Rejecting the Nihilism of「隠れ蓑」

Politics and Freedom in early Kenzaburō Oe


How does someone begin to identify the hidden fascist sentiments that permeate their culture in order to reject them? How do they discover the object of ideology that is sacred to the point of irrationalism? What idea or structure in our culture operates under what Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburō Ōe has referred to as a 隠れ蓑 (kakuremino) or ‘magic cloak of invisibility’ in reference to the Emperor System of Japan, something which allows the wearer to go unexamined yet continue to thrive? This “pass” for such a system, in postwar Japan, allowed for sanitized memories of both the war and the postwar reconstruction period, but more insidiously, those memories, gone unexamined or uninterrogated, suppress other memories. Ōe says, “to recall the time” just after the end of World War Two as a period of political liberation, “the critical spirit that permitted the masses to question the validity of the Emperor System” is “to violate a taboo.” (Wilson, 79) A structure taken as given and beyond public and private reproach can only serve the interests of totalitarian, imperialist or fascist adherents.

In this essay, I am going to argue that three of Ōe's lesser known works written in the first half of the 1960’s – Seventeen, Death of a Political Youth, and Hiroshima Notes – have an important resonance in our current political atmosphere, dogged as it is by a more visible right-wing nationalist movement and by the looming, ever present threat of nuclear war. Both of these developments are viewed as beyond mainstream reproach, a sacrosanctity that is not allowed their critics, the former for reasons of faux-neutrality and “free speech,” the latter because of the worship of displays of strength and concerns for “safety.” What is notable about these works, written as they were in times of disillusionment and frustration, is that they are studded with a generative hope borne of those same existentialist anxieties, despairs and tensions. In each work Ōe either presents an inauthentic subject, in the existentialist sense, or encounters a unique category of existential Other (the 被爆者[hibakusha], or A-bomb survivors, in Hiroshima) and in the course of tracing his encounter, either journalistically or fictitiously, he demonstrates the recognition of an element of humanity beyond ideological labels. And in those moments of existential becoming, there is hope that events are not predetermined, that history is not a narrative, that we are Free in a way that current platitudes about Freedom and Liberty only pale in imitation of.


In October of 1960 in Japan, when Kenzaburō Ōe was twenty-five years old, the chairman of the Socialist Party was stabbed to death by a seventeen year old right wing terrorist at a public debate. The terrorist’s goal, as such, was to kill a “‘traitorous’ Leftist leader.” (Masao, vi) What made this assassination of particular importance, beyond the mere fact of the public assassination of a political figure, was that it was captured on film by the National Broadcasting Corporation. The incident was broadcast to the public-at-large, achieving an effect that a delayed textual description in a newspaper could never approach. The footage is not hard to find, even now, fifty-eight years later. The chairman is speaking at a podium; he sees the assassin, Otoya Yamaguchi, approach and turns his head slightly toward him; Yamaguchi runs in from the right side of the screen and collides with the chairman, plunging a knife into his chest; the two topple out of frame to the left and the broadcast is changed to a camera stationed further away that can capture the entirety of the stage.

But that was later in 1960; the first half of the year was marked by intense protests at the signing of a new treaty with the US which was rammed through the Diet via strong arm tactics and procedural manipulation by then Premier, Nobusuke Kishi. Not too long before, Kishi had been a Class-A defendant in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, meaning he was tried as one of the leaders of the Empire of Japan and for the conspiracy to start and wage war. The protesters – comprised of Communists, trade unionists, students, feminists and others – were concerned that the new treaty would begin the erosion of civil liberties newly gained following Japan’s defeat in the war, as well as signalling a deeper national pose of prostration towards the USA. The protests turned violent in many instances, where police and right wing nationalists clashed with the protesters. But the net result of the massive protests and demonstrations was naught: the treaty was ratified and the conservatives stayed in power. “Nevertheless,” as Masao Miyoshi notes in his introduction to the English translation of Ōe's 1961 novel, Seventeen, “this was the first time in Japan’s history that people seriously challenged the power and authority of the government.” (vi).

