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The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941 (Japan time) marked the entry of the Empire of Japan into World War II. On August 14, 1945, Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered to the Allied powers. How has Japan as a nation historicized the events of the war, the most important issue for the nation? The answer depends on which part of the entire course of the war you focus on: the outbreak of the war, the five years of being forced to endure ongoing warfare, or the conclusion to the war and the postwar period.

In an exchange of letters with Einstein ("Why War?"), Freud says, "There is no question of getting rid entirely of human aggressive impulses" (1933, 358). In Freud: A Life for Our Time, Peter Gay comments on Freud's reaction to the reality of World War II: "the war had degenerated into a conflict more bloody than any of its predecessors and had produced that 'virtually inconceivable phenomenon,' an outburst of hate and contempt for the enemy" (2006, 355). The phrase "virtually inconceivable phenomenon" expresses a violent and immediate hatred for the enemy; it is the most disagreeable form of what Freud refers to as "humanity aggressive impulses." In his essay on war, Freud focuses primarily on human nature, coming up against "the great changes that have already taken place or are beginning to" (1915, 61).

To research the causes of war and how war is executed is definitely a [End Page 73] fascinating theme for psychoanalysis. However, in this article, I will analyze the psychological mechanisms of individuals and nations at the termination of the war and its aftermath. How did World War II end from Japan's perspective, and how did Japan, a defeated nation, make the transition to postwar society?

"Why War?" mentions "an instinctual inclination" (Freud 1933, 350) within men that is satisfied by killing an enemy. With regard to Einstein's anxiety, Freud explains men's susceptibility to murderous hatred as follows:

You express astonishment at the fact that it is so easy to make men enthusiastic about a war and add your suspicions that there is something at work in them—an instinct for hatred and destruction—which goes halfway to meet the efforts of the warmongers.


If this is the case, it is important to examine how, once the war is over, the citizens of a defeated nation manage to deal with the "instinct for hatred and destruction" that spurred aggressive actions by the nation and individuals before and during the war.

There are two obstacles to constructing history after a defeat. First, it is difficult to put a stop to the powerful psychological energy retained in the collective that was supported during the war, by the aggression in the human mind. Second, complex psychological work is required to acknowledge the enemy as a real person because the nation has been exposed to distorted images and the exaggerated falsehoods of propaganda to emphasize patriotism. Seen in this light, Japan had fought for a great cause in World War II, but the following problems arose as the war drew to an end. How did Japan process the aggression at the time of the unconditional surrender? How were the images of the Americans, the former enemy, transformed in the minds of the Japanese?

The process of Japan's surrender at the end of World War II began on August 14, 1945, when the Japanese government notified the Allied powers that it would accept the Potsdam Declaration. On August 15, Japan's unconditional surrender was announced by Emperor Hirohito on the radio.1 On August 30, Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), arrived in Tokyo tasked with rebuilding the devastated nation. Following the surrender, President Truman approved the US [End Page 74] Initial Post-Surrender Policy for Japan on September 6.2 For the next six years until the end of the occupation in 1951, the military government was conducted solely by the United States. The occupation ended with the conclusion of the Treaty of San Francisco on September 8, 1951. When the treaty came into force on April 28, 1952, the Allied occupation ceased and Japan regained its sovereignty.

The national polity for occupied Japan had dual aspects. First, the objective of the occupation was to strip the Japanese nation of the ability to wage war. Second, Japan was encouraged to become a democratic nation while under the rule of a foreign army. Since these two policies were implemented separately at the time of the occupation of Japan, the effect on Japanese culture was occasionally contradictory because the former functioned as a symbolic castration while the latter urged Japan as a nation to mature. It should also be said that since postwar Japan was occupied by the United States alone, the United States exercised maximum political and cultural influence on Japanese society.3 So how did the Japanese manage the encounter with the former enemy, the United States of America, when real Americans arrived in Japan as the postwar occupying army?

1. The Erasure of the Event/The Event of Erasure

"Unexpected Muteness" ["Fui no Oshi"] by Kenzaburō Ōe,4 Nobel Prize laureate for literature, was first published in the September 1958 issue of Shinchō.5 It is said that "the Japanese defeat is what made him a novelist,"6 but when he first embarked on the career of a writer, he dealt with topics such as memories of his boyhood in Shikoku, his childhood experience of the Japanese defeat, and the origins of Japan's postwar history. He put all of these into "Unexpected Muteness," a short piece of little more than twenty pages. It tells the story of the traumatic experiences of a boy who witnesses two murders in one day. The boy's father, the village head, is shot dead, and a Japanese interpreter, who arrived in the boy's village together with foreign soldiers, is drowned in the river. The story is summarized below:7

