Although largely disregarded since the humanistic turn of ecocriticism at the beginning of the 21st century, nature writing has continued to play an important role in nurturing trans-Pacific, and transnational, literary environmentalism. Euro-American traditions dominate this literary genre, but it nevertheless involves cross-cultural traffic of ideas and thoughts. Its trans-Pacific presence, mostly through American influences on works in Japan, demonstrates in three ways how American nature writing has been cultivating Japanese literary soil and has in turn been nurtured by it, albeit less conspicuously. First, Henry David Thoreau’s influence on Japanese literary environmentalism, especially his philosophy of plain living and high thinking, helped engender a tradition of nature writing in Japan that began with Nozawa Hajime—often called the “Japanese Thoreau”—and has been developed by those who followed, including Ashizawa Kazuhiro and Takada Hiroshi. Second, interactions between pastoralism and a new mode of environmental awareness show that the seemingly American notion of “wild awareness” and the Japanese concept of aware have materialized as a new environmental sensitivity in Japan and in the United States, respectively, reflecting cross-cultural nurturing of environmental ideas, thoughts, and practices. Finally, there has been a subtle yet radical impact of American counterculture on Japanese nature writing, exemplified by Nashiki Kaho’s literary hybridity, based on her integration of the traditional with the radical.
Literature on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be limited to works on the atomic bomb or fiction referring specifically to these locations. Rather, in the nuclear age, it must include a variety of literary works that are conscious of the destiny of the earth, given the danger of nuclear pollution, and engage with the terrible fantasy of the end of the world. As John W. Treat states in his influential critical work, Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb, “The concept of hibakusha now has to extend to everyone alive today in any region of the planet” (x–xi).
The range of nuclear-themed works that symbolically invoke Hiroshima or Nagasaki is enormous. Nuclear literature as a creation of survivors, or spiritual survivors, focuses on an awareness of the planetary catastrophe concerning Los Alamos, Trinity Site, the ground zeroes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and other global nuclear zones. The two nuclear sites in Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and in the United States (Los Alamos and Trinity Site) are historically connected. The authors and protagonists of nuclear literature have literal and affective transpacific and cross-cultural experiences that when considered together seek to overcome the tragic experience of the first nuclear bomb and bombing, including the Japanese acceptance of American nuclear fictions during the Cold War.
In the history of modern Japanese literature, the Taishō era (1912–1926) is retrospectively identified as a period characterized by a liberal arts ideology, individualism, a democratic spirit, aestheticism, and anti-naturalism. In the latter half of the Taishō era, the liberal arts ideology was gradually replaced by socialism. After the Great Earthquake of 1923, Japanese literature was enmeshed in a triangular contest between the old-fashioned “‘I’ novel” (or psychological novel), proletarian literature, and modernist literature (especially the neo-sensualists). This structure of the literary world, in parallel with the rise of popular literature, continued into the prewar Shōwa era (1926–1945).
During the Taishō era, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe were the most influential and respected American writers. Whitman’s writing offered Taishō writers, including Takeo Arishima and poets of the popular poetry school, a model of living that was free and natural and a colloquial-style free verse. But for the modern Japanese literati from the Taishō to the prewar Shōwa era, the most influential American writer was without a doubt Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s works served as a creative inspiration to Taishō novelists such as Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Haruo Satō, and Ryūosuke Akutagawa, many of whom shared a creative perspective that was based on a blend of anti-naturalism and aestheticism. Influenced by Poe, they attempted diverse variations on the themes of the fantastic and of doppelgängers and even experimented with detective stories. Needless to say, Poe helped to establish the detective story genre in Japan through Rampo Edogawa and others. For early Shōwa literati, Poe was a forerunner of modern critical theory.
Among Japanese readers, around 1920, American literature ceased to be read as a sub-branch of British literature and began to be read as American literature proper. From the Great Earthquake and up through the prewar Shōwa era, three distinctive periods can be discerned when American literature was energetically translated and introduced. The first period was from the end of Taishō to the start of Shōwa, when American “socialist” literature—in the broad sense of writers like Upton Sinclair—left a deep mark on Japanese proletarian literature. The second period was around 1930–1931, when contemporary modernist American novels were translated and published in various anthology forms. The third peak came around 1935–1938, when bestselling American historical romances or epics such as Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind were published and gained a large readership.
The several works of American literature set in Okinawa or about Okinawans include travel narratives, war diaries, memoirs, biography, fiction, and drama. Perhaps the earliest, Francis L. Hawks’s 1856 Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, is an account of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s gunboat diplomacy of 1853–1854 when he forced his demands on leaders of what was then the Ryukyu Kingdom, allowing Americans to land, travel, and trade there. Hawks also provides informative and colorful descriptions of the local residents, architecture, and natural environment.
A century later, Okinawa commanded all of America’s attention in the spring of 1945 during the last and worst battle of the Pacific War. Two Okinawan immigrants to the United States published autobiographical accounts in English of mid-20th-century Okinawa, including the battle and its aftermath. Masako Shinjo Robbins’s My Story: A Schoolgirl in the Battle of Okinawa (2014) describes life in prewar, wartime, and early postwar Okinawa from the perspective of a daughter in an impoverished family. Sold as a child by her father to a brothel in the 1930s, she barely survives the battle after being trapped in a cave collapsed by shelling. Jo Nobuko Martin’s novel A Princess Lily of the Ryukyus (1984) depicts the horrifying ordeal of the Princess Lily Student Corps of high school girls, the author among them, and their teachers, who were drafted as combat medics during the Battle of Okinawa. Writing from the American side of the battle, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Ernie Pyle accompanied U.S. forces as a war correspondent. His account in The Story of Ernie Pyle (1950) begins with American battleships’ shelling of Okinawa and ends the day he was killed by a Japanese sniper on the offshore island of Iejima.
