On 11 March 2011, the most powerful earthquake in recorded Japanese history struck off the coast of the Tohoku region of Japan. It triggered tsunami waves 133 feet high that roared inland, and in turn triggered meltdowns at three nuclear reactors in Fukushima Prefecture. The triple disaster killed more than 18,000 people and displaced over 228,000.
Hideo Furukawa’s Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure was published mere months after the disaster. Furukawa is an award-winning novelist whose complex and experimental work is often compared to the likes of Haruki Murakami. Unfortunately, little of his oeuvre has yet been translated into English. Indeed, this short literary essay took more than five years to appear in translation.
Horses, Horses has received considerable attention in Japan, particularly as one of the first ‘literary’ works to engage with what’s come to be referred to as 3/11 (Furukawa himself objects to this shorthand for the disaster, since its destruction was not limited to a single day and will continue to reverberate for years). Furukawa also hails from Fukushima himself, and his fraught relationship with that fact (and the label which often accompanies it) impacts both this book as well as other work he has produced.
Horses, Horses is an engaging and quick read, but an immensely complicated work. Some prior orientation to Japanese history and culture is helpful, for he draws on a wide range of historical and folkloric references and metaphors. But much of its appeal is universal, as well. It contains large swaths of descriptive reportage, but this is woven into broader metaphorical, literary and even philosophical musings.
Like all great novelists, Furukawa’s talent lies in drawing connections. Like the invisible voices he hears and invisible characters he speaks with in the work, he weaves a complex web of connections so hidden that few others would probably perceive them independently, but which appear eminently reasonable once he’s revealed them. Connections between historical trends, memorialization of national trauma, human-animal interactions, and even the experience of time, all lend an element of magical realism to the book while retaining its anchor in the harsh reality of the devastated, radiation-infused, post-tsunami landscape.
Furukawa’s journey into Fukushima is a journey into overlapping, concentric circles. They haunt and define the experience of this former home of his: circles delineating disaster zones and radioactive danger areas. Evacuation zones merge into danger zones and potential danger zones, into zones within which not to eat locally produced food or water. Circles within circles within circles, and constantly in flux. As he travels into Fukushima, he passes through these invisible circles, never quite certain when he crosses the invisible boundary from one into another.
The invisible concentric circles, laden with power despite their lack of discrete material essence, echo in other powerful ways. In addition to the warning circles on news-television maps, there are the concentric circles of time. One month after Fukushima, the newspaper is full of reflections on what things are like a month later. Two months after Fukushima, and the date passes almost without his notice. Yet the devastation and suffering continues.
Time moves on. He travels to the United States less than two months after the disaster for a literary appearance, and is struck by the circles of historical and geopolitical memory through which he passes. Once 3/11 occurred, he expected his trip would be cancelled; but of course it wasn’t. Outside Japan — indeed, outside Tohoku — life moves on. New York has a different date inscribed on its memory — 9/11 — and a different ‘ground zero’. Disaster and national trauma is also laced with perspective; the devastation of 3/11 is no less real in America than in Japan, but the perception and experience of each respective trauma is starkly localized.
Normalcy and disruption; they circle each other, too. Caught up in the reality of Japan’s disaster, he travels to New York where, far from being the radioactive pariah he expected to be is hailed as a Fukushima author and invited to extra appearances. There, too, New York’s own trauma is suddenly reanimated with the killing of Osama bin Laden during Furukawa’s visit, and he realizes the immense difference between that place and his own: New York’s collective trauma has an enemy it can name and hate and from whom it can seek revenge, whereas Fukushima does not.
There’s an underlying theme of alienation and guilt throughout Horses, Horses, as well. Although Furukawa is from Fukushima, he left it as a youth. The difficulty of reconciling the place from which a young person flees with the rootedness it comes to take up in one’s identity whether one likes it or not, has proven a fertile terrain for Furukawa’s literary work. His acclaimed novel Seikazoku (The Holy Family) explores the history of the Tohoku region from which he hails, presenting it as a region on which the powerful capitals of Japan turned their back on modern history (presaging the isolation and ‘othering’ of Fukushima following 3/11; Horses, Horses has sometimes been described as a mini-sequel to the larger book).
