‘The atomic landscape … does not allow me to rest’: Kurihara Sadako and the Hibakusha Poet as Public Intellectual

By | 1 February 2017


The 70th anniversary of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima was marked by a solemn ceremony in the Hiroshima Peace Park on 6 August, 2015. I formed part of the 40,000 strong crowd, pausing at 8.15 am while the peace bell tolled to mark the dawning of the nuclear age. On that day, the anti-nuclear sentiments the anniversary spawned were complicated and compromised by politics. The mayor of Hiroshima, Kazumi Matsui, called for an end to nuclear weapons. The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, agreed, but at the same time sought to renounce the pacifist Article 9 of the Constitution and re-arm Japan. Indeed, hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) are now concerned that in Abe’s government, those in favour of revising the charter currently control more than two thirds of the seats in both Diet chambers, following the recent Upper House election. The requirement for proposing an amendment to the constitution is a two-thirds majority (Japan Times, 6 August, 2016).

Recently, President Obama hesitated before committing to visit Hiroshima in May this year, for fear of offending an American public that overwhelmingly believes that dropping the bomb was justified. Highlighting the complexity, Whitehouse spokesperson Josh Earnest promised that there would be no Presidential apology for the bomb, whilst also criticising North Korea for developing nuclear weapons. Obama is the first incumbent US president to visit Hiroshima. He urged ‘those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles [to] have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them’ (Obama 2016). At the 71st commemoration ceremony, Mayor Kazumi Matsui told the crowd: ‘The president’s words showed he was touched by the spirit of Hiroshima, which refuses to accept the ‘absolute evil’ and he urged people to visit Hiroshima’ (Takenaka 2016). A message from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was also read out by a representative:

Today, the world needs the hibakusha spirit more than ever, at a time when global tensions are rising and progress on nuclear disarmament is ‘hard to find,’ [hibakusha] have special responsibility to prevent another Hiroshima. (Japan Times, 6 August, 2016)

The complexity of the commemorative ceremonies in Hiroshima highlights the ongoing relevance of Hiroshima, and the need to continue to seek deeper understandings of the bomb. I sought the advice of Ogura Keiko, a 78-year-old hibakusha, who has been a peace activist for 35 years. This year she publicly called on Group of Seven foreign ministers to face the terror of nuclear weapons and have the determination to abolish them (Japan Times, 11 April, 2016). Last year, when I met her, she and two other hibakusha had spent weeks giving witness testimonies on the dropping of the bomb to large audiences in an effort to promote a nuclear free future. At the session I attended on August 6, 2015, 84-year-old Takeshi Inokuchi had learnt his testimony phonetically in English as a response to the need for his story to reach a broader audience.

When I met Oguro she argued that in lobbying for a nuclear free world, ‘Imagination is key’ (Atomic Bomb Testimonies 2015 n.p.). By this, she clarified, she believes writers, artists and poets most successfully encourage empathy in their readers. John Whittier Treat in his exceptional book Writing Ground Zero, identifies the way in which the reader of atomic bomb literature is asked to ‘cooperat[e] in a special relationship’ (32) with the writer. It is a relationship, Edward A Dougherty argues, is mediated by the imagination:

It is Imagination, that elusive intelligence, which helps those of us who didn’t have to experience such extremity firsthand to remember the future. Imagination is necessary, therefore, not only to listen to their testimony but to understand our own role in history, our force in culture, and our duty both to the dead and to the living. (Dougherty, 2)

This underscores Ogura’s identification of the power of imagination in the abolition of nuclear weapons. This essay uses Ogura’s call to read atomic bomb poetry (Genbaku shishū) as the starting point for discussion.

Hibakusha poets as public intellectuals

In Poetry and Activism Undammed, Gary Snyder argues,

In Asia and Europe, tradition counts on poets to be public intellectuals and to speak out about political issues. Poets more than fiction writers are expected to be activists. All throughout history, poets have been engaged in society. (N.pag.)

As evidence of this, he cites Walt Whitman’s condemnation of slavery and his tending to injured people in the Civil War; Kenneth Rexroth’s conscientious objection to World War II and his efforts to protect Japanese Americans against internment and poets Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, Federico García Lorca, and Octavio Paz for their significant social activism. He argues that ‘poetry is a form of activism. If you write things down that go out into the community, they will affect change’ (N.pag.). He uses Romantic poets as examples of public intellectuals in their celebration of nature, inspiring environmental awareness in those who read their poetry, such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.

Japan has a strong history of public intellectuals, even if they are not identified in these terms. As I have discussed elsewhere:

There is no direct translation of the word ‘public intellectual’ in Japanese; the closest word is probably chishikijin (知識人) which captures the ‘intellectual’ part of ‘public intellectual’ but stops short of addressing the essential ‘public’ part of this role. However, it is clear that there have been many Japanese across the political spectrum who have fulfilled the same function as the Western public intellectual, such as Mishima Yukio, Ōe Kenzaburō, and Ishihara Shintarō. (Atherton, Asia-Pacific Journal, N.pag.)

In a response to a 2008 Foreign Policy and Prospect magazine failing to list any Japanese candidates in their poll of public intellectuals, Michael Cucek devised a list of his top fifty Japanese public intellectuals. These included: ‘Ishihara Shintarō, Inose Naoki, Yamauchi Masayuki, Nakanishi Terumasa, Yayama Tarō, Sakakibara Eisuke, Satō Masaru, Gyōten Toyo’o (Toyoo Gyohten), Sakaiya Taiichi and Sakurai Yoshiko’ (Cucek, N.pag). While Cucek was criticised for not including any left wing public intellectuals, his list sparked a discussion about Japanese public intellectuals more generally and the importance of writers like Ōe Kenzaburō as key public intellectuals in Japan’s history. This paves the way for discussions of poets, and more specifically hibakusha poets, as public intellectuals. This paper contends that when hibakusha write poetry as a form of activism, seeking a large public readership, they can be identified as public intellectuals.

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