Ota Yoko (1903–1963) was the only prominent novelist to survive the bombing of Hiroshima. After it, she wrote only essays and fictional stories, which documented the experiences of victims, carving out the field of atomic literature in which she is renowned. Her obsessive dedication to realistically relating what happened was driven by her conviction that she was the only one left to do so. Burdened by survivor responsibility, she wrote on tranquilisers to dull the visceral trauma triggered by remembering, and struggled to find the right words, saying new vocabulary was needed to render ‘the reality of Hiroshima’.
‘Like light on the sea floor’ appeared in national Japanese newspaper The Yomiuri Shimbun in late August 1945, making it the first long-form biographical account of the bomb ever published. Though prolific, her work wasn’t available in English until 1990, starting with her novel City of Corpses (a large excerpt of which was released in a new translation this year).
Like light on the sea floor
Written by Ota Yoko
Translated from Japanese by Marissa Skeels
Bell crickets and pine crickets call in the summer grass surrounding the house. Inside the pale blue mosquito net, my older sister’s dear little baby sleeps soundly. Bruises fading to lilac still mar its cheeks and legs, but are healing faster than anyone else’s. Beside her lies my 25-year-old sister, facing her, snoring quietly. Her whole face is still pitifully pocked with scabbed blood. Her wounds smell. Their scent is unlike that of blood and pus from normal injuries. This odour is like that of toxins. I showed symptoms of cancer myself, so was staying in a surgery department until the other day. Amid the many who came to die there, that fetid stench pierced my bones.
Our mother sleeps next to my sister. She, luckily, has no injury to her blood. There is no pen, paper, nor ink here. The sounds of insects reverberate while the gash from my left ear to my neck aches in the late hours of the night, where I sit at a small, borrowed table. When I open my eyes, I see faint lights gleaming in the village alongside spot-fires raging out of control. This demonic air raid struck every house. I suspect the wounded are laid out in every one.
Since it happened, eroding Hiroshima with flames, blinking the city into nothingness, I have turned militant. Since the 6th, I’ve thought that, surely, this war has to go on. I was getting my injuries treated at my father’s doctor friend’s house when I heard it said that the bomb was just another step in the battle. I crouched on the floor, hands pressed against my stomach, a tear running down my cheek, but the awful suddenness of that was nothing next to the shock wrought by the bomb. Just after 8 am on the 6th, unexpected, eerie rays of light in the summer morning air were indelibly imprinted on all who greeted the day in Hiroshima.
I was at my mother and older sister’s home in Hakushima Kukencho. I’d come back from Tokyo, chasing somewhere more rural, and what had been intended to be a direct trip was broken by my being waylaid, hospitalized. On the 5th, I’d been out of hospital for 10 days. All through that night, air raid squads filled the skies of Yamaguchi prefecture. At dawn, when the warning sirens finally ceased, we slipped into our beds.
I was tired. I suppose I must have fallen into a deep sleep. At the moment it occurred to me that I was having was an unfamiliar, strange dream, beaming celadon light the colour of light on the sea floor bathed the outside of my eyelids, which didn’t form part of the dream nor waking life. Just as I thought this really was a strange dream, an intense sound occurred which is difficult to put into words, and I felt my body being flung about, with the sensation it was being smashed to tiny pieces. There was no boom of a bomb hitting the ground, nor was there the sound of incendiary bombs, which echoes falling rain. There was a k-chiiin: the reverberation of resistance, of metal. The only term that captures it is ‘a moment’, though it was unlike any moment I’d ever experienced before. Even so, I thought that maybe 20 or 30 incendiary bombs had fallen right above my bed, and I scanned the room, trying to find them.