That prelude of failed protests set the stage for the further setback of the assassination later that year (though it was not the only attempt, just the first successful one; several different attempts on other political figures took place over the summer and into autumn). Three months later, in January of 1961, Ōe would publish the first half of his novella, Seventeen. The story is based on the assassin, a ‘Seventeen/セヴンティーン’ (in Japanese the word is derived from the English word and pronounced Sevuntīn. It implies a rite of passage, a landmark year in the life of a young adult, similar to those celebrated in America), effectively tracing his arc from confused, sexually frustrated and alienated teenager to hardcore right-wing Imperial Way nationalist and assassin. An early work of Ōe's, it is far from mature in its narrative portrayal. He works outside of the rural bounds he had so far been operating within in his even earlier, more successful works (for example, the prize winning short story ‘Prize Stock’ and the exquisitely titled short novel, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids). Ōe himself was and is an avowedly political writer, which was an uncommon public position for someone trying to write in the high-literary mode in Japan at that time. As his later writings, interviews and activism would reveal, he is very Left leaning in his politics and sympathies. He has stated that while he votes Social Democratic, in his personal politics he considers himself an Anarchist, though a clown in the Shakespearean sense, when all is considered. But in Seventeen (and its second half, Death of a Political Youth, about which, more later) he adopts the standpoint of a Seventeen before he transformed into an Assassin.

The narrator of Seventeen does not have a proper name, known in the text as ‘a Seventeen’ when not an ‘I’. His immediate family members are known only by their relational designations: Older Brother, Older Sister, Mother, Father. This is, as Kojin Karatani argues in his essay “The Allegory of Ōe Kenzaburo”, an intentional allegorical narrative technique Ōe makes frequent use of in his fiction. The “kind of thinking [that utilizes the particular, the proper name] is premised on the idea that individual, particular events are secretly, ‘without being aware of it,’ forming a universal meaning[...]” (Karatani, 93). Because Ōe as a writer “tries to read the “meaning” of the nuclear age” he is not interested in letting particularity point to a universality, in reading history as a narrative. “What allegorical writers [like Ōe] fix on is the singularity or non-repeatability of the event. And such an event must bear universal ‘meaning.’” (94) In not letting this story point towards a movement of history, Ōe can explore the effects of the kakuremino of the Emperor System, imbuing it with even greater weight.

Ōe's rejection of both right wing extremism and the Emperor System is the impetus for this short allegorical novel; yet to make it work in this narrative mode, Ōe strives to create a recognizable character in the ‘Seventeen.’ What the reader witnesses is Ōe struggling to understand and embody what makes an existentially confused teen, on the (ritually-speaking) cusp of adulthood, so susceptible to the nihilistic, fascistic rhetoric of the nationalists of that time and place. What in the ‘Seventeen’s’ life and in the culture of that time would produce the circumstances such that an appeal to Emperor worship could still hold sway fifteen years after the Emperor himself stepped down from his “divinity” at the end of World War Two? The text’s conclusion, at least of Part One, seems to be that of a shared sense of purpose through mutual hatred of the Other. But this sense of purpose is universal to all right-wing fascist movements. The particulars of this event may shift with the years, but the ‘Seventeen’ at the core is just as much Otoya Yamaguchi as it is James Alex Fields. In a slight rephrasing of Chris Hedges, “War is a force that defers meaning” for the ‘Seventeen.’ It defers or suppresses his loneliness and anxiety in the face of oblivion, his self-hatred at his own pathetic life and his chronic masturbation, making such issues of secondary or tertiary importance to the primary importance of action beyond thought. Rather than put in the hard personal work to resolve or make peace with his loneliness and angst, ‘Seventeen’ subordinates himself to a cause, one that has allowed to go uninterrogated in the culture at large and can still claim to have Truth on its side, offering a place more central than the marginal one ‘Seventeen’ perceives himself to occupy.

