“The Humane Activism of Anshu” by Amy K. Vegas

Posted: June 1, 2013 in Vol. 3: Spring Essays 2013

Throughout centuries, events of war inspired many individuals to become social activists.  These activists protest noisily acrossfile000126701333 state and nation capitals in hopes of being heard, fighting for the unethical matters of war to somehow, through political action, be addressed; activists strive for social justice.  When considering the term social activism, many people believe that they must physically take action to accomplish a certain goal, but if activism were to remain subtle, would it still be labeled “social activism” when many believe that it requires a degree of physicality and making sure one is heard?  Juliet Kono’s Anshu presents readers with an inverted style of social activism.  A form of protest that does not focus on violence or bodily action, but one which demonstrates a peaceful, almost gracious embodiment of activism.  As Kono tells a story about a girl named Hi-Chan struggling to survive being raised as a Westerner living in Japan during WWII, Kono uses themes from Buddhist teachings as a way to speak to her readers about social justice and activism.  In relation to social activism, the first section of Kono’s novel depicts a quote from the Teachings of Buddha expressing, “All things are impermanent” (11).  In this sense, Kono is not forcing her readers to privilege one side over the other, as Western tradition usually demands, but rather she articulates universal truths about humanity and human existence.  If all things in life are truly impermanent, then why must the traits of Western activism—a style that possesses physical action, harm, bitterness, and most often leading to events like war—be as such? Why must individuals have to choose a certain “side,” and why must there be a “right” and a “wrong”?  Western activism is commonly, and at times directly, linked to physical action, but what Kono offers readers is a more respectful, more humble process of activism turning stereotypical Western activism on its head.  Rather than invoking active action, Anshu reconceptualizes notions of social activism and justice through her written vocalizations and portrayal of Buddhist teachings, which defy conventional Western advocacy and open the doorway of acceptance for other molds of activism.

Some people believe that in order to be considered an “activist,” one must physically take action.  However, Juliet Kono challenges these physical acts by not conforming to the Western ideal of protest, showing that activism can be articulated and even tranquil, which can result in a more hard-hitting, unyielding message about social justice and activism.  Before Kono unfolds the life of her protagonist, Hi-Chan, to her readers, she starts the first section of her novel with a short epigraph from the Teachings of Buddha. This sentence consisting of only four words states that, “All things are impermanent” (11).  Although it may not seem as an important aspect in regards to a 320- page span of a novel, this minute excerpt serves as a way in which readers can fully grasp the actions that take place in the novel. In Buddhism, one of the most important concepts to comprehend is that nothing in life is permanent, “in connection with our sensations, perceptions, or mental faculties…all that exists is a ceaseless succession of changes…there is no abiding reality anywhere…” (Bixby 309). Even the ritualistic things we face on a daily basis are infinitely changing—emotions, elements in life, encounters, etc.; there is never a stagnant moment, or a moment long enough for us to keep hold of something, and in this ceaseless change we find our reality.

Keeping this concept in mind, Kono introduces Hi-Chan, a Japanese girl living in Hawaii with her family, as a child “[b]orn of fire” (13).  Though not obvious, Kono uses the symbol of “fire” to represent Hi-Chan, because it complements and parallels the notion of impermanence, and other concepts in Buddhist’s teachings.  The element of “fire” is something that is not permanent.  When a fire is lit, the flames neither stay in one place, nor does the fire forever burn.  Flames sway with the wind, and fire burns until it slowly begins to die.  With fire, there is never an everlasting, which parallels human existence and truth.  Human life, like fire, is not permanent.  Individuals undergo consistent change, and eventually, we experience death as well.  The “fire” used to describe Hi-Chan reinforces the notion of impermanence in Buddhist teachings, and Hi-Chan is thus used as a vehicle through which Kono speaks to her readers of unconventional activism.

