The Wounds of History
History is riddled with several events that altered the landscape of the world as we know it. As one peruses any one history book, one can encounter pandemics; periods of economic recessions; and political upheavals. The past three years we spent in lockdown due to the COVID-19 is a fine example. The global economy is slowly recovering from the great losses it has incurred during the pandemic. It is not, however, always bleak because the passage of time also saw heroic deeds, the development of technology, and the modernization of several aspects of our lives, such as health, education, and transportation. We have witnessed the first time man set foot on the moon. We also witnessed how nations and humanity came together in times of tragedy and grief. History is a rich tapestry.
It comes as no surprise that historical events have become inseparable from literature. There is even a genre dedicated to such works of fiction. Historical events, however, are not exclusive to works of historical fiction as other genres are often juxtaposed on such seminal events. In the world of historical fiction, a familiar subject is war. Wars, from civil to cold to world, proliferated history and were integral factors in shaping the modern landscape. Wars, unfortunately, are still being fought in different parts of the world while the rest of the world watches with bated breaths. The legacy of wars is riddled with deaths and the inescapable reality of the darker sides of our humanity. It is unfortunate that humankind can never extricate itself from the horrors of war.
One of the wars prominently examined in literature was the Second World War. Nearly every aspect of the war, from the concentration camps to the actual gunfights, was the mantle upon which several prominent works of fiction were drawn on. Literary works tackling the impact of the war and the war itself are prevalent across generations, some even became instant literary classics. These works transcend time as they gave voices to those who were muted by the tumult. Japanese writer Masuji Ibuse, who was conscripted for the war and was part of the Japanese army’s propaganda unit, contributed to this extensive list with his novel 黒い雨 (Kuroi Ame) which was published in 1965. A year later, the novel was made available to English readers as Black Rain; the book was translated by John Bester.
“With great difficulty, I got a seat in the rearmost car of the special troop train. It was a train of the same Geibi Line that ran through my home in the country, and I had traveled back and forth on it a number of times during my middle school days. The sound of its whistle cheered me immensely. Somehow, I felt I could not possibly die now that I had heard that well-remembered sound from the past. The emotion that flooded me at the prospect of a time free from the sleeplessness, strain, and apprehension of the past three days made the three-hour journey seem excessively long and the train excessively tardy.”~ Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain
Black Rain was set during and the years immediately following the Second World War. When the story commenced, a couple of years after the conclusion of the war, the readers were immediately apprised of the dilemma of the novel’s main character, Shigematsu Shizuma, a man residing in Kobatake, a village located about one hundred miles east of the city of Hiroshima. Shigematsu and his wife, Shigeko were worried about the marriage prospects of his niece, Yasuko. As Yasuko’s guardians, it was their responsibility to find a suitable partner for her; miai, or arranged marriages used to be prevalent in Japanese society. There were previous attempts to arrange a marriage for Yasuko, three attempts to be exact, but each one ended up in failure.
A new marriage arrangement was being made but it is again in danger of not falling through. Yasuko’s prospects were jeopardized by a persistent rumor that she was at Ground Zero when the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and, as such, she was now suffering from radiation sickness. In postwar Japan, the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, referred to as hibakusha (literally translates to bomb-affected-people), were shunned. In today’s parlance, this is referred to as fake news. In order to counter this fake news, Shigematsu resolved to do his own fact-checking by plowing through the diary entries of Yasuko during the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the days thereafter. He was planning to present the journals to the parents of prospective husbands, thus, proving that Yasuko was a healthy partner.
In the process of transcribing his niece’s journal, Shigematsu started writing his own based on his memories of the events. It was these journals, further supported by accounts of other characters, that formed the novel’s narrative frame. Shigematsu was barely outside the blast zone but was still knocked unconscious by the blast. Once he was able to regain consciousness, he looked up to the sky and what he saw was an ominous mushroom cloud rising from Hiroshima: “It was an envoy of the devil himself, I decided: who else in the whole wide universe would have presumed to summon forth such a monstrosity?” Amidst the tumult that ensued, he joined several others on an odyssey to the epicenter of the blast. They had no iota about the existence of the atomic bomb or even the nature of the blast, hence, they had no concern for their personal safety. Nevertheless, they were driven by the goal to check up on their loved ones and their properties.
