Kenzaburo Oe: ‘Hiroshima Should Be Etched in Human Memory’

Kenzaburo Oe

Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe has a  lovely essay in The New Yorker (28 March 2011). He reflects on Japan’s harrowing relationship with nuclear radiation — from the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Bikini Atoll atomic tests to the current nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Here’s an excerpt below:

This disaster unites, in a dramatic way, two phenomena: Japan’s vulnerability to earthquakes and the risk presented by nuclear energy. The first is a reality that this country has had to face since the dawn of time. The second, which may turn out to be even more catastrophic than the earthquake and the tsunami, is the work of man. What did Japan learn from the tragedy of Hiroshima? One of the great figures of contemporary Japanese thought, Shuichi Kato, who died in 2008, speaking of atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, recalled a line from “The Pillow Book,” written a thousand years ago by a woman, Sei Shonagon, in which the author evokes “something that seems very far away but is, in fact, very close.” Nuclear disaster seems a distant hypothesis, improbable; the prospect of it is, however, always with us.

The Japanese should not be thinking of nuclear energy in terms of industrial productivity; they should not draw from the tragedy of Hiroshima a “recipe” for growth. Like earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural calamities, the experience of Hiroshima should be etched into human memory: it was even more dramatic a catastrophe than those natural disasters precisely because it was man-made. To repeat the error by exhibiting, through the construction of nuclear reactors, the same disrespect for human life is the worst possible betrayal of the memory of Hiroshima’s victims.–Kenzaburo Oe

Read Oe’s full essay.

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