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For century upon century, from the time of the stories of Gilgamesh (18th BCE), stories of war have been told to exalt the valorous and victorious, to enshrine the names of warriors in the minds of generations to come and to provide example to the youth who listen: this is the way to eternal glory.  This basic compact between warrior and story-teller (you make me famous and I’ll make you famous) endured until the barbed-wire and machine-guns of the First World War began to shred it.  Perhaps the story of guts and glory wasn’t the only story to be told.

The pathos and war-regret of Remarque’s million-seller in 1929, All Quiet on the Western Front, had been preceded by others of not such great fame.  Arnold Zweig, a German, wrote the satiric The Case of Sergeant Grishka in 1927. Georges Duhamel won France’s Prix Goncourt in 1918 for his anguished Vie des martyrs / Life of the Martyrs, 1917.  He had been a battle surgeon for most of the war.  Roland Dorgelés, a French soldier, published the scathing Wooden Crosses in 1919. In England, Rebecca West movingly described “combat fatigue” by 1919 in The Return of the Soldier.  In America, countering the Edith Wharton and Willa Cather’s war-positive novels of the ’20s,  John Dos Passos contributed Three Soldiers, 1921,  and e. e. cummings, The Enormous Room in 1922.


With Remarque came a virtual wave of war-sorrow novels. In the same year were Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune, described by Hemingway as “the finest and noblest novel to come out of World War I.” Faulkner contributed several novellas  and Dalton Trumbo Johnny Got His Gun,1939, with its soldier who has lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue); Louis-Ferdinand Céline in France wrote Journey to the End of the Night an absolutely scabrous take on the war and the fever than came with it — “…everyone queued up to go and get killed.” —  Scarcely anything was written that had the old burnish of brass and bravery.

The same change of mood was taking place on the other side of the world as well.  Writers whose forebears had told of the courage and skill of the samurai warriors in gunki monogatari, or war tales, began to tell other stories.  One was Ishikawa Tatsuzō.  At thirty-two years old, an admirer of Anatole France¹ and Emile Zola², and having won a prestigious literary prize for his first novel, based on several years as a farm laborer in Brazil, he was sent to report on the Japanese war in China in December of 1937.

Japan had had military forces in China from the beginning of the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and 1895, and had increased them with the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 when it established the over-seas territory of Manchuko.  Hostilities broke out again in July of 1937 with the so called Marco Polo Bridge Incident.  By August, elements of the Imperial Japanese Army had taken Shanghai.  By January, as Ishikawa arrived at the Imperial Capital of Nanking, the infamous Nanking Massacre had been underway for three weeks.

Soldiers Alive (Ikite iru heitai), was written in furious haste based on observations and interviews with the soldiers involved; it was ready for publication in March, 1938.  However, The Peace Preservation Law of 1925 and the earlier Press Law of 1909, were in increasing use:  censorship, mass arrests, torture, and execution of some, mostly communist, activists were in increasing use.  Ishikawa and his publisher were brought to trial and even after cuts had been made, the book was refused publication.  It was not seen by the Japanese public until 1945, after Occupation Authorities replaced Japanese censorship with censorship of their own.  Stories of Japanese cruel conduct in China was now allowed; of the victims of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not so much.

In a fine translation and excellent introduction by Zeljko Cipris (2003), we can see what offended the war-time censors: much guts, little glory.

“Killing enemy soldiers was no different than killing carp,” according to one.

When a Chinese home, designated as headquarters, goes up in flames, the young owner is quickly caught.

“…the scrawny, crow-like youth dropped to his knees in the mud, began to shout a string of incomprehensible words, raised his clasped hands, and pleaded.  But Karahara was used to such pleas.  Even so, he did not enjoy them.


“The youth’s screams instantly ceased, and the fields reverted to the hushed silence of a twilight landscape.  The head did not fall, but the cut was sufficiently deep.  His body still upright, a geyser of blood overflowed his shoulders. The body tilted to the right, toppled into the wild chrysanthemums on the bank, and rolled over once.”