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, soldiers with the occupying forces visit a small Japanese village. The villagers are fearful, but excited to receive the visitors. The adult men and the children are [End Page 75] immensely curious about what the visitors are doing. When the foreign soldiers swim in the river, the Japanese interpreter joins them. After they return from the river, the interpreter's shoes have gone missing. Convinced that they have been stolen, the interpreter demands the boy's father, the village head, to find the thief. When he refuses, the interpreter is enraged, striking him in the face hard enough to draw blood from the mouth. Seething with anger, the village head starts to walk away, but the interpreter yells something in a foreign language and, at the same time, the sound of gunshots rings out. The boy sees his father fall to the ground and die. That night, another murder takes place. The boy guides the interpreter to a spot where the river is deep. There "some arms come out from the darkness," attacking and drowning the interpreter. Next morning, the foreign soldier depart from the village leaving reticent villagers and unsolved murders of the head and the interpreter.

The reader is probably able to track the passage of time in the story and to keep pace with the terrible events that take place in the village. However, as witnesses to a set of lethal circumstances that they never before encountered in this peaceful village, the people in the story do not have sufficient ability to narrate the events.

Let us trace the order of events that lead to the first murder, the shooting of the village head. The villagers are watching as the confrontation between the interpreter and the village head escalates until the interpreter loses control and resorts to violence. However, not a single person expects that the situation will lead to a death. The boy sees his father's body flying through the air and falling to the ground, but he is not psychologically prepared to witness the death. Because the events develop so suddenly, there is a delay before the threat inherent in the situation is recognized. The visual image of the dying father becomes the trauma for the villagers and the boy. Cathy Caruth writes about stimuli that strike too quickly, provoking trauma:

The breach in the mind … is not simply, that is, the literal threatening of bodily life, but the fact that the threat is recognized as such by the [End Page 76] mind one moment too late. The shock of the mind's relation to the threat of death is thus not the direct experience of the threat, but precisely the missing of this experience, the fact that, not being experienced in time, it has not yet been fully known.

(1996, 62; italics Caruth, underline Shimokobe)

Just like the villagers, the boy does not experience his father's death in real time because, in his mind, he is not prepared for such an outrageous shock. In his memory, the sight of his father's death is lost and becomes trauma. The memories of the event keep recurring without anyone ever being able to adequately acknowledge the lost experience, and this is how the history of the village is erased.

The second murder is apparently committed by the villagers. Nevertheless, the memory of the event is more carefully erased. The perpetrators are completely silent before, during, and after the murder.8 The likelihood that this crime will be spoken of by the police or discussed in private by the villagers is even lower than the first murder, which was committed in the presence of people. The following morning, the soldiers unsuccessfully try to get the villagers to pull the body out of the water, but in the end, they reluctantly recover the body themselves and depart the village. The silent villagers are left behind.

This is where the short story ends. There is no chance that the first or the second murder will be investigated because neither the Japanese police nor the US army are likely to record how the two murders were dealt with. The reticence in the text about this point, when paired with the silence of the villagers, erases the history of the village.

History and trauma have the same functions. Cathy Caruth says:

For history to be a history of trauma means that it is referential precisely to the extent that it is not fully perceived as it occurs; or to put it somewhat differently, that a history can be grasped only in the very inaccessibility of its occurrence.

(1996, 18)

The postwar history of the village is the history of trauma in the sense that neither the villagers in the story nor the reader outside the text are able to get access to the events. Insofar as the event is erased, the erasure of the [End Page 77] event itself becomes the event. It is at this point that the erasure of the traumatic events that took place in the fictional village in "Unexpected Muteness" overlap with the postwar history of Japan.

2. The Silence as Missing Voices

The reason for the erasure of history in "Unexpected Muteness" is that the villagers are unable to understand the significance of the events because everything happened too suddenly. However, there is also another reason. Caruth writes about another aspect of trauma that causes the erasure of events:

The historical power of the trauma is not just that the experience is repeated after its forgetting, but that it is only in and through its inherent forgetting that it is first experienced at all.

(1996, 17; italics Shimokobe)

Forgetting is to erase the memory, or the true circumstances accompanying an experience. In other words, we experience and forget at the same time and there is no time difference between these two mental functions.

To experience while forgetting turns people into witnesses of history, but there are two aspects to being a witness. One aspect is that someone happens to be present on a certain occasion, while the other aspect is the ability (obligation) to communicate what they have witnessed to others.