Part one, Seventeen in its totality as published in English, ends with the ‘Seventeen’ after one of the student riots in which a girl was rumored to have died in the skirmish. Rather than join with the students in “confused silence” at this rumor, “drenched by the rain and crushed by discomfort, sadness, and pain,” he “experiences the orgasm of a rapist,” and promises, internally, a “bloodbath” to his “golden vision.” “I am the one and only blissful Seventeen.” That is where, for all intents and purposes, the text ends for English speaking readers. Where it begins is with the Seventeen at home, masturbating in a locked bathroom, certain that no one in his family will even remember that it’s his birthday, much less acknowledge it in any meaningful sense. The vision of the family is one of atomistic disinterest. The Father is tied to the American way, progressive and liberal in his attitude yet hands-off and uninvolved, while the older brother is preoccupied with various consumeristic pursuits, but not in any joyous sense, only in a self-centered apathetic way. He had once been a promising go-getter, yet a recent incident of exhaustion hollowed him out. The only one with whom the Seventeen has anything like a meaningful relationship would be with his older sister, a Nurse for the Self Defense Force (SDF).

This is the family as obligation, yet riddled with malaise. Society can no longer justify its “key” conservative structures, much less the more deeply rooted ones such as the family. Unsurprisingly, ‘Seventeen’ is confused on issues of contemporary political importance. As he states to himself following an outburst at his sister, in which he adopts the generally accepted Liberal positions: “I don’t want to lose. Besides, my position is supposed to be right. When I talk with friends at school, ideas like my sister’s get thrown out and beaten into the ground.” (Ōe, 12) These are not positions gained through experience; they are instead positions of cultural convenience. They are inauthentic, founded on nothing. In fact, the only time he deviates from the opinions of his classmates is when he stands up for the SDF due to his loyalty to his sister.

While not totally analogous, the Emperor, despite the ‘Seventeen’ identifying with the actual living Emperor, acts as a free-floating signifier similar to contemporary battle cries of ‘Free Speech’ heard from conservative activists today. In the way that ‘Free Speech’ in their mouths means little more than a fat-tongued stab at continued relevance and privilege, the Emperor doesn’t stand for anything concrete in this ideology that the ‘Seventeen’ has hastily constructed; rather, he represents a once stable tradition under siege by decadent, Leftist Western politics, mores and culture. A bygone world with simple and stable divinity must return to subsume and subordinate the one where meaning doesn’t come easy and is borne atop an abyss. And in fact, politics and culture still bear its traces as there remains a living emperor of Japan in 2018, however much of a figure head he is. As Ōe indicated in public statements made following the uproar surrounding the publication of Seventeen, the free-speech brigade of Japan came to the support of the publication of Henry Miller and Norman Mailer against attempts at censorship, but were conspicuously quiet about the effective silencing of the second part of ‘Seventeen’ by right-wing nationalists.

Unquestionably ‘Seventeen’s’ life is pathetic: in a physical fitness test he has trouble running 800 meters, even pissing himself in the final 100 meters of the test. But this humiliation ends up being the gateway to joining the ultra-nationalistic Imperial Way. One of the ‘cool kids’, a class clown, approaches him at the train station after the test. The student suggests that ‘Seventeen’ should join him as a ‘sakura’ for the Imperial Way rally in the city: they’ll get paid, and the class clown has sniffed out rightist sympathies in ‘Seventeen’s’ thinking, remembering the time he stood up for the SDF because of his sister’s involvement. It will be at this rally that ‘Seventeen’ will encounter what he will understand as his destiny.

While listening to the polemical speech of the chairman of the Imperial Way, full as it is of Blood and Thunder, ‘Seventeen’ overhears three office girls refer to him, the ‘Seventeen,’ as a “Rightist [...] a real pro.” In that moment he is “seized by a sudden, intense joy” and has “touched the essence of [him]self,” then proclaiming to the reader: “I am a Rightist!” He perceives that embracing this hatred for the weakness of the Left (really his own weakness) has changed how he’s viewed in the eyes of others nearby, “wrapp[ing his] weak, petty self inside strong armor, forever to be hidden from the eyes of others. It’s the armor of the Right.” (Ōe, 55).

