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Seeing Past Destruction:
War, Memory and Visuality in 1960s Japanese Fiction

Bruce Suttmeier
Asian Languages
Stanford University
June 2001

My research involves three Japanese writers from the 1960s whose works explore the place of World War II-era memories in Japan’s prosperous, pacifist present. I argue that their writings of the period confront the increasingly narrow range of wartime remembrance by questioning the role of “seeing” in traditional narratives of war experience.

Two decades after its devastating defeat in World War II, Japan reemerged on the international stage. Its 1964 Olympics was a success, its economy a "miracle," and as skyscrapers and bullet trains replaced bombed-out ruins, the hardships of the war years receded into distant memory. Increasingly, stories of the war, as told by soldiers and citizens who endured the fighting, seemed nostalgic and banal, since to many people the war was essential to Japan's subsequent success. In effect, the war became a necessary condition for postwar progress; as if individual suffering was the price paid for current prosperity.

But by treating the war as a sad story with a happy ending, this narrative ignored the powerful and complex role the conflict continued to play in all aspects of Japanese life. In my research, I study three writers whose works criticize this smoothing over of the war's traumatic traces. These writers, Oe Kenzaburo, Kaiko Takeshi and Oda Makoto, all of whom were children at the end of WWII, explored how war memories could and couldn't be represented in late 1960s Japan. In particular, I focus on their broad critique of “visual experience,” arguing that their skepticism toward stories relying on “what people saw” reveals a larger concern for the ethical, political and aesthetic implications of remembering and writing about the war.

In all the academic attention recently given to the “problem of memory,” historical and literary studies have tried to explain what and how we remember, particularly by describing how we inherit and inevitably recast stories of our past. This research tries to sort out the relations between history and memory, figuring out how traditional notions of “what really happened” are complicated by issues of “what people remember.”

In the case of Japan, scholars have recently demonstrated how certain themes have dominated the nation's expression of their wartime experience. The most powerful during these first two decades was the idea of “victimization,” that a wrong and unjust war was thrust upon the Japanese people by a power-hungry military leadership. The American Occupation under General MacArthur (1945-52) did much to develop and promote this view, with its war-crime trials and its focus on Japan's war against America. Thus, it is the end of the war that gets remembered: soldiers starving in the field, Japanese civilians bombed out of their homes, children relocated to the countryside and, of course, citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki exposed to the world's first atomic bombs. The beginning of the war, with Japan invading China and other Asian countries, sat prominently in progressive historians' studies of the "Fifteen Year War," but it is the "Pacific War," the dramatic narrative from Pearl Harbor to Potsdam, that stood in for the entire conflict in most popular accounts.

This is how “personal experiences of the war” (senso taiken) became the most reliably authentic voice of public memory. The early literature of war memories is almost exclusively this type; soldiers writing of starvation and disease among an already decimated army and women writing of the B-29s raining bombs on already devastated cities. By 1965, such eyewitness accounts still dominated the publishing landscape, even though, among the spectacular success of postwar growth, such stories seemed somewhat irrelevant.

The three writers exposed the flaws and consequences of such accounts of the past. They did this by showing the limits (and at times, downright falsity) of relying on “sight” to provide insight. Their works returned again and again to such notions as "witnessing" and "looking away," "unlimited vision" and "blindness," detailing how all seeing is entangled in the social, political and cultural currents of the times. They stressed that what we see is largely dependent on how and for what purpose we direct our attention. Foremost among their accomplishments was subtly demonstrating how the early reliance on personal experience was an incomplete attempt to “master the past,” an insufficient attempt to give coherence and meaning to the traumatic losses the nation suffered during the conflict. By binding up the nation's wounds in stories of victimization and hardship, this early narration of what happened not only excluded nearly all atrocities committed by Japanese against other Asians, but also left most Japanese with a premature sense of putting the complexities of the past to rest.

My dissertation offers a close reading of the novels and essays of Oe, Kaiko, and Oda produced between 1965 and 1970 in order to tie their, at times, obsessive concern with “seeing” to this incomplete mode of integrating the past. In addition, by choosing the five-year period of Japan's high-economic growth, I illustrate how the present, namely contemporary events like the Vietnam War and debates over nationalism, contributed to their critique of the past. By examining their work in the context of the late 1960s, I will make a valuable contribution to the growing scholarship on Japan's complex confrontation with its past.