Regarding the first aspect, the witness only has to be present and to use the five senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell—to receive information about what is happening. However, the story changes when people witness devastating events. A person in such a situation forgets while undergoing the experience and is, in the end, prevented from directly accessing the events. The reaction to the event is repeated as an intrusive phenomenon that takes uncontrollable forms. Witnesses who has suffered trauma do not possess the ability to communicate the events to others, or even to themselves.

It is at the second aspect that silence controls the existence of the witness. Although the witness is listening to the inner voice of speaking wound, he or she surrenders to the repetition of the scene without acquiring the appropriate words to express the event. Silence symbolizes the loss of voice at the scene of trauma and represents the impossibility of putting the memory of trauma into words. [End Page 78]

"Unexpected Muteness" is filled with the rhetoric of silence. In the story, the villagers and the boy, the witnesses, experience the deaths of two Japanese people in the span of twenty-four hours. In the Japanese text, the word for "to be silent" (damatte, damatta mama, damarikonde) appears fifteen times in the short text.9 The Japanese word damaru (to be silent) is an intransitive verb implying to speak no words, to make no vocal sound, or to refuse to speak. In the story, these words are used as adverbs to represent the lack of voice of people who cannot speak, rather than the absence of sound.

In this story, the rhetoric of silence is used in two ways. First, there is the lack of response from the villagers when requested to say or do something. Second, they do not put any kind of information about what they are thinking and doing into words. "The father remained silent" is an example of the former, which describes the lack of response by the village head to the interpreter's angry demands that he launch a search for the stolen shoes.

The other references to silence are used in the latter sense of not expressing one's thoughts in words. In the Japanese, ten out of the fifteen references to silence (damatte) appear after the shooting of the village head. The villagers keep silent during the entire process of planning and executing the killing of the interpreter. They do not talk among themselves, neither do they speak to the reader. "The adults climbed slowly and silently" on the slope and the boy, being "motionless and silent," is watching them approach his house. During the silent operation by the adults to submerge the interpreter in the water, no sound was heard from the text. "When they [the adults] silently went back," the boy ran to his house and "silently stepped up on the board floor … and sobbed without raising his voice."

We have no sound information about the circumstances of the murder depicted in Ōe's text. The villagers do not utter a word; it is as if they have resolved to refuse to speak. Similarly to the silence of the perpetrators of the murder, the silence in the text has a dual significance for the whole process of the murder. First, the villagers are silent, even among themselves, as they prepare for the murder. Second, the text does not tell the reader what the people in the story feel, or how and why they are determined to carry out the secret plot. When or where the villagers start to [End Page 79] plan the murder, how they go about elaborating their plan in secret—the text tells us nothing about these things.

The textual silence fills not only the scene where the interpreter dies but also the scenes before and after. We do not know how or when the boy is persuaded to participate in the plan. When the adults come to fetch the boy, they just "silently stare at the boy." Without any exchange of words, the boy stands up and leaves with the adults. He has accepted the role of luring the interpreter to the river. When they get to the bridge, the boy leaves the silently watching adults behind and runs alone toward the schoolyard to summon the interpreter.

We do not hear a single word during the entire sequence of the interpreter's murder.10 "The bodies of several adults" dive down into the water to submerge the interpreter and surface at turns in their silent operation. They "silently go back" to the village. The text does not record a single word spoken by the adults even after they have committed the murder.

The following morning, the foreign soldiers discover the corpse floating in the river and try to get the villagers to pull it out. The villagers offer no response to the soldiers' demands:

The adults were tilling their fields, repairing their bee hives and cutting grass. Even when the foreign soldiers expressed their intentions with gestures, the adult villagers showed not the slightest reaction. And they proceeded with their work, seeing the foreign soldiers as though they were trees or pavement stones. Everyone worked in silence. It was as though they had completely forgotten that there were foreign soldiers in the village.

The silence in this scene has three levels of meaning: a lack of regard for the foreign soldiers; a lack of any sound coming from the villagers; and a lack of information about what the villagers are thinking. The first two levels refer to the silence of the villagers, the last one refers to the silence in Ōe's text. The voice that should, properly speaking, capture the speech of the people is completely missing here. In addition to the auditory silence, there is also another silence in this scene. Neither the villagers nor the text reveal any information about the events. In such a situation, the chances of an official report documenting the two murders in the history of the village is probably nil. [End Page 80]

Assuming that it is the duty of the witness to inform others within the text or outside the text of their experience, this text suggests that the silent villagers have not become witnesses. Why are they not able to give voice to their experience? Because they are forgetting the experience even as they undergo it. Therefore, this event in the silent village is a typical case of trauma. The power of the trauma is that "it is only in and through its inherent forgetting that it is first experienced at all" (Caruth 1996, 17). History is erased by erasing the witnesses who happen to be present but whose voices are missing. The silence in the text represents the erasure of history, a place where no one traces the past.

