Outcry from the Inferno

First written in December 1995, and revised in early January 1996. A few minor revisions also in February of 2013 upon posting this online. See also the new postscript at the end. The book reviewed here collects tanka written by survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. Because of the politically charged subject of this review, it could be that I never sent it out for publication, or that no editor chose to publish it (although that might have been because of its length). Since I have no memory of publishing this review, and have no record of its publication, it’s likely that it wasn’t ever published, but I’m not certain. I do have letters in my files containing feedback, however, so I know I shared it at least privately with some poet friends, including one Holocaust survivor who wrote to me in a letter dated 16 January 1996 that “info of the Allied censorship and Library of Congress secrecy was very enlightening,” adding that “poetry and drama helps me heal.” She also mentioned that Joseph Rotblat, who had just received the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for nuclear disarmament, was a physicist and Holocaust survivor who escaped from Poland and worked on the Manhattan Project in the United States. However, when Hitler was defeated, he quit the project “because he could no longer justify the creation of so terrible a weapon.” For an alternative viewpoint to my postscript, see Ward Wilson’s 2013 Foreign Policy magazine essay. See also “White Flash/Black Rain” and my Woodnotes review. +

Outcry from the Inferno. Jiro Nakano, ed. and trans. Bamboo Ridge Press, 1995, 6 by 9 inches, xxiv + 104 pages. 100 tanka in English translation, kanji, and romaji. $10.00 at bookstores, Amazon, or order from Bamboo Ridge Press, PO Box 61781, Honolulu, HI 96389-1781.

Published on the 50th anniversary of the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Jiro Nakano’s tanka anthology, Outcry from the Inferno, is at once both poetry and politics. The editor, formerly of Hilo, Hawaii and now living in Kobe, Japan, is noted for Poets Behind Barbed Wire (Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1984), an anthology of tanka by Japanese Americans imprisoned in relocation camps during World War II. Nakano returns to the anthologist’s task with this needed poetic document of the atomic bombing.

The message in this bilingual collection underscores the editor’s plea “to abolish nuclear weapons from the earth.” One may agree entirely with that sentiment, yet still be made to feel guilty for raising the specter of Japanese war-time atrocities. To some minds, those atrocities made the dropping of the bomb “necessary.” A book like this can hardly be critiqued without the discussion slopping in the mire of politics—about which activists and rednecks will undoubtedly always be at odds, possibly until the issue becomes too old and distant to seem relevant, for living generations to remember, or for anyone’s passion, pro or con, to be fiery. The war happened—so deal with it.

Yet here we are, fifty years beyond the beginning of our nuclear age, still absorbing shock waves from the only atomic bombs detonated in anger. Was it payback for Pearl Harbor? Did it end the Pacific War more quickly? Did it intimidate the Soviets in anticipation of the Cold War? Did it prevent an even greater number of American and Japanese deaths that so many strategists believed were imminent if Allied forces were to invade Japan? Or was it the wrong trigger pulled prematurely, a demoralizing psychological stunt, and an act of desperate barbarism against innocent civilians?

Theories of war and the arts of negotiation will be fodder for pundits and philosophers long after this book is forgotten. Yet, for now, the editor has done his best to help us not forget—and to not forget the bomb’s very human effects. He has chosen 100 tanka written about the atomic bombings in Japan. Due to years of Allied censorship in occupied Japan (into the early 1950s), these poetic expressions of anger, sadness, and frustration about the stark horrors of the bombings had seldom seen the light of day. Even after the censorship slackened officially, the introduction tells us, many banned materials were sequestered in the Library of Congress, where they were sent secretly. Yet now they are accessible. These voices can no longer be silenced.

These are the voices of the hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors). The book is indeed an “outcry from the inferno,” putting human faces on colourless facts the way John Hersey’s Hiroshima personalized the bombings’ horrors when his book was first published in 1946 (I first read it in 1976). As editor Nakano puts it, “People in the world have been bombarded with statistical data concerning the atomic bombing but have never heard of the outcry of the hibakusha.”

What the editor has compiled is 100 of the “best” poems from several atomic bomb tanka anthologies published in Japan up to 1993. Two of these anthologies, Kashū Hiroshiuna [Tanka Anthology: Hiroshima] (Tokyo: Daini-shobo, 1954), and Hankaku-shuka-hyakuzetsu [Anti-nuclear Tanka Anthology] (Tokyo: Tanka-koron-sha, 1985), were edited by Seishi Toyota, who writes a foreword for Nakano’s book. The poems themselves range from truly arresting images to didactic commentary. For a book of poetry, the propaganda is unnecessary and a lowering of standards. For a political book, on the other hand, the poignant images may seem too flowery.

My concern is a literary one, so I fall on the side of disliking the propaganda:

If you are armed, The Atomic Bomb

stop your foolishness. killed indiscriminately—

Shout against the nuclear weapons— anyone—

declare your neutrality even American prisoners of war

after disarming yourself! incarcerated in Hiroshima.

