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Masuji Ibuse: 黒い雨 (Black Rain)

Ibuse’s best known novel is basically a fictionalised account of the first week after the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Ibuse uses a framing technique. Shizuma Shigematsu is looking after his niece, Yasuko. They live in Hiroshima some years after the bomb. He is trying to get her married but whenever a possible suitor appears, he hears a rumour that she has radiation sickness because she was in Hiroshima when the bomb fell. The rumour is not strictly true, as she was in the outskirts at the time but, in fact, as we later learn, she was exposed to black rain and later contracts radiation sickness. Shizuma had kept a diary at the time of the atom bomb attack (as had Yasuko) and he decides to transcribe that diary to show the matchmaker to prove that Yasuko was not exposed to radiation. This is, of course, just an excuse to give us the excerpts from the diary which take up a good part of the book.

Shizuma comes across as a peaceful and good man, a good husband, a good uncle to Yasuko, a good employee (his firm makes cloth materials for the Japanese army) and, of course, a good Japanese citizen, ever watchful of the wickedness of the enemy though, in a low-key way, aware that his own country is far from perfect. The attack on Hiroshima was far from expected. American planes had dropped warning leaflets of an attack but, of course, no-one knew about the atom bomb. There had been a conventional air raid earlier that morning and the all clear sounded. When three planes flew over head, no-one paid much attention. The Japanese air force did not react as they were short on fuel and did not want to waste fuel on just three planes. Shizuma is in the station when the bomb falls, talking to a woman whose company does business with his. Both are thrown to the ground but manage to escape. From there we follow Shizuma’s own personal attempts to rejoin his family and his place of employment (both of which he manages to do). However, we also see images, often horrific, of the effect of the bomb on Hiroshima, on the buildings, the plants, the animals and, of course, the people.

Ibuse’s skill is to tell the story in a relatively unemotional way, almost as a journalist, focusing primarily on what has happened and its effects rather than condemning (thought there is, naturally, some condemnation), and this he does very well. Though it is Shizuma’s story, he cleverly manages to speak to a variety of people throughout the next few days (amazingly, almost everywhere he goes, he bumps into someone he knows) and gets their perspective on what happened and it is fascinating to see how different people in different parts of the city reacted and were affected. It is also fascinating to see how different people and the various authorities react to the events. Shizuma gets mild radiation sickness but does survive. He also becomes an ad hoc priest as they have to quickly cremate bodies and there are no priests. We see him trying to get coal for his company so that they can continue making the cloth for the army and, inevitably, getting caught up in what bureaucracy is left. Whatever your views on the rights or wrongs of the bombing, this book is, in my view, essential reading. It is sometimes harrowing – Ibuse spares us few details of the physical effects of the bomb and subsequent injuries and illnesses as well as descriptions of burnt and rotting corpses – but gives a rare insight into humans facing a major catastrophe.

Publishing history

First published by Shinchosha, Showa in 1966
First English translation published by Kodansha International in 1969
Translated by John Bester