But there was no fire. I’d been blown away like leaves off a tree, but I was still in the 10 tatami-mat room where I’d slept, and still wearing my kimono. I saw clearly the dark red, pongee splash pattern of its fabric, but everything else – the bed and mosquito net, the fitted coat and hooded cap by the bedside, my obi sash and tengui handcloth – was gone. For a long moment, billowing dust from the missing clay walls covered my eyes and filled my nose and mouth, and I coughed violently. The house’s roof, walls, and windows had been blown away, and although it was standing, it was distorted, as if snapped at its waist. Looking out at the neighbourhood, which should have been hidden from view, I had the impression I was standing alone in a wild field. I shouldn’t have been able to see the neighbouring house’s front gate, but there it was, and upon seeing me I heard the young housewife living there cry out ‘Ah.’
Our house, which had narrowly escaped collapsing, could fall at any time. I needed to get down from the second floor, and soon. Both ends of the staircase were fortunately intact, but were strewn with my clothes, large trees, glass, and planks, so it wasn’t a viable path. No sooner had I called out to the housewife at her gate to go and get someone from hers to help did my little sister appear at the foot of the stairs, covered with blood from head to toe. It flowed down her white clothes, dripping off their hems.
‘Is Mom alive?’ I asked.
‘I’ve been calling out to her, but there’s no answer. You’re not as hurt as me. Find a way down.’
Fresh blood poured from my ear, warming my neck. Keeping one eye on the room behind me, I made it past the holes everywhere by moving in a sort of crawl.
We left the house via the rear garden, walking along a back road, meeting other survivors. As far as the eye could see, every house was flattened. In the time it took to utter ‘Oh’, the blast wave from the bomb, with its blue light and noise and roaring wind, felled almost the whole city.
Many of us from around there gathered in the cemetery in the formerly verdant forest. Blood trickled down faces and limbs. To our left, two girls kept shouting into the wreckage of a destroyed house, ‘Mom, mom, hurry up and come with us! There’s a fire, you’ll be burned to death while you’re looking for things to save. Hurry up, hurry!’
For the rest of the day, the residents of our neighbourhood at the downstream end of the Ota River – which had always been especially beautiful, in the morning and at twilight –spread from the banks of the river out onto the dry riverbed to stay beyond the reach of blanketing fires. All day, the noise of explosions, flames kindled by the bombs, as well as enormous rags and planks were hurled by the wind at people’s heads. The sky turned dark at noon, and the sun, a crimson fireball, drifted down through black clouds.
The reality before us on the 7th and 8th was like a picture scroll of another world. I don’t want to think of it as gruesome. The three short days we spent awake crouching on the river bed like beggars, we harmonised. Our feelings of acceptance of the peril we faced, and our endurance and genuine comradery proved our souls were more noble than those of any who are born grand. We lay alongside corpses. We witnessed the limits of what one can take, without fear. While countless people packed together, no one cried or spoke of their feelings alone. We Japanese are not very flexible, but for those three days on the dry river bed where people came to die, we saw clearly the reserved calm we evince when normality is gone.
On top of the hot sand stretching toward the narrow, clean water of the outgoing tide, people sitting here and there would lie down and not move again. There was no one area where one could stay for long, yet nowhere was there was a hint of chaos sparking. We heard tell that the horrific burns of those who came to die, burned into them by that lightning flash, had paralysed their nerves so they couldn’t feel any stinging pain. Even more than the sight of their gently lying down to die, their hushed silence affected us deeply. A 15- or 16-year-old working student drank water, stuffed his cheeks with the last of the rice balls that were handed out, gave his name clearly, and passed away. The body of a five-year-old girl was stretched out on the riverbank beneath the sun, as if she were asleep.
On the 7th, a rescue team came to treat us. We heard that the air raid the day before had been an uncommon one, where a new weapon was used for the first time. From that night through to noon on the 8th, people began to make noise; they started falling. Overnight, all night, a young girl was heard shouting in a pretty Tokyo accent, ‘It’s okay, Father, it’s okay, Mother. Welcome home, let’s have fun.’
‘She’s lost her mind,’ we said, and tears started to flow. The crying spread.