The girls run away, (“So. The Other is afraid of me” [56]) and ‘Seventeen’ is surrounded by armband wearing members of the Imperial Way. “A strong hand, a friendly passionate, sinewy hand plants itself firmly on [his] shoulder.” A surrogate father figure has appeared, though a surrogate only in the sense that he is a surrogate for the Emperor himself, not ‘Seventeen’s’ biological father, who still has even more ground to cede to the Imperial Way and this golden vision of the Emperor. But now, ‘Seventeen’ is validated, told  that “You are the son of Japan who can fulfill the Heart of His Majesty the Emperor. It is you, the Chosen Boy with the true Japanese soul!” (57).


The second half of Seventeen was published the following month, in February 1961. Dubbed Death of a Political Youth, it provoked immediate outrage from the political right. Rocks were thrown at Ōe's study; a truck with a loudspeaker parked outside of his house and screeched slogans day and night (only someone that has been exposed to the loudspeaker trucks in Japan that are routine for promoting politicians and their policies during elections can imagine how excruciating this must have been). Death threats were made against Ōe and his publisher. In the end, the publisher withdrew the piece and apologized. The left responded to this capitulation with outrage of their own, leveling charges of cowardice against Ōe and the publisher. The story has never been officially re-published since, in Japanese or any other language as a translation, though there is at least one amateur English translation available on the internet.

What the ultranationalists reacted so strongly to was the portrait drawn of the youth – the same narrator as from Seventeen – as a chronic masturbator and all around degenerate and to the insults made about the Emperor. Indeed, the story ends with the ‘Seventeen’ committing suicide through hanging (just as his real life model did) in his cell while – it is implied – masturbating and screaming “Oh My Emperor!” The final words of the narrative being, “The middle-aged guard who came to cut the body down could smell the semen.” The psycho-sexual tangle strikes me as intentional parody, and I will admit that the narrative is never funnier to me than when the ‘Seventeen’ masturbates and sees golden visions of the Emperor. In Part One, a young woman at a bathhouse masturbates him because of his Imperial Way association – though he clearly disgusts her – and he sees as he orgasms a golden vision of the Emperor. There is an absurdity in these passages that the reader can’t escape. But parody strikes hardest at those most sensitive to its barbs, and the psychosexual-Imperial confusion of the teenage assassin was too far for many of the ultranationalist thugs.

Ōe has since said through one of his characteristic fictional counterparts in Letters to the Memorable Year that he could have written the work better so as not to antagonize either side. Maybe this is true; Ōe'’s implication is that the best version of the work would have had its point stand without being covered over in controversy. But in 21st Century America the portrait of the ‘Seventeen’ remains recognizable as a gleeful member of the Rightist rank-and-file. Platitudes about developing self-worth and learning to respect oneself are twisted into soppy paeons to the status quo and the inviolable truth of a hierarchy which is threatened by The Other that the listener most fears. Parody is so wounding to the devotees of this mystified authoritarianism because they are already terrified. In the same way that pressure on sunburnt skin hurts far more than the same pressure applied under more normalized circumstances, any expansion of the possible is a threat to The(ir) Eternal and deserving of swift and brutal reaction.

‘Seventeen’ taken as a whole isn’t straight parody, however. ‘Death of a Political Youth’ goes a long distance towards humanizing the ‘Seventeen,’ arguably further than Part One did. He experiences disappointment within his own movement. Differing views and counter-motives assail him as he loses faith in his one time mentor, the leader of the Imperial Way. A friend quits the Imperial Way and starts his own splinter movement. He also encounters the total embodiment of his hatred: a gay Leftist author that loves modern jazz and other so-called degenerate trends. That encounter shakes the ‘Seventeen’. After saying critical things on television about the rightists’ gathering in Hiroshima, the author is faced with the knife-wielding ‘Seventeen’ come to intimidate a retraction from him. But rather than walk back his statement, he gathers his courage and refuses to be intimidated, calling the ‘Seventeen’ a thug, even as he is visibly terrified of pain or death. Witnessing resoluteness in the other side undoes something in the ‘Seventeen.’ While not necessarily the start of his disillusionment that leads to the assassination, it is the moment that doubt – a messy, human reality – begins to break through his sureness.

