Gyo and Collective Memory

Barbara Greene, University of Arizona [About | Email]

Volume 16, Issue 1 (Article 3 in 2016). First published in ejcjs on 30 April 2016.


Historical trauma and collective memory have been a rich vein of creative output in postwar Japanese media and culture. A number of art forms, from literature to television, have plumbed the depths of shared memory and have not only entertained their audience, but have also discussed the impact of history on modern life. An example of this phenomenon is the manga series Gyo, created by the manga artist Itō Junji from 2001 to 2002. This series uses a dreamlike narrative and visual structure to describe the experience of a young, middle-class Tokyoite named Tadashi who finds himself struggling to survive in a world where the ghosts of the Second World War have inhabited the corpses of sea creatures and have staged a massive invasion of the Japanese archipelago. Tadashi’s limited understanding of the war and its aftermath, gained largely through second or third hand descriptions from family members or by official accounts, proves ineffective in allowing him to navigate a precarious world. His lack of memory may have excluded him from the immediate effects of the past, but not from its repercussions. This is a reflection of the integration of collective memory, particularly the fraught and painful memories of the Second World War, which, for those who were born after 1980, have been the targets of both textbook debates and criticism from both China and Korea, into an individual’s worldview. Tadashi’s confrontations with the living-dead can be viewed as a metaphorical discourse on the individual’s confrontation with collective memory.

Keywords: manga, Itō Junji, collective memory, historical trauma, post-war Japan.


Shared memory is one of the many catalysts in the creation and comprehension of a group identity. The rise of easy and cheap communication of media, and the integration of narratives within everyday life, allow for a multitude of conflicting and supportive narratives to compete within a large marketplace. In Japan, this phenomenon is visible in a number of disputed historical memories and narratives concerning the Asian-Pacific War. The war concurrently exists in individual memory, transmitted from person to person and slowly moving out of living memory, and as a shared memory in historiography. How this affects individuals and their own perceptions within society can be difficult to determine. These perceptions are not often explicitly expressed, but rather colour the perceptions and discourse of the individual in an implicit fashion. In many instances this can be brought forth in fiction, sometimes as direct portrayals of the events in question, but also in fictionalised versions of similar incidents. These narratives can offer insight into the implicit beliefs of the author and the audience that consumed the text, and how they have approached traumatic memories.

An example of this phenomenon can be found in the manga of Itō Junji, which have a number of aspects that are best understood in this context. The self-contradictory and emotionally problematic, yet unavoidable, need to absorb these narratives in order to integrate oneself into a broader community are a key device in his work, one that comes at a high price for his characters. Gyo (Fish, 2001-2002) is one of many created by this author that draw upon aspects of traumatic memories as the primary narrative device that sparks a sense of the uncanny in the reader. While the author uses body horror in many of his works, the real horror for the readers is the return of buried trauma that destroys the characters from within before mutilating their physical forms. Within the manga series Gyo, the protagonist Tadashi finds himself dealing with an inexplicable infection that destroys Japan after visiting a battlefield in Okinawa. Tadashi’s experience with contamination and invasion mirrors vital points within the shared the memory of the Asia-Pacific War.

Collective Memory in Postwar Japan

While individual memory is clearly important in daily interaction, on a cultural level collective memory can often be the determining factor in group conduct and the interpretation of past events. Historically, having a broadly shared interpretation of events might take generations to develop and may remain localised. However, beginning in the nineteenth century the rise of mass literacy and communication allowed for collective memories to form relatively quickly on a broad historical scale. Often the format and the narrative of these memories serve as a means of directing the collective activity and culture of the population that shares them (Heisler, 2008, 203-205). Although the mechanism is usually subconscious, it forms the foundation for an individual’s identity and place within the group (Repina, 2010, 16). This type of memory can be transmitted both by the traditional methods of individual to individual, but in the modern period, many also receive memory from mass media sources that allow for the individual to be socialised into the history of the nation. However, this does not mean that the diversity of narratives contained within these large-scale histories are non-political or unbiased, but rather that they can become even more contentious with each new potential consumer.

Additionally, the open debate around history itself cannot claim that all collective memories are inherently positive. Few nations can claim complete innocence from either trauma or atrocity, and group identity and memory must therefore allow for individuals and populations to absorb these aspects without necessitating psychic harm or internal self-destruction. German scholars have studied this trend in relation to the Second World War in Europe, an example being Opa war Kein Nazi (“Grandpa Wasn’t a Nazi: The Holocaust and German Family Remembrance,” Welzer, Harald, 2002). Welzer et al. found that many families preserved face by relying on stories on their ancestors’ heroism acting against the Third Reich (2002). The veracity of these stories were not explored by the families, but used as a sort of talisman against collective guilt. Similar to Germany, Japan has a similar history of wartime atrocities that continue to affect the country’s relationship with neighbouring states. However, while Germany has banned the use of Nazi imagery and has integrated wartime horrors into its textbooks, Japan has had a more fraught history incorporating this period into officially taught historiography. This situation has cast a long shadow over how these memories are ultimately confronted by the population.

Many societies refocus their collective narratives and memories onto more uplifting narratives; thereby, traumatic memories are frequently sidelined and take a secondary status to those more pleasant (Heisler, 2008, 205-207). However, as historian John Dower has noted, the transition between wartime and prewar Japan was complicated by the rehabilitation and return of imperial officials in 1949 (2012, 124-127). This sudden shift of paradigms, with four major changes in state and policy within a seven-year period, complicated the process of memory. Within Japan, there has been a subversion of this phenomenon as many authors have focused on traumatic aspects of the Asia Pacific War, particularly focusing on the suffering of ordinary citizens when portraying the conflict, as noted in studies on Victim’s History. Within Gyo, and the larger body of Itō’s work, this entails a type of forgetting that leads to the return of the horror.