With Shigematsu directing the narrative, Ibuse transported readers to the epicenter of one of the most infamous historical events. Ibuse painted a picture of the immediate damage caused by the bomb. It was a grim picture; Black Rain was neither a light nor pleasant read. The city of Hiroshima, once teeming with activities and life, was flattened beyond recognition. It was a city in ruins and Shigematsu walked the readers through these ruins. Through his unflinching gaze, we were provided intricate and vivid details of wrecked and flattened buildings. We read about lifeless bodies strewn around on the streets like debris. The air was pregnant with the smell of death while debris blocked major thoroughfares. There were some survivors but many were left with gushing wounds. Everyone was out of their wits as they find themselves caught in the midst of rubble, disconnected from the rest of the world. Who would have thought that such extensive damage was even possible?
“There came the familiar drone of a B-29. It came from the south, and when it seemed to be directly above I involuntarily glanced up at the sky. For a moment, I had a glimpse of something that looked like a captive balloon drifting lazily downwards in the sky beyond the barracks roof. The next moment, there was a white flash like lightning, or the light from a great mass of magnesium ignited all at once. I felt a wave of searing heat. At the same time, there was a terrifying roar, and that was all I knew. What happened after that, or how much time passed, I do not know. Struck down by the blast, I may actually have lost consciousness.”~ Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain
The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was followed by another one a couple of days later, now in Nagasaki. These were the culmination of the incendiary bombing that flattened cities across Japan, including Tokyo. These two cities would then be immortalized by this infamous historical event, a distinction that they would rather not have. In the aftermath, roughly 120,000 to 140,000 perished immediately after the atomic bombs were dropped. In the history of warfare, these are the first and only such weapons used against another nation. With the toll, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito addressed the empire on August 15, 1945, through radio, announcing the surrender of the Japanese empire. A couple of days later, on September 2, the surrender documents were officially signed at Tokyo Bay on the deck of the American battleship USS Missouri. This officially marked the conclusion of the Second World War.
While the rest of the world erupted in collective cheer and the dust started to settle, the real scope of the war started to come into full view. In Europe, concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Birkenau were slowly stripped of their veneer, exposing the monstrosities that the Nazis perpetrated. Images emanating from the concentration camps were beyond imagination. The same can be said for the damage that Hiroshima and Nagasaki sustained. But the damage was not only immediate because the horrors of the atomic bombing reverberated in the coming years. Decades after the war, radiation sickness still affects many people, not only those who survived the explosion but also those who traveled to the epicenter immediately after it. This is a typical response to an incomprehensible event. Shigematsu was also among those who suffered from the consequences of the radiation that enveloped the city that fateful August day.
People continued to die after the explosion and many had no iota as to why; it was also estimated that around 120,000 to 140,000 people died from the effects of the radiation post-explosion. Shigematsu would only learn about the proper name of the atomic bomb a week after the blast and very late in the text. Because of his exposure to radiation, he gets exhausted easily. Overexertion of his body will lead to an illness. He and two other fellow villagers established a carp farm, an occupation that does not require extensive physical work. In his village, those who suffered from radiation sickness were silently shunned by the community as they cannot work full-time. Shigematsu and his ilk established the carp farm to assuage the guilt that was gripping them, hoping that it would be beneficial to the other villagers. For some, the effect of the radiation would manifest later in their lives.
