Translated from the Japanese by Ted Goossen & Motoyuki Shibata

 

Hiromi Kawakami is one of the most celebrated Japanese writers of her generation. In 1994 her story, ‘Kami-sama’ which translates as ‘God’, was published to great acclaim. Then, in 2011, in the aftermath of the Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent meltdowns at Fukushima’s nuclear power plants, Kawakami rewrote her story.

What follows is a retrospective in three sections: first, the new version, translated as ‘God Bless You, 2011’; an afterword by the author about what prompted her to revisit this early work; and finally the original story. All three pieces were published in the Japanese literary magazine Gunzo in June 2011 but are appearing in English for the first time here.

 

1. God Bless You, 2011

The bear invited me go for a walk to the river, about twenty minutes away on foot. I had taken that road once before in the early spring to see the snipes, but then I had worn protective clothing; now it was hot, and for the first time since the ‘incident’ I would be clad in normal clothes that exposed the skin, and carrying lunch to boot. It would be a bit of a trek, somewhere between a hike and a stroll.

The bear was a massive full-grown male who had just moved into apartment 305, three doors down the hall from me. As a gesture of good will, he had treated the three of us who remained in the building to ‘moving-in noodles’ and distributed packets of postcards, a level of formality you don’t see often nowadays. He sure wants people to like him, I thought, but then you probably have to do that if you’re a bear.

When he stopped by my apartment with the noodles, we discovered that we might not be complete strangers after all.

‘You don’t happen to be from X town, do you?’ he asked when he saw my name on the door. Yes, I replied, I certainly am. It turned out that a person who had been a huge help to him when he was in the evacuation center there during the ‘incident’ had an uncle, one of the town officials, whose last name matched mine. When we traced the connection a bit further, we arrived at the conclusion that this official and my father might be second cousins. A flimsy tie to be sure, but the bear appeared deeply moved nonetheless, waxing eloquently about the ‘karmic bond’ it established between us. From the way he handled the moving-in etiquette to his manner of speech, he certainly seemed to be an old-fashioned type of bear.

 

And so the bear and I headed down the road on our stroll-hike. I don’t know a whole lot about the animal kingdom so I couldn’t tell if he was an Asiatic black bear, a brown bear, or a Malayan sun bear. I thought of asking him, but it seemed too rude. Nor did I know his name. When I asked what I should call him, he thought for a moment and then, after checking to be sure that no other bears were nearby, said: ‘For the moment I am without a name, and since there are no other bears here I don’t think I really need one. I prefer to be addressed as “you”, but please imagine it written in Chinese characters, not phonetically. Actually, though, you can call me anything you like – I won’t mind.’

Yes, this was a most old-fashioned bear. Not to mention rather finicky about trivial points of logic.

The road to the river ran though a strip of land that had once been rice fields. Almost all the paddies had been turned up during the process of decontamination, however, and now the earth lay in glistening piles. Despite the heat, all the workers we saw were encased in protective suits and masks with waders that extended to their waists. For several years after the ‘incident’, entry to this area had been absolutely forbidden and the deep cracks in the road left untouched, but recently the road had been freshly paved. Although Ground Zero was close by, a surprising number of cars passed us. They slowed to a crawl as they approached and made a wide circle around us. Not a soul passed on foot.

‘Maybe they’re keeping a distance because we’re not wearing protective suits,’ I said. The bear gave a noncommittal grunt. ‘I took special care to avoid too much radiation the first half of this year, so my total amount of accumulated radiation indicates I can still afford some exposure. And SPEEDI (the System for Prediction of Environmental Dose Information) predicts we won’t have a lot of wind in this region.’

The bear responded to my apparent excuses with a shrug. The only sound was the rhythmic crunch of his paws on the pavement.

I asked if he was hot.

‘No, I’m fine. Walking on asphalt is a bit tiring, but I’ll be OK. The river’s not that far. Thank you for your concern. It’s kind of you to . . . Of course if you are hot we can walk on the shoulder. My body is much larger than yours so my maximum permissible dose is much higher, which means it should be all right for me to go without shoes where the radiation levels are higher. It’ll be cooler for you than this hot pavement. Shall we move?’

He went on in this vein, a picture of solicitude. I was wearing a big hat and can handle heat well anyway, so I said no, but in fact it may have been he who wanted to move off the pavement. We walked on silently.

Eventually we heard in the distance the faint sound of rushing water. As we walked it grew louder until, at last, we reached the river. I had expected to find no one there, but two men were standing by the water’s edge. Before the ‘incident’, this had been a lively place where people swam and fished, and families brought their children. Now, however, there were no children left anywhere in the area.

