As a writer and priest in Fukushima, Sōkyū grapples with the aftermath of the 2011 nuclear disaster in this short story about a son organising a funeral for his father, who collected radiation-contaminated waste
Rice fields in Fukushima, no longer cultivatable after the evacuation zone was dissolved in August 2012.
Akutagawa Prize winner Gen’yū Sōkyū has an unusual vocation among litterateurs: he is the chief priest of a temple in Fukushima, where nuclear disaster struck following the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011. Both a leader and a major voice in reconstruction efforts, Gen’yū uses fiction to grapple with the catastrophe, and in this story, Mountain of Light, he imagines (perhaps even hopes for) a future of provincial ascendance and “Irradiation Tours”. In this excerpt, the narrator relates his coming to terms with his father’s devotion in collecting the community’s “irradiated” — their radiation-contaminated waste, in other words.
—The editors at Asymptote
The next time I saw Dad was at Mom’s funeral. He himself would die three years later at ninety-five—twenty-five years after our last conversation—of old age, not cancer. After my mother’s cremation, he spoke to me.
“Your ma had a hard time of it, but it was all worthwhile. Thanks to the irradiated, we managed to live meaningfully, right up to the end, and that’s no joke. When my time comes… you’ll burn me on top of that mountain, right?”
His hearing wasn’t so good by that time, so while I said “Don’t be stupid,” apparently what he heard was “Okay, I’ll do it,” although I didn’t realise this until much later. He held my hands in front of Mom’s altar and said “Thank you” over and over again… It might’ve been a misunderstanding, but that was the first time he had ever shown me gratitude.
My brother and sister-in-law had only offered incense at the crematorium, and were no longer there. He was a consultant to an electronics manufacturer, and even though he said he had a meeting to attend, I was sure they had left out of fear. I too had debates with the missus about the effects of low-level exposure, almost every night. Eventually we stopped speaking, and came to see each other as “contaminated.” We’d separated by then. And that’s when I finally realised that we were both being completely ridiculous.
I’m sure all of you will agree—I mean, think about it, academics had all these opposing theories and no one was willing to budge. Some people said that anything up to one hundred thousand times the intensity of background radiation is fine, look at astronauts, they’re fine—and then others demanded that we spend trillions of yen on decontamination to scrape off fertile soil with low-level radiation. The Hormesis and Prophylaxis camps, yeah, that’s what they were called. Both sides wanted the other to calm down and talk things through, but like me and the ex, they just couldn’t do it. You could say my divorce was the result of a proxy war, haha.
People—organisations are even worse—go to terrifying lengths to save face. The ICRP, that’s the International Commission on Radiological Protection, they of all people should’ve created spaces for discussion, but showed no intention of doing so. And then public opinion was set on throwing every last baby out with the bathwater: if nuclear reactors were bad, then all radiation was bad too. In short, no one was calm.
But as you know, after the power plant accident, it was the ICRP who recommended raising the radiation exposure limit by twenty to a hundred times of the normal value. After that was rejected, they just stayed silent, same as me and the ex. Even now I have no idea who’s right. But what’s certain is that the radioactive potassium and carbon and whatnot in our bodies emit a fair amount of radiation, with or without the reactors. Somebody weighing sixty kilos would put out, oh, five thousand becquerels or so. Anyway, the Commission never officially changed their stance on low-level exposure after that. And now we have all of you taking part in this Irradiation Tour, coming to see the mountain my old man made. Radon hot springs are popular once more, and Fukushima’s population is even growing rapidly.
What was I… oh, right—that was quite a ramble—I was telling you about Dad’s request.
For the record, it wasn’t cancer. He might’ve said “Cancer wouldn’t be bad,” but in the end he had a prolonged bout of the autumn flu and kicked the bucket, just like that.
I got the news from my cousin, and when I came back Dad was already laid out in the main room, around there. Yes, right there, where the blond man is sitting, haha. I lifted the white cloth, and saw my old man looking solemn for the first time. It was as if he’d taken off the okame mask—I had never seen that face before, honest.
I spent the whole night thinking. I recalled what Dad said at Mom’s funeral, and I wasn’t sure what to do about his cremation. But the answer soon came to me. You see, my mother’s remains had disappeared from the altar.
Since Mom died eight years ago, I’d started coming back home a little more often. I’d retired from my job, and I didn’t have a family of my own. I wasn’t that worried about Dad living alone, rather I’d come to believe his mountain may have been some kind of miracle.
On one of those visits, he’d told me about their dog’s death, and how he had buried it atop that mountain. Sitting by my old man’s pillow, I looked over at the altar and noticed that while my mother’s picture was there, her remains were not. I put the pieces together and went outside. It was a still, humid night at the beginning of summer.
The sound of insects filled the air. It was my first time ever on that mountain. I realised, halfway up, that it had become much taller than before. It was even taller than it is now, nearly thirty metres, I’d wager. As I went up the winding path, I was aware of the dosimeter packed in my bag, but you know, I didn’t take any measurements. I think my feet were a bit shaky, but I wasn’t scared of anything anymore. Dad did the same thing every day, and he lived peacefully until the age of ninety-five, just like Mom.
Now and then, I felt his presence. Staring at the ground as I climbed, in the dim light of the moon, it seemed my old man was saying “It’s okay, it’s okay” and smiling overhead.
As I expected, there were two pieces of natural stone at the top, set about one metre apart. At some point, Dad had made and maintained a grave for Mom and another for their dog up there. And that’s why this mountain is like one of those burial mounds.
Looking around, I saw the neon signs of the neighbouring town twinkling like countless stars. Of course, the stars in the sky were also countless, and so beautiful. Perhaps Dad built the mountain with the knowledge of this view. I was suddenly reminded of him saying the word “meaningfully” at Mom’s funeral. The last words I’d heard Mom say also seemed to echo in my ear: “Someone come by?”
