World War II from the Japanese side

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World War II from the Japanese side

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Edited: Apr 26, 2007, 11:30am

This week I read An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro and realized that although I've read a lot of books about atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers, I'd never read anything about the war's affects on Japanese civilians. Living here in Tokyo, I feel what a powerful presence the war is but it's such a strong taboo topic that it's hard to understand how Japanese people think about it or experienced it. World War II is actually one of only 3 prohibited subjects at the English school where I teach (the other two are sex and drugs). I'm open to anything, but I'm especially hoping for Japanese authors and stories of immediate post-war Japan.

May 1, 2007, 7:49pm

How about The Yokota Officers Club by Sarah Bird? This one is not by a Japanese author, but contains a fascinating (fiction) story about a young Japanese woman in the aftermath of WWII. I had never really thought about what life must have been like for Japanese civilians following the war before, but this book made me want to learn more. Although this was not the main story, I found it to be the best part of the book and worth the read.

May 1, 2007, 10:57pm

I saw that at the used bookstore the other day. I'll check it out next time I'm there. Thanks!

May 1, 2007, 11:04pm

Plum Wine is about the lasting effects of WWII on Japan. I really liked it.

May 6, 2007, 8:28am

One of the best novels I've read dealing with the topics you mention is Grass for my Pillow by Saiichi Maruya. It is the story of a Japanese man who dodges the draft (and that there were draft dodgers in Japan during WWII is simply never talked about). It deals with his years in hiding during the war, and then his life after the war, when, though the militarism of the war years has begun to be repudiated, people's attitudes toward the protagonist remain ambiguous.

It's one of the finest Japanese novels I've read.

May 6, 2007, 10:16am

dcozy - thanks for that recommendation! It sounds fascinating and I'll definitely check it out. I'm trying to read more Japanese literature since I actually live here.

Sep 10, 2007, 7:28pm

I really enjoyed "A Boy Called H" by Kappa Senoh which is an "autobiographical novel" of a precocious boy's very interesting experiences during WWII. Thick book, fast and fun and educational. Also, "Cherry Blossoms in Twilight: Memories of a Japanese Girl" is a true story about a girl growing up outside Tokyo around wartime. Then there's "Girl With A White Flag," a true story of a child's harrowing survival of the Battle of Okinawa.

Sep 11, 2007, 7:40pm

I remember reading a review some years ago in the Economist, of a book (non-fiction) which contained letters and diaries of young kamikaze fighters - and basically busted the myth that they were all fiery extremists looking forward to dying for their country - unfortunately I don't remember what the book is called, but maybe someone will be able to help?

Sep 11, 2007, 11:46pm

Yes, that would be "Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers" by E miko Ohnuki-Tierney. I read that last year. It is a good book, but not all diary entries as you might think. The author gives an intellectual treatise on the young pilots (about 5) concerning their educational background and philosophy. The diary entries that are included are quite poignant. You have to wade thru the academia (don't skip the long intro) and you're never sure how well these few diary entries represent the majority of kamikaze pilots. Nonetheless you know that not all the pilots were totally brainwashed or zealous in their duty to their country.

Ohnuki-Tierney has a related book called "Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms and Nationalism: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History." In the "land of symbolism" the pilots were compared to cherry blossoms.

Sep 12, 2007, 3:59am

Thanks Moonbridge! I will look out for the book.

Sep 12, 2007, 1:31pm

You should definitely check out Nip the buds, shoot the kids by Kenzaburo Oe.

Sep 26, 2007, 9:55pm

There is Black Rain by Ibuse Masuji. it's about Hiroshima and the aftermath, so I'm not sure it really covers what you're interested. And very interesting book, though, focusing mostly on a family who lived with the stigma of contamination after the fact.

Also made into a movie by Shohei Imamura, but sadly it is generally unavailable. I'm unsure if I saw it from a VHS tape from or from the Sunday night foreign movie on Turner Classic Movies.

