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Spirited Away: Hideo Furukawa’s “Horses, Horses, in the Innocence of Light,” Part 1

By Hideo Furukawa

Translator's Note: Hideo Furukawa is one of the most powerful and energetic of contemporary Japanese writers. His writings, like his readings, come in torrents. They reflect his background in theater and stage. While Furukawa is from Fukushima Prefecture, from a town called Kōriyama, and while it is clear from this excerpt that his extended family maintain farms in that region, Furukawa does not see himself as, nor want to be pegged as, a “Fukushima writer.” For one, as one also takes from this excerpt, “Fukushima” points to a nuclear power plant meltdown. But the earthquake, the tsunami, and indeed the radiation following the events of March 11, 2011, affect a region much larger than either the prefecture or the town known as “Fukushima.” Further, “Fukushima” is a semiotic world event that has not ended. It is an evolving experience, an ongoing disaster, one that much of official Japan is actively trying to forget. Furukawa wants no part of the memorializing, no part of this forgetting, no part of limiting these events as “past tense.” This region and these ramifications comprise a present to be lived and remembered.

These excerpts from Horses, Horses, in the Innocence of Light preserve the Furukawa narrator’s voice, the “being-there” of these characters, and his effusive style and energy. The translation tries to preserve the herky-jerky, unprocessed feel, the overwhelmed and overwhelming emotional space created by the narrative. The excerpt preserves the convoluted flows of time, the intertwined story lines, the kinship with magical realism. Not apparent here is the manner in which Furukawa brings an earlier novel and its characters into Horses, Horses. Furukawa completed a “mega-novel” (as he consistently refers to it) called Seikazoku (The Holy Family) in 2008, 3 years prior to the 3.11 disasters. The storylines, characters, conflicts, and concerns of Holy Family inhabit Horses, Horses. Incorporating the history of the rugged, marginalized Tohoku region of Furukawa’s upbringing and of the disasters, Holy Family depicts two brothers in violent conflict with each other, with the region, and with the official histories of the nation of Japan. The brothers’ names contain within them the Chinese characters for animals (dog in the family name; horse and sheep in the given names, to be precise); they travel through this region named after horses. That is, recounting histories of exploited human and nonhuman animals comprises one of the book’s strands—exactly as the title would lead us to expect. When these brothers appear in the back seat of the car that the Furukawa narrator is taking to Fukushima, we know we have entered yet another world. That world is rich and multi-layered, exactly as are the worlds of the chorus in the background, a chorus that consists of William Faulkner, of Gabriel García Márquez, and Kenji Nakagami. These excerpts distill the narrative of witness to disaster; the complete work is compelling in its technical accomplishment.—Doug Slaymaker

Eyes must be closeable. It’s a characteristic of sight. It’s what fundamentally sets it apart from hearing. Eardrums have no lids. But retinas are outfitted with eyelids. So it should be easy; you’d think, but I can’t do it. I keep staring at the information on the television; now the surface of my eyeballs is totally dried out. More like the dam has burst, actually. Teardrops fall. They are dripping like rain. How many times can it occur in an hour? Frequency can’t be ascertained. “One hour,” the unit of measurement disappears. Not twenty-four of them in a day. Commercials have disappeared from the TV. Delimiters disappeared. Things that cannot happen in the mere span of one day are happening, expanding—EXPANDING, PROLIFERATING, ON AND ON. The only phrase I can think of that captures the experience: “time is extinguished.” More concretely, consciousness of the date on the calendar, the day of the week, has collapsed. I think I can put a name to it: “Spirited Away.” Abducted by spirits. When a person is spirited away seven days are experienced as half a year; three months feel like a matter of seconds. Time can’t be accounted for, it’s impossible to measure.


I experienced one day “like” it was a week. Or three days that “felt like” a month. This is “spirited away” time. I was not the only one that lost all sense of days of the week, I was not the only one for whom the dates of the calendar disappeared. (Everyone I was talking with seemed to be experiencing the same thing.) Meantime, everyone living outside the places deemed a “disaster zone” was able to escape the “spirited away” time; that includes me. At the end of the ongoing and repeated announcements about the situation that “exceeds all expectations,” we entered a phase more of entropy than progress. Not a particularly exciting conclusion.


