On the Foolishness of Evil, or the Problem of the Prison Camp and Housing Complex

Table of Contents

The author visited “The Exhibition Hall of Evidence of Crimes Committed by Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army” in Pingfang, a district in Harbin, China. Unit 731 of the Kwantung Army conducted experiments on human bodies in Manchuria in the prewar era. This historical museum records these crimes.

The Museum exhibits a wealth of historical materials to demonstrate the crimes of Unit 731. At the same time, it functions as a place for prayer, which narrativizes the crimes of Unit 731, endowing the deaths of its victims with meaning. This function is crucial as long as the museum is curated by the Chinese, who were the Unit’s victims. The crimes of Unit 731 can be called a quantifying (trivializing) violence, which reduced its victims to trivial existences that could either be killed or not killed, stripping them of their names and intrinsic character and changing their existence into simple numbers. The Chinese must resist this violence. Thus, they tend to find a grand, deliberate design behind the crimes of Unit 731.

However, it is possible to say that what is truly terrifying about the crimes of Unit 731 is not their deliberateness, but shallowness and foolishness. We know that the experiments on human bodies actually yielded only few results useful for science or the military. We also know that the military doctors were petty men. We could say that the crimes were mostly meaningless—that this meaninglessness is actually the essence of these crimes. This meaninglessness does not appear in the exhibits at the Museum.

There is an important problem here. Perpetrators forget the harm that they have caused. Most of the perpetrators in Unit 731 forgot everything about their actions in postwar Japan, and were never even tried in court. Victims remember the harm by narrativizing it and endowing it with meaning. The Museum does this. But in both cases the fact that it was meaningless harm is forgotten. The meaninglessness of the harm disappears between the forgetful perpetrators and the victims who endow the harm with meaning. Then how might we remember this meaninglessness? In other words, how is it possible for perpetrators to remember evil?

Azuma focuses here on the fact that housing complexes are often built upon the sites of prison camps. The Museum in Harbin is built on the former site of Unit 731 research facilities. However, today it is surrounded by housing complexes. There is also a shopping mall and a subway station nearby. Though this might seem strange, Azuma notes that he encountered something similar in Krakow, Poland and Kiev, Ukraine. Krakow was once home to the Plaszow concentration camp. Today the site has been turned into a park surrounded by housing complexes. There is a valley called Babi Yar in Kiev. Over 30,000 Jews were murdered there in September, 1941. This, too, is surrounded by housing complexes.

Housing complexes stand on the former sites of prison camps in Harbin, Krakow, and Kiev. This landscape reveals the dual nature of the twentieth century. The twentieth century was an age filled with war and massacre during which an unprecedented number of people were killed (the age of mass death). However, at the same time, it was also an age in which the consumer society of the masses blossomed, and an unprecedented number of people lived in happiness and material satisfaction (the age of mass life). These two characteristics are deeply related both philosophically and technologically. In his Bremen lectures in 1949, Martin Heidegger proposed that Nazi extermination camps and the food industry were in essence the same. We build our peace and prosperity of today (mass life) by inheriting the legacy of a culture of doing harm (mass death). The fact that housing complexes are built on the sites of camps symbolizes this legacy.

Prison camps are sites of mass death. Perpetrators strip victims of their names and meaning; they kill them; they forget them there. Museums are sites for recovering meaning. There (the bereaved of) victims return to the victims their names and meaning; they mourn them; they remember them. However, as mentioned above, it is the meaninglessness of the harm that is forgotten in both sites. To solve the problem, Azuma suggests that we could find a clue in the fact that people have built not only museums, but also housing complexes on the sites of camps – that is, a third kind of place for our collective oblivion and memory other than the camp and the museum. That being the case, could we not say the memory of the meaninglessness of mass death becomes possible precisely at a site of mass life, the housing complex?

In this article Azuma concludes that remembering the meaninglessness of harm done, or remembering the evil of perpetrators, is made possible not by museum exhibits, but by the literature of housing complexes. Is this really true? Azuma endeavors to demonstrate it by reading Haruki Murakami’s 1994-1995 novel The Wind-up Bird Chronicle as a rejoinder to Kojin Karatani’s 1989 critique. In Azuma’s reading, Murakami’s metaphor of “underground” and the “well” depict a new possibility for our collective memory of the foolishness of the evil.