The brutality of the new weapon is undeniable, but my thoughts then were that it wasn’t something which could raze our spirits like it had the city, and the act of one side using it because they wanted to war to hurry up and end was a disgrace.
Germany has been defeated. It is impossible to respect the new weapon, same as it is impossible to scorn Germany. Though Hiroshima’s scarring is vast and deep, if the sight of it is deplorable, then it is the shame of those who inflicted it. Hiroshima bears no shame. I want to think that. I want to think instead that the war is punctuated by the strength of the city’s victims.
Since the night of 9th, we have been staying for the time being in a house in the grassy foothills of western Honshu’s mountains. This village is calm, with an undercurrent of agitation. I sleep on the dewy grass of its river bed, my face still pale. Rather than focusing on my pain during the nights, I am fixed on the significance of my mind, having seen what I have.
海底のような光 （原子爆弾の空襲に遭って）大田 洋子
‘Like light on the sea floor’ was written by reporter and novelist Ota Yoko a week or so after Hiroshima was bombed. After the war, she was unable to write about anything but the experience. The few other notable professional writers who survived the bombing, poets Hara Tamiki and Toge Sankichi, were nearly all dead within years, while Ota lived on. She is reported to have written on tranquilisers to dull the visceral trauma of having to remember, and lamented the burden of her responsibility to keep writing, saying, ‘Who else could you find?’
This essay, her first on the bomb (and the first autobiographical account of it ever published, in a Japanese national newspaper) is rather muted by her standards, and by ours. Its descriptions are not as starkly graphic as we are accustomed to reading in stories about the bombings. In fact, Ota’s works became steadily more graphic, more immediate, and rawer as years passed. Their portrayals of alienation and demands for accountability led to her falling out of favour for a period in literary circles. Not only was she stubborn – decrying Hara’s suicide as an unforgivable betrayal; sending away US GIs who sought to bully her into complying with censorship; being cold to an American journalist who came bearing cultural bias to interview her – she did not fit the feel-good narrative which had developed wherein people were eventually ‘bettered’ by horrific wartime experiences. Japan was urging itself to focus on moving on, yet Ota was a persistent voice of grief. Her refusal to be silenced, in a period where society already weakened by imperial fascism was being refashioned with class-conflict-based and US-imported conservatism, defined and tarred her.
Neither Hara’s nor Toge’s works were ever dismissed for being too ‘angry’ or for ‘purple prose’. They were men, and their contributions to the burgeoning field of atomic literature were limited by the fact they were soon gone. The conspicuousness of their absence further haunted Ota.
From the 1960s onward, autobiographically influenced stories by women writers, including Nagasaki bomb survivors Takenishi Hiroko and Hayashi Kyoko, and Hiroshima poet Kurihara Sadako, proliferated. Softened by more feminine and optimistic expression, as well as by time, their styles and receptions were unlike Ota’s. Since her death, however, praise for her eloquence has been restored, even as Hiroshima authorities came to call for global peace and remembrance rather than for accountability.
Now, while survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atrocities dwindle in number, we have hundreds of meticulously documented firsthand and fictional accounts of the bombings to read. The abstract notion that modern bombs are hundreds of times more powerful than those which obliterated both cities, and the unlikelihood of their use in the course of war, situates the concept of nuclear war far from us. Yet interminable conflicts plague society and consciousness, and our well-exercised habit of growing inured to endless tales of grief plays out. It’s hard to keep up with traumas that are unfolding let alone those in the past which, though painstakingly documented, lose their relevance as they lose their immediacy. Still, fleeting moments continue to shape individuals and social progress. They pervade future generations like radiation.
This essay shows the first sprouts of Ota’s grief-stricken rage, which grew both great and gnarled with time, and which we live to inherit. Amid all the glimpses of stoicism which characterise survivors, including those accounts written and lived by Ota, it’s important that her anger too be witnessed and not forgotten.
Image: Hiroshima after the bomb (6 August 1945, 8.15 am)