Kenzaburo Oe, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, is the author, most recently, of “The Changeling.” This article was translated by Deborah Boehm from the Japanese.
Hiroshima and the Art of Outrage
By KENZABURO OE
Published: August 5, 2010
THE Futenma Marine Corps Air Station on Okinawa, one of the largest United States military bases in East Asia, is in the center of a crowded city. The American and Japanese governments acknowledge the dangers of this situation, and they agreed nearly 15 years ago that the base should be moved; however, no move has yet been made.
In 2009 a new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, tantalized Okinawans with the prospect of moving the despised base off the island, but he was recently forced to resign, in part because of his failure to keep that promise. Mr. Hatoyama’s successor, Naoto Kan, has made it clear that he intends to respect the United States-Japan security treaty — a position that, while not directly related to the issue of dialing down the United States military presence in Japan, may indicate which way the wind is blowing.
It was recently reported here that a government panel is about to submit a policy paper to Prime Minister Kan, suggesting that regarding Japan’s “three nonnuclear principles” — prohibiting the production, possession and introduction of nuclear weapons — it was not wise to “limit the helping hand of the United States,” and recommending that we allow the transport of nuclear arms through our territory to improve the so-called nuclear umbrella.
When I read about this in the newspaper last week, I felt a great sense of outrage. (I’ll explain later why that word has such deep significance for me.) I felt the same way when another outrageous bit of news came to light this year: the decades-old, Okinawa-related secret agreement entered into by the United States and Japan in contravention of the third of the three nonnuclear principles, which forbids bringing nuclear weapons into Japan.
At the annual Hiroshima Peace Ceremony on Friday, this year marking the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb, representatives from Britain, France and the United States planned to be in attendance, for the first time. This is a public event at which government leaders give speeches, but it also has a more profound and private aspect, as the atomic bomb survivors offer ritual consolation to the spirits of their dead relatives. Of all the official events that have been created during the past 200 years of modernization, the peace ceremony has the greatest degree of moral seriousness.
I’m using the term “moral seriousness” deliberately here, to echo a passage in the speech President Obama delivered in Prague in April 2009. “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon,” he said, “the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” The president’s call is yet another indication that a sense of crisis is germinating, fueled by a growing awareness that if decisive steps are not taken, before long the possession of nuclear weapons will not be limited to a few privileged countries.
Mr. Obama’s Prague speech reflected the sentiments expressed previously by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn in a 2007 article for The Wall Street Journal titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” They wrote: “Deterrence continues to be a relevant consideration for many states with regard to threats from other states. But reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.”
The antinuclear mood in America and Europe appears to be gaining momentum; indeed, the American, British and French presence at the peace ceremony may be seen as a small symbolic step toward a nuclear-free world. However, as things stand now, Japan still has no concrete plan for moving the air base. In the same vein, there’s the possibility that we will allow nuclear weapons to pass through Japan in exchange for American protection.
At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council before he was deposed, Prime Minister Hatoyama responded to Mr. Obama’s Prague speech by noting that Japan, too, had a “moral responsibility” because it was “the only victim of nuclear bombings.”
But what sort of action will result from all this antinuclear rhetoric? If Prime Minister Kan also takes the time to think about President Obama’s phrase, how might he interpret it? It probably wouldn’t go over very well if, in his speech at the peace ceremony, he were to side with the crowd advocating transport of nuclear weapons through Japan.
But suppose he did — how would such a declaration be received by the foreign dignitaries who have allied themselves with Mr. Obama’s pledge? And what about the bombing victims who will fill the venue? Wouldn’t they feel a sense of outrage if they were told that it’s their moral responsibility, as citizens of the only atom-bombed country, to choose to live under the protection of a nuclear umbrella, and that wanting to discard that umbrella in favor of freedom is, conversely, an abdication of responsibility?
I’m concerned, too — now that the former prime minister’s rosy promises of relocation have failed to materialize and the original plan to move the Futenma base to an offshore site near the Okinawan village of Henoko has been brought back to life — about how such a policy change would be perceived by the elderly men and women who have been staging a sit-in at Henoko for more than 2,000 days.
Sixty-five years ago, after learning that a friend who was reported missing after the bombing of Hiroshima had turned up in a hospital there, my mother put together a meager care package and set out from our home in Shikoku to pay a visit. When she returned, she shared her friend’s description of that morning in August 1945.
Moments before the atomic bomb was dropped, my mother’s friend happened to seek shelter from the bright summer sunlight in the shadow of a sturdy brick wall, and she watched from there as two children who had been playing out in the open were vaporized in the blink of an eye. “I just felt outraged,” she told my mother, weeping.
Even though I didn’t fully grasp its import at the time, I feel that hearing that horrifying story (along with the word outrage, which put down deep, abiding roots in my heart) is what impelled me to become a writer. But 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.
In Edward W. Said’s last book, “On Late Style,” he gives many examples of artists (composers, musicians, poets, writers) whose work as they grew older contained a peculiar sort of concentrated tension, hovering on the brink of catastrophe, and who, in their later years, used that tension to express their epochs, their worlds, their societies, themselves.
As for me, on the day last week when I learned about the revival of the nuclear-umbrella ideology, I looked at myself sitting alone in my study in the dead of night . . . . . . and what I saw was an aged, powerless human being, motionless under the weight of this great outrage, just feeling the peculiarly concentrated tension, as if doing so (while doing nothing) were an art form in itself. And for that old Japanese man, perhaps sitting there alone in silent protest will be his own “late work.”