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Monday, April 19, 2021

The novel that’s powerful enough to remove some of the genocide horror from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima

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They have to be, because Japanese Americans who were growing up during World War II, and later in Japan, were the ones to write the words to “Hiroshima.” It is a national text, one now available in English for the first time, and bookishly available in stores and online.

The novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, now 85, as a teenager in Hiroshima, became enthralled by the 1945 atomic bombing, thinking of the “doomed, trammeled and destroyed” people of his native country. He was gripped by the moral enormity of what had happened, and by the horror and heroism of the survivors.

“I knew that the atomic bomb would make Japan a miserable place,” he says in the book, describing his initial reaction. “Hiroshima… a river of tears and drenched houses.”

Tanizaki wanted to “spread the word,” as he wrote in the introduction to the book, about the magnitude of what happened, “so that it would not happen again.” So he collected what he knew, made sure he met with survivors and learned the language, along with his own words, of what he called the “symbolic survivor community.”

The result is an initially calm, controlled text that morphs into a poetry of rage and heartbreak as Tanizaki recounts his own intensely personal reaction to the bombing of his hometown. Later, the war’s bitter legacy — his father had been convicted and sentenced to death in the closing months of the war, for being a trained member of the notorious Japanese Army Unit 731, which produced thousands of kidnapped civilians for execution — begins to affect his work. “Once the thundercloud passes, your country turns into the coffin, a shell, an ice-cold air that cannot defrost,” he writes.

The small Japanese community overseas, descendants of those who had been captured and interrogated by the American occupying forces, has often been a footnote in atomic-bombing stories. Tanizaki’s book is the first to tell their story.

The author himself gives an understandable reason for his willingness to share his memories and experience: “There is only one subject for me now. I cannot bear to lose the voice of people who were turned into rice-stones by a bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.”

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