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The Storytelling of the Disaster

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Organizer: Hiroki Yoshikuni

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According to Walter Benjamin, “the art of storytelling is coming to an end”; we are losing “the ability to share experiences.” Without storytelling, which was once “a capability that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions,” we are fragmented into a piece of “information” and isolate ourselves in what is believed to be subjectivity (“The Storyteller”). And yet, in exceptional situations, storytelling appears still possible. For example, when the northeast Japan was struck by the earthquake and tsunami disaster, after initial muteness and banal narrativization by the major media (which was indeed a disaster for storytelling), there emerged stories among the survivors. Most of them are stories about overwhelming experiences of the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear accident, but there are also stories in which the storyteller recounts his or her encounter with the dead. In these stories the dead visit the living in their dreams or nightmares, or while awake in the figure of ghost. Quite a few ghost stories were told after the disaster; a cab driver reported a story about a female passenger, who was soaking wet when she got in the taxi and disappeared when arrived at the destination, leaving the seat wet. The region was struck by tsunamis so many times that stories of ghosts who died in those disasters are abundant, as shown by Yanagita Kunio’s Tono Monogatari. In fact, these stories correspond to what Benjamin considers storytelling: the “most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy,” but “the psychological connections among the events” are not explained. These ghost stories contain something extraordinary in its core, which not only the listener but also the storyteller does not fully understand, but they have been preserved, repeated, adapted throughout generations. After all Benjamin never forgets to add “as if” when he mentions the end of storytelling. As Boccaccio’s Decameron was a collection of stories told by ten young people when the plague struck Florence, a disaster might be an exceptional opportunity for storytelling.      In this seminar, we will explore phenomena of storytelling that occurred in response to a disaster (in the broadest sense, not limited to the natural one) and see whether or not storytelling can be something different from a return or recovery of the “primitive.” By doing so, hopefully, we will be able to determine its significances to what we call literature today. It might be helpful to remember that for Benjamin it is storytelling that “liberate” us from myth and mythic violence with its “germinative power.”

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