Book Spotlight: Irradiated Cities – Mariko Nagai

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this.

Irradiated Cities is a collection of poems exploring the (concept of) aftermath of catastrophic events in four cities.

What I liked:

  • Nagai’s poems are incredibly readable (and I say this as someone who has no aspirations to be a poet or any formal training in the mechanics of poetry). Although I often sense a great depth of emotion in the poems I read, most of the time I also feel a distance between myself (as the reader) and the poet. I do not know if this is always intentional on the poet’s part, or if it simply means my personal experiences are too far removed from the experiences which form the core of the poet’s work. This is not a “bad” thing, per se, but something I have always thought about when I consider what the poet might have wanted readers to experience. Irradiated Cities provided a very different reading experience – and this is where I’m particularly interested in knowing how other Japanese/nikkei readers reacted. Although I am separated from the events discussed in Irradiated Cities by several degrees, I felt incredibly moved by the emotions and experiences underlying Nagai’s poems, and I could not tell if this was a common reaction for any reader who identifies as Japanese, or if it was more specific to my family’s experiences.
  • I appreciate Nagai’s reference to the commercialization/presentation/preservation of Hiroshima and the politics therein. The last time I was at the peace park, I remember looking around and wondering how many of the people there had actually come to pay their respects/hold remembrance, versus for some other reason. I remember looking at the strings of cranes brought by various Japanese students on school trips and thinking about how the war is (or might be, or is not) taught in Japanese schools. My mom was with me and noted some of the differences in the peace park site (apparently, the museum was significantly remodeled and the contents changed) from the last time she visited. It’s not my place to criticize how Japan chooses to portray Hiroshima’s history, but I would certainly agree that the topic is worth consideration by those who do have a direct stake in it. For nikkei like myself who are not direct descendants of hibakusha, I think it is useful to consider why we choose to visit sites of devastation in Hiroshima (or Nagasaki, or Fukushima) and what it means for us to do so.

What I learned:

  • One thing which was constantly on my mind as I read Irradiated Cities, especially as I read the Fukushima poems, was the idea of 余計なお世話. Since I grew up with Japanese parents, specifically a 日本人 parent, I already understand this way of thinking as second nature. Over the years, especially in my interactions with non-Japanese/non-Asian people, I’ve come to realize this concept is not common across all cultures, at least not in the same way. (Of course, it also manifests differently among 日本人, but that is a discussion for another time.) I was in college when 3/11 happened and I remember being asked (in retrospect, I don’t recall if I was randomly asked, or if nikkei students were being asked specifically) to participate in a student-produced video, intended to be a source of support for Japanese students who were studying abroad on our campus. I remember not really wanting to participate, but not feeling like I could say no, either. Looking back, I realize I was reluctant to take part because the intent behind the video made me uncomfortable. I never found out if any of the students were personally affected by 3/11 (here meaning, they were from Fukushima, or lost someone they knew), but for anyone who may have been, I would think trying to muster the grace to respond (in a way acceptable/intelligible to USian students) would be extremely difficult under the circumstances. Of course, I could be wrong. I never found out how the video was received, so it could be that the students were happy and grateful. Or maybe some were and some were not. I share this story because it strikes me as one example of what was repeated the world over when 3/11 happened, and what Nagai highlights in her poems – an outpouring of support for Japan, but with a rather limited understanding of what the people of Fukushima actually needed or wanted. As Nagai says, when catastrophe strikes, sometimes there is no “after,” especially for the people directly involved.

Questions I had:

  • Now that I have read Nagai’s work in three rather distinct subject areas – JA incarceration (Dust of Eden), Japanese imperialism in China (Under the Broken Sky), and nuclear catastrophes in Japan (Irradiated Cities), I’m curious about her focus as a scholar. Her “day” job appears to be as a professor at Temple University Japan. I’m currently reading Histories of Bodies, another collection of poems by Nagai, which appears to focus on loss, on a more personal/individual level. It seems to me that Nagai’s interest is in how people (specifically Japanese people?) respond to trauma, specifically their emotional responses, and in this concept of “aftermath.” Her period of focus appears to be predominantly the WWII era. What drew her to these topics? How does she envision her work fitting into the existing bodies of scholarship and literature?
  • How might we (Japanese/nikkei people, in our various communities and spaces and identities) consider Nagai’s work in relation to works like Akiko Hashimoto’s The Long Defeat and Karen Inouye’s The Long Afterlife of Nikkei Wartime Incarceration? (Interesting, both titles use “long.” Do we mean “in perpetuity” when we say long?) What happens if we put Nagai’s work in conversation with Brandon Shimoda’s work on memory and JA incarceration? As time progresses and more years intervene between the present and these historic events, are we seeing a shift in analytic focus? What happens when the chroniclers of events are no longer the eyewitnesses, or when the eyewitnesses we knew are no longer with us, and we are left with their memories, or our impressions of their memories?

Follow up:

  • I will definitely be keeping an eye out for whatever Nagai publishes next. I’m finding that I never know quite what to expect from her work, which keeps things interesting!
  • I have Displacement by Kiku Hughes in my TBR and I’m looking forward to examining how Hughes’s portrayal of JA incarceration through the lens of family history parallels/diverges from/builds on the work of the writers discussed above.