I set down my bag and started mopping my face with a towel. The bear’s tongue was hanging out, and he was panting slightly. As we stood there, the two men came up to us. Both were wearing protective suits. One had long gloves that reached his elbows, while the other sported sunglasses.

‘It’s a bear, isn’t it,’ said Sunglasses.

‘I envy bears,’ put in Long Gloves.

‘Bears can handle Strontium. Plutonium, too.’

‘What do you expect? They’re bears.’

‘So that’s why. Because they’re bears.’

‘Yeah, because they’re bears.’

They went back and forth like this a few more times. Sunglasses stole a glance at my face, but he avoided looking at the bear directly. Long Gloves occasionally ran his hands over the bear’s belly and tugged at his fur. Finally they said, ‘Because he’s a bear’ one last time, turned their backs, and wandered off.

‘Good grief,’ the bear said after they had gone. ‘I guess they meant well.’

I didn’t say anything.

‘You know, my maximum permissible dose may be a bit higher than humans, but that doesn’t mean I’m resistant to Strontium and Plutonium. Oh well, how can you expect them to know?’

Before I had a chance to reply, the bear walked quickly to the river’s edge.

Tiny fish were darting back and forth in the water. The cool of the river felt good on my face. Looking more closely, I could see that each fish was swimming in a narrowly circumscribed area, first upstream, then downstream, as if bound by a long and narrow rectangular space. Those bounds marked its turf. The bear was studying the water also. But was he seeing the same things that I was? Perhaps the world beneath the water was different when seen through the eyes of a bear.

Suddenly, there was a great splash as the bear leaped into the river. When he had sloshed halfway across he stopped, plunged his right paw into the current, and pulled out a fish. It was about three times the size of the tiny fish we had seen swimming along the banks.

‘Bet you were surprised,’ the bear said when he had returned. ‘My legs just moved on their own. Good sized one, isn’t it?’

The bear held the fish up for me to see. Its fins sparkled in the sunlight. The two men from before were pointing in our direction and saying something to each other. The bear beamed triumphantly.

‘They eat the moss that grows on the river bottom,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, a lot of Cesium collects there, too.’

The bear opened his bag, pulled out a cloth bundle and withdrew a small knife and a cutting board. Deftly he cut open the fish and gutted it, and washed it with water from a plastic bottle he had brought for the occasion. Then he sprinkled it liberally with coarse salt and laid it on a large leaf.

‘If we turn it over every so often it’ll be ready to eat by the time we get back home,’ he said. ‘But even if you don’t eat it, it’ll be a nice reminder of our trip together.’

This bear really thinks of everything, I thought admiringly.

We spread a cloth on a bench and sat there looking at the river and eating the lunches we had packed. The bear had notched a stick of French bread and inserted pâté and radishes into the openings; while I had rice balls with pickled plums in the middle. For dessert we had one orange each. It was a leisurely meal.

‘Might I have your orange peel?’ he said after we had finished. I gave it to him, and he turned his back and gobbled it down.

The bear went to flip the fish over, then carefully washed the knife, cutting board and cups with water from the bottle. After drying them, he extracted a large towel from his bag and handed it to me.

‘Please use this when you take your nap. It has only been two hours since we started, and the radioactivity is low, but all the same . . . I’m off to take a little walk. Would you like me to sing you a lullaby before I go?’ he asked earnestly.

I told him I was quite capable of falling asleep without a lullaby. He was clearly disappointed, but a moment later he was headed upstream on his walk.

When I awoke the shadows of the trees had lengthened and the bear was sleeping on the bench beside mine. No towel was covering his body, and he was snoring faintly. Apart from us, the place was deserted. The two men were nowhere to be seen. I laid the towel on the bear and went to turn over the salted fish. There were three fish now where only one had been before.

 

‘What a fine outing!’ the bear said, standing before apartment 305. He pulled a Geiger counter out of his bag and ran it over first my body, then his own. I heard the familiar beeping. ‘I hope we have occasion to do it again.’

I nodded. When I tried to thank him for the salted fish and everything else, though, he waved it off.

‘Not at all,’ he answered.

‘OK then . . .’ I said, turning to leave.

‘Well,’ he hesitated shyly.

I waited for him to go on, but he just stood there fidgeting. He was a truly massive bear. A gurgling sound came from deep in his throat. When he was talking, his voice sounded entirely human, but when he hemmed and hawed like this, or when he laughed, he sounded like a real bear.