During her life in Hawaii, Hi-Chan experiences many events which leave her attached to things she believed were permanent.  Hi-Chan loses her father at a young age and holds on to the “loneliness” of his absence; she holds on to the feelings of “shame” because her sister has one leg that is shorter than the other; she holds on to losing her boyfriend Akria; she also holds on to the child she carries, but most of all, Hi-Chan holds on to her self-pride.  Every occurrence happens so nimbly that Hi-Chan doesn’t seem to grasp one specific thing before another event occurs.  This is the constant change of impermanency in Buddhist teachings, and this constant change is one’s reality.  When Hi-Chan’s mother and sister, Miyo, found she was pregnant, Hi-Chan’s mother asked to use Miyo’s money in order to send her to Japan since Hi-Chan could not stay in Hawaii. While Miyo had to sacrifice her marriage, Hi-Chan was too proud to apologize.  She states, “I wanted to…ask for their forgiveness, especially Miyo, but I was too proud to do that—a hard core that even my predicament could not tear down” (43).  In relation to Western ideologies, one can see how even the simplest gesture for an individual to admit one is wrong is a very difficult thing to do.  Individuals want so much to hold on to their “pride,” or even to the feeling of being a “victor,” that everything else is overlooked, especially when the individual is the wrong doer. In a global sense, one can only imagine how often it is seen that one country apologizes to another for the wrongs it has committed.  Wrong or right, Kono’s use of activism through Buddhist teachings says that, regardless of whichever side one is on, one should not hold on—or remain attached—to any given thing or feeling of animosity, because it does not last forever.  Any situation in life is not worth dwelling on or being attached to, because that specific situation or emotion is only lived momentarily due to the fact that individuals live in an ever-changing world.   Change is the only constant individuals have in life, and one must learn to live within the reality of that change, rather than hold on to things that will forever remain nothing more than a brief moment.  After losing her love with Akria, who “appeared to be looking right through [her], as if through glass…” (46), Hi-Chan voyaged to Japan in 1941.  Her ties to Akria, the boy she loved deeply, are also short lived.

If one remains attached to things that are impermanent, one would not be able to understand the next epigraph that Kono uses from Buddhist teachings which says that, “All emotions are pain” (48).  It is easy to think of sadness, suffering, and hurt, as “pain,” but in Buddhism all emotions—even the emotions such as love, or emotions that make us happy—are considered to be pain.  I think all emotions are considered to be pain because with any type of emotion comes a specific expectation. The most relatable thing is doing something for someone, and then expecting something or even just appreciation in return.  Kono uses this epigraph in relation to Hi-Chan and Harue Auntie’s relationship.  As Hi-Chan arrives in Japan and settles with her new life there, the tension between Harue Auntie and Hi-Chan grows.  Hi-Chan not only has to adapt to a different lifestyle—the life of “a common housemaid” (72)—but she also has to do all the work bargaining for food at the market.  With all the work Hi-Chan must do for her Japanese family, saying “they depended on me, and I couldn’t let them down” (97), Hi-Chan expected Harue Auntie to at least be appreciative, nice or even understanding of her situation, but Harue Auntie was not.  As Hi-Chan was sick after giving birth to Sumie, Harue Auntie told Hi-Chan that she was “good for nothing” and to “get out of [her] house” (108).  Harue Auntie shows Hi-Chan no type of appreciation, and this causes Hi-Chan to become miserable, asking Harue Auntie why she is treating her that way.  All the miserable emotions Hi-Chan experiences in relation to Harue Auntie are due to Hi-Chan expecting something in return. If Hi-Chan was to take herself, her mind out of the matter, the situation would just be a situation; in other words, the emotion that she associates Harue Auntie with would not be “real” and it would cause her no pain.  Hi-Chan’s emotions are due to her mind thinking or creating an illusion that causes her to feel a certain way. In the same respect, the emotion of love that Hi-Chan felt with Akira was also an illusion. These illusions ultimately lead Hi-Chan to feel pain, regardless if the feeling was love or misery.  In regards to Western activism, many individuals create an illusion in their minds due to the types of emotions they feel, or they “[make] fear a central component of strategy” (Rose 62).  In aspects of war, many patriots believe that if someone, or another nation, were threatening their country, they feel like they would have to defend their nation.  Activists create illustrious propaganda to spark or flame emotions from others in order to gain support of their idea.  Just like the symbol of fire, illusions can be visually enticing. On the one hand, the fire can allure an individual through the way it moves and the colors it produces. On the other, fires can be feared because fires are dangerous.  They burn, they cause damage, and they can even destroy.  The appealing fire can be misleading, and even if the fire allured an individual regardless of whichever side one is on, the fire eventually causes pain. Just like emotions, regardless of what type of emotion one feels, it sparks a certain type of reaction that leads to pain.  Propaganda, illusions based on emotions, and war can only cause pain for everyone involved in the end.  These emotions that are essentially not “real,” both because emotions are not permanent and because they are something created, lead to Kono’s next epigraph about illusions.