3. Erasure in Advance (or the Archive Drive)

About history and the erasure of memory, Caruth says:

These memories, in other words, in repeating and erasing, did not represent but rather enacted history; they made history by also erasing it. … And in effacing history, they also created it. The soldiers became, as it were, self-erasing inscriptions of history.

(2013, 78; italics Caruth, underline Shimokobe)

The soldiers referred to here are the ones that fought in World War I, the ones whose confrontations with death Freud describes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Constantly enacting repetition and erasure, the memories of the soldiers are erasing history and, in so doing, creating history. The memory of the events that took place in the village in "Unexpected Muteness" also creates history by erasing what the villagers experienced and did in silence. If history is created by erasing memory, the erasure itself turns into a significant incident in history. It is "a new kind of event that is constituted, paradoxically, by the way it disappears." (Caruth 2013, 77). In the same way that "the soldiers became self-erasing inscriptions of history," the villagers in "Unexpected Muteness" are also self-erasing inscriptions of history.

Here, I would like to tie in the discussion about the silence in "Unexpected Muteness" with Jacques Derrida's concept of the archive where history is created by erasing memory. Derrida refers to the unique aspects of recording events in the twentieth century as the archive drive. In the context of psychoanalysis, a drive is the psychic energy of desire and determination [End Page 81] to achieve something. However, archival drive doesn't work to accomplish something but functions to destruct things. The archive drive is the strange desire to undertake the contradictory tasks of erasing and recording memories at the same time.11 Pointing out that Freud gives this drive three names, Derrida makes the following comment on the nature of the archive drive:

… as if Freud could no longer resist, henceforth, the irreducible and originary perversity of this drive which he names here sometimes death drive, sometimes aggression drive, sometimes destruction drive, as if these three words were in this case synonyms. Second, this three-named drive is mute (stumm). It is at work, but since it always operates in silence, it never leaves any archives of its own.

(Derrida 1995, 10; italics Shimokobe)

The archive is a place—a building, a piece of paper, a film. It is the place where historical documents and records are stored for use in the future. According to Derrida, the archive drive leaves absolutely no possibility of keeping the historical record. The crisis for twentieth-century history is not that memories have been erased, but that the receptacle for accommodating the record has been lost. The most important truth among Derrida's disclosures is that this drive performs the destructive action of effacing not only the memory but even the traces of memory "in silence."

I would like to consider the silence in "Unexpected Muteness" from the perspective of this unique drive, which Derrida describes as the fever of the twentieth century.12 In the quotes above, Derrida uses two terms—mute and silence—to express the lack of voice when this drive operates.

Assuming that this drive operates in silence without any discernible sound suggests that the drive contains latent potentiality of making vocal sounds. The adjective mute not only signifies lack of ability to speak but also the silence that intentionally refrains from speech. When someone or something stays mute, whatever could have been expressed in words is hidden within. In the quotes from Derrida, the mute drive acts to mute some intention that could have been expressed in a different situation. This something that should be/should have been/may have been expressed is hidden underneath the silence that controls the scene. [End Page 82]

The silence that blankets the village in "Unexpected Muteness" is the kind of silence that contains a sense of something hidden beneath and should be distinguished from a lack of a physical voice. The silence of the village head is of the former kind, that is, a silence pregnant with meaning. When his father speaks with the interpreter, the boy witnesses two or three instances of his father's keeping silent. The interpreter demands a search for the stolen shoes to start right away. The father remains silent in response to the interpreter's agitated words, "Don't underrate me." The father shows "no reaction" in response to the interpreter's threat that "People who steal military property will be shot to death." But, the voice of the village head is not lacking because he has nothing to say. He simply refrains from exposing ugly feelings to the interpreter by making some statement about his internal conflict.13

The interpreter says what he wants to say without noticing the resentment concealed in the minds of the people. He says that the citizens of the defeated nation "will not be able to proceed in life without cooperating with the occupation army." The interpreter continues to speak as if he represents the US army and as if he despises the villagers, and all the while "the adults silently watch the interpreter." The complex emotions of the villagers could have found expression through the narrator's explanations or their own words, but Ōe's text maintains its silence on this point.

Pregnant with meaning, the silence reaches its climax in the scene where the village head dies. When the village head is shot, the interpreter steps a couple of paces away from the foreign soldiers and calls out in a frenzied voice, but "not one of the village adults or children replied. All of them just stared at him in silence." In this silence, the reader hears the voice of the villagers' aggressive drive. They are suppressing emotions that cannot be put into words.

