THE CHAPTER that gives Akiyuki Nosaka’s recently translated collection of children’s stories its title relates the tale of a whale that falls in love with a submarine. A “complete flop with the ladies,” the sardine whale is frantic to find a female companion. He is thus elated when, in a narrow inlet of an island off the coast of Japan, he happens upon an altogether “splendid specimen.” Although his initial advances go nowhere, he decides to follow the female into the deep ocean, where, strangely enough, she draws closer and closer to a fleet of American warships steaming toward Japan. Blinded by excitement and driven by desperation, the young whale decides to ignore his mother’s injunctions to avoid ships at all costs and pursues his potential mate into close proximity of the convoy.
What the whale has no way of knowing is that the object of its affection is actually a submarine, under the direction of two Japanese naval officers who have “decided to fight against America until the bitter end.” Unwilling to accept the Emperor’s broadcast calling for an unconditional surrender, the sailors plan to throw themselves to the kamikaze winds in a final, last-ditch suicide attack. Tragically, however, it is the whale that is to perish after the warships mistake him for a surfacing enemy sub. A barrage of depth charges eviscerates the ill-fated creature, leaving the surrounding waters “a sea of blood.”
As happens in all seven of the chapters that comprise Nosaka’s heart-wrenching and handsomely translated The Whale That Fell in Love With a Submarine, the denouement of this story comes on August 15, 1945: the day that Emperor Hirohito took to the airwaves to call upon his subjects to “endure the unendurable and suffer the unsufferable” by laying down their arms. Although each story establishes a different vantage point — from a shell-shocked boy and his parrot in an air raid shelter to a displaced settler-turned-repatriate and a she-wolf in Manchuria — each reflects the harsh conditions of war and defeat across Japan’s destroyed empire.
If this seems an unusual, if not unsettling, subject for a children’s book, it is precisely what one should expect from Nosaka, the novelist, activist, and entertainer whose death in December at the age of 85 silences a sustained voice of reflection regarding war memory in postwar Japan. Tragic and imaginative — it was originally conceived in Japanese as an anthology of fairy tales — this collection is vintage Nosaka. These short vignettes stand as chilling reminders of the wartime trauma inflicted upon Japanese youth during and after World War II.
Less a collection of children’s stories about war than a compilation of war stories about children, Nosaka’s final book is meant for anyone concerned with the costs and consequences of total war. In this sense, it should be read as the final English-language articulation of an argument that has long informed his work: that we turn away from the past at the peril of our own children.
Few are as qualified to speak to the horrors of modern war — especially as they were experienced and internalized by children — than Nosaka himself, a child of the war and survivor of the firebombing of Kobe. Helpless but to witness mass death, severe starvation, and social chaos, Nosaka was robbed of his youth. As for so many other members of what Nosaka would later dub “the scorched-earth generation,” these experiences would haunt him for the rest of his life. “I am still unable to leave the burnt-out ruins,” he recalled as recently as 2014, nearly 70 years removed from the end of the war.
Many Japanese turned away from this psychological trauma in the postwar period, but Nosaka confronted it with humor, satire, and acerbic wit. Perhaps more than any other writer of his generation, Nosaka made a concerted effort to exhume the ghosts of history’s past. To him, the fact that the scars of war grew less and less visible made it all the more important to uncover them.
At a time when some conservative voices in Japan (including that of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe) speak of “overcoming the postwar period” and reconfiguring Japan’s regional security posture — what to some is tantamount to remilitarization — Nosaka’s life and work offer an opportunity to survey the contested terrain of public memory in Japan. His passing indeed coincides with a small but growing chorus of Japanese, young and old, calling for a sober reflection on the price and perils of militarization.
Nosaka’s career defies easy description. As a writer, he had an unusual range and versatility and a deep reserve of creative energy, producing well over 100 books of fiction, short stories, and poems. Known as much for his erotic adult novellas as for his children’s song lyrics, Nosaka left his mark on many different literary fields, genres, and forms.
But Nosaka was much more than a writer. He was, in fact, a man with many aliases. Under the name Yukio Aki, he wrote scripts and short stories. In the world of comic story telling (or rakugo) he was Tatekawa Tennō, a raucous performer and wordsmith who did not shy away from lampooning authority. In still other circles he went by Claude Nosaka, a skilled performer of the French lyrical songs known as chanson. By turns a television personality, public intellectual, kickboxing enthusiast, Diet member, “swashbuckling” writer, staunch pacifist, and versatile entertainer, Nosaka lived a life as varied as it was accomplished.
