'If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened forever," says a teenager amid the horror of the Great Kanto earthquake that struck Japan in 1923. "But if you look at everything straight on, then there is nothing to be afraid of." David Peace's searing story of the collapse of religious and ideological faith in the aftermath of disaster closes this moving, if uneven collection of fiction grappling with the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe that devastated north-eastern Japan a year ago.
The question of how writers should look at events in which more than 15,000 people died reverberates throughout. The Tohoku earthquake was filmed as no other, by camera phones and news helicopters. The 16 stories here, most of them by Japanese writers, begin where that footage stops. While the eyewitnesses used wide-angle photography to evoke the phenomenal scale of the Earth's power, the writers narrow the lens to describe events in intimate close up.
Mitsuyo Kakuta delicately calibrates the interaction of loss and time, as a wife leaves her husband after he has an affair the night that a power cut plunges Tokyo into darkness. "At no time can we return to where we were ..." the wife tells herself. But despite her ruminations, intended to hold her misery at bay, the story suddenly ends as the world turns. "The triangle of sunshine had shifted, and her finger was now covered in shade," as if some unspecified planetary event is a blemish on an otherwise optimistic future.
Like Kakuta, most of the writers in the collection prefer not to look at 11 March 2011 straight on. Instead stories are woven in the past or future around it, rupturing continuities of memory, family and place. The writing is replete with luminous, sometimes strange, imagery. We meet a pregnant woman dreaming the world is made of yarn, the universe's fabric revealed as things fall apart
Several writers explore how for many Japanese people who moved from the countryside to the cities when they grew up, the disaster has corroded a sense of origin and exacerbated feelings of rootlessness. Invisible menace pervades the Fukishima writer Hideo Furukawa's story about a man returning from Tokyo to his parents' rural home, who finds that the family grave has been damaged and radioactive fallout detected: "My own memories have been polluted."
In "After the Disaster, Before the Disaster", David Peace, who has lived in Japan since 1994, conjures the most striking image for the forces inside the Earth that produce a quake: "a gigantic metallic worm burrowing through caverns". Returning to the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, which killed more than 140,000 people, Peace illuminates one thread of Japanese history that last year's disaster did not break – its violent geology. And he implies disasters still to come.
Royalties from the sale of this book will go to reconstruction charities in Japan