given in peace-time to the former enemy nation, as a bounty of good wishes, though each petal opens also its own darkling recollections.

Anna Kazumi Stahl is a fiction writer and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. In 1995, she relocated to Argentina and began to experiment with writing in a foreign language. A collection of short stories resulted: Catástrofes naturales (Natural Disasters, 1997). Her novel Flores de un solo día (Flowers of a Single Day, 2003) was a finalist for the prestigious RoÅLmulo Gallegos prize and came out in Spain as well as Latin America, with later translations in France and Italy. She is currently working on a new novel in Spanish and teaching at NYU in Buenos Aires.

Publishers Weekly

My Postwar Life: New Writings from Japan and Okinawa
Edited by Elizabeth McKenzie. Chicago Quarterly Review Books (www.chicagoquarterlyreview.com), $19.95 trade paper (328p) ISBN 978-0-9847788-0-5

This engaging anthology of short fiction, essays, poetry, photography, and more illuminates the interconnected past of the U.S. and Japan, from WWII up to 2011′s earthquake. Ryuta Imafuku’s essay, “Nagasaki. And Scattered Islets of Time,” is a walk through the suspended reality of post-atomic Nagasaki, accompanied by Shomei Tomatsu’s powerful photos of burn victims, detritus, and seared bamboo stalks. Deni Y. Béchard’s story, “The Deleted Line,” tells of Yukio, a translator who censors a textbook regarding the Battle of Okinawa and is subsequently reprimanded by an old karate master, who explains that to erase the past is “like saying we must let go of our minds, of our spirits.” “The Emperor and the Mayor” is Stephen Woodhams’ candid interview with Hitoshi Motoshima, former mayor of Nagasaki, who was castigated by some for blaming Emperor Shōwa for Japan’s role in WWII. Hiroshi Fukurai’s “Disaster Memories” investigates the radioactive threat of the recently damaged Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, and Noboru Tokuda’s beautifully illustrated diary from his stint as a young soldier in the Imperial Army during WWII is particularly moving. McKenzie’s (MacGregor Tells the World) collection is a stunning testament to a country’s literal rise from the ashes–casual readers and academics alike will find many of these selections rewarding and informative. Photos & illus. (Sept.)

Asian Review of Books  

Reviewed by Todd Shimoda

We in the West are still fascinated with Japan, although the focus of this fascination had changed from the country’s more classic arts toward popular culture such as anime. Even sushi has become so mainstream that its roots are starting to blur, like pizza in America which is less and less like pizza in Italy. Most of the original fascination with Japan lies in its many centuries of distillation of its high arts, aesthetics, and ways of thinking. But more than perhaps any other culture, its current state has been defined by justtwo days—the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan began an immense transformation in the blink of an eye.

In this collection of essays, fiction, poetry, plays, and other documentation, the change from the aftermath of the War to today’s modern state is captured and explicated. In reading this volume, I recommend starting not at the beginning and going straight through, but picking out a genre or a few of the pieces that sound most interesting. I chose “Superflat Tokyo”, an essay by Roland Kelts; “The Art of Passing Through Walls”, a short story by Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani, the illustrated “Diary of Noboru Tokuda, Soldier in the Imperial Army”; and the poem “Walking” by Keijiro Suga. Kelts uses his dual residences in Tokyo and New York to provide an aerial view of the differences of the two mega-cities, neither entirely representative of their respective countries, but the two most well known, each the center of finance and culture, and the government in the case of Tokyo. “Superflat” refers to a Japanese artistic style that lacks shading for perspective, and has also been used to describe the thinning of technology (as in superflat television screens). Kelts uses the term to describe the ubiquitous train station neighborhoods of neon-lit karaoke bars, noodles shops, izakaya (small food and drink bars), fast food counters and elegant hostess bars. “Wherever you alight in the City of Tokyo this is what you expect and this is what you get. Superflat. … after decades on the world’s stage, it remains as much a cipher as Hello Kitty—tantalizing and expressionless, massive but hidden, an empty vessel you can fill with your densest dreams. Oh, what a town.” In contrast to Kelts’s broad, visionary sensibilities for Tokyo, Lowitz and Oketani take a more modest and intimate portrait of rural Japan, seen through the eyes of Rika, a Japanese American and recent high school graduate visiting her grandfather in Japan for the first time. The elderly man is amazed to learn Rika knows the Japanese martial art of stealth and invisibility called sozu, although she doesn’t know it is called this. Her mother passed some of its skill to her, and now the grandfather teaches Rika an advanced level of the art called “passing through walls”. Learning this secret and others, she also learns more of her identity and that of her mother, and the realization astounds her. “The Diary of Noboru Tokuda” is a fascinating diary made of sketches drawn by a young Japanese sailor who was trapped on a small island in the Philippines near the end of war. He was eventually captured and interned in Singapore until he was returned to Japan. The sketches are vivid examples of the horror and self-reliance required to survive in the chaotic finish of the war. The sketches were annotated by the sailor’s wife after he returned. Several sketches show how they were cut off from supplies and had to forage and hunt for food while running for shelter from regular bombings. “When I think about how the infantry barracks were later reduced to worthless splinters by a bomb, I remember how chills ran up and down my spine.” “Walking” by Keijiro Suga is a narrative poem of the emotive thoughts of a person walking through a vast changing landscape. The feeling imparted is a floating journey through history as much as across shorelines and mountains. “Finding our way between the mineral world and the vegetal world, We went on, climbing the northern slope of summer. The path became a stream, then mud, Then occasionally stairways hard to climb because of exposed roots. The path was situated between the mud and the sky.” In the end the walker can no longer distinguish light and dark, earth and sky, self and not-self. A couple of other works I recommend are the erudite and informative essay “The Atomic Bomb Survivors: A Jungian Contribution” by Janice Nakao and the surreal short story “Passing into Twilight Alley” by Tami Sakiyama. Overall, the collection has consistently high quality works, a credit to the editor, Elizabeth McKenzie. Each work provides unique insight into what Japan has become from where it was before the singular events sixty-seven years ago.

–Todd Shimoda’s latest novel is Subduction.

Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing–Received and recommended

The Japan Times: Making a Life After Surviving the War

Santa Cruz Sentinel: Author Dives Into the Japanese Psyche with new book on the Lingering Aftermath of WWII


Chicago Quarterly Review Books


Leave a Comment