Due to this dual nature of memory, both as an object to be adjured and embraced, historical narratives are frequently the battleground for collective identity by the editing or manipulation of memory (Heisler, 2008, 200-201). The value of controlling collective memory is too valuable to be developed alone, and therefore many groups have attempted to harness it for their own gain (Lebow, 2008, 26-27). This can lead to a competition to attempt to alter the historical narrative towards their favour. State and educational authorities often attempt to negotiate a particular legitimising narrative, which can supplant collective memory on a folk level (Lebow, 2008, 33-38). However, this is not always successful, as overt attempts at manipulation often trigger the recipients to hold a counter-position and as a result make it nearly impossible to create a monopoly over historical narration (Lebow, 2008, 31-32). According to Hashimoto, this has caused a fracture in the collective memory of the war in Japan, where narratives contend endlessly with one another and thereby cannot be easily absorbed into national identity (2015, 4). The most visible example of this phenomenon in Post-war Japan are the vocal debates over the content of history textbooks designed for Japanese students. These began as early as 1952, when the Ministry of Education first rejected Ienaga Saburō’s history book on modern Japan. Historians who have included details on Japanese atrocities during the Asian-Pacific War have been accused of creating a ‘masochistic view of history’; current Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has made statements supporting textbook alterations that include more vague statements concerning responsibility (Onishi 2007).

Memories are also dependent on the circumstances in which they are remembered, as with each revisit or discussion the memories are likely to change or to be altered, with the original form being forgotten (Halbwachs, 1992, 46-48). These deletions and alterations are often below the conscious level of thought and often remain invisible (Halbwachs, 1992, 49-50). However, these shifts can be seen on a macro-level, as the texts and media produced in the atmosphere of particular interpretations can maintain traits and beliefs developed out of the collective memory of a particular period. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, a great deal of popular media concerned the after effects of the atomic bombings on Japan; however, as the after-effects of these attacks became less visible and socially fraught, post-war environmental disasters, such as the mercury poisonings in Minamata, have moved from a less prominent position than the concept of Japan as an especially environmental nation.

While the Asia-Pacific War is slowly moving out of living memory, this does not dilute its impact on collective memory. The majority of individuals in the modern period no longer derive their collective memory from personal interaction, but rather from a much wider sphere. On an international level, Russian researchers have demonstrated that young individuals now derive their narratives of collective memory primarily from textbooks and popular media, rather than from personal recollections of family history (Seniavskii & Seniavskaia, 2010, 37-38). As it is possible that especially traumatic or controversial memories are not likely to be shared by those who have experienced them firsthand, in addition to the somewhat sanitised family history, as seen in the Welzer study, such media-projected history provides an opportunity for external control of collective memory. However, it is not possible completely to eliminate all negative aspects of history and less savoury aspects of collective memory often break out in narrative. Even the mass-produced medium of manga has reflections of this tension.

Tsutsui noted that any population appears to have specific responses after a traumatic experience. Six of these are visible in modern Japanese media: Denial, the refusal to believe an account; Justification, the desire to place the population in the right despite prior bad acts; Evasion, the change of focus from the atrocity towards other suffering; Displacement, the claim that the guilt rests with only on a small portion of the population; Projection, the claims that the opponents were guilty of equal harm; and Universalism, the belief that all societies are guilty of identical actions and that the lessons learned and suffering inflicted can be used to educate individuals of any society rather than just those within the perpetrator state (Tsutsui, 2009, 1392-1393). Denialists are perhaps the most visible among proponents of revisionist histories concerning the actions of the Imperial Japanese military in the Asian-Pacific and members of militarist organisations. Members of these groups are behind many of the attempts at textbook reform and vocally respond to perceived slights, particularly those made by Korean and Chinese activists who have protested against imagery in well-known manga, such as Attack on Titan (Iasayama Hajime, 2010), which base characters or events on Japanese military history.

However, many members of the more mainstream conservative factions have moved away from this discourse and onto an apologia that is a combination of Justification and Universalism. The expansion of the Japanese Empire has been portrayed as a means of liberating other East Asian nations from European and American imperialism. Current Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has been the target of accusations that he is sympathetic to these groups. This explanation has roots that date back to the Imperial period, but it still has life in places like the Yūshūkan Museum adjacent to Yasukuni Shrine. In arguments in the political sphere, proponents of this discourse, like the former Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintarō and Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru, claim that Japan behaved no differently than its opponents. This is especially common in regards to allegations concerning Comfort Women and forced labour and conscription.

Conservatives are not the only affiliation that attempts to manipulate collective memory. Pacifists and anti-nuclear groups’ rhetoric often claims that international critiques of the wartime actions of the Japanese imperial army and the grievances of other states are legitimate, but the emphasis is popularly placed on the sufferings of Japanese citizenry. This is especially true among groups who emphasise that, as the only victims of a tactical atomic attack and one of the few states without an offensive military (Abe policy aside), Japan has a particular moral position. As these groups cannot deny the origins of these traits, Denial and Justification become impossible, but the responses of Displacement and Projection remain valid.

