In the latest article from “Beyond the World War II We Know,” a series by The Times that documents lesser-known stories from the war, we asked Yoko Ogawa, an award-winning Japanese author, to reflect on the literature unleashed by the atomic bombings. This article was translated by Stephen Snyder.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima occurred on Aug. 6. The bombing of Nagasaki on Aug. 9. The announcement of surrender came on the 15th. In Japan, August is the time when we remember the dead.

This year, the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings would have been observed during the Tokyo Olympics. But the Games were postponed because of the spread of the novel coronavirus, and we will be left instead to offer our prayers for the dead in an atmosphere of unexpected calm.

The final torch bearer at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was a relatively unknown, 19-year-old, track and field competitor named Yoshinori Sakai, a young man who was born in Hiroshima on the day the bomb was dropped. There was something extraordinary about the sight of him, clad simply in white shirt and shorts, running up the long stairway that led to the caldron he was meant to light. He embodied purity, a sense of balance and an overwhelming youthfulness. Those who saw him must have been amazed to realize that the world had gathered in Japan to celebrate this festival of sport a mere 19 years after the end of the war. Yet there he was, a young man born of unprecedented, total destruction, a human being cradling a flame, advancing step by step. No doubt there were political motivations behind the selection of the final runner, but there was no questioning the hopeful life force personified by this young man from Hiroshima.

Sadly, in the intervening years, we have failed to realize the dream of a nuclear-free world. Even in Japan, the memories fade. According to a 2015 survey conducted by NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting organization, only 69 percent of the residents of Hiroshima and 50 percent of the residents of Nagasaki could correctly name the month, day and year when the Hiroshima bomb was dropped. At the national level, the rate fell to 30 percent. The cloud of oblivion rises, and the time is coming soon when it will no longer be possible to hear directly from witnesses about their experiences.

ImageThe epicenter of the atomic blast in the city center. Army barracks once stood at the site. 
Credit…Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos

So, what can those who have not seen with their own eyes do to preserve the memories of those who have? How do we ensure that witnesses continue to be heard? In the wake of unimaginable horrors — endless wars, the Holocaust, Chernobyl, Fukushima … not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki — humankind has constantly confronted the problem of the continuity of memory. How do we inscribe within us things that happened long ago and far away that have no apparent connection to our lives, not simply as learned knowledge but exactly as though we had experienced them ourselves? How do we build a fragile bark to carry these memories safely to the far shore, to the minds of the next generation? One thing is certain: It is a task for which political and academic thinking and institutions are poorly suited, quite simply because the act of sharing the memories of another human being is fundamentally an irrational one.

So we appeal to the power of literature, a refuge we turn to when forced to confront contradictions that lie beyond reason or theory. Through the language of literature, we can finally come to empathize with the suffering of nameless and unknown others. Or, at very least, we can force ourselves to stare without flinching at the stupidity of those who have committed unforgivable errors and ask ourselves whether the shadow of this same folly lurks within us as well.

I myself have listened intently to the voices of those who lived during the era of Nazi Germany, by reading and rereading Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” and Primo Levi’s “If This Is a Man.” From Frank, for example, I learned the invaluable truth that a human being can still grow and develop even when living in hiding. From Frankl’s observation that “the best of us did not return” from the concentration camps, I learned to feel the boundless suffering of those who survived and were forced to live on. And when, through these books, the connection was made between my existence here and now and that earlier time when I was not yet alive, I could feel my horizons expanding, a new field of vision opening.

Likewise, Japanese literature continues to tell the story of the atomic bombs. Bomb literature occupies a special place in every genre — fiction, poetry, drama, nonfiction. For example, anyone born in 1962, as I was, would be familiar with Miyoko Matsutani’s “Two Little Girls Called Iida,” the story of a magical talking chair that unites two girls across time in a house where the calendar is forever frozen on Aug. 6. Or, with one of the indispensable works of modern Japanese literature, Masuji Ibuse’s “Black Rain,” with its excruciating account of the aftermath of the bomb. Kenzaburo Oe, still in his 20s and barely embarked on his literary career, visited Hiroshima and gave us “Hiroshima Notes,” his report on the extraordinary human dignity of the bomb victims enduring the harsh reality of survivors. There is no end to similar examples.

But there is one novel so admired and avidly read, even today, that it is regularly included in school textbooks: Tamiki Hara’s “Summer Flowers.” A work by a bomb victim himself, it records the period and experience in precise detail.

Born in Hiroshima in 1905, Hara had been living in Tokyo, contributing fiction and poetry to literary magazines, when his wife died suddenly in 1944. In February 1945, he returned to his birthplace, exactly as though he’d “had a rendezvous with the tragedy that was coming to Hiroshima,” as he later wrote. On the morning of Aug. 6, he was at home in his windowless bathroom — a fact that possibly saved his life. Fortunate to have escaped serious injury, Hara spent the following days wandering the burning city and recording his experiences in his notebook, a record that later became “Summer Flowers.”