Over more than 12,500 Americans died in the Battle of Okinawa which took the lives of approximately 94,000 Japanese soldiers and 160,000 Okinawan civilians, between one-quarter and one-third of the prefecture’s population at the time. The widespread devastation left most residents homeless, destitute, or both. During the months that followed, the American military placed thousands in refugee camps, sometimes for more than a year, supplying food, shelter (mostly tents), and medical treatment for the wounded and ill. U.S. occupation personnel supervised the distribution of relief aid and the construction of homes and public buildings, but they were also tasked with bringing “democracy” to Okinawa, which many Americans considered feudalistic. The contradiction between American espousals of democracy and policies imposed top-down under U.S. military rule soon became obvious to Okinawans, and to at least some American military personnel. One of them, Vern Sneider, published a satirical novel, The Teahouse of the August Moon, in 1951. Later adapted into two plays and a film, it is probably the best-known work of American literature set in Okinawa. Lucky Come Hawaii (1965) by Jon Shirota depicts the experience of Okinawans in Hawaii, focusing on the strained relations among resident ethnic groups following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the first novel by an Asian American writer to become a bestseller and one of several works portraying the lives of Okinawan immigrants including three plays by Shirota and an autobiography by Hana Yamagawa.
Victory in the Pacific War brought Okinawa under American military occupation for the next twenty-seven years, 1945–1972. Forcibly seizing private farmlands, the U.S. government constructed a vast complex of bases to support hot wars in Korea and Vietnam and the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Sarah Bird’s novel The Yokota Officers Club (2001) depicts the bases’ effects on Okinawans and Americans living in close proximity yet in separate worlds during the U.S. occupation. Today, more than four decades after Okinawa’s return to Japanese sovereignty, a grossly disproportionate 74 percent of the total U.S. military presence in Japan remains in this small island prefecture with 0.6 percent of the nation’s land area. Bird’s Above the East China Sea (2015) juxtaposes the ordeals of an American military dependent living on base in present-day Okinawa who contemplates suicide after her soldier sister dies in Afghanistan with a student medic in the 1945 battle ordered to kill herself to avoid capture by the Americans. Drawing on extensive research in Okinawan culture, Bird evokes Okinawan religious beliefs and observances relating to death and the afterlife to frame her narrative and inform her readers.
The reception of American literature in Japan was radically altered after the Second World War. Before the war, only a handful of works on American literature were published, and the status of American literature was secondary to that of British literature. Unlike in Germany, whose occupation at the end of the war was divided among the Allies, the military occupation of Japan was conducted unilaterally by the United States. Under the U.S. occupation, American literature was introduced as part of a cultural policy aimed at the reorientation and re-education of Japanese society under the umbrella concept of demilitarization and democratization of postwar Japan. Such cultural politics was the product of a 1930s U.S. State Department program carried out at first in South American countries and then through the Office of War Information in war-torn European countries.
American literature was introduced through the program of the Culture, Information and Education (CIE) section of General Headquarters, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (GHQ/SCAP). In accordance with the transformation of the U.S. literary canon as the cultural Cold War regime developed, the book selections of the CIE changed from reflecting the multicultural, New Deal ideal (including books under the Federal Writers Project) to incorporating the modernist canon. American books were distributed to CIE libraries established in major cities in Japan, and in 1948, the CIE launched a new program to promote translations into Japanese. Beside the official distribution, there was also a trade in American books—including Armed Services Editions, which were not meant for sale—on the Japanese used book market. What was really pivotal for instituting American literary studies and its modernist canon were the summer seminars sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and held at the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. The Rockefeller report submitted to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1951 was also instrumental in providing a blueprint for the continued cultural program after the peace treaty of 1951 and the end of military occupation the following year.
The introduction of American literature and its newly reformed canon tuned for modernism occurred within the continuum of the political, the military, and the economic. As such, the cultural program was enmeshed with refashioning Japanese subjectivity, and in this sense, American literature and American studies were part of a general cultural politics that was intertwined with the ways of government.
The Beat writers, especially Jack Kerouac (1922–1969), William Burroughs (1914–1997), Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), and Gary Snyder (1930–), have been well known in Japan. Though Snyder’s differences from the other three, such as his West Coast background and a reformist and edifying stance, are obvious, here we choose not to be fussy about the application of a name, and simply follow his inclusion as in Ann Charter’s The Penguin Book of the Beats (1992). The Beat writers have been eagerly translated and read in Japan, though they are not a common focus of academic literary study. They exerted influence on writers and artists, in particular in terms of a rebellious attitude toward the conformist society and formalized artistic conventions prevailing in Japan. One conspicuous aspect of their impact is that it is part of the influx of American popular, mainly youth, culture since the 1950s, involving jazz, folk, and rock music, as well as numerous films depicting antiheroes on the road. Some Japanese poets, most notably Shiraishi Kazuko (1931–) and Yoshimasu Gōzō (1939–) were directly inspired by the Beats, and others unwittingly formed parallel developments. Assessing their specific achievements requires considering the historical context of modern Japanese poetry. The Beats, in turn, were attracted by Eastern cultures and religions, especially Buddhism; Snyder through his stay in Japan for the practice and study of Zen Buddhism had direct contact with Japanese poets, academics, and activists. Generally speaking, Japanese today, though they usually have some inkling of what Zen is, are not necessarily aware of the Buddhist heritage informing their basic worldview. Still, literary manifestations of what Alan Watts termed “Beat Zen,” in particular Kerouac’s, are not dissimilar to the religious attitude of many Japanese toward the world, which tends to seek to intuit a sense of enlightenment or salvation here and now, beyond humanly delimited distinctions and preconceptions.