In recent years, researchers have used affect theory to analyze the range of emotions that appear in literary texts. In her book Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai discusses the negative but undischarged feelings in "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and other American literature. When the villagers witness the murder of the village head, they harbor these "ugly feelings" in their minds. These feelings are "non-catharctic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release" (Ngai 2005, 6).14 If such feelings were translated into proper words and actions, [End Page 83] they would be connected to revenge for the village head whose absurd death they have observed. However, the scene is too traumatic, and the memory smolders in their minds as the latent power of the aggressive drive, provoking them to commit violent murder.

It is within such silence that the death drive starts to silently operate as archive fever. According to Derrida, the three qualities of the archive drive are "dead," "aggressive," and "destructive." We find these three qualities in the actions of the villagers who, immediately after the war, experienced unforeseen events in their tranquil village. The silence that blankets the village is not only an absence of sound but a voicelessness filled with cries waiting for some means of release. They prevent themselves from expressing their feelings aloud, and the secret plan remains imperceptible to others.15

Some villagers in "Unexpected Muteness" appear to be unable to speak while others are resolutely refusing to speak. By acting mute, the villagers are acting out the "three-named drive" that Derrida refers to as mute (stumm). The silent act of the villagers destroys not only the memory of events but also the traces of the erasure of the memory because, operating in silence, the drive "never leaves any archives of its own" (Derrida 1995, 10).

Within the strange effect of the archive drive, the chronological order of cause and effect is switched around. With ordinary events, cause and effect are positioned chronologically before and after the event. Since "it (the archive drive) never leaves any archives of its own," when operating in silence, the archive drive starts to operate after determining the outcome in advance. Derrida comments on the destructive action of this drive:

It destroys in advance its own archive, as if that were in truth the very motivation of its most proper movement. It works to destroy the archive: on the condition of effacing but also with a view to effacing on its own "proper" traces … It devours it even before producing it on the outside.

(Derrida 10; italics Derrida, underline Shimokobe)

The fatal inversion of cause and effect confuses our senses when we record memories. The archive drive only functions to erase the traces of the effacing. At such times, the confusion arising in the flow of time is greater than when memory and forgetting take place at the same time. Having [End Page 84] already established erasure, the archive drive operates in advance to destroy memories that should have been produced through language. This is none other than the death drive. It destroys the possibility of internalizing memories because the drive operates to annihilate the traces of itself.16

In "Unexpected Muteness," having concealed the aggressive drive within their minds, the villagers enact the archive drive as an illness of the twentieth century in silence and without uttering a word. When the villagers choose to maintain silence, they activate the archive drive, with a view to erase not only the memories of the events but also the traces of the erasure. The silence of the villagers is not only an attempt to intentionally destroy their own memories but also to consign the traumatic experience to oblivion in the unconscious.

In the story, the characters in the village fulfill double functions: forgetting while they undergo the experience by working in silence, and intentionally erasing the archive. Meanwhile, Ōe, the author of the story, is also doing the work of the archive drive. As the author, Ōe has muted the voices of the characters in the story who could have filled out the tale. He has introduced into this short story the destruction of the archive through silence, not only in the village of the story but also in postwar Japan.

4. Missed Encounter with the Enemy

In the soundless village depicted in "Unexpected Muteness," some sounds that reach the eardrums of the villagers cause the air to vibrate. When the jeep pulls into the schoolyard, the first thing the villagers hear is the interpreter shouting loudly in Japanese, "Where's the village head? Call him!" In the story, the interpreter's voice constitutes the majority of the sound signals that reach the auditory organs of the villagers. However, the voice of the interpreter emanates as two different phonetic signals: Japanese and the foreign language. The former is directed at the villagers, the interpreter's compatriots, but the latter is directed at the foreign soldiers of the occupying army. When he speaks in the foreign language, the interpreter's voice is only meaningless noise to the villagers.

When the interpreter speaks Japanese, Ōe expresses his voice in harsh and oppressive tones. The interpreter speaks to the villagers "abusively," "with a force that storms at the father," "excitedly," "in a tone that seem to scold the children," "in an angry voice," and "extremely tensely." He [End Page 85] tries to bully the villagers not only with the tone of his voice but also with his rhetoric. When he notices that his shoes have gone missing, the first words he utters are "Do you know what happens to people who steal or conceal military property?" Later, he reinforces the words, saying, "People who steal military property will be shot to death. You got that?" and starts a search of the village houses. The village head tells the villagers to follow the interpreter. The words emanating from the interpreter's mouth are Japanese, but to the villagers his speech reverberates as if the occupying army is issuing orders to the people of an occupied country.