Displacement often places the blame for the war onto specific state authorities or elite, while denying the responsibility of the ordinary individual. This has been particularly vivid in anti-war media, as it creates a sympathetic focus for the audience and any discomfort they may experience. Projection requires the allegation that other groups are guilty of similar, or worse, actions. The anti-nuclear movement often narrows the discussion of the Asia-Pacific War to the two atomic attacks and their after-effects, creating a sense that the persons living within Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the most significant casualties of the war.

The individual reflections of collective memory can be difficult to determine, as each member can elect to follow any number of subcultures, which personalises collective memory to the extent that its effects on identity and perception may be hidden (Halbwachs, 1992, 52-53). Collective memory is also limited to what can be proven within the material and written record, as complete fabrications will eventually be questioned and dismantled, although this does not prevent the formation of myriad interpretations (Tsutsui, 2009, 1390-1391). This can also make forming a precise narrative of each aspect of collective memory nearly impossible, as the aforementioned reactions to the Asia-Pacific War have complex and contradictory narratives dependent on each individual, and even within the past few decades, disagreements on nuance have caused groups to splinter.

The connection between identity and memory is deeply tied to the period in which the bond is formed. As individuals in contemporary society depend not on personal relationships, but rather on contemporary media, to gain access to shared memory, they are reliant also upon what is then commonly exchanged within the environment around them. The historian Bernard Guenée has noted that history is less a function of the reality of the narrative as a reflection of the past, but rather as an impression of the needs of the current culture (Repina, 2010, 9-11). When historical trauma or conflict moves into this realm, it can cause difficulty in the formation of an individual’s identification with the group. While many are able to deflect this issue by keeping their own identity distant from that of the group, those who tie their identity more closely with that of the collective whole often seek a means of glossing over or diminishing the repercussions of history (Sahdra & Ross, 2007, 385). This is likely the reason for the popularity of ‘revisionist’ history within extremely nationalist groups in Japan after the postwar period, as they are much more likely to feel personally threatened by allegations against the collective.

This sense of insecurity is caused by this perceived threat against the collective and concurrent individual. When this security is placed into hazard by the revelation of unpleasant information, it can alter the very framework of a person’s definition of him- or herself and culture, and place him or her in a defensive position (Zarakol, 2010, 5-7). In addition, historical trauma, even if individuals attempt to avoid it by denying or questioning its existence, can create an on-going cycle of continuing harm. The re-hashing of emotionally charged historical narratives can create a sense of distrust and oppression between opposing factions, with each stating a portion of their identity on the never-coming outcome of their dispute (Spinner-Halev, 2007, 584-585). This continual dispute can keep trauma reverberating through the usual barrier between living and historical memory (Spinner-Halev, 2007, 576-579). The near constant back and forth between revisionist Japanese historians and those in East Asia who wish for Japan to make a more explicit apology for the events of the Asia-Pacific war is a clear example of this conflict. Each group views the dispute over this history as a threat to part of their security in their identity and cannot compromise on the historical narrative without also compromising the strength of their identity.

Memory and Reference: Textbooks and Media

The dispute over collective memory is frequently fought in two venues: textbooks and media. These two sources are often the origin for contemporary collective memory, like mythology and oral narratives had been previously. This is an international phenomenon, as Welzer notes:

Children know an astounding amount about history, but at the same time it also points out that this knowledge comes from very different sources… People’s ideas and images on the past appear like the set pieces of their various origins like history books, movies and singular experiences like the information given by their own family or school (Welzer 2002, 9).1

Textbooks especially can be viewed as representations of the opinion and values of the society at a macro-level, as these are instilled into every individual within a community, and the debates over the content can be particularly fraught. The typical writing style of textbooks exacerbates this situation, as the authoritarian tone used by most not only limits the number of viewpoints and controversy presented, but may also obscure the sources used by the authors (Fukuoka, 2011, 91). This authoritative voice was a key point in the Ministry of Education’s defense in the lawsuits brought by Ienaga Saburō, and publishers have repeatedly added and removed sections of their textbooks over the last forty years to remain on shelves (Nozaki 2008, 144-145). This is often contrary to the wishes of the students on a macro-level, as they are typically aware of the competing historical narratives, and view the classroom as a neutral and safe place to discuss them in depth (Pingel, 2008, 187-189). The creation of this space is one not easily mimicked in the broader community, as individuals are frequently limited to the consumption of media rather than the propagation of their own opinions.

However, the Japanese educational system has institutional barriers to facilitating these discussions. The Liberal-Democratic Party, which previously held power throughout the majority of the post-war governments, takes a relatively conservative view of history and promotes the idea that Japan had the best of intentions during the war (Lawson & Tanaka, 2011, 409-411). Teachers and students may feel uncomfortable bringing up controversial or troubling debates within a classroom setting due to potential repercussions from higher-level officials and other instructors. Many teachers also feel pressured to prepare their students for the standardised tests that can determine their academic future, and allowing for the students to debate in depth the relative merits of collective historical narratives can be prohibitively long. Thereby, many instructors forego the exercise completely (Fukuoka, 2011, 92-94). As most students in contemporary society cannot rely on familial or local knowledge, they have either to absorb collective memories passively from the cultural realm or investigate the narratives on their own, which may be difficult if they are exposed to the far edges of the discussion.