Later, with the pitiless soldierly indifference to death we’ve learned of in recent post-glory war novels, one of the soldiers says:

“There’s a dead horse in the creek.  Just about now he’s probably getting a hug from the horse.”

Or, on an evening when the soldiers cannot sleep:

“The stony ground they slept on made their heads ache, so some men piled up Chinese corpses, and used their stomachs for pillows.”

Ah, what comfort!” they remarked.”

In unemotive prose, almost as if writing in a Regimental Log, we have not only scenes of mayhem but accounts of the Japanese casual contempt for the Chinese,  even when, at times, the shade of human recognition is felt.  A soldier talks as best he can to one of the Chinese porters:

“A great serenity was to be found in these broken conversations with the Chinese. And yet, even during such peaceful moments, they could not quite overcome their contempt for the Chinese, so stubbornly and deeply was it rooted in their hearts.”

Interestingly, although spoken Chinese and Japanese are not mutually understandable, some of their shared ideographic writing is.  Japanese soldiers could read Chinese resistance slogans written on the walls:

“Down with Japanese imperialism! eight characters written everywhere.”

Though of course, like invading soldiers almost everywhere the Japanese thought it absurd.

“Japan’s mission.. was not a quest for wealth or power, but rather a moral crusade for freedom, peace and justice. Goodness was at work, not greed. As a Japanese editorial of the late 1930s phrased it, “Our responsibility is not the conquest of the world; it is the emancipation of the world.”

Ishikawa presents a small group of men we can follow by name.  The narrator knows their thoughts and attitudes, their relations to other. Through dialog and internal eavesdropping he describes how each copes with the war in his own way;  some coping in several, contradictory, ways.

Men struggle with the fear of dying, and the fear of the fear of dying: I must show a brave face.  As Tim O’Brien put it in The Things They Carried, the Americans of 1968, as the Japanese of 1938, went to war, and killed, because not to was too great a shame before fellow soldiers and family.  Remarque knew of it in WWI as well, when “even one’s parents were ready with the word ‘coward.”

Wherever men gather, and especially men as soldiers, women appear, as topics of conversation, as objects of lust, commerce and violence.

“All right!  If it’s Tientsin, we’ll just live it up to the hilt!  Hey, hey!”

A soldier solemnly chimed in: “Call the geisha, buy the whores, swill the sake!”

In their soldier slang, ‘Foraging for meat’ meant looking for ku-niang–girls.”

“…the Nishizawa Regiment  … roamed the city streets, searching for women like dogs chasing rabbits. … Each of them felt as triumphant and willful as a king, a despot.  When they could not achieve their aim within the city limits, they ventured to the farmhouses beyond.”

And murder:  The soldiers approach a woman in a house.  She points a pistol at them.  It misfires.  They tackle her. Strip her.

“The woman’s entire body, white and naked, lay abruptly exposed before their eyes.  It dazzled them so much… firm breasts rose round and full from a finely fleshed torso … First Class Private Kondō drew a knife from his belt  …  Without a word he drove the knife into the woman just below her breasts.  The white flesh flew up in terrific convulsions. The woman clutched at the knife with both hands and groaned in agony.  Like a pinned mantis, she writhed, soon ceased stirring, and died.  Dark blood spread in a wet stain under the shoes of the watching soldiers.

Kasahara laughed  “You sure wasted a good lay!”

A priest (likely Shinto) with the troops prays over the dead and kills the enemy with a savagely swung shovel.

“…by now had hacked to death dozens of Chinese soldiers and felt at peace…”

Not that the soldiers are completely without feeling for the defeated adversary.  “Walking around the devastated city, Second Lieutenant Kurata keenly felt its misery.”  Another passage admires as “magnificent” Chinese prisoners’ bearing while awaiting death by beheading.

What won’t be familiar to western readers or soldiers, is the poetry, and song writing, often with patriotic fervor, that the Japanese turn to. Not simply old standards, but poems written and recited to each other.