-- Gerry

Dec 20, 2007, 5:58pm

I would definitely recommend No-no Boy by John Okada. It's a book about a young Japanese-American man and how he and some of his peers deal with life post-WWII. Ichiro, the main character, was released from prison after 2 years for refusing to be drafted while his family was in an internment camp. It was one of the most thoughtful books I have read, and unfortunately when it was released it was not well received, because the Japanese-American community was not yet ready to think about these topics.

Edited: Dec 22, 2007, 4:04pm

I am just reading The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama. It begins with the stories of two families in Tokyo during the war. So far it is very good and certainly gives you an idea of the issues and hardships faced by the Japanese during WWII.

Dec 27, 2007, 12:36pm

Just picked up Street of a Thousand Blossums yesterday, in a crate from Amazon. I'm looking forward to reading it and *really* wishing my literary "to-do" stack was a foot or two shorter than it is...

-- Gerry

Dec 11, 2009, 12:01am

Seeing Moonbridge's comment on "Kamikaze, cherry blossoms and nationalism" and thought, hmm, if you might like to pursue cherry blossoms and nationalism further, I could not help thinking someone might enjoy my Cherry Blossom Epiphany which has a chapter on it, too.

The first great scholar of Cherry Blossoms, writing pre-war, was upset about the cherry blossom that was once a beautiful woman being turned into a warrior. However, he also took pains to balance that correct but, for ideological reasons, daring assertion by pointing out that the blossoms were not individually viewed like the Occidental rose, but appreciated in mass; that is he turned them into an example of group-first Nihonjinron/Occidentalism.

I think I also may have included my translation of a poem by Hakushu about Gandhi which speaks to the idealistic side of that war.

Indeed, I would like to see a book gathering stories of the idealists on the Japanese side, the ones who fought for independence and risked their lives to save cultural heritages, etc..

Dec 11, 2009, 12:55am

#1> If you haven't already read it, John Dower's outstanding history, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, would provide you with a useful and well-written survey of the social, political and economic changes that came with the war's end and the Occupation, and put the excellent literature of the period in a broader context.

Edited: Dec 11, 2009, 11:19am

Sorry, I am not #1 with the question, but speaking of Dower, there is much in his earlier work I highly appreciated, but I felt he (and everyone I have read to date) missed the propoganda that Japanese wrote in English long before Pearl Harbor, which help to explain the paranoia about Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. This in no way diminishes our (Usanian's) responsibility for the unfair treatment they received, but it does help make it understandable.

I have not read the work yiu mention, Walbat, but sure hope it includes Agnes Niyekawa's (at the time Agnes Niyekawa-Howard's?) seminal work on what Japan teaches us about the so-called "authoritarian personality," as nothing explains said embrace so well. If you still have the book you mention, I would be much obliged to learn if Dower found her seminal essay. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

Jan 13, 2010, 5:48pm

I have recently read two books that might be of interest:
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie which was a wonderful read, though only the beginning takes place in Japan and Return to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki which was a memoir of a family incarcerated for being Japanese in US.

I'm now going to look up some of the above suggestions, thanks :)

Jan 13, 2010, 6:57pm

I very much liked the Clint Eastwood film 'Letters from Iwo Jima.' Wikipedia says it is based upon 2 non-fiction works I have not read:

1) 'Picture Letters from the Commander-in-Chief' by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, and

2) 'So Sad to Fall in Battle: An Account of War' by Kumiko Kakehashi.

Edited: Jul 27, 2010, 7:28pm

Survivors: The A-bombed Trees of Hiroshima includes a series of essays by Tamiki Hara, dealing with his experiences during and immediately following the leveling of Hiroshima.

Jul 27, 2010, 7:22pm

I think The Kobe Hotel (Saito Sanki) fits he bill perfectly. It is about a group of oddballs and outcasts (mostly Japanese) living in a seedy hotel during the war. A great series of connected short stories. One of my favorites.

Aug 2, 2010, 9:34pm

MarshOutlaw, The Kobe Hotel sounds absolutely fascinating. Thanks for mentioning it as I've never heard of it before. It's on my wishlist now.

Aug 3, 2010, 3:59pm

Great, hope you like it. I would also cast a second vote for A Boy Called H, which Moonbridge mentioned above.