This often means that, while textbooks are relatively simple to reference and are considered to be more representative of the accepted historical narrative, on an individual level they appear to have little impact over what narrative is broadly accepted or which collective memories ultimately survive (Fukuoka, 2011, 98-99). However, on an institutional level these narratives can gain a symbolic importance, especially for those whose identity had been compromised or threatened by unpleasant revelations. Disputes over collective memory at an international level eventually led in 1982 to the promulgation of the Neighbouring Countries Clause, requiring all Japanese junior high school level textbooks to mention some of the negative aspects of Japan’s imperial policies and actions during the Asia-Pacific War. This was in response to protests from neighbouring states in East Asia which believed that the collective memory of the war had been deliberately obscured, partially due to attempts by revisionist historians down-playing several incidents of the war period or their criticism that the current narrative was self-defeating. This clause has been especially galling to revisionists and has triggered several, almost automatic, tests of the clause (Fukuoka, 2011, 85-86).

Additionally, researchers have often underestimated the intellectual freedom within the realm of the consumption of popular culture and acceptance of official narratives such as textbooks. Many have taken the view that individuals embedded into these systems have little ability to resist the absorption of these narratives; however, it appears that individuals approach these collective memories and narratives critically and can interpret the materials with a great deal of freedom (Fukuoka, 2011, 87-88). For example, sales of revisionist manga tend to be very high when compared to those published by their opponents. Kobayashi Yoshinori’s work on the war received much more media attention and had a higher number of sales when compared to that published in response by Mizuki Shigeru. And, as the generation of persons directly involved in the Asian-Pacific War passes into history, younger generations begin to question whether guilt for the actions of prior generations negatively reflects upon themselves, and whether it should affact their relationship with history and other nations in the present. Others wonder whether the past and its ramifications have not been properly addressed and explicated. In some cases, individuals may not approach the question in an overt dialogue.

In the immediate postwar period one of the methods of approaching the war was through the creation of Nikutai no Bungaku, the Literature of the Body. First defined by Tamura Taijirō, this emphasised that Japan had been led astray by over-intellectualising policy and history rather than following the basic logic entrenched in one’s physicality. Only by placing the defeat into physical experiences, such as pain and sensuality, could one fully grasp what had happened and the exact nature of suffering. Tamura claimed that by placing society and collective identity into abstract realms individuals had allowed themselves to become easily manipulated; art must therefore become representative of the body rather than the intellect (Igarashi, 2000, 55-57). This emphasis on the physical was unlike prior artistic movements in Japan, such as the Proletariat and Naturalistic schools, and led to the rise of works such as Gojira in 1953 and Butoh. Even the descriptions of cityscapes changed, as Tokyo became infamous as Kusai Toshi, a city of stench, due to the failure of the sanitary systems to handle the sudden influx of postwar residents (Igarashi, 2000, 150).

The basic physicality of the war experience within collective memory was further emphasised by the construction of memorials at major battlefields and bombing locations. As Sakamoto and Yamori noted in their work on collective memory on natural disasters embodied in museums: “While it is the case that memory is something that is individual, in events such as earthquakes, where many have the same experience, would it not be the case that these occurrences would be like collective memory?” (2010, 80).2 On Okinawa, one of the worst battles in the number of Japanese civilian causalities in direct combat, several organisations constructed memorials for the war dead just a few years after the end of the conflict. By the start of the 1950s, the Himeyuri Cenotaph in Okinawa had become a prominent tourist destination and a major site for school trips for students all over Japan in the 1980s (Suzuki, 2010, 15-16). By 1961, the state and various organisations arranged for school children to visit Okinawa in order to excavate and repatriate the bones of Japanese soldiers on the islands on an annual basis, with an emphasis on bringing in the children of the soldiers lost in the battle to reassemble their parents’ remains personally (Seraphim, 2006, 182). By making the memories of the war something tangible and visible, the state was able further to advance the notion of Victims’ History.

Collective Memory and Gyo

However, Gyo (Itō, 2002) does not make use of these concrete memorials in the narrative. Rather, the protagonist Tadashi is introduced as he scuba dives through the wreckage of a sunken Japanese battleship. Perhaps, like many travelers who visit Okinawa today, the visit to a battle-site or a war memorial is simply par for the course of a typical week spent lounging on the island chain. Tadashi does not appear to be deeply moved by the scenes he observes and their history, only demonstrating emotion once he is directly affected by the formerly submerged, robotic repercussions of the war. The arbitrary boundary of the ocean’s surface has hidden the ultimate truth of the war from Tadashi, and when confronted by it he only responds with horror much later. One may interpret this as the memory being submerged within an individual subconscious that forces confrontation only after it negatively affects the individual’s everyday life. This disconnection between the individual and the collective past is not the only strange detachment in the work.

The overarching trait of all of Itō Junji’s manga is a surreal, almost dreamlike quality. Rather than having a flowing and logical narrative, Itō focuses more on emotional impact and an ongoing sense of dread. By allowing no clear explanations of the plot’s events to exist within his stories, Itō puts his readers on edge and never allows them the security of even the most basic understanding of what is happening within the text. Often vital details are not only obscured from the characters within the narrative, but from the readers themselves who often are not privy to the cause of the horror within the text. In the short stories published alongside Gyo, this uncertainty is directly referred to and is never solved. This is combined with a re-occurring theme of ancestral violation and punishments. In two of Itō’s short manga that are included in the collected edition of Gyo, “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” and “The Sad Tale of the PrinciplePost,” regular Japanese citizens find themselves cursed for reasons they can never fully understand.