Nosaka’s passing has garnered significant attention in Japan. But what has largely been omitted from these remembrances — and what moves me to write my own — is how Nosaka’s works have formed a critical touchstone for students of Japan across the globe. His story offers a living example of how the crucible of modern warfare — in all its absurdity and complexity — lingers on in the memories, nightmares, and psychological distress of the children who were fortunate enough to survive it.
Born in Kamakura in 1930, Nosaka came of age during a time of flaring nationalism and creeping militarism — “a time of crisis” that precipitated Japan’s descent into the so-called “dark valley” of total war. Instability prevailed across Japan, and in Nosaka’s home life. Just months after his birth, his care was entrusted to his mother’s sister, Harimaya, who raised him as her own in Kobe, experiencing hardship from early on. He spent his youth unaware of his adopted status, until a chance encounter with the family register revealed that his real mother had actually died just months after his birth. Years later, he also lost one of his adopted sisters to an intestinal disease.
In March 1945, just a week after the Great Tokyo Air Raid (which took about 100,000 civilian lives and made a million more homeless), three wings of the American XXI Bomber Command took off from their staging ground on the Mariana Islands bound for Kobe. Once over the city — then the sixth largest in Japan — the B-29 Superfortresses emptied their incendiary payloads, releasing a rain of ruin that laid waste to the city below.
Nosaka was one of many thousands of civilians engulfed by the conflagration that followed. Although he and his sister narrowly escaped with their lives, their adopted father was not so lucky. Wrapped in a blanket of fire, he was one of the nearly 9,000 civilians who perished in the flames. The weight of this experience was deeply imprinted on the then 14-year-old Nosaka, who would spend decades wrestling with the trauma of this bombing as well as the guilt that came with his seemingly chance survival.
Countless other children were evacuated to the countryside, sent to live with relatives, or, like Nosaka and his younger sister, cast adrift. They eventually settled in the outskirts of Fukui Prefecture, where they did their best to cope with the scarcity that defined the closing months of the war. Every day was a struggle. And while Nosaka was able to muster the strength to survive, his sister Keiko, just 16 months old, soon succumbed to malnutrition — an all-too-regular fate for vulnerable Japanese youth.
Although Japan’s surrender in August 1945 brought an end to all-out war, it did little to assuage the deprivation of everyday life. Calls for personal sacrifice for the sake of the war effort and the preservation of the empire soon gave way to a scramble for the basic material necessities of survival. Blackened cities gave way to the black markets that were a defining feature of the Occupation period. Acclimatization to postwar life did not come easily for Nosaka, who would later identify this transition as a time of profound confusion:
I felt I could live on in utter darkness. I had done many bad things, but that may have been alright in a dark world. But light returned, and normal civilian life came back. I was deeply confused how a 14-year-old boy who had to grow up quickly should live in a world like that.
For Nosaka, one trial seemed to follow another. No sooner was he taken in by relatives than he was sent packing for a compulsory stint at a reform school under accusations of theft. Nosaka found solace in alcohol. Indeed, if his later semiautobiographical works are any indication, Nosaka was quick to embrace the kasutori culture, which historian John Dower calls “a chaotic subculture that proved a natural complement to […] panpan [prostitutes] and black marketeers” of the postwar period. He struggled with alcoholism for much of his adult life.
Nosaka’s hardship was shared by many other young men and women who had been uprooted by the war. Over time, in fact, Nosaka came to identify himself as part of the “burnt-out ruins and black market generation” (yakeato yami-ichi sedai).
The 1950s were for Nosaka a period of professional confusion. After his stint in reform school, he was able to gain admittance to Niigata University, but he dropped out after just a few days. Instead, he decided to follow many of his friends and classmates to Tokyo, where opportunities were purported to abound. A passion for French-style chanson singing eventually compelled him to enroll in the literature department in 1950 at Waseda University. But this, too, proved short-lived.
