Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure by Hideo Furukawa (tr. Doug Slaymaker and Akiko Takenaka). $20.00, 160pp.
The earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent meltdowns at nuclear plants in Fukushima, Japan on March 22, 2011 (“3.11”), shocked the Japanese psyche. This was not simply because the tragedy killed nearly 16,000 people but also because, in many respects, the people of Japan had come to believe their nation was somehow outside history, even out of time.
This sense of exceptionality has its roots in the Sakoku, the period of national isolation that existed while the Tokugawa Shogunate closed the country to foreign contact for approximately 250 years. When U.S. warships forced the country open in 1853, Japan proved the exception among its East Asian neighbors; it quickly modernized, Westernized, and began acting like a Western nation with colonial ambitions. In 1905 Japan shocked the U.S. and European powers by defeating the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese war. Until then, no Asian military had ever defeated a Western power on the battlefield.
When the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima In 1945, a peculiar “end-of-history” outlook grafted itself onto Japanese exceptionalism. The country remains the only nation to experience nuclear war. And for the Japanese, the atomic disaster became the final word, as it were, on history, destruction, and terror. The cruelties of Nagasaki and Hiroshima became the only real facts the Japanese insist on in regards to World War II; the crimes of the Japanese military in East Asia were immediately downplayed or denied. Japan understood itself as a victim, and therefore it could duck the work of national repentance that Germany dutifully performed after the war.
After seven decades of domestic peace and prosperity, and the deliberate sublimation of the bushido spirit into corporate ambition, it’s easy to understand why the Japanese have come to consider destroyed cities and massive casualties as something that only happens elsewhere.
Yet it did happen. And the fact that 3.11 was a natural disaster in no way ameliorated the shock.
The Japanese novelist Hideo Furukawa is interested in the “blank spaces,” as he puts it, what’s not said in official histories and school textbooks. He reminds his countrymen that violence has always been central to Japanese history. In his newly translated novel, Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale that Begins with Fukushima (translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka), the narrator Hideo Furukawa tells us:
I’m about to touch on Japanese History. This is unbearably uncomfortable, to me anyway, all this history stuff. Our history, the history of the Japanese, is nothing more than the history of killing people.
Furukawa (born in 1966) is well-regarded in Japan as a literary novelist: in addition to receiving the Mishima Yukio Prize in 2006 for his novel Love, he has also won Japanese science fiction and mystery awards. His only other work in English is the novel Belka, Why Don’t You Bark? published by Haikasoru in 2012 (translated by Michael Emmerich). Belka is a rather curious work, at times told from the point of view of various dogs and often employing prose that reads like a poor imitation of hard-boiled fiction. It is not the best introduction to Furukawa and his considerable talents.
Furukawa is a native of Fukushima prefecture, the so-called ground zero of 3.11, and he found himself in Kyoto and Tokyo during 3.11 and its immediate aftermath. Feeling the call to go home, he convinced Shincho Publishing to underwrite a trip to Fukushima and the surrounding prefectures. Furukawa and three Shincho editors rented a car and drove north into the devastation zone. The literary result was Horses, which was published in its entirety in July 2011 in the journal Shincho, and later as a book.
Horses places Western readers in a familiar literary landscape. It is the territory of W.G. Sebald, Ben Lerner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, where the overlap between fiction and memoir is increasingly unclear and perhaps even irrelevant. The narrator of Horses is, of course, Hideo Furukawa, doing much of what the novelist Hideo Furukawa did following 3.11. Unlike say, Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Furukawa spares us the extensive quotidian cataloging (Horses is a slim book), and he also works in a few meta-fictional tactics. If anything, Horses has a vague kinship with Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts in its blending of memoir and literary criticism, though Nelson’s book remains more unconventional in its narrative form while Horses has to retain a veneer of journalistic investigation because of the 3.11 tragedy.
The novel begins with the narrator recounting a scene from his recently published novel The Holy Family. Furukawa knows many of his Japanese readers will have read this novel, so he has the narrator address the fact head on:
Time can’t be accounted for. It’s impossible to measure. I wrote about being “spirited away” in a novel. You know which novel, that novel.