In the critical moment when the village head is shot, three kinds of sounds reverberate across the scene: the Japanese voice, the English voice, and then the preposterous report of the rifle shot. Let's look at how each auditory signal reaches the ears of the villagers.

After the interpreter hits him square in the face, the village head starts to walk away without saying a word. The interpreter calls him back in Japanese. Seeing that the village head does not respond to the command, the interpreter shouts in Japanese. "Tomare, Dorobo, Nigeruna!" [Stop, you thief, don't run away!] Then he exclaims something to the soldiers in the foreign language. A young soldier dashes out, his rifle ready and yells, in the foreign language.

This is where things start to develop quickly. The village head ignores the interpreter's Japanese, but when the interpreter calls out to the soldiers, he reacts to the foreign language and begins to run "as though suddenly seized by fear." In the next moment, two types of sound waves vibrate through the air: the interpreter's shouts and the sound of the young soldier firing the rifle. This is how Ōe describes the moment:

The interpreter shouted, and then the young foreign soldier's rifle sounded a report, and the father threw out his arms and floated his body through the air as though flying, and fell that way to the ground.

The four phrases are organized in chronological order, each moment marked at the moment it happens in the manner of a live broadcast. In the Japanese text, the four phrases are connected with commas and no conjunctions [End Page 86] are used.17 No relationship between the phrases is established, nor are the four pieces of information placed in any context.

Let us try to experience the scene from the perspective of the Japanese-speaking villagers who happened to be present. Our brains constantly absorb information through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. In this fatal scene, the people are receiving two kinds of sensory information: what they hear and what they see. They hear the interpreter shouting.18 Then, at nearly the same time, they hear the rifle shot. At that moment, they look. They see how the father's body reacts to the impact of the rifle shot, and how he falls to the ground.

Thus, the traumatic event of the death of the village head is registered in the memory via two out of five kinds of sensory information: sound and image. The sensory organs of the witnesses register the overwhelming event as sensory information absorbed simultaneously from their ears and eyes. The sound causes the image. That is, the village head is killed by the dreadful vibration that shakes the air. As witnesses, this is how the villagers experience the event.

A fatal mix-up between the two types of sensory information has occurred here. The interpreter's shouts overlap with the sound of the rifle, but the villagers are not able to distinguish between these two sounds. Therefore, the memory of the murder of the village head registers as the outcome of the threatening shudder in the air. The sound kills him. If the interpreter had shouted in Japanese, the villagers would have been able to recognize the sound as words with meaning. It is possible that the words shouted in the foreign language conveyed urgent information to the foreign soldiers, but in the ears of the villagers, the interpreter's voice and the rifle shots are simply loud, threatening, and incomprehensible noises.

There is only one certainty from the perspective of the people who were present at this traumatic scene: the sound of the voice mixed up with the gunshot killed the village head. Whose voice is it? The interpreter has killed the village head! Naturally, the villagers do not say this aloud in so many words because the scene is too overwhelming and they are unable to register the event as memory. How do the villagers react to an event that they have experienced, but are unable to control? The visual information of the traumatic events they have observed in real life is directly [End Page 87] linked to the auditory information, which is the interpreter's voice, and the villagers respond automatically.

We might ask why the villagers kill the interpreter, rather than the soldier who actually shot the village head, in the second murder. The villagers and the boy at the scene of the murder start to nurse a desire to avenge the village head, but not by killing the young foreign soldier, the culprit who actually killed the village head; instead, they execute the interpreter.

The auditory information is registered as the cause of the traumatic events. By confusing the two sounds, the villagers fail to acknowledge that it was the real bullet, not the voice of the interpreter, that killed the village head. The failure to recognize this sensory information is linked to another cognitive failure. They only fail to identify the young soldier brandishing the rifle and they are blind to the fact that the fatal violence is performed by the occupying army legitimately. This is how the villagers fail to confront the real enemy, the one they should have actually hated.

The missed encounter with the enemy continues to smolder as a chronic disease in Japanese society. The response to the threats, to which Japan was exposed during and after the war, continued to appear as cultural phenomena including flashbacks, memory loss, disillusionment, and aggravation. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) refers to these symptoms as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The history of postwar Japan originates in the missed encounter with the United States as the enemy. "Unexpected Muteness" is a story of the fatal encounter with the occupying forces as a primal scene in Japan's postwar history as a nation defeated in World War II.

