Creating the Glass Man: Hiroshima Anniversary

Today is the 65th anniversary of the American atomic attack on the southern Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.  For the first time, the U.S. government is sending a representative to the commemoration ceremony.  Liberation, the left-wing Parisian paper, has a worthwhile photo gallery on the subject:

Hiroshima Prayers -- click image for gallery, courtesy

The German press is of course also watching closely.  The Berlin Tagesspiegel carries a long testimony by a bombing survivor, a photo gallery of standard images, and a story with a critique from the head of the commemoration activity noting that American participation in the ceremony came “too late” (all links in German, sorry).  Sueddeutsche Zeitung carries an interview with a survivor as well (“Eyewitness to Apocalypse”), a photo of an American POW killed in the blast, and an interactive graph on nuclear weapons dangers today upon which North Korea stands out nicely.

However, probably the most interesting item on the Hiroshima commemorations to emerge of late in the German press (a press which has been much more focused on the meaning of 1945, perhaps understandably, than the American press in the past several months) is an editorial by Robert S. McKay, an American “old German hand”  and a skeptic.  His editorial appeared in the Berlin Tagesspiegel on June 30, foregrounding all of these commemorations with the notion that Japanese focus on war victimhood has clouded the country’s ability to honestly assess self-culpability in the wartime past, and criticizing the city of Potsdam for setting up a “Hiroshima Plaza” which coheres completely to the “Japanese as victims” point of view.  I’ve been meaning to translate this from the German for more than a month now, but as a concession to time, will link to the article’s original here and the horrible Google-translated version here, hoping that in the near future those German paragraphs will worm their way to the front of my translation queue.

Finally, take note of a new text published by my former northeast Ohio liberal arts college East Asian historian colleague Anne Sherif at Oberlin College, entitled Japan’s Cold War: Media, Literature and the Law (Columbia U. Press, 2009).   She writes to great emotional and intellectual effect about Hara Tamiki, the Japanese author who was, as she wrote, “a martyr of the age of fear and the first man to succumb to the full force of the Cold War” (p. 115).  Citing Oe Kenzaboro’s Hiroshima Notes, she states that “the bomb does more than give life and take it away” (p. 104), describing A-bomb literature, or genbaku bungaku 原爆文学…

Sherif offers a staggering analysis of some staggering literature by Hara Timiki (原 民喜), his story “Feet of Fire / 火の踵 / Hino kakato.”  (There’s another story here involving how I found the full text of this story in spite of what appears to be a misleading footnote, but I’ll spare you.)  Hara himself was in the bathtub in Hiroshima when the bomb hit, and atomic fallout pervades his subsequent output.  In “Feet of Fire,” Hara arrives upon the idea that he needs to create a “music bomb” which he will drop in order to create the man of the future, the “Glass Man.”  The atomic bomb, in other words, calls for new bombs, counter-bombs, artistic aggression.  As he walks down the street, Hara’s character’s eyesight and senses pare away and his psyche is shaken deeply by the appearance of the idea of the “music bomb”, whose power itself forces him to create a new persona.  In Sherif’s translation, here is  the climax of that story:

…Adam….This single name sprang from him, as from divine inspiration…That name came back to him like some kind of salvation.

“So that’s it.  It’s Adam — I am putting you in charge of the idea of the music bomb.”

or, in an extract from the original version:


(さうだ、アダム……。音楽爆弾の空想は君にまかせよう。君はあの死体の容積が二三倍に膨脹し、痙攣がいたるところに配列されてゐるシインのなかから、ぽ つかりと夢のやうに現れたイメージだつた。君の名はアダム……だが君の名をいま僕はニユー・アダムと呼びたい。音楽爆弾でも何でもいいから勝手に勝手な空 想をしてくれ給へ。いづれ僕はそいつも小説に書かうと思ふから、これからは時々やつて来てくれ給へ。だが今は僕はかうして街なかを歩いてゐるのだし、日常 生活の姿勢でゐなければ、どうも困るのだ。)

Hara Tamiki, courtesy Shunkin / Litterature Japonais

Reading Kim Il Sung’s Memoirs [1]

Although no one seems to be writing about the topic, Kim Il Sung’s life and works are likely to play an important role in justifying any new direction taken in North Korea, just as the present order, just as that life and those works undergird the present order even as the constant public reminders of that early era kindle a certain revolutionary nostalgia in the DPRK.

