115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sights of Resilience: Post-3/11 Japanese Poetry and Ethical Empathy

Toshiaki Komura, Kobe College

Recovery from disasters has been regarded as either a personal undertaking—such as in the Freudian model of mourning—or a communal process—such as in Judith Butler’s Precarious Life—rather than a phenomenon in which both are implicated.  The present paper argues that peripherization of vision anchors the coexistence of personal resilience and communal healing.


Many poetic responses to disasters are read to be deploying a tone of personal intimacy in their depiction of the firsthand witnessing or secondhand rendering of the events, but they often disguise within them the political resistance toward the dominant sensibilities of the time.  While there are many creditable studies on the interrelationship between the personal and the political, resilience or recovery from past disasters has largely been regarded as either a personal undertaking—such as in the early Freudian model of mourning as elucidated in “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917) and Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920)—or a communal process—such as in the more recent elegy scholarship including Judith Butler’s Precarious Life (2004) and Max Cavitch’s American Elegy (2007)—rather than a phenomenon in which both are intricately implicated.  A critical gap exists where one may regard poetry of crisis as exploring possibilities of personal resilience while also participating in empathy building within the larger community.        

This paper examines the complex workings of personal and communal recovery process as traced by poems read or written in the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.  The key argument of this paper is that peripherization of vision—a technique that is most notably used in Elizabeth Bishop’s “First Death in Nova Scotia,” where the child speaker persistently sees and notices irrelevant furnishing details of the funeral parlor, instead of attending to her deceased cousin in the casket—anchors the coexistence of personal testimonies and the communal healing:  the poetic observation of details that seem irrelevant but are truthful enacts the personal processing of the trauma, while at the same time as curtailing compassion fatigue and facilitating empathy-building.  Just as Emily Dickinson admonishes in the famous poem—tell all the truth but tell it slant—faithfulness to reality must be coupled with evasion of it to create a safe space where healing occurs while psychic exhaustion is stalled.  As one case study, Kaneko Misuzu’s “Is It an Echo?”—a poem widely disseminated in the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster—suggests how poems can reconstruct a vision of mundanity and efface the sundered reality; this effacing functioned as a resistance against the deluge of alarming news about the multiple earthquakes and their aftereffects, before it was subsumed into the conformist desire for normalcy and oblivion.  As another case study, Wago Ryoichi’s “Poetic Silent Prayer” interweaves journalistic language with visual metaphors that circumvent full immersion in the post-3/11 realism.  By examining how these poetic works combine engagement and circumvention to make mourning both a personal and public undertaking, this paper queries the ethics of recovery and empathy building in the instance of post-3/11 poetry.

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