In “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” a series of mysterious, human-shaped holes appears on a mountainside after an earthquake. Many of those who saw the incident reported on the news feel drawn to the site, and one-by-one they force themselves into the hole they believe holds their ‘shape,’ resulting in their bodies becoming grotesquely misshapen as the holes twist through the mountain. The supposed reasoning behind this self-annihilation is seen by one of the characters, who dreams that millennia prior his past incarnation was guilty of some unknown transgression, resulting in him being forced into a hole that contorted his body while keeping him alive. However, the precise nature of his transgression, and the reasoning behind why he must once again suffer, are never answered. This is not unlike the suffering experienced in the main body of Gyo, where Japan is swamped with the rotting bodies of ocean life due to the now forgotten actions of other who have been dead for over half a century. There too, only barely re-collected imagined memories and dreams provide insight into the causes behind contemporary torment.

Meaningless self-destruction for the sake of one’s family is also the primary horror behind “The Sad Tale of the PrinciplePost.” In that short manga a young family moves into a fairly large, single family home. While settling into their first dinner as a family, the wife and children cheerfully chat among themselves, but do not know why the father has not joined them. Then, the sounds of screams come from below their feet and, investigating the noise, they find that the family’s father has somehow become wedged under the house’s primary support post. Declining either to explain how this happened or to be rescued, in order to spare his family additional suffering by forcing them to move house, he has them leave him under the beam to die. Years later, the family has set up a small shrine around his skeleton, which is still lodged under the home. This story places the material prosperity of the Japanese family literally over the bones of a father. This could be seen as a statement of the high economic demands made on the ‘typical’ salaryman, but also fits into a larger tradition of vanished fathers that has haunted postwar Japanese media. Fathers as a class, who had sacrificed themselves for an incomprehensible cause and then whose memories were enshrined, parallels the narratives told about those deified in Yasukuni.

While Itō plays on expectations and uses non-logic, similar to that seen in fever-dreams or half-imagined ideas, in these two short works that were published in tandem with Gyo, the main text is the narrative concerning a college-aged man named Tadashi and his girlfriend Kaori who are confronted by swarms of rotted fish propelled by bio-mechanical legs. In this manga, the memories of the Battle of Okinawa, fears of contamination caused by historical malfeasance, and the problems of receiving memory second or third-hand are explored through the dreamlike structure of the aforementioned short stories.

Figure 1. Opening Panel of Gyo3

Greene, Figure 1

The manga begins in Okinawa, where Tadashi scuba dives through the remains of a Japanese battleship before being suddenly and inexplicably attacked by a number of sharks. Only a short distance away, a nearby group of fishermen haul up a load of rotted, legged fish. This not only directly references the almost aggressive nature of naval history in a context where devastating losses had become commonplace, but appears obliquely to refer to the ill-bounty of the Lucky Dragon Number Five whose disastrous voyage conjured images of atomic bombings and Cold War fears. Despite these strange omens, which should have cast a pall over any trip, Tadashi continues to disregard these past events in order to enjoy his present. This would be the first confrontation of traumatic memory experienced by an individual. Initially, Tadashi seems completely oblivious to what these sunken battleships represent, although as a tourist to Okinawa he must have been aware of the long-standing American military presence and war memorials that dot the island chain. But, as a wealthy, Tokyo resident, he has a privileged position that allowed him long to ignore the impact of trauma.

However, his girlfriend Kaori appears to be highly sensitive to these events and finds the very atmosphere of Okinawa to be poisonous with the stench of rot. Despite Tadashi’s constant disregard of her concerns, Kaori continuously professes dislike of the smell of fish and the ocean. Since arriving in Okinawa Kaori has become increasingly tense and paranoid, claiming that some inchoate disaster is just around the corner. She wishes to return to Tokyo, where the connection to the sea and its hidden trauma is less omnipresent. But, the pair is vacationing at Tadashi’s parent’s home in Okinawa and he is unwilling to surrender the benefits their wealth has given him. This causes a rift in the relationship, with Tadashi claiming that Kaori is simply hypersensitive. This is a not uncommon accusation levied against those who reassert the importance of confronting historical trauma by those who prefer to keep the past in history. At this point in the narrative, Tadashi remains in the early stages of confrontation while Kaori has already begun to absorb them. That evening the desiccated body of a fish propelled by robotic legs attacks them in their home, which Tadashi had constantly claimed was a safe and neutral territory. Kaori becomes ill from the stress; however Tadashi remains adamant that they cannot go home before schedule, continuing to avoid dealing directly with the repercussions of history.

These attacks escalate until the shark that hunted Tadashi in the sunken battleship attacks him again in his family’s house in Okinawa. Breaking out from the home, only to discover that these limbed corpses had overrun the whole island, Tadashi and Kaori flee back to their apartments in Tokyo. However, Kaori continues to smell the rot of the particular fish that attacked her and is soon harassed by the same fish that had managed to follow her to her home in the city. It should be noted that this fish reached Tokyo by air, simulating the bombing of the city after the fall of Okinawa during the Asian-Pacific War. Kaori appears to be in accordance with the sixth frame of guilt developed by Tsutsui, where an individual is remorseful and guilty for the actions of previous generations (Tsutsui 2009, 1393). While this reaction is not common in Japanese media, it does exist as a sometimes-maladaptive coping strategy. In the case of Kaori, this strategy is distressing; this strange sensitivity to the infected fish affects only her, while Tadashi’s obliviousness to the situation seems to provide him with immunity to the serious attack. Eventually, Kaori begins to show the bloating and decay associated with the fish and falls into despair. Her sensitivity to the past and its repercussions forces the infection upon her, while Tadashi’s obliviousness acts as a vaccine against this type of suffering.