The story, however, does not reduce itself to a mere exploration of the aftermath of the atomic bomb. Ibuse also captured the details of daily life in wartime Japan. The story elucidated the recruitment of children for labor, the relationship between civilians and military personnel, and the rationing of supplies. Beyond arranged marriages, other details of Japanese culture were embedded in the story. A prevalent example was the compunction of the Japanese for order and following everything to the letter. They were inflexible even amidst a period of pandemonium. This, however, adversely affected any efforts for rescue as some personnel still required proper levels of authorization. This Japanese stoicism and passivity amidst crises remain prevalent and have also been subtly underscored in succeeding literary works.
“I washed my hands at the ornamental spring, but even rubbing at the marks with soap couldn’t get them off. They were stuck fast on the skin. It was most odd. I showed them to Uncle Shigematsu, who said, ” It could be the oil from an oil bomb, after all. I wonder if it wasn’t an oil bomb they dropped, then?“~ Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain
The novel’s fine elements were woven together by Ibuse’s masterful storytelling into a lush albeit bleak tapestry. Ibuse made the readers walk the same streets and witness the same horrors that Shigematsu did. The structure of the novel provided a vicarious experience but still distanced the readers from the real horrors of the war. By weaving details and accounts from other survivors, Ibuse provided a more complete picture of the aftermath of the bombing. This was further complimented by Ibuse’s descriptive but delicate writing It is also a nod to Ibuse for handling a sensitive subject in an evenhanded manner. He neither vilified the Americans nor did he glorify Japan’s role in the War. There was a balance but nevertheless, the novel managed to give voices to those who were muted by the tumult.
The novel derived its title from a post-explosion black rain. It would be a contentious point later on as it is believed to have further exposed the characters to radiation. Ibuse also riveted the readers with his astute description of the bombing itself. Rather than referring to it directly by its name at the onset – characters speculated on its nature based on the extent of the damage they witnessed – Ibuse captured it through the perspective of various characters; modern readers know it now by the (in) famous image of the mushroom cloud. In doing so, Ibuse deflected the discourse from the bomb itself to the more important subject: its aftermath.
Upon its publication, Black Rain was a literary sensation, further elevating Ibuse’s reputation as a writer. It was critically acclaimed, even earning Ibuse the Noma Prize. It also earned Ibuse the prestigious Order of Cultural Merit, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a Japanese author. Beyond its recognition, the book, in an evenhanded manner, captured one of the most horrific events in recent memory. Writing about the war was a personal endeavor for Ibuse because he personally witnessed its horrors while traveling across South East Asia with the Japanese army as a correspondent. Ibuse provided an immersive and atmospheric reading experience in a story that further underscored the horrors of war. In war, there are no real victors as it is humanity that collectively suffers from its damages. Social classes, genders, and stations in life are disregarded in war. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are enduring symbols of these horrors.
War offers very little reprieve but even in the midst of strife, hope trickles. While Shigematsu and his family traipsed through the ruins of Hiroshima, he noted how the flora started to flourish: “Insects and plants, indeed, were thriving as never before. Yesterday, I had seen a new shoot a foot and a half long on a plantain tree in what had been the back garden of a noodle shop. The original stem had been snapped off by the blast and had disappeared without a trace, but a new shoot, encased in a sheath like bamboo was already growing in its place. Today, the shoot was a good two-foot long.” In the throes of ruins, Japan managed to reinvent itself and rise from the ashes like a phoenix. It is now one of the world’s most powerful nations.
