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The stories we tell about what we know and what we suppose, what we fear and what we love, who is a friend and who an enemy contribute enormously to how we live and experience life. Without stories, it could be said, there is no life.  I suspect that those which impact us most are the constant stream of micro-stories of gossip and innuendo, the raised eyebrow and shared grimaces of everyday life, a contagion of mutual understandings that are accepted as “normal” wherever people become “a people” around the globe and throughout history.

My particular interest, however, is in the stories told by celebrated story tellers, novelists, playwrights and even memoirists, of the wars they have imagined, witnessed or participated in.  Do these stories, more deliberately crafted, from the Iliad to The Things They Carried from Shakespeare to Kubrick contribute to our understanding of, readiness for, acceptance of, or opposition to war? How much do the stories reflect popular understanding of and interest in war, how much do they push against the grain? Do listener and readers extract rules of moral behavior from such stories, or are they simply “entertained?”

After four years of reading heavily in war fiction I’m not sure I have answers that satisfy me; in fact the question as I have it framed may be unanswerable.  The urge to worry the bone, however, is strong.  Why do we continue at war? Why is it so unresisted when proposed? What have our novelist-thinkers contributed to our past and current condition?

One Man’s Justice, a 1978 Japanese novel by Akira Yoshimura, in its English translation by New Zealander Mark Healey (2002) is an interesting addition to my query, in part because the attitude of the main character, and author, towards the war, are not easily obvious as in, say, All Quiet on the Western Front or Catch-22.  A popular novel in Japan when it was published, it deserves a place in war fiction, of any era, but especially of WWII, in Japan. It, and other war fiction from Japan should by now be taking their place alongside of the great classics of the West, if only to understand what stories those not of the West have told, what celebrated, what condemned and what suffered.


Takuya Kiyohara is a young, demobilized junior officer of the Japanese army. Seven months after the end of the war, the Spring of 1946,  he receives an enigmatic postcard from a fellow officer, bilingual in English, and now serving as a liaison with the occupying forces. As early as November of 1945 newspapers had been carrying stories of Japanese servicemen being tried and executed by military tribunals for crimes committed overseas against prisoners of war.  A former Prime Minister and several high-ranking military men, facing arrest and trial,  have taken their own lives.  Warrants have been issued for three hundred staff of POW camps for mistreatment of prisoners. Well aware of the arrests and trials, Takuya is somewhat suspicious of the invitation to visit at their old base.

‘But no one could know…’ he thinks.

Ushered into his colleague’s office he hears,

“Those American fliers … I’m afraid things have taken a bad turn.”

Of fifty-eight American B-29 crewmen who had crash landed in southern Kyushu,  seventeen had been sent to POW camps near Tokyo. Forty-one had been handed over to local police in the Western Command, where these two officers served,  and are unaccounted for. The Occupation authorities have been questioning senior Japanese officers, who have denied giving orders for mistreatment or executions: ‘It must have been the junior officers.’

Takuya knows the fate of several of the missing; one he himself beheaded –after the surrender. The bodies were quickly cremated and the urns disposed of at sea.  They won’t be found. But someone will talk.

‘Run for it!” is the advice his friend offers, and with it hands him a false identity card.

A war crime? Possibly, he thinks.  But any more than American crimes of burning and burying men, women and children month after month in the air raids?

“Takuya had killed one American.  A tall blond man who had deliberately taken part in incendiary attacks on Japanese cities, sending horrific numbers of non-combatants, old people, women and children to their deaths… If Japan had won, Takuya’s act might even have earned him a medal, but now he had only his wits to keep him from the gallows.”


Whatever he thinks, the authorities will be after him.  After few short hours with his family he embarks on an Odyssey of Japan, landing briefly at one family, or school, friend after another to be given sympathy, scanty food and a few days rest before he has to move on — too much a danger to those who would harbor a war criminal.

One vital chapter fills in the weeks before he begins his flight: his tracking of incoming American bombers, his witnessing the devastation, the growing fears of an American invasion.  Safe in the army bunker, the concussion of the Hiroshima A-bomb nevertheless shakes the ground.  He knows American prisoners have been delivered to his command post by local police.  He has seen some  taken away, apparently for medical treatment.  Then he hears from a senior officer, who had witnessed it, that in fact they were executed by medical experiment: the excision of lung tissue, the replacement of blood with salt water to observe the effects.  Since the POWs were to be executed anyway he thinks, these reports are odd, but not shocking; death by beheading, death under anesthesia, which is worse?  Then the news of surrender, in the radio voice of the Emperor himself.  It is beyond shocking. Not only have they heard the voice of God, everything they have believed about Japan’s invincibility and readiness to fight to the end, is shattered.  Takuya feels himself suffocating – at the shame, at not being called to fight to the death.  Papers are ordered burned.  The last captives are to be killed.

Takuya volunteers, and feels afterwards a strange kind of exhilaration.


Now a wanderer in a war-torn country, he sees the burned out skeletons of cities, listless starving people sitting along the roadsides, the homeless keeping out of the weather in ferry terminals.  Hunger is everywhere. At the best tables rice gruel and pieces of sweet potato are served.  Rice is a precious commodity. Fishermen cannot go out for fish for lack of fuel. Farmers can only begin small gardens for lack of horse and oxen, long gone for the war effort.  Theft increases.  He first thinks to hide in the country-side, then realizes he would be less visible in a big city.  Everywhere there is danger, and humiliation.  The Americans drive their trucks with headlights on –to flaunt their wealth, it is whispered.  Japanese young women, and not only prostitutes, hold hands and walk with big Americans.  Children and adults scramble for candy and cigarettes tossed of the trucks by the grinning, hooting soldiers.

