Town of Evening Calm, Country of Habitual Denial

Over at The Hooded Utilitarian, Ng Suat Tong has a review of Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (which I reviewed before). He has a very particular take on the book, situating it into a larger context of books about Hiroshima in Japan. His main thesis is that Kouno’s graphic novel fits a self-pitying pattern in Japanese depictions of Hiroshima, a pattern that completely ignores Japanese culpability. I haven’t read all the same books Tong has, so I have trouble getting as hot under the collar as he does. Still, I have seen how the Japanese, at least the Japanese government, has time and again denied its own role in some of the atrocities of that war. For instance, Japan has denied or distorted its alleged role in the Rape of Nanking. Likewise, Japan has also denied its alleged treatment of Koreans, especially Korean “comfort women.” On a personal note, I once had an older student who had grown up in Japan who exhibited the same mentality. In the class he was in, we read Native Speaker which briefly mentions the Japanese mistreatment of Koreans during World War Two. This student, though he had left Japan years ago and in fact was unhappy with the Japanese government, wrote an entire essay about how I was a brainwashed American promoting lies about the Japanese because I had students read this novel. So it’s interesting to me to see this denial as a larger cultural mindset and seeing Kouno as being part of it.

Still, I like her book. Jog’s response (number 15) to Tong’s review matches my own sentiments and he words his thoughts much more respectfully than I could. Still, this brings up two other ideas for me.

One is if the U.S. has a similar whitewashed view of World War Two. Many people in the U.S. view it as “the last moral war,” ignoring the oxymoronic nature of the comment. Yes, the U.S. didn’t “start the war,” but I don’t think that somehow exonerates all U.S. actions. Hiroshima is a big point of national guilt, though I think many people think it was necessary. Yet I also think many people admit the horror of Hiroshima as a way of ignoring other potential atrocities. I for one was unaware of the constant fire bombing of Japan by U.S. forces until I saw the documentary The Fog of War (which I highly recommend). And movies like A Thin Red Line only hint at some of the vicious behavior of American soldiers in the South Pacific. I haven’t thought this through very much, but I generally think most countries deny their personal responsibility for the suffering that happens in the world. Perhaps Japan is an especially extreme case. But I’m sure Japan is not the country that would spring to mind of you asked most people in the world which country is the most guilty of denying the negative effects of its military.

The other thought this review brought to my attention was an old one in literary study and that is how one views an author whose work suffers from the prejudices of the time. Think of the anti-Semitism in Shakespeare or the racism in Heart of Darkness. I know of teachers who will not teach Conrad’s novella and Chinua Achebe has a famous essay stating that it needs to be erased from the English canon. I see this and understand it and yet I can’t deny the artistry of Conrad’s work. Is it possible to note its racism and its promulgation of the association between blackness and evil and still be able to admire how it is written? I like to think so. Yet I can see how others can’t. And this poses a tough question for the study of literature. Ideas change. Politics shift. We can’t deny our own political views, but we also can’t expect authors from other times and cultures to see what we see. And yet I think it is important to see how artists unknowingly or intentionally promote a political point of view and, in some cases, how an artist is used to justify that political point of view. The British Empire taught Shakespeare wherever it went. Yet we can still see the beauty in Shakespeare’s language. I think to link art to politics and not see beyond that is to kill the complexity of art. And it denies the humanity of the Humanities.

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