My Postwar Life
New Writings from Japan and Okinawa
Elizabeth McKenzie, editor
Foreword by Karen Tei Yamashita
“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 Yamashita, author 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.
- An Interview with former Nagasaki Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima
- The photography of Shomei Tomatsu
- A Play by Masataka Matsuda
- The illustrated diary of Noboru Tokuda, soldier in the Imperial Army
- And featuring Fiction, Poetry and Essays by:
- Deni Y. Bechard • Christopher Yohmei Blasdel • Hiroshi Fukurai • Ryuta Imafuku • Setsuko Ishiguro • Roland Kelts • Mari Kotani • Leza Lowitz • Janice Nakao • Shogo Oketani • Tami Sakiyama • Kim Shi-Jong • Keijiro Suga • Iona Sugihara • Goro Takano • Ben Takara • Takayuki Tatsumi • Stewart Wachs • Stephen Woodhams • Kentaro Yamaki • Katsunori Yamazato
Over 100 photographs and illustrations/Reader’s Guide Included
Reviews of My Postwar Life
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.
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.)
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.
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
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