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In the past few years, Japanese imagery and characters have become notably more apparent in street fashion. Whether I’m scrolling through online shopping sites, roaming Fairfax (the epicenter for streetwear in Los Angeles), or just walking around my college campus, I am bound to see some form of katakana lettering with cherry blossoms on a shirt.
From seeing the way these articles of clothes are designed, I interpret them as following at least one of two patterns. The first pattern is an orientalist depiction of traditional Japanese and/or Chinese characters and imagery.
This falls in the same cliched vein as white men tattooing Japanese and Chinese characters on their bodies out of a romanticization of samurai or martial artists. One rationale underlying these tattoos is a surface-level idealization of the bushido or samurai code, which celebrates an overly caricatured image of the Japanese man. (This version of Japanese caricatures is often accompanied by deep, rigidly accented voices imposed on sushi chefs or kung-fu masters in media.
Such an exoticization of Japanese and East Asian culture is hardly new, and can be found throughout Western culture as far back as the 1700s, when the dichotomy of Western superiority vs. Eastern inferiority became a prominent theme in English literature, and well into the 1850s, when the art movement of Japonisme13 flooded Europe after Japanese ports were forcibly re-opened to trade with the West. Furthermore, whether the source of interest in Chinese and Japanese imagery stems from martial arts films, traditional paintings, or Buddhist teachings, the root of this superficial fascination lies in an exoticization of generalized East Asian cultures.
The second pattern and more recent trend for Japanese characters in street fashion can be explained by the depiction of Japan/East Asian countries as otherworldly societies. Many have observed this phenomenon in Sci-Fi, where a heavy-handed, Techno-Orientalist usage of East Asian imagery is rampant (think, for instance, of the Asian-esque writing and language burlesqued on neon signs in Blade Runner 3, a film in which actual Asian actors serve more as props than as a real characters). Although fans of these films may argue that the appropriation of imagery indicates appreciation and interest, this view fails to take notice of the Asian Othering that these movies perpetuate, and the actual effect this has on society. “Appreciation” is often mistaken for appropriation, with white film directors and producers still centering their plots around white protagonists while stealing and exploiting “cool” East Asian visuals for their own benefit– the most harmful of which is a grotesquely large financial profit. These future-setting films also tend to populate their Asian-inspired cities with a plethora of white extras, eliminating actual Asian roles and thus telling Asian viewers that they are not welcome in a future adapted from their own culture.
A similar cyberpunk aesthetic is also seen in the Internet trend of “Vaporwave,” a microgenre of electronic music which utilizes a style appropriated from 1980-1990s early-digital visuals, anime, and katakana letters. These instances of slapping random Japanese words onto still or moving graphics further make evident how Japan as a society is perceived– foreign, alien and simply “weird.”
Of the Japanese imagery appropriated in street fashion, the Rising Sun Flag is one of the most disrespectful and contentious symbols to wear. Differing from the current Japanese flag, the Rising Sun Flag has red rays that beam from the red sun in the center. This flag was adopted as the war flag of the Imperial Japanese Army, and under this flag territories such as Korea, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Manchuria, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar, and much of the Pacific Islands were subjected to massacres, mass rape, abduction, loss of sovereignty and resources, and a suppression of native language and culture at the hands of the Japanese. Many extreme Japanese nationalists glorify this flag, referring to it with pride as they defend and/or deny the criminal acts of Imperial Japan. To victims of Japan’s military forces, however, the continued use of the flag is a painful reminder of a not-too-distant past, and of Japan’s refusal to take responsibility or formally apologize for these unsettled war crimes.
It is undeniable that the flag stirs controversy and is considered highly offensive by those from countries and territories which suffered under Japanese occupation. Despite this, it is still used for profit by many American/European street fashion brands and worn mindlessly by their American/European consumers, with little awareness of the cruel history the flag stands for. This makes apparent not only the immorality and insensitivity of designers and clothing brands that produce this clothing, but also the ignorance of people who continue to wear them.
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki were swallowed in a soundless flash of light, radiation– a combination of gamma rays, X-rays, and neutron rays– showered down upon the cities, affecting all regions within a 1.3 km radius. The 400,000 survivors of the atomic bombings were called hibakusha, which translates to “explosion-affected people.” These hibakusha experienced an array of side effects, both shortly after the impact and in the long-term.
