Julia Curl – Memory and Modernity in Contemporary Japan

For the month of July 2018, I travelled to Tokyo to participate in the Eugene Lang study abroad class on Memory and Modernity in Contemporary Japan. The class introduced me to the field of ethnographic research, as we used those observational tools to examine the ways Japan deals with its complex history. Through a series of field trips around Tokyo, as well as trips to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, we focused on the ways in which conflicting narratives about World War II coexist in its present.

A major theme in the class was the contradictory nature of memory. During WWII, Japan was both the victim and the perpetrator of unimaginable atrocities: they were simultaneously the first victims of nuclear annihilation and the imperialist organizers of brutal forced labor camps.

Before heading to Hiroshima, we read Barefoot Gen, a critically acclaimed manga series written by a survivor of the atomic bomb. Once I started reading Gen, I struggled to put the book down—its depiction of life before and after the bomb was dropped was so visceral, so horrifying, that I could not think about anything else. Once in the city, we visited the Hiroshima Peace Museum, where we spoke to a survivor of the attack, whose stories were equally gripping.

The cover of Barefoot Gen.

In Nagasaki, we saw the other side of this narrative when we visited Gunkanjima, an abandoned island where kidnapped Korean and Chinese people were forced to work in dangerous coal mines. Notably, the Japanese tour guide company that ferried us to the island made only passing reference to Gunkanjima’s significance as a forced labor camp, and instead focused on the technological prowess of Mitsubishi (the company that owned the camps).

Gunkanjima (also known as Battleship Island).

All in all, getting to take part in this trip was an incredibly fascinating and powerful experience.

A grumpy cat I met in the cemetery near our hotel.

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