From here, he slowly sheds all human connection until he is a single point at the end of a blade, living only to protect the Emperor from the decadent world. When he returns from Hiroshima he has found that his friend in the Imperial Way has left the organization. The friend asks ‘Seventeen’ to come see him at a farm in the country where he is building his movement. But what ‘Seventeen’ encounters there is a pastoral peace with the livestock, though he is unable to read this peace as significant while he clings to his Shinto visions of Imperial Divinity. And then when he finally does meet his friend, he discovers that his friend’s organization is so ill-formed it keeps shedding members because, as ‘Seventeen’ rightly perceives, his friend is trying to replace those comrades that were killed in the war. He is trying to rebuild an army from and of ghosts. Here ‘Seventeen’ encounters a second type of specter, the first being the atomic bomb dead that haunt the peace rally in Hiroshima (mentioned above, but about which more in section IV). The specter that haunts his friend is one of a loyalty and politics that were extinguished in the war, but are still allowed to uncritically suffuse the politics and culture of the postwar period, even fifteen years later. There are four ghosts, and each new adept to his friend’s organization is measured up against the past in order to realize the essence of those ghosts in the future. ‘Seventeen’ is able to see the despair and nihilism in his friend’s pursuit, and declines his invitation to join him in building this new Rightist organization.

But it is when ‘Seventeen’ leaves the farm and, instead of returning to the Imperial Way barracks, goes to his old family home that the nihilistic power of kakuremino seals his future. He finds again the same ‘modern alternative’: the ineffectual, American liberal-style, consumerist household. His family is unchanged. His father is still the ‘progressive’ who let his son leave to follow the Right-wing vision of the Imperial Way, even at the time applauding the discipline of that organization all while perceiving himself to embody the progressive American liberal values of the postwar period which may as well be a technocratic: “Don’t get personally involved.”

Feeling physically disgusted, ‘Seventeen’ finds himself retreating to the same dark shed he had his existential crisis in in Part One. And it is there that he discovers that that gaping void, that fear of annihilation remains, only now he is enfolded in a kakuremino, he has golden visions of the Emperor, and the discipline, practice and muscles to use the short-sword he has kept in the shed, much like Chekhov’s gun. In the light of the next morning, he performs the sword drills and chants he learned training in the Imperial Way:

For the good of the Party, we Imperial Youths march to Death with a smile on our faces and our banners held hiiiighhhH!” I sang.  (Ōe, 45)

From there, the narrative shifts perspective to clips and quotes about the assassination, defamiliarizing the story and putting a distance from the reader and ‘Seventeen.’ Following his trial and brief incarceration (all through which he is treated with deference and awe by the adults because of his Patriotism) the novel ends with ‘Seventeen’s’ psycho-sexualized suicide in honor of the Emperor, as detailed above, by then having fully embraced the kakuremino in Japanese culture at that time that sets the whole societal apparatus out-of-joint, exposing it for the weakness it is.

Explaining the contemporary parallels of an allegorical tale can feel pedantic: these things are meant on some level to be self-evident to the reader. But that said, it is no error that in every “apolitical” thinkpiece, petty bourgeois self-help tome or op-ed column on ‘Enlightenment Values’, ‘Free Speech’ or ‘Civility’ that fails to name the White Supremacist, Imperialist and Capitalist roots of the nation, I see the pathetic visage of the ‘Seventeen’ blithely nodding in reaction, having been enfolded within this kakuremino.