By a fortuitous happenstance and economic necessity, Nosaka discovered his knack for the written word. In 1957, as part of his effort to cobble together an income, Nosaka eventually took up work as a television broadcast writer. He began to churn out scripts, short stories, and song lyrics for a wide range of outlets and publications. It was in this capacity that he began to sharpen the playful style and satirical voice that would come to define his work.
But while Nosaka had begun to come into his own as a writer, this was just one of a wide range of creative endeavors. Not one to pass over the opportunities presented by Japan’s budding pornographic film industry, Nosaka established a makeshift adult theater in his own home. Although this venture was little more than a source of income and a hobby, it eventually formed the basis of his debut novel of 1963: The Pornographers (Erogotoshi-tachi), an illuminating look at the underbelly of Osaka that earned him the critical acclaim of literary giants like Yukio Mishima. (Some may also be familiar with Shōhei Imamura’s 1966 film adaptation of the same title.)
That same year, Nosaka also co-wrote the lyrics to the song Omocha no Cha Cha Cha —arguably his best-known artistic contribution. Awarded the Japanese Record Association Prize of 1963 (and recently enshrined in the list of “the top 100 Japanese songs of all time”), the playful lyrics quickly became a fixture of the classroom and can be recited by memory by Japanese across generations.
If these works served to establish a name for Nosaka, the fruits of his literary labor in 1967 cemented his place among the literary giants of the postwar period. In that year, he penned two of his most celebrated works: the short story “American Hijiki” (Amerika hijiki) and the novella Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka), the latter of which he wrote in a single six-hour sitting. Lauded for their unique, accessible voice (based on Nosaka’s own Kansai dialect), unusual narrative style, and satirical tone, both were awarded the prestigious Naoki Prize — an annual honor conferred upon “the best work of popular literature in any format by a new, rising, or (reasonably young) established author.”
Never one to bridle his creativity, Nosaka soon launched his career as a singer and performing artist. Through television appearances, radio broadcast, product endorsements, and album releases, he quickly established a reputation as a multitalented entertainer. Indeed, by the late 1970s, Nosaka was a bona fide celebrity — a fact perhaps best evidenced by his appearance in the iconic Suntory whiskey advertisements of the 1970s. If ever there was a Japanese counterpart to Dos Equis’s “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” it was Nosaka in his prime.
With celebrity, however, came controversy. In 1973, for example, Nosaka found himself embroiled in a highly publicized dispute over his involvement in the publication of obscene material. As editor of the Omoshiro Hanbun, a monthly journal, Nosaka had green-lighted the publication of a sexually explicit work by Kafū Nagai. As a result, he soon found himself at the center of a drawn-out legal battle, which in turn prompted a public debate over artistic expression, the nature of obscenity, and the limits of state censorship. In 1980, after years of arbitration, he was found guilty and fined for his misconduct.
Whatever the fallout from this incident, it did little to alter Nosaka’s ambitions, which then turned to the realm of politics. Nosaka first sought public office in 1974 but fell short in his bid for a seat in the House of Councillors. A decade later, he was elected to such a seat through an alliance with the Dainiin Kurabu (or “Second Chamber Club”), a centrist political party established in 1983. His tenure, however, was rather short and unremarkable. When an opportunity arose later that year to take the seat of Kakuei Tanaka, the “Shadow Shogun” himself, following the shake-up of the Lockheed scandal, Nosaka ran again for his seat in the third district of Niigata but could not cobble together enough votes.
Nosaka’s activities likely would have continued apace and indeed expanded in new directions had it not been for a stroke in 2003. Although he continued to publish editorials and comment on a wide range of television programs, continuing health problems left him diminished.
Yielding books, albums, commercials, editorials, and political campaigns, Nosaka’s career encompassed a wide field of activities and intellectual contributions. Yet, for all his success, Nosaka never overcame the anguish of his childhood. Alongside this assortment of activities, he continued to publish, speak, and reflect on his childhood experiences and the importance of probing the wounds of the past. Although his work touched on the erotic, the ephemeral, the dark, and the comical, he was unwavering in his determination to provoke others to think about the past.
