‘Ground Zero, Nagasaki’ by Yūichi Seirai (Review)

IMG_5381Last year, when January in Japan was running properly, one of the kind contributors to our Golden Kin-Yōbi competition series was Columbia University Press, providing a couple of copies of a collection of short stories which they had recently released.  While I was also lucky enough to be sent a personal copy, I never actually managed to get around to reading it last year.  Still, better late than never – good books never go out of date.  And today’s choice, I can assure you, is a very good book, one which looks at Japan from a slightly different angle…

Yūichi Seirai’s Ground Zero, Nagasaki (translated by Paul Warham) is a collection of six stories set in the  southern Japanese city, the site of the world’s second war-time atomic explosion.  Nagasaki has a further distinction, though, in that it was once the only gateway to the outside world in feudal-era Japan, and through this gateway came Christianity.  Once the inevitable crackdown on the foreign faith came, many people died for their beliefs, and there are still many Christians in the city today whose ancestors managed to practice their faith in secret – and survive.

The lengthy background given above is important as all of the stories contained in Ground Zero, Nagasaki have these twin themes of the bomb and the cross prominently displayed.  The writer is a Catholic himself, and this emphasis on faith is clear from the very first story, ‘Nails‘, the shortest piece in the collection.  It gradually reveals the extent of a family tragedy, with a religious elderly couple still struggling to come to terms with their son’s actions (and his loss of faith):

“Tell me, Daddy: Do you believe in God?”
My body stiffened, and I sat bolt upright.  What kind of thing was that to say?  I began to shout.
“Of course I do!  This family has always believed.  Our ancestors gave their lives for the faith!”
With his long fingernails, he wiped away a spot of yellow cream from the corner of his mouth and licked it as he spoke.
“And you call me deluded?”
‘Nails’, p,12 (Columbia University Press, 2015)

As the old couple search their son’s old hut for clues to his descent into madness, they stumble across old documents which might prove useful – before coming up against a sturdy, locked door…

The other five stories are much longer pieces, most running to at least thirty pages, and this allows Seirai to introduce his ideas at a measured pace.  A good example of this is ‘Stone’, in which a mentally-disabled man spends the day in an expensive hotel waiting to see an old friend, a politician he has known since the pair’s school days.  Unfortunately, he’s picked a bad day for the visit – the politician is in the process of announcing his resignation after the discovery of his affair with an aide.  There’s an interesting juxtaposition of this breach of marital vows with the first man’s attraction to a reporter – and his desperation to touch her.

More explicitly sexual is ‘Honey’, in which a bored housewife with an older husband attempts to seduce a young worker, inviting him up to her house with one thing on her mind.  After having set the trap, though, she begins to have second thoughts.  For one thing, she lives with her in-laws, decent people and devout Christians (far more so than the woman herself).  There’s also the small matter of the timing.  Even someone as frustrated and desperate as she is comes to realise that the day she has chosen for her tryst, the anniversary of the blasts, is ever-so-slightly inappropriate…

Inevitably the date of the 9th of August plays a role in many of the stories, with particular importance in ‘Shells’.  This story has a slightly different style, with more than a hint of Haruki Murakami, especially at the start.  We meet a man separated from his wife after the death of his daughter, still traumatised by the loss of his child, every night imagining a tide sweeping over the city:

But the flood I’m thinking of has nothing to do with tsunamis; it’s more like a quietly rising tide.  The waves move inland, sea bleeding into sea, silently flooding the roads, engulfing the cars – and most people keep right on sleeping and don’t notice a thing.  All in absolute darkness, like a lunar eclipse.
‘Shells’, p.139

Gradually, he learns of a connection between his daughter and an old woman from the neighbourhood, finding out more about the reasons for his nocturnal visions.  Just as events begin to fall into place, however, the tale ends with a surprising revelation.

The remaining two stories both involve older people with one eye on the past.  In ‘Insects’, a 75-year-old woman receives a postcard from an old ‘friend’, the woman who stole the man she loved decades earlier.  Again, we return to the twin themes of the collection, with memories of how the protagonist was crippled in the blast, and her illicit later tryst with her dream man, a moment snatched literally in the shadow of their faith.  With her life coming to an end, the woman decides that it’s time to tell the truth, a belated confession in the darkness of the night.

The final story, ‘Birds’, is perhaps the most successful.  Starting with an old couple in a creaky house (and several strange noises coming from the roof), we are pulled in several directions with different timelines.  There are the memories of the man’s escape from Nagasaki as a young boy; the conflict with his adopted family in later years; the mystery of his origins; and a story about the spirit of his mother, one which will come back to haunt him the next day.  This is a story of generations and families, but also a subtle warning to a society on the verge of forgetting the horrors of the past.

I mentioned Murakami above, and another connection here is the way this collection is thematically-linked, written to work through the trauma of a disaster.  Even if Ground Zero, Nagasaki appeared rather longer after the fact, I couldn’t help but compare it to after the quake, another book written to address an open wound (this time regarding the Kobe earthquake).  This personal element certainly enhances the quality of the book, and the writing is invariably calm and measured, with a translation which reads excellently.  The Christian element stands out if (like me) you’re not really religious, especially in the first couple of stories, but it’s a vital part of the book and is carefully woven into the stories.

Many readers will be drawn to Ground Zero, Nagasaki either because of the allusions to the atomic bomb or the Christian background to the book.  However, there’s a lot more to it than that, and even if those ideas put you off slightly, I’d recommend you give Seirai’s collection a chance.  On the basis of this book, I’d like to think that there’ll be more of his work in English soon – let’s hope it doesn’t take too long 🙂

10 thoughts on “‘Ground Zero, Nagasaki’ by Yūichi Seirai (Review)

    1. Vicky – Yes, there’s a long history, stretching back to the late 16th(?) century. The Japanese authorities initially allowed and tolerated Christianity, but when they changed their minds, the backlash was ruthless… Shusaku Endo’s ‘Silence’ is a great book, dealing with this period.


  1. Interesting that you mention Silence as I was thinking about it as I read your review (it’s the only one of Endo’s novels I’ve read but it made an impression on me at the time). I like the sound of the way the writer has connected the stories. From what you say, despite the religious element, this doesn’t sound at all ‘preachy’.


    1. Grant – Like Seirai, Endo expressed his faith in his work, with ‘Silence’ exhibit number one. No, it’s not really preachy as such, it’s just surprising for someone non-religious how religion plays a normal everyday role in people’s lives…


  2. I visited the Memorial Museum in Hiroshima late last year, and found it fascinating and moving. The personal testimonies you can read and watch especially.

    These stories sound like a good follow up.


    1. Sarah – I also went there while I was living in Japan (many, many years ago), and it’s hard not to think about that when reading books like this.


  3. I remember I won this book from a giveaway on your (old) blog, and I haven’t got around to reading it! :p. But I really, really hope that I’ll read this book very soon. Your review spurred me on 🙂


  4. I like these short stories very much. Im not sure excactly why. But I suspect it is for the same reason I like over 90% of the Japanese literature I have read. I am lucky my local library has a big selection of English translations of Japanese literature.


    1. Karl – It’s a nice collection, one I might look at again at some point. As for the library, I have to admit that I’m accumulating quite the J-Lit library myself 😉


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