In 1963 Ōe was commissioned to write on “a large international gathering to abolish nuclear weapons.” (Ōe, 8) This commission came following the birth of his first son, born with “a severe head abnormality,” that would even if operated on, “likely [cause him to] suffer serious disabilities.” Anyone that has read any of Ōe's later, more famous novels like A Personal Matter, A Quiet Life or Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! know that that son, Hikari, has been a massive presence in Ōe's subsequent writings. But at the time of the commission to “report” on the movement for the abolishment of nuclear weapons, Hikari’s future was unclear. By his own account, ‘63 was a watershed year in his life. The birth of Hikari is the more famous of turning points, but in his 1995 introduction to Hiroshima Notes, the collection of essays Ōe wrote about the several trips he took to Hiroshima over the course of several years, he lays bare a ‘Conversion’ the experience brought about within him.

“Yet today I believe that what I experienced in Hiroshima that summer thirty-two years ago, and the fabric of thought that I personally wove from that experience, contain something distinctly universal. At the very least this experience produced the views of human beings, society, and the world that subsequently shaped my literature.” (8).

Through interviews and observation, Ōe encounters many hibakusha (A-Bomb survivors). Not being a hibakusha himself, Ōe is always and forever an outside Other to this collection of individuals whose identities for better or worse are eternally tied to that day in August, 1945. While the situation of Hiroshima is impossible to wrap into a single word, in the 1995 introduction Ōe chooses the word ‘ambiguities’ to explain the effects of that knot in History. He has often spoken of ambiguities, even titling his Nobel Lecture: Japan, The Ambiguous and Myself (an echo of his fellow countryman and Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s Nobel Lecture: Japan, The Beautiful and Myself). More than anything, as the scope of the historical, political and cultural circumstances that ended, more or less, with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan, expands to include all of Asia and its relationship to Japan defined primarily by its imperial colonization efforts and massacres as well as its treatment of immigrants and indigenous peoples, the question Ōe is left asking, both now and in 1963, is “Did Japan learn the lesson of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” And while he asks that question as a citizen of Japan who grew to adulthood during the war and immediate post-war period, the question reaches further than simply the boundaries of Japan or even Asia. That larger question bears asking:

Was the lesson of Hiroshima and Nagasaki learned by anyone with power?

Or even more broadly:

Does humanity ever learn it’s lesson from horror and tragedy?

If the answer to all three is ‘No’ as Ōe (and I, myself) suspect, must it be an eternal ‘No’? And it is the beginnings of answer in the positive that Ōe finds among the diverse collective called hibakusha.

In a chapter from Hiroshima Notes entitled ‘People Who Do Not Surrender’ Ōe recognizes a true existential freedom in the hibakusha that live their lives as they want despite the grave violence committed upon them and despite the attempts by outsiders to tell them what their lives mean (an irony Ōe is aware of given the prominence they feature in the essays). They “continue their struggle towards a miserable death,” to quote from a hibakusha, an old man Ōe met on his first trip to Hiroshima who still harbored hopes for success of the anti-nuclear weapon movement but who passed away in the interim between Ōe's first and second visit. To live their lives as they see fit in spite of what has been done to them is to express courage and freedom in a way most of humanity does not understand or know.  

In our forgetfulness of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945 and of Nagasaki on August 9th three days later, evidenced by both a refusal to totally disarm and by our implicit threats to again make use of those weapons (which by now are vastly more powerful and destructive than the bombs used in those two events), Ōe implies us to be haunted by the specter of the hibakusha—haunted in the hauntological sense—to still find ourselves in the thrall of a nuclear holocaust yet to come. Existentially speaking, they are, as a group, The Other for the majority of the world, an authentic being that, in our rejection of them, in our turning away from that responsibility and debt, is a rejection of our own possibility for freedom. This rejection of the hibakusha and implicit embrace of nuclear weapons is a gesture that mirrors that of the ‘Seventeen.’ ‘Seventeen’ embraces his hatred to cover his weakness and existential fear, completely collapsing into inauthentic selfishness and subordinating himself to a fascistic-nationalistic falsity. And, as John Wittier Treat draws out in a chapter on Ōe from his monograph Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb, since Ōe is deeply influenced by Sartre, it is worth seeing a parallel in how the Other is the key to ‘our’ being. “We reject the Other because we fear the power it holds over us, we covet it because of that power.” (Whittier Treat, 253) He further connects this to Hegel as evoked by Sartre: “The Slave is the Truth of the Master.” (ibid).  