When considering that things in life are not permanent and that emotions are pain, Kono brings to light another Buddhist epigraph that states that, “All phenomena are illusory and empty” (161). Rather than taking this as saying everything is fake or that nothing exists, I think it’s instead saying that what one perceives is usually different than what is actually taking place or is seen. This excerpt also promotes a kind of transcend quality for an individual. As air raids from the United States bomb Japan and the village where Hi-Chan and her family live, they try to escape and run away to survive.  During their escape, Hi-Chan and Sa-Chan have to jump through a wall of fire, but Sa-Chan is too afraid to jump.  Due to the fact that Sa-Chan is too afraid to jump, the two get into an argument while trying to survive. Hi-Chan, being “enraged” and scared, grabbed Sa-Chan and “pushed her into the fire” (158).  Although Hi-Chan tries to “save” Sa-Chan’s life by forcefully pushing her through the fire, her emotions and her selfishness get in the way and ultimately result in Sa-Chan’s death, leaving Hi-Chan to feel as if she must carry the burden of this death.  A while after the death of Sa-Chan and Iwao, Hi-Chan tries to tell her Uncle Saiichi that it was her fault, but then she realized that she “had not learned that some things were best left unsaid,” and asked herself, “Was there no true realization?” (315).  In this sense, if Hi-Chan had understood the first two Buddhist epigraphs, she would have been able to understand that all things are illusory and empty.  By being attached to her emotions, Hi-Chan felt like she had to carry the burden of the deaths of Sa-Chan and Iwao, which leads her to try and tell her uncle their deaths were her fault. Even if Hi-Chan felt as if she was guilty or that she had to tell Saiichi Uncle, “had [she] not said anything it would have been fine” (315).  Hi-Chan perceived this situation to be something it was not, and the reality was that she did not have to say anything. By Hi-Chan asking herself if there was any true realization, it shows that throughout her journey she only tried to do things through physical means, and nothing she did was done internally; Hi-Chan’s attachments to Hawaii was based on the physical matters of her family and Akira, while in Japan Hi-Chan had to physically do things in hopes of acceptance or recognition from Harue Auntie. Her attachments to her emotions led to Hi-Chan physically pushing Sa-Chan into the fire, and Hi-Chan tried to physically tell Saiichi Uncle it was her fault for the deaths when nothing needed to be said. It is only after her incident with Saiichi Uncle that Hi-Chan learns things do not have to be solved through external, physical means.

As Hi-Chan becomes a victim in the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima, she goes through a spiritual transformation.  As stated previously, Hi-Chan only did things based on the physical level just like Western activism roots itself in physical action, but Kono uses Hi-Chan as a vessel in which physical means do not speak as loud as subtle activism.  Kono presents her last epigraph that states that, “Nirvana is beyond all concepts” (213). This is the concept that Kono uses to invert Western forms of physical activism.  As Hi-Chan is stripped of her physical identity due to the Atomic bomb, she is labeled as a “Hibakusha…survivor of the atomic bomb. Victim” (284).  It is only after Hi-Chan speaks about her stigmatization in the community to Reverend Seki that she learn that, “Countries at war all carry a heavy karmic debt, the cause and conditions wrought and interwoven in and out of our lives, creating this huge net that had been cast upon us where no one is innocent or exempt. Yet, at the same time, remember, it is not retribution. It is simply random, the way it is” (284).  By Seki explaining to Hi-Chan that in the case of war both sides suffer, he allows her to see that war impacts everyone, not just the “victims,” but also those who focus on being the “victors.” War, as stated above, impacts all lives. In this sense, war cannot be “retribution,” because it is not punishment that is deserved.  Women affected by the atomic bomb “could not communicate freely about the diseases of the uterus and breasts common among them, or about their difficulties as bomb victims…Women widowed by the bombs or abandoned by their husbands after their beauty was marred could not readily discuss their solitary existence at the edge of…survival” (Bruin and Salaff 6). In this aspect, the atomic bomb stripped Hi-Chan of all physical identifiers, her family, her name, and her physical body, but it also allowed Hi-Chan to transcend spiritually and pursue a different form of activism: an activism that can be considered humble, humane, and even gracious.

