Half-lives of empathy

Somi Jun

2024 Nonfiction Spring Contest Runner Up

We are given the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. The teacher reads the story aloud to us, chapter by chapter, on the floor of a large classroom. 

In the story, a young girl Sadako lives in Hiroshima. The radiation poisons Sadako, making her sick. She dies slowly. So slowly that she, her friends, and her family have time to fold paper cranes. Their goal is to fold one thousand paper cranes, so that Sadako will be granted a wish: to heal from the atom bomb disease. Sadako falls short of her goal and dies. 

The story is mythic because Sadako does not succeed. Instead, her surviving family members and schoolmates continue to fold cranes in her memory. They are propelled by the tragedy of a young, dead girl into generating endless symbolism. We, in our large, flat, American classroom, join them, dutifully folding cranes to be strung from the ceiling.


There is some sense that if Sadako succeeded in folding all one thousand cranes, she would have healed. She would have become an exception to disease. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes seems to be a story about who escapes history and who doesn’t. If you are prolific and resourceful, you escape. But if you succumb, you have a different reward: you are written into narrative. You become a symbol. This frees you from the burden of personhood.

The real life Sadako Sasaki, on whom the book is based, folded one thousand and four hundred paper cranes between the day she was diagnosed with leukemia and the day that she died from it.


Like Sadako, my father dies from the atom bomb disease. I pay more attention to her story because I recognize that wordleukemiafrom hearing it in my own home. As children, my brother and I are sent to a tutoring center in Koreatown, where we sit in windowless rooms and complete worksheet after worksheet of math equations. There is a private corner of my heart that revels in the straightforwardness of being handed a task, freed of all sense of time or purpose. It reinforces what I will later learn in school: the right to life is bought with work, resourcefulness, and self-deprivation. 

One early evening, my mother arrives to pick us up from the tutoring center. She hedges by the curb of the parking lot. I move my eyes from the cement holding a fence post in place back toward my mother. She is having trouble finding words. One of the words she decides on is appa; another, the unfamiliar leukemia.

My mother’s fear is palpable, but my father, despite all the weight he has mysteriously lost in the preceding months, seems exactly the same. Is he afraid? He is still grieving his own mother, who passed away from liver cancer earlier in the season. Later, when we are old enough to ask, he claims he cried, then, at her funeral: don’t we remember? By the time he is telling us his own recollection of that first diagnosis, he is sick again, bedbound, still one of the youngest patients in his ward. He passes away at forty-six, from chemotherapy-related liver failure. I am fifteen years old at the time.


Eleanor Coerr, a Canadian-born American, is the author of the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. For the book’s claim to historical authenticity, she takes material from a pamphlet that Sadako Sasaki’s classmates wrote and distributed to raise funds for her memorial statue.

She travels throughout East Asia as a journalist and as the wife of a U.S. Air Force member, Robert Hicks, who is called into active duty during the Korean War. During the years known as the Korean War, the U.S. Air Force drops 635,000 tons of bombs on Korea, killing ten percent of our population. In 1952, Eleanor Coerr rejoins her husband in Nagoya, Japan, where she gives birth to a baby boy. Following the publication of her book in 1977, Coerr is invited to events around the world to talk about Sadako and the importance of empathy in fostering peace.

We are assigned Coerr’s book as one such early-life lesson in peace-making. I, along with my classmates, am enraptured. I expect to experience a special resonance with Sadako, because I look like her, because leukemia is already a known fact in my own household. Yet Sadako’s unflagging courage, her heroism in the face of illness, and the beautiful, symmetrical grief of those around her, makes me ashamed. Coerr’s novel emphasizes Sadako’s joy prior to illness. In particular, her liveliness is conveyed through her singular love for running. The book opens with the lines, “Sadako was born to be a runner. Her mother always said that Sadako had learned to run before she could walk.” 

This preternatural momentum marks Sadako as almost American in my eyes. Like good American children, she has no sense of the devastation of history. She is free from it, unweighted and hurtling ever forward.


Empathy, as both moral imperative and rhetorical exercise, enters common usage at the tail end of World War II. “Before World War II, the word ‘empathy’ had almost exclusively circulated in specialized psychological dictionaries directed to academic readers,” writes Susan Lanzoni in Empathy: A History. “In the decade following World War II, the new term ‘empathy’ began to appear more regularly in the popular press … many journalists invoked ‘cultural empathy’ as an aspirational value that promised intercultural harmony, a much needed prescription in a fractured postwar world.” 