‘Would you mind if we hugged?’ he finally asked. ‘Where I come from, that’s what we do when we say goodbye to someone we feel close to. If you don’t like the idea, of course, then we don’t have to.’

I consented. The fact bears don’t take baths meant there would probably be more radiation on his body. But it had been my decision from the start to remain in this part of the country, so I could hardly be squeamish.

The bear took a step forward, spread his arms wide, and embraced my shoulders. Then he pressed his cheek against mine. I could smell the odour of bear. He moved his other cheek to mine and squeezed me firmly again. His body was cooler than I had expected.

‘I had a truly wonderful time. I feel as though I have returned from a voyage to some faraway place. May the Bear God bestow his blessings on you. Oh yes, and salted fish doesn’t keep very well, so if you choose not to eat it be sure to throw it out tomorrow.’

Back in my apartment, I placed the wrapped salted fish atop the shoebox in my entrance and went in to take a shower. I carefully washed and rinsed my hair and body, then sat down to write in my diary before going to bed. As I do every night, I recorded my estimate of the radiation I had received that day: thirty micro-sieverts on the surface of my body, and nineteen micro-sieverts of internally received radiation. For the year to date, 2900 micro-sieverts of external radiation, and 1780 micro-sieverts of internal radiation. I tried picturing what the bear god looked like, but it was beyond my imagination. All in all, it had been a pretty good day.

 

2. Afterword

I wrote ‘Kami-sama’, translated here as ‘God Bless You’, in 1993.

The title in Japanese literally means ‘God’, and I make reference to a bear god in the story.

Many such gods existed in ancient Japan. There were gods who presided over all aspects of greater nature: gods of the mountains, of the ocean and the rivers, of the wind and the rain. There were gods connected to daily life as well: gods of the rice fields, of human habitations, of the hearth, the toilet and the well. Gods who punished, animal gods. There were demons too, and giants, goblins and tree spirits that ranged across Japan, from the north of the archipelago all the way down to Okinawa.

It would be an exaggeration to say that I believe in all these gods from the depths of my heart; yet when I wake on a heater-less morning in these days of electricity rationing and feel the warm rays of the sun pouring through my window, my immediate reaction is, ‘Aah, the sun god has returned.’ In that sense, I still retain the sensibility of the Japanese of old.

My reaction to all that I saw and heard in the aftermath of the earthquake was, ‘Why have I kept myself in the dark all these years, never attempting to find out what I should have known?’ What follows, therefore, is an account of the few things I have learned since then. Since I am not an expert, my terms and metaphors may sometimes be off the mark. If so, I hope those of you reading this will help me correct my mistakes.

First, uranium.

The radioactive isotopes used to power nuclear plants like those in Fukushima are obtained from a material called Uranium 235. These isotopes, I discovered, are found in nature, in the uranium that is buried in mountains, or deep in the earth, or even directly under towns and cities. This is uranium in its natural form.

Natural uranium, however, contains two types of radioactive isotopes, which are known as uranium 235 and uranium 238. U-238 is far more common than U-235.

Indeed, put in more familiar terms, uranium 238 comprises 99.3% of the total population; uranium 235 just 0.7%.

In other words, it is extremely rare.

Human beings have managed to condense this rare mineral to generate electrical power, or build bombs like the one dropped on Hiroshima. The reason is that when U-238 is bombarded with those light and airy particles called neutrons it remains aloof and unconcerned, while the same neutrons set off a rapid chain reaction in the more unstable U-235. The point being, I guess, that a guy who is quick to fly off the handle generates more energy than a guy who is mellow and easygoing.

When I watch the daily reports of the explosive incidents at the nuclear plant and the ‘critical’ situation there, I wonder how the god of uranium feels about the fact that we have set the gremlins of U-235 to work for us in this fashion.

As I said, uranium 235 is exceedingly rare. As a matter of fact, though, it was more common back in the old days. The old days here being about 4.5 billion years ago. A time not long after the earth was formed.

The life of U-235, however, is shorter than that of U-238; indeed, the half-life of U-238 is 4.5 billion years, while it takes only 740 million years for half of U-235 to give up the ghost. So over all these billions of years, the population of U-235 was dwindling away there unnoticed in the ground, shrinking by half every 740 million years. And then humans came across it.

It was Marie and Pierre Curie who discovered the presence of radioactive isotopes in the late 19th century. Then, eventually, World War II came along. Well, people thought, let’s put them to work them for us now. And they didn’t fool around, either. Germany concentrated more on nuclear power, while countries like the United States, Great Britain, Russia and Japan focused on building nuclear bombs.