Since the effects of the atomic bombs were unknown by both the Japanese and the Americans who dropped them, neither side knew what symptoms were to arise, how to treat them, or if they were even treatable at all. The most common symptoms included epilation (loss of hair), petechiae (bleeding under the skin), oropharyngeal lesions (inflammation of the mouth and throat), vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. Some survivors’ testimonies recall how they saw others develop mysterious purple spots on their skin and die shortly after, prompting people to constantly search their own bodies for spots out of paranoia. Many people experienced a fear of dying, but also a fear of staying alive, gripped with constant dread and trepidation that they may be the next to die a painful death. Japanese doctors later discovered that the early symptoms from radiation injury closely resembled those of intensive X-ray treatment. The severity of these symptoms seemed to vary based on distance from the epicenter of the bombing as well as degree of protection from concrete buildings. Approximately 6,000 people were recorded to die from radiation injuries shortly following the blast, with death rates peaking around three to four weeks after.
Those who survived still live in constant worry about their health. Survivors suffer long-term effects such as an increase in leukemia or cancer risk, caused by mutations in the DNA of living cells. Many must spend out the remainder of their lifetimes seeing speciality doctors or surgeons and taking a plethora of drugs, all the while keeping a close eye on any new health conditions that may surface. Directly after the bombings, the hibakusha received no recognition or support by the central government or the U.S. occupation authorities.
Rumors hastily spread that the mysterious illness was contagious; this may have been reinforced by Japan’s inexperience in treating radiation poisoning and the uncertainty of the future of these survivors. In 1952, a study23 recorded that 11 out of 205 children exposed in utero within 1.2 km of the bomb’s hypocentre were born with shrunken heads and learning disabilities. Reports such as this struck further fear into people, leading many to oppose hibakusha from marrying and passing these mutations onto Japan’s future generations. Over 70 years later however, with some survivors having children and grandchildren, there has been no evidence of heritable diseases caused by radiation. However, this stigma made it difficult for many survivors to get hired, married, or reveal their identities and trauma for many years.
Among the hibakusha, however, the Korean victims of the atomic bombings were subjected to additional systemic and societal discrimination by the Japanese. During World War II, about 670,000 Koreans were forcibly drafted for labor in Japan. Thus, the Korean people who were taken to Hiroshima and Nagasaki also became unwilling victims of the atomic bombing. Approximately 20,000 Koreans are estimated to have been killed in Hiroshima (roughly one in seven of victims in Hiroshima) and another 2,000 in Nagasaki. Even after Japanese hibakusha were eventually granted health benefits, Korean hibakusha were denied of any benefits to aid their health conditions and had to keep fighting for recognition as atomic bomb victims.
Some time in high school, during one of my family’s annual summer visits to see relatives in Japan, my mom and uncle took me and my brother to a Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. Among my faint memories of melted bicycles or photographs of ruins on display, a blurred yet haunting impression of one of the displays strikes immediate fear in me to this day. One dark room was separated from the main exhibition space by a curtain, but a faded light and voice drew me in. Inside of the small room was a single projector streaming an animation, though no one was there. Alone in this room, I watched the hand-drawn animation, narrated from the first person perspective of a young boy as he walks through the immediate aftermath of the Nagasaki bombing. Seeing the animated people attempt to navigate the ruins of their city, crying out for loved ones who have been rendered unrecognizable, nothing more than masses with deformed faces and melted bodies– it was an unimaginable horror.
When recalling the scenes following the bombing, several victims described it as a “living hell.” Not a building was left standing, and only the warped and twisted metal frames of factories remained. Cats, dogs, and horses had been scorched as well as cars, their bodies frozen in the exact positions they had been in at the time of the bombing. The people who were also completely burned and killed on the spot had skin pitch-black like charcoal, so badly burned that they were not even distinguishable as men or women. Those who had survived and were still able to move were left with burned faces, exposed bones or tissue, large shards of glass piercing their skin, or eyeballs hanging from their sockets. Many who frantically searched for their family members were unable to distinguish between bodies or identify melted faces.
One of the survivors, Michihiko Hachiya, recalls walking along the street completely naked as the explosion had stripped him of his clothes. He, along with many others, described seeing ghost-like figures wandering around with their arms in front of them: “Others moved as though in pain, like scarecrows, their arms held out from their bodies with forearms and hands dangling. These people puzzled me until I suddenly realized that they had been burned and they were holding their hands out to prevent the painful friction of raw surfaces rubbing together.” Another survivor’s testimony describes the moment they came to the realization that, instead of cloth dangling from people’s hands, it was the skin from their fingers that had been melted and deformed into stretched out, claw-like forms. 10
In her testimony, Hiroko Kawaguchi describes how many victims would go around desperately asking for water. In many recollections of this same scene, survivors talk about severely burned people who would cling to the feet of those who had escaped injury, begging, “Water… Please give me water!” With burned throats, those who were nearing death must have experienced an unbearable thirst. Out of desperation to relieve this thirst, people drank from the oily river water, only to die on the spot immediately after. While crossing bridges, survivors witnessed not only people on the ground asking for water and people dying by the river, but also the sight of countless corpses flooding the river. These corpses are likely comprised of the people who had been displaced by the explosion as well as those who died shortly after drinking the river water. 21
Another common cause of death was entrapment under a house’s burning ruins. Many people were forced to abandon loved ones who had become trapped, leaving them to die in the fire. Some children witnessed their parents’ deaths and had to cremate the bodies themselves to collect their bones and ashes. Some women carried around their unmoving babies– either in denial of the death of their children or on their way to cremate them– and some women died with their living babies still crying on their backs.
