“Because the possibility for nuclear warfare exists, there is always, no matter how minor the conflict, the fear and threat that any war could lead to another nuclear holocaust.”
White Flash/Black Rain: Women of Japan Relive the Bomb is an #OwnVoices non-fiction Japanese poetry and prose collection with contributions from various Japanese women. The book was edited and translated by Lequita Vance-Watkins and Aratani Mariko.
The small collection of Tanka and Haiku poetry, as well as short essays, are written by Japanese women who survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as female scholars who have been studying and writing about Japanese history for decades, and women who are powerful advocates for world peace and anti-nuclear armaments. A few of the works also pertain to the experience that Korean women had in Japan when they were forced to be pleasure slaves for the brutal Japanese soldiers.
My biggest reason for picking up this collection is that all the accounts are solely from women. Women were always viewed as ignorant, subservient beings; people who took care of the house while the men went off and worked and fought wars. Women who are always silenced or shoved into the background, unable to share an equal part in the travesty that occurred 70 years ago. I had never come across a collection of A-Bomb survivors’ accounts that focused on the mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, aunts—I had to read it.
After finishing the book, I was wholeheartedly stunned. I had no words that can properly describe the shock and pain that overcame me upon hearing about what was seen and felt and experienced. I have read a lot of books about the Second World War and the A-Bombings, especially as of late, but nothing could prepare me for a poem about a mother who was forced to watch the skin melt off her child, or another mother having to bear witness the blood and literal decimation of her family members before her eyes. There is something unspeakably horrifying about that that just cannot be conveyed with a bunch of letters.
The eight contributors to this collection speak with raw honesty and astounding vividness in their descriptions of the “sky tearing open with fire.” None of these accounts soften or minimise what happened to the people, especially the children and the elderly. Some women speak candidly with heart-wrenching detail of having to leave behind the remains of their loved ones. Others face the trauma of being raped over and over and over again by soldiers with clarity and how it wasn’t just an atrocity against their bodied and minds, but also their cultural identities and will to survive.
The prose for the short essays vary from academic and detached to personal accounts similar to that of a journal entry. But each one is poignantly forthright and offers necessary commentary on the malevolence that was the nuclear holocaust. While the inherent styles differ from one author to the next, the overarching tone and message are symbiotic and come together excellently to emphasise how these women strongly desire acknowledgement that their government wronged its people, and for the people of the world to realise that violent conflicts will never be a suitable solution for discord between countries, which is the point of White Flash/Black Rain.
“These voices tell us that nuclear consequences did not end with World War II but continued in the bodies and the souls of victim and victor, the liberated, and the vanquished. This is a book of peace, but it is also a book of shared responsibility for what goes into the making of war.”
Their critique on the nature of war and what happened to them is blunt and unapologetic, setting it apart immediately from other witness accounts that I have read from this point in history. Most accounts, while they are honest and do offer criticism for what happened, they still tend to be blanketed in propriety that is common in Japanese social etiquette. But these eight individuals openly discuss that they were wronged by their government and how the government continued to be disrespectful to its people and what happened to them; refusing to take responsibility. Both sides are equally at fault for what happened, yet neither is ready to admit that they fucked-up, royally. No one talks about the contribution that Emperor-worship had on the community within the walls of the military and governing leaders, and how the Japanese people inevitably became collateral damage because of it. That’s where the discussion must begin: with acknowledgement and admitting to a terrible wrong.
If there are any critiques that I could make about the collection, it would only be to say that people who are unfamiliar or not typically fans of poetry, and people who know nothing of the unusual style of Tanka and Haiku poetry, may feel disconnected with a lot of the poems. Tanka can be difficult to understand due to its nature of focusing on syllables to create the piece rather than the typical rhyme-based formula. Secondly, there are some untitled poems that have the specific poem type listed at the top where the title would go, and that can be confusing initially and mistaken for being a title.
White Flash/Black Rain: Women of Japan Relive the Bomb is one of the most important pieces of non-fiction literature that I have read on the subject to date, and I cannot recommend it enough. But be warned: it is powerfully emotional and heart-breaking.