Nosaka penned his two best-known works in the midst of the “Golden Sixties”: a period of high-speed economic growth and rising prosperity in postwar Japan. The decade began with the cementing of the so-called Ampō treaty: a controversial security agreement that placed Japan under the American defense umbrella and shored up its position in the burgeoning Cold War order. Working in conjunction with Japan’s bureaucrats (especially those in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) and the keiretsu (“enterprise groups” that were essentially restructured prewar conglomerates), the Liberal Democratic Party oversaw a period of impressive industrial expansion. Japan’s annual growth rate climbed above 10 percent for much of the decade. This economic vitality in turn nurtured the expansion of a “new middle class” and its attendant consumer revolution.
Needless to say, these shifts fundamentally altered the memoryscape of postwar society. Put simply, most Japanese were far more interested in the prospects of the future than they were in the perils of their not-so-distant past. Although reminders of the war were ever-present — atomic bomb survivors, American military bases, and the Shōwa Emperor chief them — an uneasy silence about wartime experiences prevailed.
It was against this backdrop that Nosaka began to write for the scorched-earth generation. Together with Kenzaburō Ōe, Makoto Oda, and Hisashi Inoue, among others, Nosaka threw light on the historical amnesia and victimization narratives that he saw taking hold.
In the eyes of Nosaka and others, the glimmer of prosperity had blinded many Japanese to the hollowness of their affluence. All the talk of “income doubling plans” and color televisions only distracted from the unsettling realities of atomic bomb survivors, war criminals, and the imperial seat. While rising wages and the trappings of modern life may have served as a healing balm, they did little to address the deep-seated scars of war.
Japanese society, in short, was yet to truly reckon with the question of wartime responsibility. Fundamentally knotty questions about collective guilt, grassroots participation, and America’s own misdeeds had been subordinated to the exigencies of economic and political stability. It was in this context that the yakeato generation set out to convey, in the words of Roman Rosenbaum, “the heritage of their traumatized psyche in the literature of a now-prosperous Japan.”
Of Nosaka’s corpus, perhaps the clearest expression of that traumatization is his “American Hijiki.” Set in Tokyo in the late 1960s, the story explores the angst and confusion of Toshio, a Japanese man who, forced by his wife to receive as guests an American couple visiting from Hawaii, finds himself unable to fend off memories of Occupation and its attendant humiliation. The arrival of the big, masculine, heavy-drinking Mr. Higgins sets off a powerful torrent of sentimentality:
“America” for Toshio meant American hijiki, summer snow in the burnt out ruins. Big hips under glossy gabardine, a thick hand held out for him to sukueezu, seven days’ rice rations of chewing gum, habagoot-taimu, MacArthur with the Emperor just up to his shoulders, Q-Q and Japan-American amity, half-pound cans of MJB coffee, DDT doused on him in the station by a black soldier, a lone bulldozer smoothing over the burnt-out ruins, jeeps with fishing poles, and a Christmas tree in an American civilian’s house, its only decorations electric lights blinking silently on and off.
Few sentences distill the material conditions of the Occupation period more evocatively than this one.
But while Nosaka paints a vivid picture of the culture of defeat, his focus lies principally in the recesses of Toshio’s psyche. What “American Hijiki” conveys above all else is the psychological trauma of the period. The story maintains an almost obsessive focus on the masculine and the erotic: whereas his American guest is portrayed as hypermasculine, Toshio feels inadequate by every measure.
As both biting social commentary and piercing satire, the story throws into sharp focus the fraught emotional landscape of postwar Japanese society. It offers a critical examination of the moral and spiritual confusion that accompanied the Occupation-era transition from hated foes to intimate allies. Insofar as Toshio and his family represent the newly affluent middle class, it also offers a reminder that these emotions were buried just beneath the veneer of urban prosperity.
Yet another major subject taken up by Nosaka and his cohort were the air raids waged against urban Japan: a defining chapter of the war that was yet to be candidly discussed in many corners of Japanese society. Nosaka and others could only watch in awe as the speedy growth of Japan’s cities hastened the disappearance of the physical reminders of urban destruction. Just as few monuments and memorials were erected to commemorate these former sites, so were few testaments offered to the experience of these campaigns. How was it, he asked, that Tokyoite writers were yet to produce a major account of the Great Tokyo Air Raid? While Nosaka, Oda, and other Kansai-based writers had produced compelling accounts of the Kobe and Osaka air raids, Tokyo-born writers were yet to contemplate what was arguably the most destructive single air raid in history. And, as Hiroko Cockerill points out, Nosaka set out do so himself. His short story “Capital Punishment and Long Life” (Shikei chōju) may be read in part as an effort to fill this void in postwar literature.