I began writing this essay on April 11, 2011. I was about ten pages in when there was an aftershock off the coast of Fukushima. Just over magnitude 6.


Every time there was a strong aftershock, I would revise.

The aftershocks left no options. A clear voice: “revise completely and thoroughly.”

Same voice as that earlier voice that said: “Go There.” So I followed the voice, waited for some things to fall into place, and started writing this.


Another major aftershock. The Earthquake Early Warning system announced it as “In the Hamadōri section of Fukushima Prefecture, strongest tremors at six plus on the seismic intensity scale.” I shuddered. In Northern Ibaraki it was only a weak five on the scale. In Iwaki, four. But what does it mean to feel relieved at a time like that? A weak five is still pretty powerful. Do we really need grow accustomed to this, and find no threat in anything lower than six? Hard to imagine.

For the past three days the hypocenter of practically all the tremors has been on the prefectural border of Fukushima and Ibaraki. Deep underground there.

Now that I have remembered, or become newly cognizant of the dates, if I am going to put them in I might as well go the whole way. And if that is the case, I am going to try a rewrite of that manuscript that I threw away. But I’m going to ignore the chronology. I’m going to work backward and work against the flow. I think there was a small event in Kyoto on Sunday April 10. There was a charity event for the disaster, although no one was calling it “charity.” To move back two Sundays prior to that April 10, to March 27, I participated in an event in Tokyo. The event was scheduled for Tokyo, in Shibuya, a small club, the kind they call a “live spot.” I was to read. Since the line-up was clearly organized around the poets, I chose one of my texts that could pass as poetry. I had to read in a voice, and from a text, that could sound as though it was being sent to Tohoku. I pulled out a section, something like a monologue, in Tohoku dialect. I thought I’d read it, but like a remix. But no way I was going to read an episode including humans. Not if I did anything at all. So I chose an episode about horses. It was a tale I pulled from an area without a name in Iwate prefecture where they used to abandon old horses. I chose the story of a now-dead mare, a horse with no name, from that area. This was Shōwa 21—that’s 1946 in the Western calendar. 1946, of course, is the year following the defeat in the war. So, a tale about a horse in Tohoku and that Japan—the Japanese nation-state. I was going to read, certainly try to read, of pain that transcended time and space. I was confident I could read in a way to make it work. I trusted that the horse language, at least, was lodged somewhere within me.

After I read, at the intermission, a girl came to see me. She had my book in hand. She looked to be in her late teens; I checked with one of the assistants later who confirmed that she was a high school student. She wanted me to sign her book, which I was happy to do. We exchanged a few words. “I came from Sōma,” she said. And then I understood: she was a refugee. That made her a refugee from the Pacific coast of Fukushima Prefecture, from the disaster area, from the coastal part, from Hamadōri. And, of course, in Sōma there are horses—the place name holds horses within it: Sō points to a long history, to physiognomy, and ma is the character for horse. There are, in fact, horses there. “I see.” That was all I could get out at first. I tripped over my tongue again, but finally said, “I will go to Sōma.” Which meant, “I want to see it.”

Her response was immediate, “Please come and see for yourself.”

This takes us back to two Sundays prior to March 27. On March 13 I received a writing invitation from the press agency. Of course, I was fully wrapped up within the “spirited away” time, and even though dates and days had been hijacked, if I go back over it now I can get it in order enough to talk about it. I will lay it out carefully. This is now about forty hours after the monster tremors. And then an invitation comes to write something, “a message for the victims” they wanted. I had been following the development of events at the Fukushima Number 1 nuclear plant, but I didn’t hesitate in response. I answered reflexively, immediately. “I’ll write,” I said. I had no idea that it would be sent off to the Kyoto Shinbun newspaper.

One day before that, Saturday.

And the day before that, Friday.

I was in Kyoto. I was in Kyoto on March 11, 2011; between two and three in the afternoon I was in Sakyo ward, gathering materials for my novel.

The fact is that this research trip was originally planned for two days later, on March 13. I was going to leave Tokyo late evening on that Sunday. But K, that young friend of mine, and the band that he was front man for, and their CD release party, which eventually ended up being moved to April 9, had been scheduled for the 13th—March 13th—so I had already changed my plans and moved the trip back. I figured I would get back to Tokyo in time, no problem.