The atomic bomb is one of many kakuremino that exist beyond legitimate interrogation by those in power -- and it is always those in power that can, in their silence or mystification, define kakuremino. The specter of the hibakusha haunts ‘Seventeen,’ as well. Even though Ōe had yet to make his first journey to Hiroshima when he wrote and published Death of a Political Youth, Hiroshima as a battleground figures prominently in that text. It is one of the first instances that the ‘stench’ of the Other overpowers the ‘Seventeen.’ “I was thinking that I could myself vaguely smell the odor of everyone living in Hiroshima right now.” (Ōe, 17) Over the course of chapter 4, the reality, the odor of the real live people of Hiroshima, confronts him at every turn. It dogs him; it is inescapable. Before, he can only think of action and battle for the Emperor and goes so far as to vow to drop atomic bombs on “New York, on Moscow or Peking, to Protect our Emperor!” (18). Even on to Japan again: “...if, for that matter, Hiroshima itself becomes a communist stronghold, I’d be the first in line to throw a second H-Bomb at it. That is righteous.” (ibid) Finally, after visiting the Atomic Bomb Memorial building, his disgust -- or is it guilt, indebtedness to the dead and the living of Hiroshima -- overpowers him and he spends “twenty minutes in a filthy toilet, vomiting.” (20). This encounter with the keloid scarred Other, living and dead, in photograph or in person, empties him out and it is from here that the narrative begins its slide towards the assassination and suicide that I detailed in the previous section. He cannot but reject his chance for freedom in the Other, the Hiroshima Man, as Ōe terms them in Hiroshima Notes, but all the same they haunt him, and in that haunting the ultranationalist identity he has adopted, the hate he has ‘lovingly’ fostered, begins to falter and erode.

The world the ‘Seventeen’ envisions is one either in eternal conflict with the Other, or entirely without the Other, but not through the solidarity that Hiroshima Notes encourages. Rather, it is a world where the Other is always being extinguished, or has been annihilated. Unwittingly, in his existential terror of the Void, the Zero, ‘Seventeen’ has adopted it as his vision of the future. He has taken for himself the fascistic structures that remain available to him, even after their supposed destruction at the end of the war. This is the nihilism of ultranationalism, the nihilism of conservatism and privilege. At its end, it is the nihilism, the ultimate wish, of kakuremino.

Near the end of his essay, Whittier Treat untangles a conclusion that he claims Ōe retreats from: “the necessary conclusion that the exercise of freedom is truly free only if it is made without the sanction of an ideology that approbates it.” (Whittier Treat, 252). It is true that Ōe canonizes the hibakusha, at points subtly denying them the freedom he claims they at times exemplify. Ōe does not tolerate despair; his literature, of which these three works are but early examples, does not allow for it. Despite that retreat, though, Ōe's endeavor presents a model that I think is worth emulating. The Other is necessarily, existentially, in conflict with the Self. But all the same, solidarity is possible. While the nihilism of kakuremino exists, there is a need for a robust politics of solidarity with the Other.

V.  coda

Kyoko Hayashi, a hibakusha and writer who passed away in 2017, wrote a short non-fiction piece which was published in the year 2000, the title of which translates in English as From Trinity to Trinity.  The piece recounts her ‘pilgrimage’ to the Trinity Site in New Mexico. As the title indicates, this pilgrimage was undertaken as one who has suffered from the holocaust that was engineered all those years ago at Los Alamos. Part of her reasoning for making the pilgrimage, which she had wanted to take for many years, was “if [she] can never be free from the event, [she] should end the relationship by swallowing it,” by closing the loop (Hayashi, 11). She also wants to know “America’s real mind” concerning the nuclear bombs and undertakes to also visit the Atomic Museum on an Air Force base in New Mexico to see how the bombings are portrayed to Americans in the heart of the country (18). When she catches the end of a film showing the bombing of Nagasaki (the city she was in) three older White men are in front of her having watched the entirety of the film. When the bomb explodes and images of an empty, obliterated Nagasaki are on the screen, one of the men tries to sneak a look at her. (19) What does he feel at this moment? Even though he may not know that she is a hibakusha, does he take her, as a Japanese-looking woman, to be a stand-in anyway? What would the reaction of these men be without the specter of being observed by a possible victim of the bomb?

