“The winds may fell the massive oak, but bamboo, bent even to the ground, will spring upright after the passage of the storm.” Thus reads a Japanese proverb that likely stems from the country’s long history of natural disaster. As an isolated island nation next to a slippery fault line in the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan has suffered numerous typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, and volcanic eruptions throughout its history. As a result, it has developed a dynamic culture of resilience and collective coping that has manifested in diverse aesthetic forms. Japanese popular and high culture alike are filled with images of catastrophe, stories of rebuilding, and of hard lessons learned, primarily through the mediums of visual art, film, manga, anime, and performance. Yet the man-made disaster following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and defeat in World War II has had a powerful and peculiar effect on Japan’s national psyche. By examining aesthetic trends throughout the postwar period, this study will determine the methods that Japanese people used to cope with catastrophe and how they continue to implement these strategies to this day.
Refraction: From Hiroshima to Hello Kitty
Artistic responses to the annihilation of 1945 tended to fall into one of four major categories: refraction, reflection, return, or rebirth. Refraction refers to the trend of historical aversion or anesthesia that characterizes much postwar artwork. Takashi Murakami calls this trend “superflat,” signifying postwar Japan’s decorative, substance-devoid cultural landscape of cuteness and commercialism, dominated by otaku. The commercial phenomenon Hello Kitty not only exemplifies this pseudo-escapism, but also epitomizes a culture made impotent by Allied occupation and implementation of Article 9 — with her lack of mouth or fully developed limbs, she is the very embodiment vulnerability. Chinatsu Ban, Yoshitomo Nara, and Noburu Tsubaki are among artists whose subtle blending of kawaii and nightmarish features points to these sinister roots of superflat.
Reflection: Monsters and Apocalypse
Yet the superflat movement not only includes soothing kawaii images, but also incorporates kaiju (monster) or apocalyptic images that reflect a tormented Japanese psyche. For example, Gojira (Godzilla) serves as a transparent metaphor of all that could befall Japan — buses fly through the air, buildings crumble amid massive quakes, fires blaze, and waves crash over Tokyo as a massive, radioactive monster stomps through the city. Shoji Otomo’s An Anatomical Guide to Monsters (1967), a popular anthology of horrifying, grotesque, or subhuman creatures culled from contemporary manga or anime, similarly showcases a disturbed Japanese subconscious. Images of mushroom explosions have also become abstracted via their frequent incorporation in film (think 2006’s Sinking of Japan) and children’s anime and manga in the postwar decades — Time Bokan (1970s), Gatchaman (1970s), and Akira (1988) are few of the many examples of this “flattening.
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Return: Revisionism and Revenge
Another popular postwar aesthetic form has been the return of traditional Japanese images often accompanying revisionist or nationalistic histories. With their transfixing mixture of visuals and text, fictional and non-fictional manga alike have had a particularly immense role in shaping popular understandings of history in Japan. Works such as Kobayashi Yoshinori’s Gōmanism Sengen (“My Arrogant Declaration”) (1995-2003) and Maruo Suehiro’s Nihonjin no wakusei (“Planet of the Jap”) (1985) are particularly controversial for their revanchist reenvisionments of World War II, that may also serve to challenge apoliticism in postwar Japan. Meanwhile, works such as Sharin Yamano’s Manga Kenkanryu (“Hating the Korean Wave”) (2005-2009) may be interpreted as the continuation or intensification of anti-Korean sentiment dating back to Japanese occupation of Korea (which effectively ended after Japanese defeat in WWII), or as late assertions of Japanese nationalism resulting from enduring humiliation from 1945.
Rebirth: Coming to Terms with the Past
Rebirth does not so much refer to a particular aesthetic trend, but rather to an aesthetic coping mechanism employed by many Japanese artists throughout the postwar period. This diverse group of artists has aimed to confront the past in order to move forward from it. Gutai (“tool” and “body”) and Jikken Kobo (“Experimental Workshop”), for example, were cross-genre collectives that emerged in the 1950s and sought new perspective by abandoning many traditional styles and looking toward the west for artistic inspiration. Similarly, Mono-ha (“School of Things”) (1960s-70s) focused on the renewal of matter, suggesting that society was capable of doing the same. Manga and anime including Keiji Nakazawa’s incredibly graphic Barefoot Gen (1973) and more recent works such as Town of Evening Calm (2003) and Country of Cherry Blossoms (2004) by Kōno Fumiyo also deal extensively with the aftermath of the atomic attacks.
(Works by Kazuo Shiraga of Gutai and Susumu Koshimizu of Mono-ha)
1) What differentiates natural from man-made disaster in terms of how they affect the Japanese psyche?
2) One can draw clear connections between these aesthetic trends and the legacy of the bombings. To what extent do you think this is actually the case? Among younger generations who did not experience the attacks (Kōno Fumiyo, for example), has the bomb has become a metaphor for catastrophe?
3) If so, what other catastrophes may have played a part in these movements, particularly those in the past few decades?
4) Do you think the Japanese people are now better equipped to handle disaster?
 Luebke, Peter C. and Rachel DiNitto. “Maruo Suehiro’s ‘Planet of the Jap’: Revanchist Fantasy of War Critique?” Japanese Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2. September, 2011. 229-247.
 Mason, Michele. “Writing Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the 21st Century: A New Generation of Historical Manga.” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. November 23, 2009.
 Murakami, Takashi. Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
 Pollack, Barbara. “Japan’s Postwar Art Wave.” Art News. January 2013. Accessed on April 25, 2015. www.artnews.com/2013/01/09/japans-postwar-art-wave/.
 Stevens, Mark. “Toxic Cuteness.” New York. April 18, 2005. Accessed on April 26, 2015. nymag.com/nymetro/arts/art/reviews/11707/.