Even in Kyoto there was quite a bit of shaking.

Didn’t know they had such long ones here in Western Japan, I thought to myself. Which took me back to the great Hanshin earthquake of 1995. Tohoku never entered my mind, of course.

At 5:00 or so I was on the platform of the Kyoto Karasuma subway. I noticed people, then more people, with what looked like a newspaper extra in their hands, with the dancing headline. White letters on black background. “Tohoku,” it read. “Deep in the Pacific Ocean. Magnitude 8.8. Numerous large Tsunami.”

Panic. I called my parents’ house. Used a public phone. I got through. The next day I wouldn’t have been able to get through. The magnitude was recalibrated at 9.0 two days later. In my hotel room I couldn’t take my eyes from the news on the television. That’s when that period of steady gazing began. That period relates directly to the “spirited away time.” Is tied right to it.

Now here is an odd connection (even though it took weeks for me to recall it): on that day I was hearing tsunami warnings, over and over again, in the live broadcasts streaming across the TV screen, but they were for Wakayama, for the coast near where I was in Western Japan, not for Tohoku, yet everything, in those days, had melted into “Tohoku.” Maybe this counts as the spirited away space too. And then, in that room of that hotel, it was the writer Nakagami Kenji that came to mind. Because of his Wakayama connection, on the Kii peninsula. But I had all but forgotten about that thought. Cleanly, completely. When I later started going over my thoughts, an aha moment: When I went back to peruse the section on “Wakayama” in Nakagami’s reportage book Kishū (that was just this morning, April 13) I came across the following passage and was rendered speechless. Nakagami was writing about the cholera outbreak that had started in Arida city back in 1977.

One of the newspapers from Shingu, in the Southern part of Wakayama, sent to me here in Tokyo, had an advertisement with the following statement printed in big letters: “We use no vegetables from within the prefecture.” At about this time I also heard about cars with Wakayama prefecture license plates being turned away from drive-ins in neighboring prefectures. If someone was asked, “Where did you come from,” they wouldn’t answer “Wakayama” but give the name of another, neighboring, prefecture. We laugh at these stories now, but that’s Japan—you never know where such panics are going to appear.

This morning, for this Wakayama prefecture, I inserted a prefectural name that begins with “F.” Most natural thing in the world.

“This morning” refers to April 13. But the “now” of the Kyoto hotel where I am located refers to March 11.


So, think about a flammable liquid. A tank of liquefied petroleum explodes at an oil refinery and shoots off orange flames. Numerous white hot pillars of flame. How do you count pillars of flame? One “pillar,” two “pillars”? Or, think about a power outage that extends well beyond the powers of imagination. Reports say seven million homes affected. One can only visualize it as complete blackness. Or, imagine flooded airport runways; or, think about shinkansen trains that have run off their tracks. The bird’s-eye view images come streaming in one after the other, there on the screen. Or, imagine a tsunami that floods water up into all the rivers. From the coasts, images that recreate it over and over again. There are muddy brown currents which in their height (and maybe in their sheer speed) swallow up untold vehicles. Moving through there with quick violence. Tail ends of cars being smacked around. Can’t really think of them as swimming. Or, think of mudslides and how many people, how many tens of people, buried alive, not clear how many people. Hundreds of people, no doubt. Thousands of people, washed away. Or, think about building roofs, and all the people up there looking to be rescued. All this together is being reported at ten thousand people. So, think about night, power outage at night in the residential neighborhoods and the flames are rising higher, this hellish inferno casts off an orange color different from the flames of the liquid petroleum refinery. The petroleum refinery in Chiba prefecture different from the refinery in Miyagi prefecture. Maybe it is Miyagi. The heavy oil flows from the storage tank and is burning down the streets. So think of an earthquake that registers 6 on the scale, originating in Nagano prefecture. Nagano? The news people say that it is not clear if they are aftershocks or not. So, another massive earthquake? I keep hearing this phrase, keeping seeing the phrase “unprecedented domestic something-something,” over and over, on screens. There is a TV in the room. Even though the lights are surely on, it’s dark. It’s now the middle of the night so obviously we have started a new day on the calendar, but I sensed the beginning of the disappearance of dates. I should have been sleeping but I wasn’t. The only sleep is REM sleep; continual dreams. My eyes are fixed on the TV screen. And then open the eyelids, and—no surprise—there’s the screen again. The realm of the living, so it seems to me. The over there on the television is the living realm, whereas I, me in particular, have passed over. On to the side of the unreal. I am in no position to ask myself questions but I ask myself anyway: why am I not among the victims? All of those people over there are swallowed by death, touched and caressed by the god of death, but me? How did I get off not dying? Offenses. To overdo the description, guilty conscience. Why is it that all those people over there had to be the victims?