Kasu Ura (p. 97) Kaoru Yasui (p. 100)

My dislike of this polemicism has nothing to do with whether I agree or not, but everything to do with the nature of poetry. The above “tanka” are neither poetic nor aesthetically engaging. They are probably representative of the many thousands of poems penned by the survivors, but I am not poetically persuaded or moved by such opinionated statements, the likes of which I could read in an editorial, on a bumper sticker, or elsewhere. It is difficult, in fact, to see them as poetry.

I am persuaded, however, by intuitive moments—the showing rather than telling—of heartfelt intensity so often experienced by the hibakusha:

Like rotted wood,

a corpse is obstructed

at the bridge girder,

then it flows away

without being seen by anyone.

Chihiro Nishimoto (p. 60)

“Run under the beam!”

my dying wife cried out to me.

I will never marry

because of what I saw

in her eyes.

Harue Imamoto (p. 24)

I see the procession

of burnt sores

on disfigured faces

and pray for my younger brother

to be dead by now.

Sadamu Miyata (p. 50)

At high tide

in this burnt city,

neither parents nor children

will come to see the corpses

floating in the river.

Yatuka Shiraki (p. 77)

A hibaku woman,

who refused my help

to the bathroom last night,

is found dead cold

on the dirt floor this morning.

Seishi Toyota (p. 91)

Today I shall

burn a little girl

in a potato patch

where I burned

her brother yesterday.

Hatsuyo Sugita (p. 79)

The preceding, I think, are the best of this book’s poems. Given the vast amount of material to cull from (Seishi Toyota reports of reading more than 50,000 tanka related to the atomic bombing), it is surprising to see the occasional but unnecessary overlap of images. As good as the poems may be, as with each of the following, the editing could have shown greater range by avoiding excessive repetition:

Not knowing Burnt and ulcerated,

his mother is dead, a blind infant

a blind infant searches furtively,

looks for calling and calling

her breast. his mother’s name.

Yoshiko Kōno (p. 40) Tomoo Ōzawa (p. 70)

On the other hand, is the horror more deeply emphasized by such repetition? And is the repetition therefore deliberate? Perhaps, but I still think I would have preferred to see more range.

Also, some poems (at least in English translation), may not stand solidly with their intended meaning if taken out of the context of atomic bomb poetry. This is true of some of the poems I’ve already quoted. Here’s another example:

The large skull

is the teacher’s.


around it,

smaller skulls.

Shinoe Shōda (p. 74)

This seems to be trait of the original poem rather than the translation, however. Compare it to the following version by Lequita Vance-Watkins and Mariko Aratani, from White Flash, Black Rain: Women of Japan Relive the Bomb (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1995):


so many small skulls

are gathered here,

these large bones

must be the teacher’s. (p. 19)

One can still feel the effects of an immense tragedy, of course, but without the atomic bomb context, something is also lost. Regardless of the success or failure of individual poems or translations, this anthology does a great service to the hibakusha, and at last their tortured voices can be heard in the United States.

Her burnt face swollen,

a naked girl

grabs my foot,

begs for water

as she falls on the ground.

Eizō Uchida (p. 94)

Nakano reports Toyota’s observation that “the best tanka poems on the atomic bomb were not written by the famous masters but rather by the hibakusha themselves, the amateur poets.” Most of the book’s 100 poets died within ten years of the bombing (the book indicates which poets are deceased). This book is thus a memorial, as well as a testament to the poets’ direct experience, authentic feeling, and unposturing reaction. Occasional lapses into pontification do detract from the book as poetry, but only slightly, and I do not doubt the poets’ sincerity.

Outcry from the Inferno is not an easy read, but it is a recommended one. Like White Flash, Black Rain, also published to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombings, Nakano’s book is disturbing—as it should be—and honest. Outcry from the Inferno is not for the faint of heart. It is, however, for those who know the richness of empathy. Anger is always bettered by understanding. This, ultimately, is a book of understanding.

Ten thousand or more

sank into this river—

today still flowing


its surface motionless.

Masayo Nakamoto (p. 58)


One of my favourite “light” books about Japanese culture is Dave Barry Does Japan (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1992). Amid all the funny stories and anecdotes—this is, after all, Dave Barry—the book takes an unusual turn. Just before the tenth of twelve chapters is a grey page, unlike any before it in the book. It signals a change, that the chapter you’re about to read is different. That chapter is simply titled “Hiroshima.”