Following the waves of death in the days and months following the bomb, those who were still alive did not have resources to heal their injuries. Even when they were able to see a doctor, their wounds would worsen again shortly after their visit. Maggots started to feed at people’s raw flesh and open wounds, and many flies gathered around their bodies. Although numerous testimonies, films, literature, and art by survivors who witnessed this “living hell” piece together a larger picture of this gruesome reality, it is nonetheless a collection of experiences that I have much difficulty to even imagine living through them.
When Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, the city was instantaneously wiped out and seemingly left for ruin. One structure, however, was left standing near the bomb’s hypocenter. The building, now called the Hiroshima Peace Memorial or Genbaku (Atomic Bomb) Dome, permanently stands in remembrance of that fateful August day. In 1915, the building (originally the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition) was designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel and located in a central business district, where it was primarily used for used for “arts and educational exhibitions” (cite). The original design included a dome at the highest point of the building; after the impact of the A-bomb, the dome was stripped of its exterior, leaving only the metal framework exposed beneath.
After escaping the destruction that befell the rest of the city’s infrastructure, the fate of the dome was again at risk– this time by locals who called for the building’s demolition as Hiroshima began to rebuild. Ultimately, the building’s advocates won out, and the dome was designated a memorial site of the Hiroshima bombing, meant to symbolize peace and remembrance.
About twenty years after the bombing, construction of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was complete, with a number of memorials and monuments, museums, and lecture halls built around the dome. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial remains standing in its ruined form not only to memorialize the victims, but also to highlight the terrors of nuclear weaponry and war.
My inspiration to create this book came from multiple sources such as the animated film In This Corner of the World (2016), the Hiroshima/Nagasaki Appeals poster series designed by iconic Japanese artists and designers, and my visit to the Nagasaki Peace Museum. I made this book because I felt an urgency to add a perspective that was unique to me, as a young Japanese American, and hopefully one that would be helpful to others as well. I wanted to treat my position with value, as I have grown up exposed to the nuanced dynamics of different ethnic groups that have been passed down through generations after World War II ended.
Creating this book was a challenging and emotionally straining process. Initially planning to use photography as the main source of imagery, I eventually switched over to the medium of spray paint since it better expressed the tone and emotions that I wanted. In order to be mindful of other ethnic groups and victims, I researched not only the topic of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, but also of international factors around the event that heavily impacted the lives of a great many people, both then and now. I felt strongly that I could not speak of the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without also including the tragedies of other victims such as “comfort women,” which ended up being the longest section. Much of the information written in this book’s passages are facts that I learned as I went.
Emotionally, this topic was a very difficult one to handle; knowing that I will never be able to fully comprehend nor express the pain that the victims of war crimes experienced, I attempted to at least pass on the message that such an atrocity should never occur again. Despite the difficulty of digesting such a heavy history, I felt it was my duty to pay homage to victims of such terrible crimes to humanity. Additionally, I expressed the simultaneous distance and closeness that I feel to these wartime events, as a result of being a descendant generations later.
I especially want to encourage Japanese youth to contemplate these difficult issues, enduring rather than running from the confusion of processing such history that may bring both sympathy and skepticism towards one’s own country. My mother tells me how she believes that Japanese youth are not paying much attention to history or politics recently, which leads me to write in a wishful sentiment for the youth to learn from past mistakes in order to move forward as a society. As stated in earlier passages in the book, I believe it to be immensely important to maintain a holistic approach when regarding historical events. Furthermore, my hopes for myself as well as for Japanese youth is to take responsibility for the history and actions of one’s own country as well as ethnic group.
After reading on the painful history around the atomic bombings, I came across a story11 of the oleander flowers that arose during the spring of 1946, almost a year after the bombing in Hiroshima. Witnessing the utter destruction brought by the atomic bombs, surviving residents feared that the disintegrated land would never be capable of bearing life again. The red flower petals of oleander flowers were the first signs of life that were found growing from the barren earth, becoming a sign of fertility and resilience rising from a ruined city. Now the official flower of Hiroshima, the oleander flower serves as a symbol of recovery and hope for the future. The generations of children being born after the bombing continue to demonstrate good health, following after the oleander flowers that were able to rise from past destruction.
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