Thus it behooves us to read the man’s memoirs, “With the Century,” whose multiple volumes are sometimes referred to in biographies of the Kim family, but rarely stand on their own as the subject of news stories, much less scholarly journal articles.  I am revisiting volumes 5-7 in my less-than-voluminous spare time this week, and thought I might lay out a few thoughts on the blog in response, pulling together a kind of fragmented yet potentially useful reading summary.  The entire memoir, by the way, is available as a pdf. here.  If nothing else, it’s a good 1500+ page pdf. to have on your hard drive in the event that you get stuck, for instance, in a cabin on the Russian taiga with no internet connection for several weeks.  Or, alternatively, if we’re looking for the roots of what Adrian Buzo has called “the guerrilla regime,” wartime Manchuria is probably one of the best places to start.

In Volume 5, Kim Il Sung recounts the events along the Sino-Korean border from May 1936-March 1937.    Let’s just isolate the first 40 pages of this tome, shall we?

Fluidity Between Enemy and Friend

The dilemma confronting the young Kim Il Sung in 1936, at the outset of this volume, is how to maneuver between puppet Manchukuo forces and rival anti-Japanese units.  It is a Hobbsean world without steady ally, in which friends can become enemies, in which one’s enemies can be at least temporary friends.  Immediately, we see Kim reaching a mutual understanding with the local puppet forces that neither will attack the other, and Kim uses the breathing space to bury his organization’s archives on the Minsaengdan Incident that had so badly decimated his party (pp. 4-6).  The guerrillas may have been planting grain as they went, but they also dug into the northeastern earth in order to conceal their collective past, and, in hiding it from the Japanese, hid it too, from themselves.  So much of this past, as Kim duly notes, is now irretrieveable.

In 1935-36, a number of Kim’s putative allies went over to the Japanese side.  According to Kim Il Sung, the extreme violence of Japanese anti-guerrilla operations was in part responsible: in Fusong, the walled town that was at the center of much of Kim’s early life, one could find the decapitated heads of former guerrilla commanders displayed in the streets (p. 10, 15).  Since the Japanese attached great importance to Fusong as a key to control of the Sino-Korean frontier area, they would take rebels into the marshes outside of town and execute them, according to Kim.  Looking back on these cruel conditions, the old man Kim Il Sung engages in the logic of the liberator, perhaps conflating Fusong 1935 with Seoul 1950: “I thought then that an attack on the town of Fusong would constitute the most sympathetic greetings to the townsfolk, as well as an expression of the warmest and truest love I could offer them” (p. 26).   He goes so far as to relay the contents of his thought process on attacking the city, noting that he had ultimately to argue that the absence of an attack on the town would be an unacceptable loss of prestige for his guerrilla unit.  Self-preservation was something he did rather well, but the notion that, having military power, one is obliged therefore to use it, is perhaps not one of the more positive intellectual legacies which Kim Il Sung has left his descendants.

The memoirs are particularly interesting to read as a kind of often-subtle corrective to the hagiography and the much-more sanitized and mythologized versions of DPRK historians.  Kim mentions that the Battle of Fusong “produced an anecdote about Kim Jong Suk” killing Japanese with Mauser pistols; the voicing of this statement seems to acknowledge rather explicitly that the story was manufactured later, as were most of the stories about Kim Jong Suk’s direct participation in violent struggle.

Given the care that North Korean propaganda has lavished this past year on the idea of strong military-civilian relationships, it is a bit astonishing and perhaps even refreshing to read Kim’s own words about how his actions impacted local civilians.  In response to his attack on Fusong, the Japanese sent bombers all the way from Changchun.  Kim relays the excitement of his guerrilla group in sitting outside of town, watching the bombs fall on the surrounding areas which included farms (p. 36).  Concern for local farmers is lost, as, after all, as Kim admits rather nakedly, the goal was to achieve a political impact, not a military victory and certainly not the ultimate safety of the Chinese and Korean civilians living in these particular border zones (p. 38).

Finally, in the midst of describing his own struggles, Kim Il Sung does not censor his own thoughts about what he sees as the most pathetic aspects of Chinese society.  Noting that in his army, opium addicts were simply shot, he recalls scenes from China:  “Wheerever I saw opium addicts looking vacantly at the world with dim eyes and snivelling noses, I could not help recollecting the long bloody history of our [Chinese] neighbors and feeling pity for its people (p. 30).  Even under life-and-death conditions, Kim Il Sung still had the presence of mind, or so it seems in this memoir, to look down on the Chinese.

Looking across the Yalu at North Korea from Linjiang, Kim Il Song's old haunt -- photo by Adam Cathcart