Trying to find a cure for Kaori, rather than attempting to solve the ultimate cause of the legged fish monsters, Tadashi reconnects with his uncle who runs a small laboratory. There he discovers his grandfather was a member of an elite group of scientists who created this virus as a biological weapon for use against Allied forces in the Second World War. The majority of the scientists and their work had been sunk on the battleship that Tadashi dived to at the beginning of the story, but his grandfather had miraculously survived. His uncle continues his father’s work, justifying it as a necessity of war. This uncle follows both the framework of Projection and Evasion, where guilt is displaced onto the worldwide community and equated to similar occurrences in other nations. This allows the individual to displace guilt, and the uncle not only views the creation of biological weapons as necessary but laudable and seeks to perfect his father’s research. Tadashi, with his unknown connection to the original events, was unaware that social conditions had buried this infected memory of the war until its accidental rediscovery, and thereby triggered the spread of the virus. This may simply be a coincidence; however it is implied in the narrative that Tadashi has some preternatural connection to the disease, as Tadashi eventually becomes able to see the unquiet ghosts of the war dead who inhabit the fish.

The last important character to make an appearance is perhaps the most unusual in the text. After Tadashi uncovers his family history, he is injured and put into a coma for a month. Waking up in a hospital he finds that Tokyo is under martial law and partially destroyed, with the infected sea life and their human victims occupying vast swaths of the city. While attempting to find Kaori, who has vanished into the horde of infected in the city, Tadashi finds himself held hostage by the ringleader of a circus who appears to be inhuman, although whether infected, and at what stage of infection this individual may be, is unknown. This ringleader gleefully shows off his circus that consists entirely of the infected, poised robotically as acrobats and musicians. He acknowledges that this a cynical exploitation of the infected, but states that this is no different from normal life where abuse was merely hidden from view. He can be seen as a kind of Universalist, who distributes guilt among all; however he is deeply sarcastic and disaffected and so differs from Tadashi’s uncle who still believes he has a higher calling. In this way the ringleader mirrors the behaviour of individuals such as Kobayashi Yoshinori who are able to leverage a revisionist position on Japanese Imperial history into positions of attention and power.

The issue of memory directs this narrative. By tapping into his family’s past Tadashi uncovers trauma that threaten to rip apart the whole of society. However, he is a passive receiver of memories from others who spout expository dialogue to him whenever their self-interest propels them to. If Tadashi can be viewed as a stand-in for those who are uninterested in or ignorant of history, then he can be seen as acting like a key for the remaining characters. He lacks the sensitivity of his girlfriend Kaori, who can be seen to represent those who believe that an inadequate response to wartime responsibility will lead to future catastrophe. His uncle, with his rationalisation of wartime actions, shows a sympathy with supporters of historical revisionism who believe that shame in wartime actions has hindered the development of Japan. The ringleader of the circus, which makes a show out of the infected, is a representation of those who cynically exploit the history debate in Japan for their own ends. Whether or not any of these positions and perspectives are true and accurate is unknown to both Tadashi and the reader. This is not unlike reality, where history is multifaceted and more complex than any single individual can comprehend. The only things that appear to be categorically true to the reader are those seen by Tadashi; for example the visions of spirits that he has throughout the text. However, many of these happen when he is under duress or injured, and therefore his own perception may be inaccurate. In this way Itō adds a layers of verisimilitude to his narrative that may not be found in texts that directly address wartime trauma.

If this character analysis is further expanded into Tsutsui’s framework of the reception of traumatic memory and the confrontation of guilt, then the characters fall on multiple locations along the spectrum. Tadashi begins with the first response of denial, refusing to believe Kaori’s instincts and perceptions in order to maintain his comfortable lifestyle and equilibrium. However, as time passes and he is increasingly confronted with the futility of resisting history, he moves to the seventh framework of response that is universalism. Accepting that his family’s responsibility for disaster cannot be changed, he elects to change the world for the better by neutralising the harbingers of history, the robot-zombie fish. His girlfriend Kaori does not experience denial; rather she immediately understands the seriousness of historical trauma and the after effects it may have on following generations. However Kaori, with her extreme sensitivity to the fish, is both emotionally and physically destroyed by her empathy. She is incapable of processing history and guilt and is thereby consumed. Eventually her animated corpse is devoured by the other infected as they view her as a potential risk. She is thereby trapped within a self-destructive version of the remorse response.

The antagonists of the story also fall within Tsutsui’s framework. Tadashi’s uncle embodies justification and evasion, claiming that wartime atrocities were both necessary and typical. However, this leads to him under-estimating the destructiveness of the infection and when he is injured and contracts the illness he does not seek out a cure that could save his life. Rather, he seeks to perfect the infection in his own body and redeem his father’s research in the public eye. Eventually, he seals himself off from the outside world and constructs an elaborate device to give him greater offensive power. This he justifies as a means of defending society from outside attack, not dissimilar to claims forwarded by those who propose a repeal of Article 9. This results in his weaponising of his infection, turning himself into an aerial attack-ship that possessively destroys his lab and assistant to prevent outsiders from using them. However, the circus and its ringleader rationalise their macabre show through a twisted form of universalism, where everyone is equally guilty and therefore equally deserving of a humiliating death. They are thereby also enemies of Tadashi’s sincerely believing uncle and seek to destroy them. The conflict between the circus and the uncle eventually leads to even greater destruction of Tokyo.