The first entries for empathy appear in 1944 in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Concise Oxford Dictionary. These entries list empathy as an English translation of the German Einfühlung, which describes emotive immersion in aesthetic experiences or emotional projection onto objects, rather than shared feeling between people. Lanzoni cites the exhibition titled The Family of Man as critical in understanding how empathy came to mean an interpersonal process of sharing feeling. The exhibit consists of 503 photographs from sixty-eight countries, depicting “families from across the globe participating in everyday scenes of birth, childhood, work, old age, dance, and celebration.” The Family of Man is shown for the first time in 1955 at the MoMa to record-shattering crowds. 

Scholars and critics are quick to identify how the exhibition privileges Western culture. French theorist Roland Barthes publishes a scathing critique of the show in his 1957 book Mythologies, writing that it ahistorically presents the West’s idea of the nuclear, bourgeois, and God-fearing family as universal. Nigerian medical student Theophilus Okonkwo stages critiques of the exhibition’s exoticization of non-European cultures. Okonkwo points out how non-Western people, especially African subjects, are depicted as “either half clothed or naked” and as “social inferiors,” victimized by poverty and illness. 

These portraits of the global family of man are printed and displayed in black-and-white. The sole color photograph in the exhibition is an enormous, backlit transparency, placed in its own small room as the climax of the show. The room is darkened, its close walls painted red. The photograph reproduces, from a distance, the explosion of a hydrogen bomb. On the topic of this final room, the exhibition’s curator Edward Steichen warns that these are the stakes of becoming alienated from “the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.” 


The United States Information Agency, a Cold War era institution tasked with reforming the United States’ global image, commissions duplicates of The Family of Man from the MoMa. Over the next seven years, the USIA circulates versions of The Family of Man throughout thirty-seven countries around the world.

An estimated nine million people view these photographs. They walk through gallery halls, department stores, festivals, emporiums, and museums. They land at the climactic color photograph. Their faces lit by the decimation of a hydrogen bomb, the viewers consider the moral imperative of empathy, of tapping into universal human feeling, in order to prevent such atrocities from happening once more.


I encounter these rhetorical exercises in American empathy toward the victims of the atomic bomb again, in my second year of graduate school, when we are given textbooks to teach fiction and poetry. The 1,300 page fiction textbook holds one story by an East Asian author. It is an excerpt of the comic Barefoot Gen, depicting in graphic detail the devastation of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Keiji Nakazawa, the author of the comic, was a survivor of the bomb in 1945. For five decades thereafter, he wrote manga about his memories of destruction and survival. 

The excerpt is from the first volume, illustrating the morning and day of the atomic bomb. Flipping through the textbook, which contains no other graphic novels, I understand that these pages of Barefoot Gen were chosen for their final images. After the flash of the bomb drop, Nakazawa draws men and women with skin melting off of their bones, their eyes dark, blank sockets. A horde of survivors, left partially naked by the blast, approach the main character like zombies. The final panel: a full-page illustration of a horse on fire, bucking as smoke rises from its darkened body into the sky. When encountered in the textbook or classroom, this excerpt of Barefoot Gen becomes an exercise in empathy. How far can the reader stretch their imagination? Can they imagine being melted alive? Can they imagine walking to school, when suddenly a bomb drops from the sky, destroying their city and family and body, in the span of just seconds? 

Staged in this context, Nakazawa’s suffering becomes an isolated fact in historysomething to learn from by putting the reader in his shoes. The reader, positioned firmly in the imperial core, affirms their own humanity and thus their state-appointed rights to life, through increasingly strenuous feats of empathy: how much languageless suffering can you hold in your mind at once? 


Saidiya Hartman’s 1997 book Scenes of Subjection opens with a reflection on the moral imperative of empathy amongst white abolitionists. In doing so, Hartman lays the foundation for her larger argument regarding the violence of the United States’ liberal political tradition upon the enslaved and the descendants of the enslaved.

Hartman analyzes the letters of John Rankin, a white minister who wrote extensively on the horrors of chattel slavery. Rankin crafted vivid reenactments through the written word in order to “bring slavery close” and convince other white people of the necessity of abolition. Hartman writes, “By providing the minutest detail of macabre acts of violence, embellished by his own fantasy of slavery’s bloodstained gate, Rankin hoped to rouse the sensibility of those indifferent to slavery…” 

In that word “fantasy,” I feel Hartman’s evocation of the strange pleasure that the white spectator takes in stretching their imagination to the very edge, and then beyond, the known contours of their lived experience, in order to claim the suffering of those unlike them. In doing so, Rankin “begins to feel for himself rather than for those whom this exercise in imagination presumably is designed to reach.” 

Hartman argues that this ease of imaginative access to the enslaved’s suffering is enabled by, and reinforces, the relations of chattel slavery, casually capitalizing on “the fungibility of the captive body.”

