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Top>Opinion>Tragedy Not Forgotten


Toru Nakamura

Toru Nakamura [profile]

Tragedy Not Forgotten

Toru Nakamura
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: English and American Literature, American Novels, and American Culture

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Last February, I accompanied several student volunteers who provided reconstruction support to Kesennuma. After this experience, I would like to share my thoughts about the earthquake disaster and write about the literature that overlaps my area of study.

Fading Memories

This spring marks three full years since the Great East Japan Earthquake. A tremendous number of people died, while many people in Tohoku struck by the disaster are still in the midst of a bitter struggle. Moreover, the risk of radioactive contamination after the nuclear accident has become a critical issue for us. Nonetheless, spending daily life away from the disaster areas, I feel that my memory of the tragedy is rapidly fading. When I visited Tohoku this spring, I had an impression that the earthquake disaster was indeed not an issue of the past but of the current time. After returning to Tokyo, however, I am inclined to feel it again as something in the distance away from our daily life. This phenomenon may be expalined in psychology, both reflected in myself and in the society as a whole, which is a tendency to push the depressing reality away to a corner of our consciousness.

Indifference of Society

When I think about such fading memories of the earthquake disaster, I recall a short novel by Yoshie Hotta, The Shadow Part, which I have read before. In this novel, which was published seven years after the war ended in defeat, an old man, who is a disabled veteran, identifies the “heavy pressure” from the society to push away what brings back memories of the war to an unseen corner of society, and plays a role to resist such pressure. In the cities, traces of the war are hard to see, and “the memory of war is gradually cornered, like being ironed away,” and “driven away” to cheap lodging houses full of injured veterans who were taken away of their job. As the self-proclaimed, “speech-delivering beggar,” the old man, wearing his ragged military uniform, goes from the cheap lodging house to a beach crowded with people, and starts giving a strange speech in front of them.

The audience watched him in curiosity, also laughing at him at first. However, when he asks, “I have a question to all of you. Do you want to live, or do you want to die?” and when there are a few people who say they do not wish to live, he replies to them that “for such people, here is the rainfall of atomic bombs, and here is the rainfall of hydrogen bombs..." making everyone ashamed and stiffening their faces. The old man adds, “you must be feeling a stinging pain in your heart,” explaining the sharp pain of the shapeless needle symbolizing moral value. “If you take out this needle, you will become shapeless as rice porridge made of many people like this sea. Rice porridge can be made into whatever shape by other people, and it is also easily digested. Do not forget, all of you, that many a needle makes a sword.”

The circumstances of the war and the earthquake are completely different, and I have no intention to link earthquake victims with wounded veterans in this novel. I would like to point out that after experiencing the earthquake tragedy, I have come to realize that the human psychology of looking away from the past that we do not want to recall or the reality that we do not want to see appears to be common throughout the ages. And while showing that the aggregate of indifferent attitudes of individual persons becomes a tremendous force to suppress the ignored target, this novel resists such oppressive power. The philosopher Jacques Derrida devoted his attention to the performative aspect of linguistic expression, stressing that words convey “power,” rather than meaning. The short story The Shadow Part, which stands face-to-face with collective indifference, seems to stir the mind of readers who live in different ages.

Pervasive Effect of Words

On the other hand, there was an event in which I was strongly impressed by the power of words and their pervasive effect when I accompanied Chuo University student volunteers to the earthquake hit areas. Students assisting people who worked for a fish processing factory had a chance to talk with the manager. Impressed by the cheerful and positive attitude of the employees, one of the students asked how they managed to remain positive after having suffered from the earthquake. The manager replied that they could not afford to remain depressed and they should only go forward.

At a meeting that night, the students met with volunteering students from other universities who were working for other fish processing factories, and stressed the importance of asking questions to the working local people and listening to their story. Hearing that, most students from other universities also said that they would like to remember asking questions and listening to stories. One of the students mentioned that they would be given an opportunity to make a presentation in front of Parliamentary Secretary Shinjiro Koizumi of the Reconstruction Agency on the last day of the volunteering period. If they could make a presentation with a message that would strike his heart, then their message would most likely be shared to a wider society, as Koizumi is known for his strong message and influence to the public. This statement boosted the morale of all the participating students, who said they were motivated to make such presentations.

The words of an individual learning of the reality of the disaster areas may only seem to be a drop in the ocean in the current society losing interest about the tragedy. Even so, I want to believe that such a drop would produce ripples that would spread further. The reason I decided to go with students to the disaster areas was what I heard about the experiences of some students who did similar volunteer work the previous year when I visited their photo exhibition at Chuo University. Without a doubt, I was struck when a student said that volunteer activity was not about giving something to others, but on the contrary, it was an opportunity to receive something and learning from others. I was also moved by the words of another student who came from the neighboring Meisei University who also had volunteering experience. He said, “there is a reality which is not reported by the mass media and you cannot understand it unless you are actually in the areas struck by disaster.”

After having been to Kesennuma and seen positive residents and students in the disaster areas, I strongly feel that I should not be a bystander. Since then, I have always been asking myself what I can do to make a difference, and trying various approaches.

Toru Nakamura
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: English and American Literature, American Novels, and American Culture

Terminal Beginning (Ronso sha)

Professor Nakamura is from Kyoto. He was born in 1966.
In 1995, Nakamura left the doctoral program after finishing required coursework at the Department of English and American Literature, Graduate School of Literature, Aoyama Gakuin University.
He was a full-time lecturer and then assistant professor on the Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University, before taking up the current position in 2010.
His current area of study is of English and American novels in the interwar period of the twentieth century. He examines the admiration and uneasiness about the “primitive” which is observed in many writings in this period from the viewpoint of gender and race.
His main books include: Reading Henry Miller [Henri Mira o Yomu] (Co-authored, Suiseisha, 2007); Ernest Hemingway—Author’s Horizon from the 21st Century Perspective [Anesuto Heminguuei—Nijuisseiki kara Yomu Sakka no Chihei] (Co-authored, Rinsen Book Co. 2011); and Terminal Beginning—American Stories and Power of Words [Taminaru Biginingu—Amerika no Monogatari to Kotoba no Chikara] (Editing and writing, Ronso sha, scheduled to be published in July 2014). His main translations include Henry Miller’s Book of Friends (Co-translated, Suiseisha, 2014).