Thinking back later, the mountain seemed to be glowing faintly that time too, but I couldn’t distinguish it from the silvery moonlight.
I went to the temple the next morning and asked the priest to carry out the funeral at my home. I had the newspapers run not just a death notice, but a full obituary too. My old man had single-handedly taken on the irradiated of this town as well as other parts of the prefecture, so I felt the public ought to know about his death. I might’ve been a little carried away.
The funeral was an incredible affair.
I was very grateful for the hundred-odd wreaths, and the not one but five priests, but this wasn’t your regular congregation—this was a mob. The prefectural governor came, five or six mayors came too. Pretty sure there were over two thousand attendees. But the real highlight came during the cremation, after everyone had gone home.
The priest from my family temple was actually very supportive. When I told him about my old man’s request, he said “Let’s do it. We’ll perform the cremation on top of that mountain.” After the ceremony, the guys from the neighbours’ association carried Dad’s coffin up the mountain. As our ancestors did, we gathered kindling, placed a board on the kindling, and laid the coffin on the board. Straw from nearby rice fields, once considered hazardous, was piled up high on the coffin. It was starting to get dark, and the fire burned beautifully, it did. By that time, the Hormesis school of thought was already pretty mainstream, so I wasn’t surprised by the hundred or so people who had stayed behind to watch from the foot of the mountain. What I didn’t expect was what happened after those people had left. I’d invited the priest into the house, and as we were drinking, I heard a massive bang. I went outside to take a look, and the whole mountain was smouldering, not just the area around my old man’s body.
That wasn’t my old man, it was the priest standing next to me.
After all, the mountain was made up of countless trees, branches, grass, all perfectly flammable. The priest probably also knew that the temperature would go up to five, six hundred degrees at most, and as long as it didn’t go over seven hundred degrees the caesium wouldn’t disperse.
“Is that true?”
“Yes, it’s okay, it’s okay, all of it will stay in the ashes.”
The priest came across as a salesman—no, I hear he used to work at an incinerator, maybe that was it—he spoke with complete assurance. I have no idea which of them first came up with the “it’s okay” mantra. Anyway, we made a makeshift table and continued drinking outside, sitting on upturned beer crates.
That’s when we finally saw it. Where the sky was turning into night, the air had a kind of sheen, it seemed to be lit from some deeper layer. It was the mountain, giving off a pale purple fluorescence. Now and then flames peeked out, smoke billowed up, but the purple aura that encompassed the whole shone with a light that would repel darkness forever. It was as if the cloud bearing the noble Amitābha had descended before our eyes.
The mountain continued to smoulder for several days, gradually shrinking and becoming more compact. And every night, the whole mountain would emit a soft light. No one knows why. All sorts of experts came and investigated the thing, but it’s still a mystery. After the usual forty-nine days of mourning, Dad’s bones were buried close to Mom’s gravestone, and since then the light seems to have become stronger, haha, but that’s probably my eyes playing tricks on me.
Look, there it is, you’ll start to see it as night falls. On your feet, everyone, and let’s ascend the Mountain of Light.
It’s okay, no need to rush. Radiation’s not as strong as it was five years ago, but there’s still plenty to soak up.
Sorry, one more thing—I said earlier that this mountain’s also a burial mound, so first, I’d like all of you to put your hands together in prayer for a moment.
Okay then, please put on your shoes and head outside. Now, now, no pushing. I know you can’t wait to get all the exposure you can, but as in all things, sharing is caring. More and more foreigners visiting these days, but I still don’t have any materials in English, sorry about that. PU-RI-I-ZU KA-MU A-GE-I-N, haha.
Ah, just look at that. You wouldn’t think such beauty could come from this world. Translucent, pure, noble, and absolutely toxic. If it were the colour of lapis lazuli, I guess it’d herald the coming of Bhaiṣajyaguru the Medicine Buddha instead of Amitābha. Wow, even the souvenir store’s neon sign is reflected in the sky—we’re looking at the Pure Land of the East here, everyone.
All right, everyone. Please follow me, single file. The staff will give you detailed instructions, please do as they say. It’s okay, it’s okay. Everyone gets the same exposure. Yes, this is the eighty millisievert course. Hey, you there, no sneaking off to get two rounds in, that’s a violation. Good grief, you guys… Those of you who haven’t changed into your white robes, it’s okay, take your time. Right, we’re heading out now, nice and easy… rokkonshōjō, the sky is clear, rokkonshōjō the mountain shines…
Translated from Japanese by Sim Yee Chiang.
For more of Gen’yū, read one of his early reactions to the events of March 2011 here, translated and published in the July 2011 issue of Asymptote.
- Gen’yū Sōkyū is a novelist and essayist, as well as the 35th chief priest of the Fukuju-ji Zen Buddhist temple in the town of Miharu, Fukushima. Born and raised in Miharu, he started writing novels while reading Chinese literature and drama at Keio University, Tokyo. His second novel, Chūin no hana (Flowers in Limbo), was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2001. His work, which explores the application of Buddhist or Zen teachings in everyday contexts, has been translated into French, German, Korean and Chinese. As an influential leading writer and committee member of the government’s Reconstruction Design Council, Gen’yū is currently a major voice in national reconstruction after the massive earthquake that hit Japan in 2011. His website can be found here.
- Sim Yee Chiang is a contributing editor at Asymptote. He was born in Singapore, received an undergraduate education and a master’s in English from Stanford University, and researched issues of English-Japanese and Japanese-English literary translation under the auspices of the University of Tokyo, where, seduced by the praxis itself, he now hopes to contribute to the exponentially growing mass that is world literature.