In the High Peaks

Monday, July 30, 2012

Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse--Literature and War Readalong 2012

I am extremely grateful to Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and her Literature and War Readalong for steering me toward Black Rain, an exquisite Japanese novel about the bombing of Hiroshima and the horrifying days and months that followed. Fortunately I was able to download it onto my Nook, because my entire library system (30+ libraries) did not have a single copy.

First off, I think I should say that for decades I have been intensely interested in the effect of war on civilians. My book Women during the Civil War (2004), included dozens of my essays dealing with the effect of the Civil War on women and children. I mention it because I have studied the effect of war on civilians in many, many wars. Yet I find it interesting to note that I have devoted the most extensive study to the effect of war on civilians during the Second World War. It has been a life study, actually, starting at about age 11, though I have never written about it. I should, because there is not an issue that I feel more strongly about.

As an American, my study of the effects of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Japanese civilians, who were predominantly women, children, and elderly men, as are all civilians in war, has been horrifying to me. What is even more horrifying are the extremes that our political leaders will resort to to achieve their wartime goals. 

I think the most horrific aspect of Black Rain is the details that relate to the immediate effects of the atomic blast on people and animals, as well as the long-term effects of radiation. I remember reading John Hersey's classic Hiroshima when I was twelve and in the seventh grade, a school assignment. I was rivetted by the account, about what my country had done to the Japanese people, but I wanted more graphic details, curiously enough. I could tell that Hersey was doing his best, but I knew he was holding back. So many Americans believed and still believe, I'm sorry to say, that the atomic bombings saved millions of American lives. My mother told me long, long ago that in August, 1945, like so many millions of American soldiers, my father had been shipped out to wait to board ships and planes for the invasion of Japan. He had his orders. But the bombings turned those orders to dust--or to ash, and the boats turned around to head home.

To me, because of my prior readings, Black Rain was not so much horrifying as it was exquisitely painful in its poignancy. How often I have read diaries and first-hand narrative accounts of civilians who have struggled on, who have overcome trauma, excruciating pain, and devastating injuries and yet have never lost sight of their humanity--to continue to take care of their loved ones, their neighbors, and their communities--even when they have no resources to draw upon. Shigematsu in Black Rain was such a person. I agree with Caroline about the poignancy of his observations of nature and his reactions to the effects of the bombing were fascinating and terribly sad.

This is the inevitable legacy of war. The fact is, there are always far more civilians who suffer than soldiers. And I have enormous sympathy for the latter as well, who, for the most part, have no choice about their futures.


  1. Thanks so much for joining and the great review.
    I'm under shock because as horrible as I thought Hiroshima was before I read the novel, I still had no idea.
    I'm glad you mention Hersey as well as one commenter on my post said it was far better than Black Rain. I cannot imagine any book on Hiroshima could be better than this. It felt so authentic, so overwehlming in its detail.
    I didn't know this topic was so close to your heart and research.
    I need to read your book on Women during the Civil War.
    I agree with you, the helplessness and horror of civilians is awful.
    I'm glad I read this although it was sad and hard.

    1. Caroline,
      It's wonderful to read your thoughts about Black Rain.

      I disagree that Hersey's book is *better* than Black Rain. For one thing, the Hersey is nonfiction written by a journalist, and as I mentioned in my post, he was confined by the limitations of the society and culture of mid-20th century U.S. The book is actually well-worth reading because of this and is very compelling.

      I think Masubi Ibuse's Black Rain was incredibly well-researched, first of all. And then I admired the way he showed in nearly every scene the way the Japanese people, stripped of every vestige of government, survived by looking out for each other when and wherever they could, though, due to the personal injuries of each character, they often could only look out for themselves.

      Once again, I think Black Rain is an extremely important book and needs to be in the forefront of war literature to remind people what the effects of nuclear war are, and what radiation sickness is, etc. Where do we see this today? It's all to easy to forget.

      Thanks for hosting this book and the Literature and War Readalong!!! May it grow and prosper!


  2. I stumbled on Black Rain many, many years ago and was very impressed by it. What struck me most was how difficult it was for the Japanese to understand what had happened after the first bomb. By that point in the war communication was so poor that it felt like there were to surprise atomic attacks on Japan, like it took two bombings before anyone could grasp what had happened.

  3. Thank you for writing, C.B.

    Yes! I have puzzled over this for decades, and I think Black Rain provides the clearest picture that I've ever seen presented as to why it was so difficult for the Japanese people and, most of all, their leadership to realize the enormity of what hit them.

    I agree completely that the lack of communication and poor transportation were huge factors, but I would add to that the fact that all through Black Rain, there didn't seem to be any evidence of any top political or civic leaders present and accounted for. It seemed that the hospitals did the best they could, the remnants of military were ineffectively wandering around, but there was no evidence of any centralized power to do anything.

    And that's why I believe it was so morally wrong, short-sighted, and ignorant for President Truman and his advisors to strike Nagasaki.

    Many, many U.S. scholars of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings make a compelling argument, backed up by a copious amount of US gov't intelligence documents of the time, that U.S. leaders knew that Japan's back was broken by the time of the bombings, and that there was no need for any atomic bomb to bring Japan to its knees.

    I return to Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August premise. If hostile nations prepare for war, they will have it. So, I guess, if you build a brand new type of weapon with destructive power such as the world has never seen, you will use it.

    I'd like to add the book titles that I read that make such a compelling argument, but I'll publish this reply first.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)
    Sorry to be so long-winded, C.B.!

  4. I also hear that same argument of the bomb being the only way to save lives and end the war as well. I think the wheels of the propaganda machine must have been working overtime. Not much has changed in that thinking perhaps--though I've read very little about this aspect of the war--it was quite eye opening and much worse than anything I ever imagined. Civilian even now still bear the worst brunt of wars. It's a pity that we can't seem to ever learn from our past mistakes! I was also really struck by how little leadership there was and the disorganization and bureaucratic red tape. I'm very curious to read more, but I think I need to space books like this out a bit.

    1. Hi, Danielle,
      Thank you for your thoughts!

      You're right: One of the biggest lessons I've learned from studying history is that national leaders of all stripes don't see the well-being of civilians as a factor in the decision to wage war or in deciding how to wage it, and this includes their own civilians as well as their enemies'.

      When thinking of this, I am reminded of the British and U.S. firebombing of Dresden in World War II, which destroyed the city in a single night--caused by massive incendiary bombing.

      Dresden was not a manufacturing or military center. Historians have long shown that the bombing achieved no military objective, other than to pulverize civilians. It confuses me because German national leaders put civilians at a low priority. Why did the Allies do it?

      I feel I should apologize for all of these assertions and questions.

      I feel very strongly that people (we who may be the civilians in a future war) need to raise an outcry when our government engages in this.

      In the Iraq War, national leaders kept saying that we were trying to spare civilians when we were bombing. But we know now that that objective was ignored when a military objective took priority.

      Oh, here I go again, Danielle, rattling on. And yes, I agree with you 100 percent that I cannot make a steady diet of books like Black Rain. Pass me a light-hearted mystery please or an interesting biography!


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