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Credit…Shinchosha

The novel begins two days before the bombing, as the protagonist pays a visit to his wife’s grave. He washes the stone and places summer flowers on it, finding the sight cool and refreshing. But this opening passage is haunted by sadness, a horrible premonition of the impossibility of accounting for the loss of his beloved wife and the innumerable corpses he will see a short time later.

The author’s description of the protagonist as he flees to the river for refuge is detailed and almost cold in tone. The language is concise, and words that might express sentiment are nowhere to be found. Horrors of the sort no human being had ever witnessed unfold one after the other before the narrator’s eyes, and he finds himself unable to express anything as vague as mere emotion.

Faces so swollen that it was impossible to tell whether they were men or women. Heads charred over with lumps like black beans. Voices crying out again and again for water. Children clutching hands together as they whispered faintly, “Mother … Father.” People prying fingernails from corpses or stripping off belts as keepsakes of the dead. The narrator describes a city filled with the stench of death: “In the vast, silvery emptiness, there were roads and rivers and bridges, and scattered here and there, raw and swollen corpses. A new hell, made real through some elaborate technology.”

When the atomic bomb snatched away all things human, it might have incinerated words themselves at the same time. Yet, led perhaps by the hand of providence, as Hara, he tucked a notebook and a pencil in with his food and medicine. And what he wrote down in his notebook was not mere words. He created a symbol for something he had heard from the dead and dying that simply could not be expressed in words. Vestiges, scraps of evidence that these human beings who had slipped mutely away had, indeed, existed.

Having lost his wife to illness and then, in his solitude, encountered the atomic bomb, Hara’s creative work was constantly rooted in the silence of the dead. He was a writer, a poet, who stood in the public square, not to call out to his fellow man but to mutely endure the contradiction of putting into words the voiceless voices of those whose words had been taken from them.

Hara is the author of a short poem titled “This Is a Human Being,” a work that transcends bitterness and anger, seeking to gently capture the failing voice of someone who no longer appears human:

This is a human being.

See how the atom bomb has changed it.

The flesh is terribly bloated,

men and women all taking the same shape.

Ah! “Help me!” The quiet words of the voice that escapes

the swollen lips in the festering face.

This is a human being.

This is a human face.

Reading it, we can’t help being reminded of “If This Is a Man,” by Primo Levi, chemist and concentration camp survivor. Right at the outset, Levi poses the question:

Consider if this is a man

Who works in the mud

Who does not know peace

Who fights for a scrap of bread

Who dies because of a yes or a no

I have no idea whether Levi and Hara were acquainted, but we can hear the resonance between their words. One asks whether this is a human being; the other answers that it is. In their work, we find the meeting of one man who struggles to preserve the quality of humanity and another who is determined not to lose sight of that same quality — a meeting of the minds that continues to reverberate into the future. In the world of literature, the most important truth can be portrayed in a simple, meaningless coincidence. With the help of literature, the words of the dead may be gathered and placed carefully aboard their small boat, to flow on to join the stream of reality.

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Credit…Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos

A further coincidence: perhaps with the sense that they had accomplished their duty as survivors, or perhaps because the burden of living with the horrors of their pasts was too great, the two men took their own lives, Hara in 1951 and Levi in 1987 (some dispute that Levi’s death was a suicide).

As I write, I have in front of me Hiromi Tsuchida’s collection of photographs of bomb artifacts offered by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. I am struck by a picture of a lunchbox and canteen that belonged to a middle school student named Shigeru Orimen. His class had been mobilized for the war effort and was working in the city on the morning of Aug. 6. Shigeru was 500 meters from ground zero when the bomb fell. His mother discovered his body among the corpses piled on the river bank and recovered the lunchbox and canteen from his bag. She remembered he had left that morning saying how much he was looking forward to lunch, since she had made roasted soybean rice. The lunchbox was twisted out of shape, the lid cracked open, and the contents were no more than a lump of charcoal.

But, in fact, this tiny box contained something more important: the innocence of a young boy who had been full of anticipation for his simple lunch, and his mother’s love. Even when the last victim of the atomic bomb has passed away and this lunchbox is no more than a petrified relic, as long as there is still someone to hear the voice concealed within it, this memory will survive. The voices of the dead are eternal, because human beings possess the small boat — the language of literature — to carry them to the future.


Yoko Ogawa is the author of numerous books, including “The Memory Police,” a 2019 National Book Award finalist. Stephen Snyder is the Dean of Language Schools and Kawashima Professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College in Vermont.