As the narrator heads north, he alternates descriptions of the devastation with musings on his professional activities prior to 3.11, his critique of the violent legacies of feudal lords Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, some thoughts on the Japanese foundational myths, and, most importantly,his recent struggles to write and his doubts about the efficacy of fiction:
I had just canceled two projects. Fiction, or anything that requires planning and then writing, is out of the question. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t see my way to writing.
As the trip continues, the narrator becomes increasingly preoccupied with the central character of The Holy Family, a murderer named Innuzuka Gyuichiro who eventually “appears” in the rental car as a spirit. His appearance is the precise moment when, according to the narrator, the essay becomes fiction:
Innuzuka Gyuichiro was there. A fifth passenger. The fifth person in our party. . . . But if I wrote that, I’ve got fiction, and this essay turns into a novel. But I have my integrity to preserve in this; there has not been a single fabrication in what I have written thus far. I may have been hesitant, but no fabrications. By making this essay a definitive “real account,” I was hoping for something, for a definitive salvation.
Gyuichiro is something of an emblem of the narrator’s struggle to write fiction, as well as a stand-in for Japan’s violent past. But Furukawa takes it one step further, using Gyuichiro’s spirit-nature to explore his inquiry into boundaries:
What is possible for people like him, people who exist in a dimension outside time? It was as though he could see into a deep pool, the depth of history. . . . The place where he “was” is a place that actually “is.” For example, he is within the precincts of a Shinto shrine—could be any shrine, although it is one of the ones in the Soma region. But what divides the inner precincts, and what is outside the shrine grounds (the outer world?) Torii, that’s what. The gate known as torii. A symbol unique to Japan, of “Shinto,” the religion and common belief system.
This investigation into boundaries is artfully set up by the narrator’s “reporting” on the 3.11 tragedy. He writes about the various evacuation and safe zones around the two Fukushima nuclear power plants, Daiichi and Daini, which were graphically represented for the public by concentric circles:
Two sets of concentric circles. In places they overlap. But, before long a thirty kilometer-radius circle was added circling Fukushima Daiichi inside which was required “internal refuge.” This “big circle” looked like the corona around the sun. Around Daini was the “small circle.” Subordinated by that “big circle,” right at the core of the concentric circle, was the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, which then looked like the sun. Land of the sun. The new country of Japan.
Concentric circles have a long history in Japan, most notably in the sacred mandalas created by Buddhist monks. And this image of overlapping concentric circles is useful for thinking along with Furukawa as he reflects on the Kojiki (the book of Japanese foundational myths) and the cult of Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, which gives us Japan as the mythical land of the rising sun, and how this overlaps with a number of things: the new sun of the nuclear meltdown; the tension between fiction and nonfiction that contemporary writers must face; the notion of Japan’s “out of time” outlook ramming against a contemporary disaster that cannot be denied or ignored or censored; and finally, the overlay of a nation steeped in history, yet still feeling “cut off” from its flow by defeat in World War II and the subsequent U.S. occupation.
For all of Furukawa’s tough talk about Japan’s martial past, there is a guarded optimism in Horses about the country’s future. It’s obvious Furukawa’s in love with Japan’s myths, its natural beauty, it shrines and religious texts—and he hopes a “new Japan” just might emerge from the destruction of 3.11. He sees grounds for optimism in the fact that Japan’s “9/11” was a natural disaster and not a terrorist attack. He begins to think about September 11th in detail after traveling to New York City in May of 2011 for a literary conference. He visits Ground Zero and is in the city on May 2 when Navy SEALS kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. He writes a poem that includes the lines:
For us, no mastermind behind Japan’s
So then what do we do?
We have no one we can hate.
Which means this is the sole source of hope.
With no thoughts of revenge, go forward.
With no thoughts of retribution, go forward.
Robert Fay’s reviews and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Rumpus, and others. Follow him @RobertFay1.
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