“Soul Lanterns” by Shaw Kuzki


Shaw Kuzki’s middle-grade novel Soul Lanterns begins in August 1970. A generation earlier, an atomic bomb leveled Hiroshima. Nozomi and her friends have grown up attending yearly memorials and learning about “the flash” in their peace studies class. When a much-loved art teacher takes an unexpected leave of absence, Nozomi begins to wonder about how the war really affected the adults in her life.

At Nozomi’s suggestion, the school art club votes to host an exhibit about “Hiroshima: Then and Now” to collect the stories of their families and neighbors. Not surprisingly, the students discover how much trauma the people around them live with.


Soul Lanterns, Shaw Kuzki (Delacorte, March 2021)
Soul Lanterns, Shaw Kuzki, Emily Balistrieri (trans) (Delacorte, March 2021)

By placing the action at a generation’s remove from the actual events, Kuzki blunts some of the harshest edges of the story—and this is one of the novel’s strengths. Soul Lanterns isn’t so much about August 1945 as the trauma it left behind. Nozomi and her friends begin to grow up when they begin to understand the interior lives of the adults around them. For example, one of her friends observes his father with newly awakened attention:


[Shun’s father] seemed to be in a good mood. But there were hard keloids and burn marks on his hand, and in his heart, he probably carried the friends he’d lost. Shun was shocked to find himself realizing that only now and felt moved by all that must have happened to so many people he loved.


The novel’s ultimate message is that growing up means becoming aware of the world around you.


The book however presents several significant challenges to a non-Japanese audience. Typical of many Hiroshima narratives, Soul Lanterns barely acknowledges Japan’s own actions during World War II. More importantly, the story also more or less ignores the harsh reality of life for many Hiroshima survivors in Japan. It covers hibakusha (nuclear bomb victims) and radiation sickness, but it doesn’t address the related stigma: many Japanese, especially outside of Hiroshima, feared that radiation could be contagious. Historically, Nozomi herself might well have experienced discrimination if she looked for marriage or employment outside of Hiroshima. Soul Lanterns also alludes several times to “A-bomb orphans”, but it doesn’t address what happened to the thousands of children left behind. Without any source of support in the war’s chaotic aftermath, many starved. Others turned to crime or were victims of human trafficking.

There aren’t many accounts of Hiroshima in English-language children’s literature; maybe the most famous, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, was written by Canadian American novelist Eleanor Coerr. Kuzki is herself a Hiroshima native and second-generation atomic bomb survivor, so English-speaking readers shouldn’t lightly dismiss the Soul Lanterns.  Nevertheless, the novel’s omissions mean younger people reading the novel in translation may need an adult to provide some important historical context.

Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction. Read Japanese Literature is her podcast about Japanese literature and some of its best works.