But let me return to the story of the god of uranium.

Uranium 235 had been resting there in the ground, quietly dwindling away for billions of years. Had no human touched it, it would have gone on emitting its piddling quantities of radiation without causing any problem, peacefully watching over the world. ‘How self-effacing we are!’ I can hear the god say. ‘Per time and space unit, our radiation is far less than that of the cosmic rays that bombard the earth every day.’

Human beings, however, had another idea. They gathered bits of U-235 from wherever they lay, concentrated them and then whipped them into action. ‘Split your atoms,’ they cried. ‘Give us light, give us heat, give us power. Work! Work!’ For nuclear bombs, they demanded that the power be released in great explosions; for nuclear power, in dribs and drabs . . .

If the god of uranium really exists, then what must he be thinking? Were this a fairy tale of old, what would happen when humans broke the laws of nature to turn gods into minions?

In 2011, I reworked ‘God Bless You’ into ‘God Bless You 2011.’ I had no intention of standing in the pulpit and preaching against the dangers of nuclear power. Rather my purpose was to express my amazement at how our daily lives can go on so uneventfully day after day and then, suddenly, be dramatically changed by external events. The experience left me with a quiet anger that still has not subsided. Yet, in the end, this anger is directed at nothing other than myself. Who built today’s Japan if not me, and others like me? Even as we bear this anger, we will carry forward in our mundane lives. Stubbornly, we refuse to give up, to say the hell with it. For when all is said and done, it is always a joy to be alive, however daunting the circumstances may be.

 

3. God Bless You

The bear invited me to go for a walk with him to the river, about twenty minutes away on foot. I had taken that road once before in the early spring to see the snipes, but this was the first time I had gone in hot weather, and carrying lunch to boot. It would be a bit of a trek, somewhere between a hike and a stroll.

The bear was a massive full-grown male who had just moved into apartment 305, three doors down the hall from me. As a gesture of good will, he had treated all of us on the same floor to ‘moving-in noodles’ and distributed packets of postcards, a level of formality you don’t see often nowadays. He sure wants people to like him, I thought, but then you probably have to do that if you’re a bear.

When he stopped by my apartment with the noodles, we discovered that we might not be complete strangers after all.

‘You don’t happen to be from X town, do you?’ he asked when he saw my name on the door. Yes, I replied, I certainly am. It turned out that a person who had once been a huge help to him had an uncle, one of the town officials, whose last name matched mine. When we traced the connection a bit further, we arrived at the conclusion that this official and my father might be second cousins. A flimsy tie to be sure, but the bear appeared deeply moved nonetheless, waxing eloquently about the ‘karmic bond’ it established between us. From his moving-in etiquette to his manner of speech, he certainly seemed to be an old-fashioned type of bear.

 

And so the bear and I headed down the road on our stroll-hike. I don’t know a whole lot about the animal kingdom so I couldn’t tell if he was an Asiatic black bear, a brown bear, or a Malayan sun bear. I thought of asking him, but it seemed too rude. Nor did I know his name. When I asked what I should call him, he thought for a moment and then, after checking to be sure that no other bears were nearby, said: ‘For the moment I am without a name, and since there are no other bears here I don’t think I really need one. I prefer to be addressed as “you”, but please imagine it written in Chinese characters, not phonetically. Actually, though, you can call me anything you like – I won’t mind.’

Yes, this was a most old-fashioned bear. Not to mention rather finicky about trivial points of logic.

The road to the river ran though rice fields. It was a paved road, and cars drove past from time to time. They slowed to a crawl as they approached and made a wide circle around us. Not a soul passed on foot. It was scorching day, and no one was working in the paddies. The only sound was the rhythmic crunch of the bear’s paws on the pavement.

I asked if he was hot.

‘No, I’m fine. Walking on asphalt is a bit tiring, but I’ll be OK. The river’s not that far. Thank you for your concern. It’s kind of you to . . . Of course if you are hot we can find a place to rest on the main highway.’

He continued in this vein, a picture of solicitude. I was wearing a big hat and can handle heat well anyway, so I said no, but in fact it may have been he who wanted to take a break. We walked on silently.

Eventually we heard in the distance the faint sound of rushing water. As we walked it grew louder until, at last, we reached the river. Many people were gathered on its banks, some swimming, others fishing. I set down my bag and started mopping my face with a towel. The bear’s tongue was hanging out, and he was panting slightly. As we stood there two men and a young boy came up to us. All three were wearing swimming trunks. One man sported sunglasses while the other had a snorkel draped around his neck.

‘Daddy, it’s a bear!’ squealed the boy.