Days have begun disappearing, but it’s morning. The next morning has arrived. The main Tokaidō shinkansen has started operations again, back on track. I return to Tokyo. Tokyo had also been shaken. So, if I had been in Tokyo on March 11, at that time, as originally planned, I would be considering myself as one of the disaster victims. Would have been there for the tremors, a disaster victim, one of the affected. But I was in Kyoto. Flung back from over there. Nothing but the information on the television.


Then, concentric circles. At first, an order for everyone within a three-kilometer radius of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant to evacuate; then, an order requiring everyone within a ten-kilometer radius to remain indoors. Before long the evacuation order was extended out to ten kilometers. An evacuation order was also mandated for everyone within a ten-kilometer radius of Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant; at the same time the evacuation zone was extended to twenty kilometers around Fukushima Daiichi. Two sets of concentric circles. In places they overlap. But, before long, a thirty-kilometer radius circle was added circling Fukushima Daiichi, inside which was required “internal refuge.” This “big circle” looked like the corona around a sun. Around Daini was the “small circle.” Subordinated to that “Big Circle” was a concentric core circle which made the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant look like the sun. Land of the Sun. The new country of Japan.

The concentric circles, all of them, lost their shapes, collapsed. Already on April 11 it was announced that the circles would be done away with “someday.”

“But still,” I thought to myself. This just prior to April 11 while I remained wrapped up inside the “spirited away time.” What’s with naming this whole thing after a nuclear power plant? Is there really any good reason to refer to the whole thing by the name of a prefecture that just happened to begin with “F”? This gave rise to concentric circles designed to deal with the radioactivity. While these two circles, the big one and the small one, vie with each other, they are actually collapsed into one big circle, which results in the second “Land of the sun.” The new Japan birthed from this is lumped together by name and geography with “Fukushima.” The entire world associates it with this place. It became clear to me again. Fukushima Prefecture was being locked down; no, let’s be precise: it was being blockaded.

But that makes no sense. Fukushima Daiichi power plant is the property of Tokyo Electric Power Company. The plant is in Fukushima Prefecture so should be under the jurisdiction of Tohoku Electric Company. Isn’t it within the jurisdiction of the Tohoku electric company? Just makes no sense. And then I get these reports: one-third of Tokyo’s electric power is supplied by Fukushima prefecture. Or maybe it was that “that one-third of Tokyo Electric Company’s electricity” came from there. No need to track down the precise numbers here, because this all makes the point of the situation clearer than the details. I mean, really. Circles, and concentric circles. FUKUSHIMA—no matter how you spell it—was being locked out. People have been chased outside those circles, but it is all such an empty fiction. “Beyond the prefectural border?” Can one truly escape by leaving the prefecture?

I put my hand on those circles.

On the screen streaming the news.

I can feel the rings. They speak to me. “Go.” I saw myself in the bathroom mirror, half of the eyebrows on the right side had disappeared, clearly I had been unconsciously plucking them out. There I was, pale. “My god,” I thought, “how stressed have I been?” “What day is it? What day of the week?” “Go.” There was the voice. “You must go there.” “Inside the concentric circles.”

Read the second part of this extract here.

© Hideo Furukawa. By arrangement with the author. Translation adapted from Hideo Furukawa's forthcoming book Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka, to be published by Columbia University Press in Spring 2016. 

Doug Slaymaker is professor of Japanese at the University of Kentucky. 

Published Mar 11, 2015   Copyright 2015 Hideo Furukawa

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