Conclusion: No Ashes Remained after They Departed

According to Caruth, twentieth-century history is "the intersection between these two dimensions—of the concept that repeats, and of the memory that erases" (2013, 80–81). In Moses and Monotheism, Freud is understood to say that the Jewish people departed for a future of trauma in order to survive. Referring to this, Caruth says:

Freud also, I would suggest, in Moses and Monotheism, conceives—or narrates—the possibility of a history constituted by the erasure of its own witness, a history that burns away the very possibility of conceiving [End Page 88] memory, that leaves the future itself, in ashes

(2013, 81; italics Caruth, underline Shimokobe)

Ash is a metaphor for describing the act of "burning up" (Caruth 2013, 87), and that which remains once memory has been completely incinerated. Caruth perceives ash as "a possibility, always, of a trauma in the future" (87). Here, Caruth brings in Derrida's metaphor of cinders as "the incubation of the fire lurking beneath the dust." Assuming that the past remains, these cinders are the traces of its erasure. The traces are concealed in layers of history, waiting for an opportunity to flare up.

In the previous section, I discussed the erasure of memory and the erasure of witnesses in "Unexpected Muteness." Does this short story contain the "language of a trauma in the future" or "the language of absolute erasure"? (Caruth 2013, 87). Unfortunately, Ōe's text is not like Freud's text where the central event is a departure that marks a return to the future of history. At the end of the story, the morning after the events, we are told what the soldiers and the villagers do:

Throughout the morning, the soldiers sat or walked around the jeep. They looked irritated enough to die. Then, unexpectedly the jeep turned around and headed out of the village the same way it had come in. The village people went about their quite everyday tasks, not one of them, including the children, paying it any attention.

(italics Shimokobe)

It is the foreign soldiers who leave the village that provides the setting for the trauma. If the villagers had departed, leaving the memory behind, the traumatic events may have returned as "something other than what one could ever recognize" (Caruth 2013, 87). However, the villagers do not leave. The villagers, who are perhaps the true witnesses to the events, stay inside the setting completely cut off from the outside world.

In the village, the ashes that might have burned together with Derrida's archive fever do not remain in the village. This is not only because the villagers do not depart for a future of trauma, but because they put out the cinders that might have remained in history, when the body of the interpreter is submerged in the water.


What happens in "Unexpected Muteness" is analogous to Japan's postwar [End Page 89] history where Japan, as a defeated nation, attempts to transition from the prewar to the postwar period. The occupation is an extremely important topic for the new polity as well as for the frame of mind of the citizens of the defeated nation. Ōe never says which country he is referring to when he uses the phrase "foreign soldiers," but it is clear that the soldiers are with the US occupation forces. In the history of postwar Japan, Japan as a nation kept failing to encounter the adversary, the United States, just like the villagers who are unable to perceive the young American soldier as the culprit in a murder.

It would appear that there is almost no possibility for postwar Japan to talk about its own history. If there is, the only means available for us is "the figure of ash." "In a literary text," Caruth says, the figure of ash emerges that "refers us to events that may not have a simple referent, but are signs of the unimaginable past or the unimaginable future" (2013, 88). As a witness to trauma, Ōe writes the erasure of history by describing the erasure of memory in "Unexpected Muteness." Like Freud, Derrida, and Caruth, Ōe is one of the strange witnesses who have written a story by new language of trauma in a place where ashes have accumulated.

Michiko Shimokobe

Michiko Shimokobe is a professor of English and American literature at Seikei University, Japan. Her major lies in psychoanalytic criticism and American studies. She was a visiting fellow at Yale University (1988–90 and 2000–01). Professor Shimokobe was a chief editor of Editorial Board of American Studies Society of Japan (2014–16). Her publication in Japanese and in English includes: Rekishi to torauma [History and Trauma] (2000), Torauma no koe o kiku [Inaudible Voices of Trauma] (2006), "Violence and Pardon: From Arendt through Derrida Toward the Rhetoric of the 21th-Century Global Community" (2008), and "Inland/Oceanic Imagination in Melville's Redburn: Expansion and Memory in the Political Climate of America" (2018). She translated Cathy Caruth's Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History and Shoshana Felman's What Does a Woman Want? Reading and Sexual Difference.


1. The recording caused a great sensation as it was the first time the citizens of Japan heard the voice of Emperor Hirohito. Referred to as the Jewel Voice Broadcast, the prerecorded message was broadcast to the nation over the radio.

2. The document mentions two objectives for the Allied occupation of Japan: (1) to ensure that Japan will not again become a menace to the United States or to the peace and security of the world and (2) to bring about the eventual establishment of a peaceful and responsible government that will respect the rights of other states and will support the objectives of the United States as reflected in the ideals and principles of the Charter of the United Nations (Department of State Bulletin, September 23, 1945, pp. 423–27).