Although Nosaka would produce numerous stories that touched on the air raids, none was as impactful as his other major work of 1967, Grave of the Fireflies. Had Nosaka not been approached by the animator Isao Takahata (and Studio Ghibli), it is likely that the story laid out in his novella would have stayed confined to Japan. But the siblings Setsuko and Seita are now known across the globe. This came only after Takahata was able to convince Nosaka that animation was the only visual medium that could possibly do justice to the ruinscapes so central to the story, and in the 1980s Nosaka green-lighted the project. The result was, in the words of film critic Roger Ebert, “one of the most powerful anti-war movies of all time”: a classic of anime that ranks among My Neighbor Totoro as one of the most widely seen feature-length animated films of all time.
While Takahata, among others, has taken issue with the “anti-war film” label, there is no denying that its stirring portrayal of loss, robbed innocence, and societal isolation have resonated with audiences across the globe. In particular, the film powerfully communicates two underappreciated realities of the targeting and destruction of urban Japan: that well over 60 cities, large and small, were destroyed before atomic bombs were dropped; and that women, children, and the elderly were disproportionately affected by these raids.
Yet, while Grave of the Fireflies earned Nosaka critical acclaim and helped to launch his professional career, he would later confess that the prevailing narrative of humanity and devotion tormented him for years to come. Indeed, for all his efforts to bear witness, Nosaka also remained acutely sensitive to the limitations of storytelling. “The past,” he wrote in his autobiography, “is scornfully laughing at me”:
Even since the publication of “Hotaru no haka,” I tried to resist this scornful laugh by producing writings that repeated the same theme in the so-called ‘watakushi shōsetsu” [I-novel] style. My past [writing] has been just a superficial, deceptive act of atonement toward the past. There is no way of atoning for the past. I will never again write watakushi shōsetsu. I am not sure of the direction of my drifting. But, I have stopped my atonement. That is at least probably a more honest attitude.
Herein lies one of the most prominent motifs — and powerful motives — underlying Nosaka’s entire oeuvre: guilt. His reflections are steeped in remorse. His guilt was inextricably tied to what he considered acts of abandonment: of his father who died in the Kobe air raid; of his sister, from whom he stole food to survive. His guilt in turn extended to what he came to see as his own distortions of the past and his failure to faithfully convey his own misdeeds. These and others acts weighed on Nosaka over the years. Writing was thus for Nosaka a sort of penance for his past. It was, in the words of Igarashi Yoshikuni, “a form of exorcism.”
While many Japanese commentators explored the nature of what many called the “victim consciousness” (higaisha ishiki) of postwar society, Nosaka was able to say what many could only think to themselves: that victims could be victimizers, too. Such was the nature of total war. By focusing on notions of victimhood, many writers lost sight of the collective responsibility and the brute selfishness of survival.
Hardly a day goes by without news about disputed war memories in Japan. Many of these headlines concern conflicts between Japan and its neighbors over issues ranging from textbooks to shrine visitations. But these disputes are also domestic in nature. The Abe Administration’s recent maneuvers to push through a set of security bills and posturing regarding a reassessment of Article 9 (a constitutional clause that outlaws war as a means of settling international disputes) has touched off a heated political discourse in Japan over the past, present, and future of Japan’s commitment to pacifism.
The world was thus watching closely this past August, when Prime Minister Abe offered a statement on war memory on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender.
Remorseful but not explicitly apologetic, the statement walked a fine line between geopolitical appeasement and the “masochistic view of history” that conservatives like Abe loathe. “We Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past,” he proclaimed: “We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.”
We can only wonder what, exactly, Nosaka made of this statement. But it is safe to say that for Nosaka August 15 is more than an anniversary that occasions remembrance. For him, this was a day of personal transformation. “They say the sky was blue on August 15, the day the war was over,” he would later recall, “but we could all see so well back then.” “After all,” he continued, “we were about to die, so it was the terminal vision of people about to die. Everything looked so fresh.”
David Fedman is an assistant professor of Japanese and Korean history at UC Irvine. He is part of an ongoing collaborative research project on the history, memory, and visual culture of the Japan air raids, which is housed at japanairraids.org.