30 July 2012

Black Rain (Ibuse Masuji)

Black Rain (1966) by Ibuse Masuji, translated by John Bester (Bantam Books, 1985)

"Gentlemen," he said, "you have our deepest gratitude for giving thus of your services in these busy wartime days. I scarcely need to remind you that the injured whom you will be bringing back with you are blistered with burns over their entire bodies, and to request you, therefore, to take every care not to cause them yet further suffering. It is said that the enemy used what is referred to as a 'new weapon' in his attack on Hiroshima, which instantly plunged hundreds of thousands of blameless residents of the city into a hell of unspeakable torments...."

An antiwar novel, Black Rain probes the effects on humans of the atomic bomb dropped on the city of Hiroshima on August 1945. It is presented as diary entries of a family (husband, wife, niece) describing their escape from the destroyed city and their encounters with the victims of the bomb. The frame of the story is the niece Yasuko being involved in matchmaking for a promising marriage. Having learned that she was possibly exposed to radiation while fleeing Hiroshima, single men who were considering Yasuko for a wife eventually started to back out of the negotiations. In order to prove that she is healthy and free of symptoms of radiation sickness, Yasuko's uncle instructed her to copy out her diaries written right after the period of the bombing so that her whereabouts were accounted for during the whole ordeal.

In using the marriage negotiations as the initial impetus for relaying the events of the bombing and highlighting the way marriage is being threatened by suspicions of radiation disease, Ibuse Masuji's novel thus underscores not only the immediate toll exacted on human lives and health but also the deleterious effects of the bomb on an entire culture and tradition. Sick or not, the survivors from Hiroshima were faced with social discrimination.

The uncle, Shigematsu Shizuma, later finds another reason to copy out the diaries of his family: "This diary of the bombing is my piece of history, to be preserved in school library." The novel becomes the fictional repository of this "Journal of the Bombing" which was based on documents and actual diaries of real persons. Documentation of a significant historical event accomplishes Shigematsu's desire to preserve memories for the information and education of future peoples.

The unspeakable nature of the bomb was evident from the harrowing effects it produced. The novel did not shy away from graphically describing some of the destruction. Alongside the horror, Ibuse has infused his characters, details, and setting with such strong and realistic particularities that the novel does not devolve into pure critique and fury. The dry humor, the day-to-day routine of the characters before and after the bomb, the understated despair of the characters, and their bravery and resilience—all of these contributed to a novel of compelling interest.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first large-scale laboratories for the atomic bomb, whose destructive power was clearly unseen before. Its name was not even known at first to the victims. It was always referred to as a "new weapon", and also called, as Shigematsu observed, as "new-type bomb", "secret weapon", "special new-type bomb", "special high-capacity bomb". Whatever its name and whatever justifications for its use were made, it cannot be denied that the man-made bomb is a product of a man-made war. Its harmful effects last for a very long time. It ended the second world war and yet it continues to perpetrate an intergenerational crime—the crime of unleashing unstable radioactive substances which can lead to fatal diseases. New research findings indicate that even low levels of radiation produce genetic damage that can be passed on to one's offspring. Furthermore, chronic low-dose radiation exposure had carcinogenic effects that only become evident years after the exposure1.

Black Rain is a forceful reminder of the destructive capacity of nuclear energy then and now. In the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami which led to the nuclear meltdown of nuclear reactors of Fukushima power plant, translator and editor Ted Goossen wrote an essay, "Japan's literature of the apocalypse", describing three stages of Japanese apocalyptic writings since 1945. Goossen located Black Rain at the peak of the first wave which he called "atomic-bomb literature".

"What narratives will emanate from the present tragedy?" asked Goossen at the end of his essay. While Japan and the world are still waiting for new apocalyptic narratives, I think the "piece of history" in Ibuse's novel is sufficient to give us warning. "History repeats", as the novelist Ōe Kenzaburo aptly called his New Yorker piece which appeared after the 2011 quake. As if in answer to the question posed by Goossen, Ōe described the shape of narratives to come.

Japanese history has entered a new phase, and once again we must look at things through the eyes of the victims of nuclear power, of the men and the women who have proved their courage through suffering. The lesson that we learn from the current disaster will depend on whether those who survive it resolve not to repeat their mistakes.

... The Japanese should not be thinking of nuclear energy in terms of industrial productivity; they should not draw from the tragedy of Hiroshima a “recipe” for growth. Like earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural calamities, the experience of Hiroshima should be etched into human memory.

Even peacetime does not guarantee that nuclear energy is a fail-safe source of alternative energy. Three major nuclear accidents—in Sellafield, England; Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania; and Chernobyl—did not deter countries from developing nuclear energy. Why do they keep on risking it when they know it's not always safe? "One hopes", Ōe concluded his piece, "that the accident at the Fukushima facility will allow the Japanese to reconnect with the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to recognize the danger of nuclear power, and to put an end to the illusion of the efficacy of deterrence that is advocated by nuclear powers."