When the disaster strikes, Furukawa is on a trip to Kyoto, and then returns home to Tokyo; a fair distance from Fukushima. And yet still indelibly connected: he cannot write, cannot get his mind off of what’s happening there. He feels a compulsion to go, and yet immense guilt at the idea of it. He is of Fukushima, and yet not of the disaster; not one of the victims, and he feels he hardly deserves to share in this pain that he feels. It affects him, too — his writing has come to a standstill, and he can’t focus on his work — and yet because the disaster doesn’t affect him as it would a resident of Fukushima, he feels he cannot pursue this obsessive yearning to go there which consumes him.
“The trains were not yet running, and it was being reported that taxis and other hired vehicles were refusing to go into Fukushima. Further, there was no gasoline. Even in Tokyo the gas stations had begun to dry up, and it was not at all clear if any gas stations still existed up there. You had to know people up there to be sure of a supply of gasoline. So I couldn’t go too soon. I had no right to act like one of the victims.”
This notion that he has no right to act like a victim haunts him, but finally he can resist no longer, and with the support of his publisher is able to travel into the zone from which others have fled.
Furukawa taps powerfully into the psychological guilt of the insider-outsider: the one who rejected an identity, only to find themselves unable to escape it; the one who escaped injury, yet cannot move on without confronting it. It’s one thing for him to run away from his place of origin; it’s quite another for all the familiar things and places he remembers to be yanked away from him at the devastating hand of the triple tragedy.
I was one of those who left town. Never had any intention of staying in the old home area… This “leaving” had nothing to do with affection or hatred. Just this feeling that that area — around Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture — didn’t need me, had no use for me. That sense of things, and the present sense that Fukushima itself has been ‘snatched away,’ is, in some ways — no, in every way — different. Can anyone explain how, or the reasons why, the people that ‘remained’ had to be polluted in this way? The voice again. ‘Go. Get yourself radiated.’ Or perhaps just, ‘Go. See.’… But what can I do to share in their pain? But I also understand this: I can’t be too late, but neither can I be too early. Among the volunteers they need professionals. But I am no pro at journalism. They need volunteers who are pros at something, but I am no professional at anything. Nor do I have any of the nonprofessional qualities they need in volunteers. That’s because I am the sort of person who distrusts good intentions that come wrapped up in too-neat stories. Nor am I a journalist. Well, then, what, exactly? A novelist.
Ever the novelist, his reportage alternates with literary technique. The reportage steers clear of the broad sweep that characterized mainstream journalism surrounding 3/11. He explores the shelves of shops in Fukushima for their strange and arbitrary gaps; hunts for shrines which may or may not still be there; visits an aquarium whose staff are desperately trying to save their exotic and long-suffering specimens; passes a solitary gym standing untouched amidst the wreckage, facing the sea.
But he anchors 3/11 in the broader past and culture of Japan as well. Animal symbolism is important throughout the book; from the crows and seagulls feasting on the devastation to the abandoned horses which are the book’s namesake. He recounts the bloody history of Japan — a history of war and destruction wrought not by nature but by humans — and lays it beside 3/11, a hybrid of human and natural disasters. He recounts the historical isolation and suffering of the Tohoku region which foreshadows its isolation and suffering in the wake of 3/11.
Furukawa has been inspired by Miyazawa Kenji, an earlier writer from the Tohoku region. In reflecting on his own literary style, he cites a study of Kenji by the philosopher Umehara, who writes that “He [Kenji] wrote many tales (dowa) and poems, but he never wrote a novel. This is directly related to his understanding of the world. Novels are stories with humans at their center. Kenji did not accept that humans alone had any special rights in this world. Kenji took it as a given that birds and trees and grasses, wild animals and mountains and rivers, everything, had eternal life, same as humans.”
Furukawa does write novels — massive, sprawling novels — but he uses animals as well, and toward a similar end. By using animals as key characters, he succeeds in applying an angle to his novels which dislodges the centrality of human perspective. This is powerfully and effectively applied in Horses, Horses, which concludes with the experience of abandoned horses and cows following the disaster; experiences which echo the collaborative survival, tinged with casual indifference, of Tohoku’s historical inhabitants eking out a survival in a sometimes-giving, sometimes-harsh world.
There’s a lot to reflect on in Horses, Horses. It’s a powerful, stirring, and deeply personal commentary on the tragedy of 3/11. It’s also a literary intervention of prodigious quality. Let us hope it presages a further exposure (and translation) of Furukawa’s works for English-speaking audiences.