It is interesting to note that the only characters to survive are Tadashi and like-minded university students who were studying science at Tokyo University who embrace universalism and are untroubled by anything beyond concrete repercussions of history. They have been able to trace the bacteria that causes the infection and are actively looking for a cure. Rather than becoming embroiled and obsessed with history, like Kaori, his uncle, and the circus, they instead look towards the future. Their goal is to mitigate the damage done by the infection and to use what they have learned to reconstruct society. This can be viewed as the final level of emotional acceptance and response to collective trauma, where the distress is neutralised but the lessons derived from the trauma are not forgotten. Once Tadashi joins this group with the promise to reform the nation in a positive manner he discovers the corpse of Kaori. He notes that she no longer possesses the stench of decay that normally accompanies the infection and looks out over the still infected city with a sense of peace.

The primary drive of this narrative is the question of memory and how one confronts collective trauma and history as an individual. Tadashi is bound to the other characters by his memories of them; however, he is perpetually detached from them, as his memories can never completely match theirs. He is not even conscious when the invasion of infected sea life arrives in Tokyo, as, previously noted, rather than witnessing the invasion directly he instead remained in a coma the entire time and only pieces what happens together after he wakes up. And, when he does wake up, he discovers that Tokyo is now a literal Kusai Toshi as it is swarmed with the desiccated corpses of the fish. He only learns of the invasion through brief reports from news programs, the harried nursing staff of the hospital where he awakes, and what repercussions he can directly observe. He is not unlike post-war generations who must also cobble together their understanding from a myriad of half-explicated sources. He is given several examples of means of confronting memory; however eventually he chooses a path that leads to self-fulfillment and positive action towards the future rather than self- and social destruction.

Tadashi has a connection to the war and the Occupation through his familial relationships, which is a symbolic mirroring of collective guilt being transmitted from one generation to another. The invisibility of his parents, who are mentioned but never seen, can be symbolic of inter-generational silence. During the postwar period in Japan many families treated war and trauma with kid gloves, causing a disconnection in the transmission of memory between generations. His grandfather was the scientist who created the virus as a biological weapon during the Second World War and eventually died attempting to recreate the illness in his private lab. This man’s son, who is also Tadashi’s uncle, works to perfect his father’s work once the infection re-emerges as a viable contagion, and redeem the actions undertaken by the Imperial Japanese forces. His parents still own property in Okinawa, but a property that by its very nature as a vacation home has no direct tie to their actual homestead in Honshu. The Okinawan home is just there to allow Tadashi to visit historical horrors without any real emotional ties to them. This situation mirrors the distant relation between those of the main islands, as allegations that Okinawa was not considered a true part of the Japanese home islands resulted in the hard fighting on the islands during the war and twenty more years of Occupation.

Tadashi’s girlfriend Kaori also has an uncanny ability to sense the presence of the infected without them being visible or physically close, but Tadashi diminishes the importance of these visions through most of the narrative. As he cannot directly feel the results of the war embodied by the infected fish, he feels that they are not a threat until it is too late. Additionally, the triggering event occurring in Okinawa ties the narrative to the war, as Okinawa remains one of the key sites of the memory of civilian suffering during the war. Tadashi becomes incapable of avoiding this history due to his own family connections, ties that to him had long been invisible. The Battle of Okinawa and the responsibility of mainland Japan for the trauma that occurred there have been a subject of debate for decades, and the late handover of the islands from US Occupation to Japan has been a point of tension between Okinawa and Tokyo.

Figure 2. Hypothetical Attack of Infected Animals4

Greene, Figure 2

Memory acts similar to the infection: it changes one’s worldview and relationships similar to the way disease alters the body in a way that can be painful. The dreamlike structure of the text may be founded on similar reasoning as Halbwachs’ description of dreams as a means of handling memory in a way that is completely separated from the greater society around oneself (Halbwachs, 1992, 41-42). This perpetuation of memory also affects the descendants of the atomic bombing survivors, as Nota notes: “…in recent years the continuing question of the meaning of their survival is an issue among children of atomic-bombs survivors who have there been exposed to the event, as well as within the reflections of aging atomic-bomb survivors themselves.” (2007, 69).5 Memories of the atomic bombings not only conjure images of historical horror, but of more contemporary horrors due to fears of hereditary contamination. Collective memory itself acts almost like a genetic heritage, involuntarily transmitted from generation to generation and expressed differently according to environmental factors. Like Tadashi, the descendants of those who directly experienced trauma can find that they too suffer from its long-standing repercussions.

Figure 3. Ghosts of the War Dead6

Greene, Figure 3

Tadashi also has an inherent immunity to the plague, being exposed to both infected bodies and spirits throughout the text without becoming ill himself. This inborn trait is not shared by his uncle, who sacrifices his infected arm to perfect his father’s weapon designs, as Tadashi is a passive receiver and processor of memory rather than a person who experiences it firsthand. However, passivity and lack of connection do not spare Tadashi the terror of encountering these memories. Instead he is forced to purge the experience from society by being a witness to the suffering of others, including a somewhat inexplicable carnival sequence where infected circus performers force a shocked Tadashi to watch their numerous acts. This spectatorship can be interpreted as a mirror of young viewers who are exposed to media about collective trauma and memory in media repeatedly over their lives. Even the trauma of the Asian-Pacific War has not made it a narrative taboo; rather there are new films, games, and books written on the era published every year in Japan. Tadashi eventually ends the performance when he discovers that his girlfriend has been forced into their final act, an act that culminates in the circus performers engaging in an aerial war over Tokyo with Tadashi’s infected uncle to gain hegemony over the animated dead.

