Writers responded to the triple disasters of 11 March 2011 with a new genre of Japanese literature: shinsai bungaku or “earthquake literature”. Almost 13 years later, it’s easy to forget just how terrible 11 March 2011 really was. The Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a tsunami that may have reached heights up to 40 meters. It rushed as far as 10 kilometers inland at the speed of a passenger jet at cruising altitude. It caused massive destruction along more than 400 kilometers of Japan’s eastern coast, wiping away coastal towns in minutes.
A piano competition in a seaside town near Tokyo brings together pianists from around the world. Among the competitors are a former prodigy who left the competition circuit seven years earlier after her mother died, a third-generation Japanese-Peruvian, and a teenaged child of a beekeeper. Riku Onda’s Honeybees and Distant Thunder, the basis of a Japanese film a few years ago and newly translated by Philip Gabriel, begins when three of the judges first hear the beekeeper’s son audition in Paris and continues through to the end of the competition in Japan.
Amid the scorching heat of August 1947, the Edo Tattoo Society hosts a spectacle that captivates the city: a competition to crown the person with the most exquisite body art. Held at a garden restaurant, their first post-War meeting draws a large crowd. Among the attendees is Kenzo Matsushita, recently returned from the war where he served as a military medic. He has only a passing curiosity about tattoos yet becomes completely swept up in the excitement of the evening.
In his 1994 speech accepting the second Nobel Prize for Literature ever awarded to a Japanese author, Kenzaburo Oe claimed that, in the history of modern Japanese literature, “the writers most sincere and aware of their mission were those ‘post-war writers’” who “tried with great pains to make up for the inhuman atrocities committed by Japanese military forces in Asian countries.” He went on to describe more contemporary writers as “a youth politically uninvolved or disaffected, content to exist within a late adolescent or post adolescent subculture.”
The tales in Ao Omae’s People Who Talk to Stuffed Animals Are Nice are about sensitive people trying to navigate an unjust world. Take Nanamori, the protagonist of the collection’s title story. The characters in “People Who Talk” are members of the university Plushie Club. Members justify the club to university officials as an organization that collects and crafts stuffed animals. In reality, they use the stuffies for a kind of informal talk therapy.
Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Kappa is the story of a psychiatric patient who claims he once spent time in a land of water-loving creatures out of Japanese folklore. Most of Akutagawa’s contemporaries—as most Japanese readers today—would have been familiar with this famous folktale monster. A kappa is about three feet tall and, according to Patient No 23, weighs 20-30 pounds. It has webbed hands and feet, as well as a dish on top of its head that has to remain wet. The kappa also loves cucumbers and sumo wrestling.
On a trip many years ago to New Delhi, I was struck by an official memorial to Subhas Chandra Bose, the wartime leader of the Indian National Army, the Japan-affiliated force of Indians who fought against the British during the Second World War. India, of course, has a more complex view of the fight against Japan than other countries involved in the War—with these soldiers being contentious, debated and, at times, celebrated.