It’s not funny in the slightest. Dave Barry refers to Karel van Wolferen as arguing that “Japan disregards the historical events that led to the atomic attack, preferring instead to wallow in self-pity and victimhood” (175). Barry emphasizes the complicated and unpopular point that the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki undoubtedly saved hundreds of thousands of lives, because the alternative to ending the war would have been a devastating and protracted land invasion causing far more deaths and destruction than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Barry also describes visiting the memorial museum at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, where he says that “the most powerful exhibits are intensely personal: charred clothing; twisted eyeglass frames; a dark human shape on some granite steps, caused when a person’s body blocked the blast rays, a shadow of death” (178). He then says, “I found myself weeping, out of sorrow and helplessness and guilt. But I also felt anger.” He explains that he felt angry “Because the way the museum presents it, the atomic bomb was like a lightning bolt. . . . It was as though one day, for no reason, the Americans came along, literally out of the blue, and did this horrible thing to these innocent people” (178–179). He concludes by taking a difficult stance that I feel matches my own:

I don’t know if it’s possible to justify what happened in Hiroshima—I certainly wouldn’t try to justify it to the victim’s families. But I found myself wanting to shout to the other museum visitors: Do you know WHY my country did this? Do you wonder what would make a civilized country do such a thing? I’m not sure that I know the answer, but the museum doesn’t even address the question. And I don’t think that just saying “No more Hiroshimas” over and over again, like a mantra, is enough to guarantee that it will never happen again. (179)

But of course, there is at least one answer, and it lies in the number of lives the bombs clearly saved compared to a land invasion that would have been necessary to end the war without the nuclear attack. On Wikipedia and Wikipedia, I’ve read that Japan’s own estimate of deaths from the anticipated land invasion was 20,000,000 Japanese people. American estimates of deaths from among its invading forces were 25,000 to 46,000. Another study estimated up to 800,000 American deaths from an invasion. Compared to just one tenth of these estimates, the atomic bomb death toll was still far less. And it sent an incontrovertible message that Japan was wise to heed. These numbers are just one factor, of course (the effect on the Soviet Union and the ensuing Cold War was another factor, too). Whatever the case, I adamantly hope that no atomic bomb is ever detonated again. Yet I can understand the strategic value of using “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” as they were used on Japan—perhaps akin to cutting off a finger to save an arm—Japan’s as well as America’s. I should mention, too, that my wife is Japanese, and that I have found it terribly sad, on many visits to Japan, to learn over and over again that this or that magnificent castle I was visiting was not the original but a 1950s reconstruction, necessitated by various World War II bombings.

Indeed, we too often forget the other bombings of Japan. The initial death toll as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima in August of 1945 has been estimated at 80,000. In Nagasaki, the initial death toll was about 74,000 people. In comparison, the protracted air raids and firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 caused about 100,000 deaths. So which was worse? By the end of 1945, injury and radiation in Hiroshima caused another estimated 10,000 to 60,000 deaths, so the atomic bomb would seem to have been worse. Yet all of the air raids on Japan during World War II are estimated to have caused at least 330,000 deaths, and even up to 900,000, so which really was worse? Obviously, the nuclear threat is intense, yet the firebombing of Tokyo alone, which has been described as “the single most destructive bombing raid in history” (see Wired article), is not decried nearly as much as Hiroshima or Nagasaki. What are we to make of this? The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are hardly cut and dried.

The August 1995 issue of National Geographic commemorated the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombings with an article on Hiroshima. The December 1995 issue contained a letter to the magazine by the son of an American serviceman who dreaded his participation in the expected land invasion of Japan. The letter writer, David Peterson, said that when his father learned of the atomic bomb detonations, his reaction was “Now I’ll live,” because “there would be no invasion of Japan” (xx). The letter concluded by saying, “As horrifying and costly as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, without the introduction of the atomic bomb, the price would ultimately have been many times higher.” But this, of course, is not the only part of the equation. Another letter writer, Marshall Chao, quoted the Chinese sage Mencius, who asked, “Is there any difference in killing a person with a club or a knife?” (xxi). He says no, of course not, and concludes by saying “The victims of Hiroshima deserve the same sympathy, but not an iota more, as the tens of millions of Chinese civilians who died from Japanese atrocities during World War II.”

These are complex emotions. Yet atrocities have continued, both by Americans and against them—I think of September 11. Two days before that tragedy, on September 9, 2001, I participated in the “Japan–U.S. Peace Treaty Reading” at Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, California, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1951 peace treaty that officially concluded the Pacific War—a treaty signed in San Francisco. I read a selection of my tanka at the reading, and concluded with this poem of my own:

a book on Hiroshima—

in the picture

of survivors

the one man

with closed eyes

About a year later, I moved from the San Francisco area to the Seattle area, where in January of 2003 I became involved with Sam Hamill’s “Poets Against the War” website as one of the editors of the largest themed poetry anthology ever assembled—every single one of its 20,000 poems against war. Many of my relatives have been conscientious objectors, including my father. My grandfather, a medical doctor, served in World War II as a medic rather than as a fighter. I am against war, and agree with poet William Stafford who said that every war has two losers. But it seems to me that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the lesser of evils—ultimately bringing a quick end to a devastating war. When I see that grey page on reading Dave Barry’s book about Japan, I can’t help but think that yes, the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a dark page in world history, but they were a solution, terrifying as it was, to a problem that was much, much darker.

—16 February 2013

See also Remembering Kylan Jones-Huffman and Haiku Iz Rata: War Haiku.