“The mushroom cloud was really shaped more like a jellyfish than a mushroom. Yet it seemed to have a more animal vitality than any jellyfish, with its legs that quivered and its head that changed color as it sprawled out slowly toward the southeast, writhing and raging as though it might hurl irself on our heads at any moment. It was an envoy of the devil himself, I decided: who else in the whole universe would have presumed to summon forth such a mostrosity?“~ Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain
Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 24%
Writing (25%) – 25%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
Prior to the pandemic, I have never heard of nor have I encountered any of the works of Masuji Ibuse. Had it not been for an online bookseller, Ibuse would have not made it to my consciousness. I saw a copy of Black Rain and while I was not immediately taken by it, the book’s cover did capture my imagination. It reminded me of a building that has become one of the enduring symbols of Hiroshima, a city that, without design or intent, has found itself in a very important place in world history. Sure enough, a quick research about the book yielded “Second World War.” The novel did transport me to the Second World War, to the Ground Zero of the infamous atomic bombing. It was no easy read as, through the lenses of Shigematsu and Ibuse, I was given an intimate and intricate account of the damage that was sustained by the city. I felt like I was walking alongside Shigematsu as he strives to find vestiges of life amidst this cataclysmic event. I was witnessing firsthand the aftermath of the atomic bombing. It was heavy on the heart, to say the least. Ibuse, I later on learned, was a prolific writer. I hope I get to read more of his works in the future.
Author: Masuji Ibuse (井伏 鱒二, Ibuse Masuji)
Translator (from Japanese): John Bester
Publisher: Kodansha International
Publishing Date: 1979 (1965)
Number of Pages: 300
Black Rain is centered around the story of a young woman who was caught in the radioactive “black rain” that fell after the bombing of Hiroshima. Ibuse bases his tale on real-life diaries and interviews with victims of the holocaust; the result is a book that is free from sentimentality yet manages to reveal the magnitude of the human suffering caused by the atom bomb. The life of Yasuko, on whom the black rain fell, is changed forever by periodic bouts of radiation sickness and the suspicion that her future children, too, may be affected.
Ibuse tempers the horror of his subject with the gentle humor for which he is famous. His sensitivity to the complex web of emotions in a traditional community torn asunder by this historical event has made Black Rain one of the most acclaimed treatments of the Hiroshima story.
About the Author
Masuji Ibuse (井伏 鱒二, Ibuse Masuji) was born on February 15, 1898, in Kamo (now part of present-day Fukuyama), Hiroshima prefecture, Japan to a family of landowners. He spent his childhood in the village of Kamo in eastern Hiroshima Prefecture. In 1911, he gained admission to Fukuyama Middle School, a prominent school that produced eminent scholars. At the school, reading fictional literature was forbidden but Ibuse managed to read the works of Shimazaki Toson and Mori Ogai. He even sent a letter to Ogai (1862-1922) under the pseudonym Kuchiki Sansuke. Ogai noted that the brush strokes were very “like an old man.”
Ibuse initially wanted to be a painter and even asked the painter Hashimoto Kansetsu if he could be his disciple but the painter rejected his proposal. Ibuse eventually switched his interest to literature. In 1917, Ibuse moved to Tokyo to pursue literature at Waseda University where he specialized in French literature. Before he could graduate, Ibuse left the university after a disagreement with one of his professors. He has since cut his ties with the university. After leaving Waseda, Ibuse started writing short stories which were published in literary magazines. His first book, Yu Hei (Confinement) was published in 1923. Among his popular works are the short story Sanshōuo (1929; The Giant Salamander) and the historical novel Jon Manjiro hyōryūki (1937; John Manjiro, the Castaway: His Life and Adventures). It was, however, not until the publication of Tajinko Mura (1939) that Ibuse was able to make a living as a professional writer.
During the Second World War, Ibuse was conscripted and worked in the propaganda unit. Along with the Japanese army, he traveled as a war correspondent through Thailand and Malaya to Singapore. Some of his works such as Hana no machi (1942; City of Flowers) were inspired by what he witnessed during the war. While he had an extensive list of works prior to the war, it was only after the war that he gained more popularity. He won the inaugural Yomiuri Prize in 1949 for Honjitsu kyūshin (本日休診, No Consultations Today). His 1966 novel, Kuroi Ame, (Black Rain) ushered even more recognition for Ibuse. It won him international and local awards such as the Noma Prize and the Order of Cultural Merit, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a Japanese author.
Ibuse passed away on July 10, 1993, due to pneumonia.