3. When Japan was placed under the control of the Allied powers in September 1945, the United States Initial Post-Surrender Policy for Japan was issued on August 22, 1945. It stated that the basic aim of the military occupation was demilitarization and democratization, and to that end, reorientation and reeducation of Japanese people and culture were considered instrumental (Ochi, 2017).

4. Kenzaburo Ōe is one the leading Japanese authors of the postwar period. In 1958, at age 23, Ōe won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan's most prominent literature award. In 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

5. The short story is currently included in the paperback edition of Shisha no ogori•Shiiku [Lavish Are the Dead, Prize Stock] (Shinchosha 1959, 2016, 194–214) together with five other stories.

6. "In the Forest of the Soul" by Maya Jaggi, The Guardian, February 5, 2005.

7. The English translation by William Wetherall is available online. Originally included in The Japan Quarterly 36, no. 1 (January–March 1989): 35–44.

8. Ōe's use of rhetoric in the scene where the interpreter is murdered is surprising. Lured by the boy, the interpreter turns up at the river when "unexpectedly some arms came out from the darkness under the earthen bridge and covered the interpreter's mouth." It was not the villagers as human beings who committed the murder in the dark, but the "arms" that are a part of the human body.

9. In addition to damatte, there are other expressions with a similar meaning in the text to describe the lack of reaction on the part of the villagers.

10. There is no auditory information in the text describing the process of the interpreter's murder. Rather, visual information tells us about the crime. In addition to "some arms came out from the darkness under the earthen bridge and covered the interpreter's mouth," "he was slowly submerged in the water," "darkness," and other visual information, Ōe also uses information obtained through the other senses such as touch (was seized), coldness (shivered in the cold).

11. Caruth emphasizes a concept of trauma where experiencing and forgetting occur simultaneously, and she sees the same function in Derrida's concept of the archive. "Derrida proposes that the history of the twentieth century can best be thought through its relation to the "archive," a psychic as well as technical procedure of recording or of "writing" history that participates not only in its remembering but also in its forgetting" (Caruth 2013, 75).

12. "The death drive is not a principle. … It is what we will call, later on, le mal d'archive" (Derrida 12; italics Derrida).

13. The village head was silent while the interpreter spoke to the foreign soldiers in the foreign language. In terms of body language, he was "oddly frowning" and "he did not understand the foreign language and was merely absorbed in thoughts about something else."

14. In reference to Ngai's use of the term "non-catharctic," Yoshiaki Furui notes, "non-catharctic refers to the denial of catharsis or a purifying sense of release, with negative feelings remaining inside the subject who feels them, as opposed to being externalized" (2017, 5; italics Shimokobe).

15. The villagers even hope that a third party will misread their silence. This is what happens in the conversation between the boy and the interpreter. When the boy shows up, the interpreter wrongly believes that the boy has come to take him to the location of the missing shoes. He attempts to reward the boy. Since the boy does not respond at all, the interpreter asks, "You a mute or something?" The interpreter has misunderstood the boy's silence. The villagers have clearly instructed the boy to pretend to be mute to lure the interpreter to the river where they plan to kill him.

16. Derrida refers to the death drive as anarchivic (anarchy annihilation) or archiviolithic (violently destructive) (Derrida 1995, 10).

17. The four phrases are connected with "and" or "and then" in the English translation.

18. Ōe does not specify the language the interpreter uses when he shouts out. However, the proximity of the shout and the sound of the rifle suggests that the interpreter shouts "Shoot the village head" in English to the soldiers. The interpreter has called the village head a thief and he has also said "People who steal military property will be shot to death."

Works Cited

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
———. Literature in the Ashes of History. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
Derrida, Jacques. Mal d'Archive: Une impression freudienne. Galilee, 1995; English translation, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowits. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
———. Cinders. Translated by Ned Lukacher. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
Freud, Sigmund. "Moses and Monotheism." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XI. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1963.
———. "Beyond Pleasure Principle." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XI. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1963.
———. "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death." Translated by James Strachey. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Words of Sigmund Freud, XVI. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-analysis, 1953–74, 289.
———. "Why War?" The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1963, 343–62.
Furui, Yoshiaki, "Bartleby's Closed Desk: Reading Melville against Affect." Journal of American Studies, 2017, 1–29.
Gay, Peter. Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.
Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Ochi, Hiromi. "The Reception of American Literature in Japan during the Occupation." Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. September 2017. doi:0.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.163
Ōe, Kenzaburo. "Unexpected Muteness." Translated by William Wetherall. Japan Quarterly 36, no. 1 (January–March 1989): 35–44. Available at">

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