Figure 4. Circus of the Infected7

Greene, Figure 4

This disconnect between the mentality of the infected and their lackeys and Tadashi mimics the incomprehensibility of historical trauma between those who have experienced it firsthand and those who follow after. The emotional impact of these events does not necessarily dissipate over time, particularly when they have become socially or politically fraught. Tadashi exists in a strange dialectic, where he can remain both unharmed and damaged, through his ignorance of and disconnection from the past. This separating can be summed up by Murakawa’s description of his own experience as a historian encountering traumatic events after noting how the Holocaust was approached by German and Israeli scholars: contrasting his experience to historians in other countries he states that “Until that time I personally was aware of the facts that the Marco Polo Bridge, Nanking, Pearl Harbour, Hiroshima and Nagasaki events occurred, but it caught up to me that I had a direct connection to them” (2012, 95).8 Encountering history second-hand, through textbooks or media, can imperfectly replicate direct participation, but is a vital part of socialising an individual into a group. Tadashi is eventually incorporated into a group of young, Japanese, college-educated survivors, identical with himself, who will attempt to solve the crisis by backtracking it to its roots—by connecting themselves directly to history.


Historical memory and identity are deeply intertwined, and with the rise of mass culture and education they can become increasingly standardised and shared among a broad population. However, on a macro-level, individual resistance to the alteration of these narratives is a frequent handicap to officially dispersed histories within textbooks and those propagated through the mass media by persons on the opposing ends of historical debate. Often the last bastion of seemingly apolitical debate on the topic is through the use of fiction, as it appears to be a relatively neutral ground for synthesising this information without becoming embroiled into larger ideological concerns. The tensions caused by this situation can often be seen in media, with fiction acting similar to a quake relieving pressure at a fault line. However, many of the effects of this phenomenon are not readily apparent to the observer and are expressed in ways that are more subtext rather than text. An example of this is Gyo, reflecting aspects of several kinds of reactions to collective trauma as described by Tsutsui.

While Itō has no clear bias towards either the progressive or the more conservative elements of the Japanese political sphere, within Gyo, he explores the issues of hereditary guilt, the impact of history, and the transformative aspects of trauma on society through the audience stand-in character, Tadashi. Tadashi represents an adaptive acceptance of collective trauma, in which he is able to confront the horror of history but is eventually able to transform this distress into hope for the betterment of society as a whole. This is the seventh and last frame suggested by Tsutsui. However, the remainder of the characters all represent unhealthy and maladaptive forms of approaching history that fall much earlier on the spectrum of memory. His girlfriend, Kaori, is highly empathetic and responsive to trauma; however she is not able to cope with the level of revulsion she experiences and is the first to fall victim to infection. Tadashi’s uncle acknowledges historical atrocities, but justifies them as historical necessity and eventually destroys himself trying to redeem his father’s biological weapon. His reaction too is maladaptive, as his justification requires that he repeat his father’s mistakes in order to prove that it was necessary. Lastly, the ringleader and the circus are cynically exploiting tragedy for their own political and social gain, but are ultimately incapable of exerting influence on society as a whole and can only struggle against their ideological counterpart, Tadashi’s uncle, who is sincere. The story seems to be a hyperbolic response to a sheltered youth’s first encounter with the less savoury aspects of the history that they knew primarily through textbooks and positively spun family mythology, but can be seen as a discussion of the variety of approaches to traumatic memory and their repercussions.


A version of this paper was submitted as coursework and later presented at the Graduate Student Colloquium at Portland State University in 2013.

The author would like to thank the reviewers of the article, the Ph.D Zemi at Waseda University, and Chris C. for their comments.


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[1] “…Kinder erstaunlich viel über Geschichte wissen, aber zugleich zeigt es auch, dass sei dieses Wissen aus ganz unterschiedlichen Quellen bezeihen … Menschen Vorstellungen und Bilder über die Vergangenheit aus den unterschiedlichsten Verstatzstücken aus so disparaten Quellen wie Gesichtsbüchern, Spielfilmen und eigener Erfahrung komponieren oder wie sich Informationen aus der eigenen Familie zu solchen aus der Schule verhalten.”

[2] 記憶は個々人に属するものであるが,それならば,地震のように同じ出来事を複数の人が経験した場合,その出来事を経験した集団の記憶とはどのようなものなのだろうか

[3] Itō 2002a, 7-6.

[4] Itō 2002a, 135.

[5] “…近年の問題として,被爆者から子供への体験伝達,および老いた被爆者から子供への体験伝達,および老いた被爆者がもう一度,ここまで生き残ったことの意味を問う章へ続けている”

[6] Itō 2002b, 8-9.

[7] Itō 2002b, 81.

[8] “それまで僕自身、盧溝橋、南京、真珠湾、広島・長崎などで起こった出来事を知識としては知っていても、今の自分と直接つながりのあるものとは受け止めていなかった” “Contrasting his experience to historians in other countries he states that “Until that time I personally was aware of the facts that the Marco Polo Bridge, Nanking, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki events occurred, but it caught up to me that I had a direct connection to them.”

About the Author

Barbara Greene is a doctorate candidate, whose research focuses largely on modern Japanese visual culture, at the University of Arizona.

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