Fukushima shadows diverse collection
THE stunning cover of Granta: Japan features the gleaming crest of Mount Fuji reflecting a tender dusk sky. It’s only on closer inspection that the mountain reveals itself as skilfully sculpted aluminium foil; and it’s only on reading photographer Yuji Hamada’s short account of his series Primal Mountain, featured within, that one learns that he shot his Fujiyama against the changing Tokyo sky. Hamada writes that his intention was to capture the feel of Japan after the earthquake of 2011. “The information that was broadcast by the media, the information that we received didn’t match up to the reality that was before our eyes.”
Eeriness and beauty distinguishes much of the work in this special issue — published simultaneously in Japanese and English — of the longstanding British literary magazine, featuring writing and art by Japanese contributors who are largely unknown in the West, alongside a very hip list of internationals. This includes the British authors David ( Cloud Atlas) Mitchell, cult crime author David Peace (author of the Red Riding Quartet and Tokyo Year Zero), and long-term Japan resident Pico Iyer; Seoul-based Colombian author Andres Felipe Solano; and from North America, Rebecca Solnit, Adam Johnson ( The Orphan Master’s Son), practising Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki (whose Tale for the Time Being won of this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award), and young literary sensation, Taiwan-born Tao Lin. (It’s a great line-up, though my personal wish list would have included Yoko Ogawa, whose fabulously dark novels have been gaining a Western following; and Japan-born Belgian novelist Amelie Nothomb, whose novella Fear and Loathing is one of the sharpest interventions I’ve read into Western fantasies of making a life in Japan).
It’s no surprise that about a third of these pieces reference the devastating 2011 earthquake, tidal wave and resulting meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In playwright and novelist Toshiki Okada’s coolly elegant Breakfast, a husband and his estranged wife reunite for a few hours in Tokyo. Her refusal to live again in this “city of zombies”, only 250km from Fukushima, stands in for a host of marital troubles — and for a national sense of loss. In Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut, Mitchell uses a typically kaleidoscopic range of viewpoints to also create a mini-portrait of life in post-Fukushima Tokyo. One small incident of a crazed old man’s behaviour creates a kind of rippling strangeness that touches the lives around him, including that of a waitress keeping her survival of the meltdown secret.
Among my favourites is the delicate essay, Granta 127: Japan Granta, 272pp, $24.99 Blue Moon by Hiromi Kawakami, who has appeared recently on the Western radar; Strange Weather in Tokyo, her desperately sad story of a lonely woman’s affair with her much older ex-teacher, was shortlisted this year — alongside Ogawa’s Revenge — for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. (Has any literature, I wonder, plumbed loneliness as expertly as Japan’s?) Here she tells the story of passing through the shadow of an almost-certain pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Reflection on life’s fragility is a central trope of Japanese writing but here she gently ties her experience to the disaster, noting that it was then she first heard “becquerels”, the term used in her medical tests.
Perhaps more surprisingly, there’s little hint of religion or the supernatural in these contributions, given reports, such as Richard Lloyd Parry’s extraordinary recent essay in the London Review of Books, recounting mass hauntings and the grief work undertaken by Buddhist priests in the Tohoku region. Only Solnit puts a foot in this territory (literally) in her very atmospheric account of visiting Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari shrine after a tour of the devastated region, which captures an alternate sense of time within the steep passages of orange torii, or sacred gates, winding up the mountain: “I had the impression midway through the hours I spent wandering, that time itself had become visible, that every moment of my life I was passing through orange gates, always had been,