In this brief reflection, Hayashi touches on an American kakuremino without using that word, but I’d like to quote it in full:

“I had wholeheartedly believed that nuclear disarmament represented humanity’s conscience. The old man’s eyes shattered that myth. The men, listening to the old man’s comments [ed. – The old man is an employee who had left shortly after he became aware of Hayashi] were perhaps feeling love for their country. The elderly man looked older than I, so he must have fought in the 1940s. The glorious past the Atomic Museum illustrated is what his generation fought for.” (20).

A few paragraphs later, she has come to stand before replicas of “Fat Man” and “Little Boy,” the two bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, respectively:

“I walked back to the center of the room and looked at the bombs set side by side. The two iron masses were quiet like coffins.” (21).

The usage of the atomic bombs to end the war with Japan remains a hotly contested choice to this day among Americans. Every August you can count on commentary to either side: pro-bombing and anti-bombing. While these comments are re-litigating a choice made over seventy years ago, they are in fact rehearsing an argument that will, as long as nuclear weapons exist, happen again in the future. The kakuremino of the Emperor System, as Ōe pointed out all those years ago, remains in place, even if voided of any direct political power. But while that is the system that ultimately resulted in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and continues to inspire fascistic, imperialist sentiments in a portion of the Japanese population, the bombings were far from an inevitable end, and that system is not the only thread that lead to that inhuman nightmare: America set out to develop such a weapon, ensuring the eventual existence of hibakusha even if Japan did not end up being the final target. Many such kakuremino exist worldwide; they are not only the cultural and political creation of Japan.

The distance between the individual courageous and free existence of hibakusha/Hiroshima Man and the nihilistic, omnipresent kakuremino of Nuclear Weapons is shorter than at times we may willingly admit. The hibakusha are one of the Others that defines our current circumstances. Several generations now have lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation, and that threat has not receded in the slightest. A New York Times article from May 27, 2016 details those hibakusha that were still living at that time. Many if not all hold to their belief in the need for total nuclear disarmament. Even then, more than seventy years after the bombings, they still “continue their struggle towards a miserable death.” While there are even now a few who remain living, the hibakusha are a nonetheless a specter that haunts contemporary life.

I want to close on a line that Hayashi – again, a hibakusha herself – quotes in From Trinity to Trinity, and the traces of which are inscribed on many of the kakuremino of the current age:

“The world did not need your experiment.”


  • Karatani, Kojin (2012). “The Allegory of Ōe Kenzaburō: Football in the Year Man’nen 1”. History and Repetition. (S. Lippit, Trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press
  • Ōe, Kenzaburō (2002). Seventeen & J. (Luk Van Haute, trans.) New York, NY: Fox Rock, Inc.
  • (1995). Hiroshima Notes. (D. Swain & T. Yonezawa, trans.). New York, NY: Grove Press.
  • (2010). Death of a Political Youth. Retrieved from here.
  • Miyoshi, Masao, (1996). “Introduction”. Seventeen & J. New York, NY: Fox Rock, Inc.
  • Hayashi, Kyoko (2010). From Trinity to Trinity. (Eiko Otake, trans.). Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, Inc.
  • Wilson, Michiko N. (1986). The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo. New York, NY: M.E. Sharpe
  • Treat, John Whittier (1995). “Ōe Kenzaburō: Humanism and Hiroshima”. Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press
Graham Dethmers