A year before the Tōhoku earthquake, Ōe recalled in an op-ed New York Times article hearing from his mother about her friend who survived the Hiroshima bombing. His mother's friend was outraged as she watched "two children who had been playing out in the open ... vaporized in the blink of an eye". The novelist admitted that this was what most likely impelled him to become a writer. In the same article, he shared a life-long wish.

I’m haunted by the thought that, ultimately, I was never able to write a “big novel” about the people who experienced the bombings and the subsequent 50-plus years of the nuclear age that I’ve lived through—and I think now that writing that novel is the only thing I ever really wanted to do.

With due respect to Ōe who has written essays on the aftermath of the bombing in the mid-1960s, collected in Hiroshima Notes, I think that the big novel on the Hiroshima bombing experience was already written 46 years ago. Black Rain is that novel. It is a masterwork which, in the midst of tales of perversity and destruction, was sustained by human dignity and compassion. Almost seven decades after the atomic bombing of Japan's cities, Ibuse's message in his novel still rings loud and true and clear. One hopes it will be heard for years to come.

1. Lichtenstein, K., and Helfand, I. Radiation and health: Nuclear weapons and nuclear power. In Critical Condition: Human Health and the Environment, ed. E. Chivian et al. The MIT Press, 1994.

Read for the Literature and War Readalong, hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.


  1. Rise - a beautifully written post. Black Rain has been on my radar for nearly as long as I've been able to read, but I've invariably put it back on the shelf. Having read John Hersey's Hiroshima as well as a lengthy volume on the bombings compiled by the committee charged with investigating their physical, medical, and social effects, I've been checked, viscerally, by the very thought of reading more about this horror. But the complacency with which the world seems to be shrugging off Fukushima also horrifies me; Black Rain and other works about the bombings seem more important now than ever. I hope Oe does write his novel about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if for no other reason than as another testimonial that will keep alive the memory of these atrocities and reiterate the critical lessons to be learned from them.

  2. I have to agree, a wonderful post, I'm glad you emphasozed the harm not only the atomic bomb but any nuclear energy can bring. History is going in circles because humans after all do not seem to learn from mistakes, always look for easy solutions.
    I couldn't imagine that anyone could have written a better novel about Hiroshima. It's an absolutely perfect book, I had a hard time reading it but at the same time I liked it very much. I liked all the details.
    Yasuko's story is very moving and ultimately so sad.

  3. A timely, perceptive post for next week's anniversary. Not wanting to trivialize the tragic event, it seems to colour much Japanese anime. It's legacy should be written about by more novelists, but in fact the silence is deafening.

  4. John Bester wrote that “ Black Rain is a portrait of a group of human beings; of the death of a great city; of a nation crumbling into defeat. It is a picture of the Japanese mind that tells more than many sociological studies. Yet more than this, it is a statement of a philosophy. Although that philosophy in its essence, is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, it seems to me to be life-affirming. Dealing with the grimmest of subjects, the work is not, in the end depressing, for the author is ultimately concerned with life rather than death, and with an overall beauty that transcends ugliness of detail. In that sense, I would suggest, Black Rain is not a “book about the bomb” at all.” which I ended up agreeing with adding that,this is a book that the very idea of screams horror and yet where there is humanity, there is humour- where there is life you’ll find hope. Wonderful post Rise, reminded me why I loved the book in the first place.

  5. Thank you for this great post on Black Rain I've not read this book yet, although I have seen the film adapted from it by Imamura Shohei sometime ago. I was going to turn to it after reading H by Oda Makoto - a book that I'd highly recommend seeking out a copy.

  6. Scott, I think Black Rain offers a holistic perspective that augments the episodic stories in Hersey's Hiroshima. I looked up online about the lengthy compilation you read. I agree with you about the seeming complacency with which the latest incident was greeted after the news has died down. Also hoping Ōe will be able to add to these valuable works.

    Caroline, thanks for the opportunity to finally get into this book. Time and again people seem to be hampered by the inability to think in the long term about the consequences of their actions. I agree that the small, perfectly realized details in the novel stand out against the pathos of the larger story.

  7. Kevin, I'm glad you brought up the anime. Graphic novels and comics must be one of the useful mediums to represent the subject. More novels, yes. Writers must address perceived tokenism in atomic-bomb literature.

    Gary, I have to agree to that accurate assessment from the translator. The sufferings are balanced by the courage and the will to live by the Japanese people.

    Thanks, me. I've also heard the film adaptation was quite good. Thanks for bringing Makoto Oda's H to our attention.

  8. Great review :) I've never quite got around to reading this, so I was hoping to join in the readalong... until the book mysteriously went out of stock at The Book Depository.

    I blame Caroline ;)

  9. Thanks, Tony. The Book Depository sometimes does that! There's no way for us to know if only a few copies remain on stock. I just checked and a reprint seems to be underway.