Empire of the Despising Sun | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath

On August 15, 1945, a Japanese schoolboy heard the voice of his god crackling from a transistor radio.

“We have ordered our government to communicate to the governments of the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union that our empire accepts the provisions of their joint declaration…”

The Surrender Speech was the first time the Showa Emperor had ever spoken to the common people, and when young Kenzaburo Oe heard that voice it destroyed his faith. He’d thought that God-Emperor was… a god. He’d had dreams of a massive bird, soaring over Japan like a protecting shield, pinfeathers tearing through the sky like blades. To hear the Emperor speak in a man’s voice (which his schoolmates could mockingly imitate) took a hammer to his spirit.

Occupation soldiers rolled into Oe’s mountain village later that year. He expected the Americans to slaughter them all; instead they gave the villagers candy bars. This was cruel beyond words to Oe. He’d anticipated death and had instead received disillusion. Everyone had lied to him: the Emperor wasn’t a god, the Americans weren’t devils, and if he was to die for a noble cause, he would first have to discover one.

The inner turmoil of this moment colors much/all of Oe’s subsequent writing. He became the Patron Saint of the Crushed Hope. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is a collection of four novellas, grappling with a past that has proven to be unreliable.

“Aghwee the Sky Monster” is a surrealist tale similar to Gogol. The narrator becomes the friend of the mononymous “D”, a mad composer who is haunted by the ghost of his son Aghwee (who appears to him as “a fat baby in a white cotton nightgown, big as a kangaroo”). Only D can see this apparition, whom he conducts nonsensical conversations with.

Aghwee is obviously a delusion. Or is he? His existence controls and shapes D’s behavior in the same way a real baby would (for example, D will avoid dogs, because Aghwee is afraid of them), so does he exist in a phenomenological sense? The narrator probes D’s past, finds deep and unhealed wounds, and even hints of horror. It might well be D’s deserved fate to carry Aghwee with him eternally.

Shiiku, or “Prize Stock”, is about a black American pilot who crashes in a remote Japanese village. He is chained up and regarded with a mixture of awe and hillbilly racism by the villagers. I’ve seen some people online describe this story as “autobiographical”, although it couldn’t be – there were no black pilots in the Pacific Theater, and the Tuskegee Airmen served only in Europe. I think Oe’s offering some commentary on Japanese wartime propaganda, which would contrast enlightened Japan with the socially backward US. The US had consigned generations of blacks to slavery, a medieval institution that Japan had abolished centuries ago (Japan’s ~20 million Chinese and Javanese “forced laborers” were not regarded as slaves). The IJN also conducted so-called “Negro Propaganda Operations” – covert short-wave radio broadcasts attempting to recruit African Americans to the Axis cause. “Prize Stock” seems like an caustic derision of the idea of Japanese racial enlightenment: here as elsewhere, they were more like Americans than they thought.

“Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness” is about a fat Japanese father and his developmentally compromised son Eeyore (this is another repeated theme of Oe’s, whose own son has autism) who have several supernatural adventures. Maybe my least favorite story: it seems to repeat themes expressed more eloquently elsewhere.

The centerpiece is “The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away”, a long and intricately constructed story that has to be read carefully: there are tricky perspective shifts. In short, it’s about a man who is dying in hospital of a “cancer” that is almost certainly imaginary. Descending into the story is descending into a tangled web, there’s narratives within narratives, lies within lies, houses built on quicksand, quicksand built on quicksand, etc.

Soon you get the idea: it’s like a Fellini movie, none of the facts in the story are important within themselves: they only matter insofar as they illuminate the mental landscape of a profoundly deluded man. He is arrogant and proud, self-pitying and defensive, and not particularly sympathetic. The madman in “Aghwee” is at least undergoing delusions as a form of penance. The hero of “The Day…” wears his insanity like protective armor. Apparently this is Oe’s veiled roman-à-clef of Yukio Mishima, author and poet turned right-wing nationalist who had committed seppuku two years previously, following a failed coup attempt.

So all four stories are pretty personal, but they’re much bigger than Oe. He shows the way a person can forcibly have the fabric of a nation woven into him, and the pain that results when that fabric is torn away. But what’s the past for, in the end? To contain an accurate record of what happened? Or to guide our behavior in the present? The two goals are seldom fully compatible.

It also asks questions such as “what’s a nation founded upon?” Sometimes, the answer is simply “nothing”. Take Algeria. Algeria doesn’t exist for any particular reason – it’s just there. But then you have the “proposition nation”, which is based (or believes itself based) upon an ideal or belief. I would say that the United States, Israel, and Showa-era Japan fall into this category.

Generally it’s bad to be a proposition nation, because you run the risk of your proposition being proven false. What happens then? What happens if you’re the Independent State of Phlogiston? The Republic of Timecube? You lie, I guess. You deceive your citizens, deceive yourself, because the only other course is ruin. Japan could have never have won the Second World War. But its soldiers in the field weren’t to know that, nor was Kenzaburo Oe. The nation just staggered blindly forward, ever deeper into the disaster, inflicting psychic trauma on its citizens that persists to the present day.

That’s tragic part about state-sponsored falsehoods: they continue in memory long after the state that created them fell to pieces. Japan spent decades downplaying or minimizing its war crimes: writing arrant falsehoods into its history books. Men who had produced mountains of bodies went unpunished and were reassimilated back into society. Oe’s childhood disillusionment could have been worse: he wasn’t told about things like Nanking, Unit 731, and comfort women. D is burdened by an imaginary baby. The protag of “The Day” is burdened by an imaginary cancer. Japan was burdened by an imaginary history. Even in the 70s, there were men like Mishima, who literally killed himself trying to bring the bad old days back.

Thanks to work like Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness  Oe achieved fame and reknown, even within his own country. But it’s easier to forgive than to forget, and Oe has a long memory. In 1994, he was named to receive Japan’s Order of Culture. When he learned that he would receive the Order from the Emperor’s hand, he refused.