Resisting through Composing Haiku about the Earthquake Disaster with High School Students
By Nakamura Susumu High School Teacher, Fukushima City
How the heat shimmers!
Those who were exposed are left
Speechless—that is we
I am a high school teacher living in Fukushima City. I currently teach Japanese language at a part-time high school that holds night classes in Date City. On the side, I compose verses as a haiku poet, and in 2019 I published a modest book of haiku at my own expense, titled “A Difficult Mediocrity.” I am currently 54.
I began composing haiku in 1995. From 2005, I studied under the famous haiku poet Kaneko Tohta (1919 to 2018) and began thinking whether I couldn’t use haiku as an educational tool at the same time. But just then in 2011 we had the great earthquake and nuclear accident. People were running about in confusion in the face of a reality that left them speechless, and we came to spend our days in bewilderment, wondering what we should do and how we should think. This clumsy haiku is one that came forth like a sigh about a month after the earthquake. I wonder if there weren’t many people who were rendered speechless in their thoughts even if they weren’t living in Fukushima.
At that time, I was teaching at a part-time high school that held night classes in Fukushima City. One day in May, when I mentioned in a digression from classwork that the Unit 3 reactor, where an explosion had occurred, was in bad shape, one student reacted furiously.
He said, “I wish the whole nuclear plant would just explode. There has been so much contamination, but they won’t let us evacuate. We have been sacrificed for the sake of the economy and simply abandoned.”
I admired him for his sharp insight. On the other hand, I felt both ashamed for having caused him such hopelessness and also apologetic for fanning his mistrust of adult society. What sort of education would my students trust? What kind of education could give them a real sense of the dignity of life, and not leave them feeling that the young were being sacrificed for the economy? Since then, I have devoted myself to recapturing the dignity of life through a solid sense of living. And as part of that, my goal became to compose haiku together with my students. Through haiku, we think about and restore the basis of life. I have aimed for that and am continuing to provide my students detailed instruction on turning their memories of the earthquake disaster into haiku. Below, I would like to present some of the haiku verses my high school students composed after the earthquake disaster.
Danger shrilling like a scream
The cicadas chant
Composed in 2011, this verse dates from when radiation doses were still high and life was full of uncertainty in Fukushima City. Every day, unfamiliar words like “Sievert” and “Becquerel” flowed forth from the media. One summer day during this time, the composer listened to cicadas shrilling and felt within it the sound of people screaming, he explains. The unease then in being forced to live as if normally while being unable to escape from radioactive contamination is brought to life even now in these lines, which makes them impressive.
In an empty pool
Weeds grow and accumulate
– Kanno Mizuki
This was written in 2012. To avoid radiation exposure, swimming classes were not being held then. Even in summer the pools remained empty. Such a disheartening scene that anyone would turn away from is symbolized by the weeds. Writing “Fukushima” in the phonetic katakana syllabary (used for foreign or technical terms or other forms of distancing) is also effective. Everything becomes void in an instant when subjected to contamination from a nuclear accident, and the people who live there are abandoned like these weeds. This haiku brings all these things to mind. It is an unforgettable verse.
Ourselves, we silently pray
On the atomic bomb day
This was written in 2014. The composer was a student from Iitate Village. He joined our literary club, but lacked confidence somehow and sat by himself reflecting. Even when he wrote, it was non-committal, using safe words only. Then I tried encouraging him to compose haiku more about his own personal experience, whereupon he brought these lines forth from inside him, and even I was surprised. It must have been when he was watching a memorial ceremony for Hiroshima or perhaps Nagasaki in August, and he silently prayed with them. However, this was not just others’ affairs; he was aware of the sadness of being a hibakusha (radiation victim) himself, a word that makes this a very downcast verse. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini, Chernobyl and now Fukushima. How many hibakusha must there be before the damage from nuclear technology ends? Other verses he wrote then included “Non-radiated / Water is used for cleansing / Radiated graves” and “In Fukushima / Grandmother dries persimmons / Again I have some” (with “Fukushima” in katakana).
Not knowing of the
I take a deep breath
Written in 2020, this is among the verses I had my students compose in class while looking back on their memories when nearly ten years had elapsed since the earthquake disaster. The composer had been a small child at the time of the earthquake and had known nothing of the dangers of radioactivity, and her haiku gives direct expression to thoughts bordering on self-reproach over having led her life breathing robustly in those days. It is a curt message, lacking a seasonal word, but something in it reverberates. Even when there was real danger, these blameless people were exposed to it with no attempt to warn them. However, the government and corporations that subjected these people to danger while concealing important information have not been held responsible at all. In this verse I sense doubt being cast on that absurdity.
Soon it will be 11 years since the great earthquake. The Tokyo Olympics were held last year, and with that having come to pass, we fall under an illusion as if the accident had never happened. But because I am involved with my students through haiku like this, I sense that the trauma they suffered has not healed. On the other hand, the generation that did not experience the disaster directly will increase in number, so I think the fading of memories of that time constitutes an urgent issue.
Now, people in Fukushima Prefecture are beginning to concentrate their efforts into initiatives to prevent these memories from vanishing. I think the existence of a memorial museum that opened last year can be considered part of that. In addition, the prefectural education committee has initiated an experimental “high school students’ storytelling project.” I have doubts about these movements, however, because I wonder if all it will come to is that only memories favorable to the national and local governments and corporations will be told, and that while saying they are preventing memories from being lost, in fact they will only misrepresent these memories.
How should we fight back so that these memories are not distorted?
Though you bury them again
You still smell of leeks
– Nomura Momo
This was written in 2015. As the years since the earthquake pass, people’s memories of the disaster are gradually fading and the number of students who complain that it is hard to turn their memories into haiku is increasing. I think this verse, though, skillfully recaptures a scene the composer saw when looking back at that time together with the sense of smell. It was leeks that were being buried, but it was part of people’s activities. When I first read this verse, I associated it in spite of myself with the Nazi’s Holocaust. It is said that to burn books is to burn people, but in this case, could we not say that to bury leeks is to bury people? When we continue doing that, are we ourselves not being buried? This kind of questioning is what comes to our attention from this verse.
Means distort and falsify
Winter’s vacant land
I wrote this haiku in 2020. From a solid sense of the individuals and the places where they live, I would like to continue writing haiku—brief but powerful phrasings—together with young people.