25 years after Scenes’ publication, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor expands upon Hartman’s critical dissection of empathy. Regarding the staging of suffering in order to engender empathy among white abolitionists, Taylor writes, “the experience of the enslaved person is lost again, while the emotional drama of the white sympathizer is the action that must be assuaged.”


When I consider American empathy in this wayas a foundational tenet of this country’s liberal tradition of humanism, itself founded on the illusion of universality, and therefore a parapet supporting and protecting the project of racial subjectionI begin to see it everywhere, especially in the world of books and letters, where I make my living. I see it in the rallying cry of writers, who proclaim that books are still relevant for their unparalleled ability to stretch the muscle of empathy within the reader’s mind; I see it in such writers’ projects, which construct fantasies out of a foreign suffering. I see empathy invoked as a critical but scarce resource by op-ed commentators, who simultaneously call for U.S. intervention in countries resisting contemporary colonialism. In fact, the moral imperative of empathy is what necessitates such military incursions: we, over here, in the privileged lands of the United States of America, are obligated to project not only our personalities into foreign contexts, but our soldiers as well. On some level, I see it in my own lifeboth in what is demanded of me by my superiors and peers, and in what I demand of myself. 


On the eve of my adulthood, I wring narrative from my father’s terminal illness. My ability to wield another’s bodyits joys and sufferingas my own marks me as a subject. The narrative I make of my father’s illness and death changes shape many times. With each new iteration, I engender empathy in those with the power to place me in model American institutions. Through such institutions, I fabricate the life expected of me. 

At first, I feel glad to give up my ability to grieve so that a more willing spectator might grieve in my place. I stop wondering what I will make of my life. The shorthand of griefits ability to elicit instant feelingbecomes an affirmation that my life has legible worth. It frees me from the sensation that I am not alive, have never been alive, in the way that Coerr’s Sadako had been: in motion, autonomous, moving with each step beyond an inhuman history. 

When I revisit those years immediately following my father’s death, I encounter a misty stoning. Shamed, I find myself speaking, again and again and again. 


Do you remember our father’s funeral, a Saturday? 

Two days later, I was back in class. Over the coming months, I only acknowledged his death when it benefited my performance in school. I put my head down, sticky with the specter of poverty. I remember these facts, but no hour of that year will return to me. 

Do you remember how every night, I kept myself awake with a private and jagged sliver of pride?

My pride: I could forestall grief in the face of my own aspiration. 

When I slept, it was beside textbooks and reams of notes, endless, fluttering exercises of my right to succeed. Through such a momentous accumulation of paper, I imagined freeing myself from the burdens of history. 


Volume 6 of Barefoot Gen, titled “Writing the Truth,” opens with a chorus of orphaned boys, crying in sync: “We are poor, miserable orphans! The atomic bomb killed our parents!” 

The orphans present an array of skulls, fished from the river and polished by hand, to American soldiers. Sympathetic to the orphans, the soldiers agree to buy these souvenirs from Hiroshimagenuine skulls of those killed by the atom bomband the boys celebrate, able to buy food at last. Little do the soldiers know that the boys have marked each skull with the word bitterness, in order to wish curses and hauntings upon the foreign patron. 

In this scene, I see the more minute contours of Nakazawa’s disdain for the United States. Through his disdain, Nakazawa understood survival. One must polish the skulls, arrange them neatly on the shore, and perform abjection. Only then does one become both authentic and palatable enough to those with the resources to enable a young, desperate life. 

Nakazawa survived by drawing, again and again, his memories of destruction. Does he curse every reader, or only those who are fooled by his performance of misery? More crucially, was he himself bitter? Did he die bitter? Did he ever find a way to metabolize bitterness, other than in his representations of death for an audience, and forge a life beyond these memories?

I know that my own bitterness, my insistence on neverending dissection, poisons me. Yet what can I do but continue to swallow? In poisoning myself, I poison those who would take my secondhand suffering as a souvenir. A strenuous yet ultimately bracketed exercise in imagination.

Somi Jun was born in Korea and raised in Los Angeles, where they currently reside. Their work has been supported by Tin House and the MFA Program in Writing at UC Irvine. From their kitchen table, they co-founded Corners cutoff, an art press which designs, produces, and distributes printed matter. You can find books by Corners cutoff at the 2023 Los Angeles Printed Matter Art Book Fair and in southern California bookshops. In addition, Jun’s writing can be found in or forthcoming from Gidra and The Margins.

You can find them on X at @somijug

Artwork: “And so we see…” by K.G. Ricci

Cut/paste paper collage

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