Tsutomu Takahashi (PhD) is a Professor Emeritus at Kyushu University, Japan. He completed a PhD in Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University and has since then been teaching American literature and environmental studies at Kyushu University. His publications include Concord Jeremiad: Thoreau’s Rhetoric of the Age (in Japanese, 2012) and The Grammar of the Wild: Thoreau, Muir, and Gary Snyder (in Japanese, 2021). He also coauthored Ecoambiguity, Community, and Development (Lexington Books 2014). E-mail: tsu2758@flc.kyushu-u.ac.jp


“Cursing Modernity”: Michiko Ishimure’s Creative Nonfiction of Minamata

Abstract: In 1973, the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation, a Philippine-based organization, distinguished Michiko Ishimure’s creative nonfiction Kugai Jodo [Paradise in the Sea of Sorrow] with its eminent award, as “the voice of her people in the struggle against industrial pollution.” Since then, Ishimure’s work has attracted much critical attention both domestically and internationally. Karen Thornber of Harvard University, for instance, discussed her work extensively in Ecoambiguity: Environmental Crises and East-Asian Literatures (2012). Kugai Jodo (1969) is based on the historical incident of Minamata Disease, a case of organic mercury poisoning caused by polluted industrial runoff which took place on the coastline of southwestern Japan in late 1950s and 1960s. Despite its apparently realistic account of the incident as a historical record, however, Ishimure’s narrative dramatically brings into focus the question of modernity in a local transitional society, a universal theme that also holds relevance to the communities of Southeast Asia. As a local spiritual “voice cursing the incursion of the modern,” Ishimure’s narrative derives its power from sharply contrasted scenes and motifs surrounding the local fishermen’s memories and dreams, family relations, and communal and natural bonds before and after the incident. This paper discusses the thematic importance of water in Kugai Jodo (incidentally, the topic for the 2023 UN Water Conference), elaborating especially upon its communal spiritual meanings along with the deadly implications of pollution, as a way to illustrate Ishimure’s symbolic quest for what is truly human.
Keywords: Michiko Ishimure, Minamata disease, pollution, toxic discourse, water