‘Right you are,’ said Snorkel.

‘A real bear!’

‘A bear for sure.’

‘A bear! A bear!’

They went back and forth like this a few more times. Snorkel stole a glance at my face, but he avoided looking at the bear directly. Sunglasses just stood there silently. The child yanked the bear’s fur and kicked his legs. Then he shouted, ‘Punch!’ and slugged the bear in the stomach before running off. The two men ambled after him.

‘Good grief,’ the bear said after they had gone. ‘But young people don’t mean any harm, you know.’

I didn’t say anything.

‘I mean, human beings are of all sorts, but children have no real malice.’

Before I had a chance to reply, the bear walked quickly to the river’s edge.

Tiny fish were darting back and forth in the water. The cool of the river felt good on my face. Looking more closely, I could see that each fish was swimming in a narrowly circumscribed area, first upstream, then downstream, as if bound by a long and narrow rectangular space. Those bounds marked its turf. The bear was studying the water also. But was he seeing the same things that I was? Perhaps the world beneath the water was different when seen through the eyes of a bear.

Suddenly, there was a great splash as the bear leaped into the river. When he had sloshed halfway across he stopped, plunged his right paw into the current, and pulled out a fish. It was about three times the size of the fish we had seen swimming along the banks.

‘Bet you were surprised,’ the bear said when he had returned. ‘I should have warned you but my legs moved on their own. Good sized one, isn’t it?’

The bear held the fish up for me to see. Its fins sparkled in the sunlight. People fishing along the shore were pointing in our direction and saying something to each other. The bear beamed triumphantly.

‘Allow me to give you this fish. As a memento of our day together.’

The bear opened his bag, pulled out a cloth bundle and withdrew a small knife and a cutting board. Deftly, he cut open the fish, gutted it and washed it. Then he sprinkled it liberally with coarse salt he had brought for the occasion and laid it on a large leaf.

‘If we turn it over every so often it’ll be ready to eat by the time we get back home,’ he said.

This bear really thinks of everything, I thought admiringly.

We sat there on the grass looking at the river and eating the lunches we had packed. The bear had notched a stick of French bread and inserted pâté and radishes into the openings; while I had rice balls with pickled plums in the middle. For dessert we had one orange each. It was a leisurely meal.

‘Might I have your orange peel?’ he said after we had finished. I gave it to him, and he turned his back to me and gobbled it down.

The bear went to flip the fish over, then carefully washed the knife, cutting board, and cups with water from the river. After drying them, he extracted a large towel from his bag and handed it to me.

‘Please use this when you take your nap. I’m off to take a little walk. Would you like me to sing you a lullaby before I go?’ he asked earnestly.

I told him I was quite capable of falling asleep without a lullaby. He was clearly disappointed, but a moment later he was headed upstream on his walk.

When I awoke the shadows of the trees had lengthened and the bear was sleeping beside me on the ground. No towel was covering his body, and he was snoring faintly. Only a few people remained along the bank. All of them were fishing. I laid the towel on the bear and went to turn over the salted fish. There were three fish now where only one had been before.

 

‘What a fine outing!’ the bear said, standing before apartment 305 and pulling his keys from his bag. ‘I hope we have occasion to do it again.’

I nodded. When I tried to thank him for the salted fish and everything else, though, he waved it off.

‘Not at all,’ he answered.

‘OK then . . .’ I said, turning to leave.

‘Well,’ he hesitated shyly.

I waited for him to go on, but he just stood there fidgeting. He was a truly massive bear. A gurgling sound came from deep in his throat. When he was talking, his voice sounded entirely human, but when he hemmed and hawed like this, or when he laughed, he sounded like a real bear.

‘Would you mind if we hugged?’ he finally asked. ‘Where I come from that’s what we do when we say goodbye to someone we feel close to. If you don’t like the idea, of course, then we don’t have to.’

I consented. The bear took a step forward, spread his arms wide, and embraced my shoulders. Then he pressed his cheek against mine. I could smell the odour of bear. He moved his other cheek to mine and squeezed me firmly again. His body was cooler than I had expected.

‘I had a truly wonderful time. I feel as though I have returned from a voyage to some faraway place. May the Bear God bestow his blessings on you. Oh yes, and salted fish doesn’t keep very well, so make sure you eat it all this evening.’

Back in my apartment, I grilled the salted fish and took a bath. Then I wrote a bit in my diary before going to bed. I tried picturing what the bear god looked like, but it was beyond my imagination. All in all, it had been a pretty good day.

 

Photograph © Harald Deischinger

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