“Takuya realized that his war had yet to end. The enemy was close at hand, patrolling with sub-machine guns slung from their shoulders, driving jeeps and trucks through the streets of the cities and towns.”


As the weeks go by Takuya revisits his own acts.  The last gasped word of the man he had beheaded echoes in his mind “was it Lucia or Luciana?”  But pity is swept aside when remembering another POW saying they listened to jazz and looked at pornography after the bombing runs. As the months move into 1948 his life on the run begins to wear.  Any police appearance unnerves him — even when it is to praise him for catching a thief.  The papers are filled with news of war crimes trials.  A professor he knew commits suicide; the vivisections which he suspected are now confirmed.  The Occupation guided press slowly builds the narrative that the Japanese were victims of their own military, as were the Americans. Despite continuing comparisons of his crime to American pilots crimes Takuya finds himself joining others in accepting the presence of the once-hated enemy.

Finally, he gives himself up to Japanese detectives who have tracked him down.  He is tried and in some of the most affecting prose of the book, is given a life sentence instead of “death by hanging” as those before him had been condemned to. The life sentence is shortened to nine years; the Korean war is increasingly making Japan a desirable ally of the United States; benevolence is replacing harshness; the Japanese military is taking on attitudes and behavior of their conquerors.

All of this has the potential for being an extremely interesting novel.  To these eyes, however, it misses the opportunity.  The prose throughout is flat and affectless. Images of destruction and suffering which might lodge in the heart are balked by oddly stilted prose.

“Takuya had heard reports about cities being devastated by incendiaries, but the destruction he was witnessing far surpassed anything he had ever imagined.  Like masses of towering whitecaps soaring up from a tempestuous sea, myriad flames pressed upward from the heart of the blaze.”


Though Takuya recognizes that he is gradually losing his anger and desire for revenge against the Americans, we are told this; we don’t watch him go through the kind of deep self-questioning that might help us share his sense of being both victim, and executioner.  Though, after months of running he is finally drawn into a family which cares for him and offers him a future, his response is to imagine fleeing to the silver mine caves in the mountains.  When the detectives arrive, even though he knows he could evade them, he waits.  The affectless prose  is a reflection of his Meursault-like personality.

One suspects, because writers write about what most interests them, that Yoshimura himself had a similarly contradictory views of the war.  He was fourteen years old when the Second Sino-Japanese War (July 7, 1937, to September 2, 1945) turned into the Greater East Asian War with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  He was young enough to be thrilled at the Japanese victories, and appalled at the destruction by the Americans, and then to feel betrayed by the Japanese leadership and horrified as the facts of the medical experiments on prisoners in China, Indonesia and Japan itself became known. Since writing One Man’s Justice, Yoshimura has written, in addition to several more novels non-fiction books on the creation and importance of the Japanese Zero Fighter airplane and the Battleship Musashi.  Again, writers write about what interests them.  One way people deal with fraught contradictory information and feeling is to become a fanatic for one set and denier of the other.  A second way is to hold oneself apart from it all; to know but not be touched; to lose all affect.

When Takuya is released from prison early, he is not energized to begin life anew, to help in the reshaping of Japan, well underway in 1957.  His father dead and his brother with a family he has no home to go to.  Remembering the man who offered him partnership in business and marriage into the family just before capture, he can’t imagine what he would say to him. Despite a university education and high technical knowledge, he has nothing.  So

 “He blew out the match and tossed it in a trash can, then looked at the big timetable above the ticket window to find the next train heading west.”

Although the prose, as I read it — and keeping in mind it is a translation, not the original– is not dynamic and involving it does seem to reflect the character himself.  His repeated thoughts of American destruction and the death of civilians rises not fury, but a kind of petulant self-balancing:  “Yeah, I did something bad, but what about them?” Such people are ordinary and common; there is no reason they shouldn’t be of interest to story tellers.  We don’t all rise to feelings of murderous revenge, or sink to suicidal despair; some of us are soddenly trapped inside our own unshapeable sensations from the world. The problem is, how to make an interesting story about an uninteresting person?


Yoshimura was a celebrated writer when One Man’s Justice was published in 1978; he was also the winner of several post-war Japanese literary prizes. I have to think this representation of a Japanese officer is meant to be the way it reads.  One wonders about the translation, of course.  Could the above quote been rendered more dynamically?

~Takuya knew from the newspapers that cities had been burned to the ground, but what he was seeing now was beyond all imagining.  Flame raged out of the glowing heart of the blaze like furious waves erupting from a destroying sea.~

Healey may have chosen to be more faithful to the original, Japanese which both by tradition and authorial choice is more restrained.  I do find it interesting however, that the title in translation seems misleading, to me at least. The literal rendition of Toi Hi No Senso, would be something like The War of Long Ago Days.  One Man’s Justice was chosen why, I wonder?  Is his act of beheading justice for Japanese war injury?  Is his justice to take a train west and separate himself from all?  An interesting choice, to my mind.

I might be interested in reading a second Yoshimura novel about the war, Typhoon of steel : An Okinawan Schoolboy’s Quest for Martyrdom in the Battle of Okinawa to see if, set in some of the most horrific fighting of the war instead of the post-armistice years, he uses more dynamic, emotionally charged words.


For another, more interesting Japanese novel of a young man’s odyssey around Japan during war-time look at Grass for My Pillow/ Sasamakura by Saiichi Maruya. 1966, translated by Dennis Keene in 2002. In a series of flashbacks, Shokichi Hamada recalls his four years evading conscription into the army during the war.  He is still at ease with his war-avoidance, but increasing post-war nationalism is turning his colleagues against him. My review here.