As Japan surrendered the war, American doctors went to aid those who had been affected by the bomb.  Although it can be argued that American aid was given to test the effects of the bomb, Hi-Chan accepts her new identity and is finally at peace with her way of life.  As doctors take pictures and run tests on her, Hi-Chan says, “I became free of every insult and injury, every bad name. While I accepted my body, I was also free of it” (320). In this sense, Hi-Chan realizes that her body is a mere illusion, and another form of attachment.  In order to reach Nirvana, she must accept that “all things are impermanent,” even her physical body and beauty. Hi-Chan sees herself as not having a body, because being attached to a body leaves her attached to all identifiers and also her emotions, which causes pain.  Not only would Hi-Chan remain connected to her scarred body, but also to all the pain that came along with it, as well as all the pain she had suffered throughout her life.  Therefore, in order to free herself from perpetuating her own cycle of pain, she freed herself in understanding that the physical body is like a shell; it is “illusory and empty.” Hi-Chan says, “In all reality, I no longer owned my body. It was no longer mine but part of the elemental heat and light” (321). In this sense, Hi-Chan knows that her body will not define her, or hold her spirits back from overcoming the trauma of the atomic bomb; rather, she chooses to accept the fact that her body is just body.  Hi-Chan also states, “I could gradually see myself for what I was and became more aware of the true nature of life itself” (321). Rather than physically fighting for justice for what the Americans had done, Hi-Chan uses her body as the form of activism to show the destruction the atomic bomb left her with, but the root of her being remains unaffected for she has transcended all forms of attachments allowing Hi-Chan to find peace in her life.

Like the cycles of a “fire,” Kono’s Hi-Chan, the girl “born of fire,” is used as a vehicle to show that activism can be approached in a subtle and gracious manner, which results in a more hard-hitting, unyielding message about social justice and activism. Kono uses the symbol of “fire” in her novel to represent Hi-Chan, because it parallels with the notion in Buddhist’s teachings and serves as a way to show how Hi-Chan is able to transcend all physical bonds. In life, a fire does not remain permanent. When lit, the fire grows, the flames sway with the wind, and as the fire grows it slowly begins to die.  There is never an everlasting to a fire, and as such, there is never an everlasting to life.  As Hi-Chan grows, she sways with her life ever changing. From Hawaii to Japan to World War II, Hi-Chan’s fire not only grew and swayed with ever changing events from family issues, to air raids, to the atomic bomb, but her fire also slowly began to die. Hi-Chan’s fire died only after she discovered that all problems do not need to be solved through a physical manner but can be solved through a spiritual transcendence. It is after Hi-Chan becomes a Hibakusha that her physical fire becomes just an element in the nature of life. Even after the fire has died out, the remnants of the heat and ash are a reminder of what was.  In this sense, Hi-Chan did not need to remain attached to her physical body or physical forms of activism; rather, she understands that her body will serve as the remnant symbol of the effects of war.  And just like the remnants of a fire can burn and individuals can feel the heat left by it without its physical appearance, Hi-Chan’s gracious and humble activism is able to speak volumes without any form of physical protest needed.


Works Cited

Bixby, James T. “The Buddha’s Path of Salvation.” Chicago Journals 12.5 (1898): 307-317. JSTOR. 15 April 2013.

Bruin, Janet and Stephen Salaff. “Never Again: The Organization of Women Atomic Bomb Victims in Osaka.” Feminist Studies 7.1 (1981): 5-18. JSTOR. 15  April 2013.

Kono, Juliet S. Anshu. Honolulu, Hawaii: Bamboo Ridge Press, 2010. Print.

Rose, Jacqueline. Why War? Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1993. Print.


Written for Prof. Amy Nishimura’s ENG 320: World Literature

  1. Juliet S. Kono (Lee) says:

    Dear Amy,
    Thank you so much for writing about Anshuu in such a generous and insightful way. I am amazed at what you had gathered from the story. As an author, my objective was to tell a good story. However, when an active reader such as you can flesh out the multi-layers behind the story, it is most gratifying for me to see this. I am very happy that my story touches people, this beyond my own imagining.

    Take care and my best to you,
    Juliet S. Kono (Lee)

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