“We warriors face
Death with open eyes.
Crickets in the grass,
Hush your trilling cries.”

Soldiers dying for the nation were depicted as falling cherry blossoms, an almost required cliché.


I can’t think of novel from England, France, Germany, or the U.S that presents a story of such shocking brutality,  carried out by the author’s own countrymen. Certainly some spoke of shooting prisoners rather than feeding them, a war-crime as most of them knew.  Some wrote of brutal bayonet deaths, twisted in the body and the rifle fired to help extract it. Almost all post WWI novels and memoirs tell  of bodies disintegrating under high-caliber shells and the shock and horror replaced over time with self-saving blindness.  None that I know of, wrote that Tommys or Poilu or Doughboys tortured or laughed at mutilating rape.

Even so,  for all the courage to represent, Ishikawa falls short at the most shocking of all: the death of upwards of 300,000 in the Nanking massacres ³ more than the Japanese dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.  Though he depicts looting by soldiers and severe hunger among the Chinese, as well as the setting up of brothels of Chinese women for the soldiers (the officers had their pick of imported, quasi-voluntary Japanese women),  he gilds with risible reason and kindness his descriptions of the interchange between soldiers and civilians — where the count of rapes is between 20,000 and 80,000.

“Nanking’s remaining inhabitants had all been herded into the refugee zone.  They were said to number two hundred thousand or so … the area was put under international control, and sentries were posted at its boundaries.  The refugees were supplied with passes and Rising Sun armbands and set free.”

Well, not quite.

And though many readers today might understand Soldiers Alive as an anti-war novel, it was not –at least in intention. Several characters, even while speaking of the disaster of war –“those who lose a war suffer real misery, and there’s no help for that…”  make the point that “better here (in China) than there (Japan.)”  Ishikawa does not, as Cipris points out in the introduction, call into question the war’s validity, “but simply points out the high price of defeat.”  We, as readers of many such novels, from many nations, may draw different conclusions.  Ishikawa did not, and in fact, following his trial and parole, he returned to China with the Japanese army and wrote “The Wuhan Incident,” a novel of an entirely different color.

“The present China Incident may also be viewed as a fight by Japan for its own freedom.  Japan may be thought of as having flung away an unstable peace and resolved upon a great national sacrifice … for greater peace and freedom fifty or a hundred years hence.”

As Soldiers Alive closes, Ishikawa leaves us with a paragraph that to my mind, is at the heart of all soldiery, and in fact, all human behavior:

“His company was marching on, utterly indifferent to his presence or absence, Severed from it he seemed bereft of all value and strength. Not a particle of confidence or pride remained within him, only a single-minded desire to catch up with his unit. To advance along with the unit, to go with it to the end of the world–he could think of nothing else.”


My question as I read these books is how much did such novels help change the cultural bias of readers towards the wars their nations had engaged in?  In the decade and a half following WWI in Europe, the flood of war-sorrow novels and memoirs matched a rise in pacifist feeling and public expression.  Perhaps this change in perception from glorious war to sorrowful war, even if necessary, remained as reports of western soldiers going to war in WWII feature far less joyous celebration and more of grim necessity.

Soldiers Alive could not have had an influence on the in-the-war generation even though written in 1937.  By 1945, when it was available, along with other interesting anti-war novels, the nation in a whole was moving in full-pacifist mode, it even being written into the constitution — with much suggestion from the Occupation Forces.  That non-war feeling in the culture has been giving way in recent decades.  Denials about the Nanking Massacre have followed apologies.  Japanese armed forces have increased in size and lethality, with loud and persistent calls for more, and for a change in the constitutional peace promise.

Will such novels as Soldiers Alive or Grass For My Pillow, (1966) by Saiichi Maruya, or Militarized Streets (1930) by Kuroshima Denji (available in A Flock of Swirling Crows and Other Writings, (2005,) edited and translated by Zeljko Cipris) be re-published and re-read?  Will Japan find, among these older writers or writers now in formation, their own equivalent of All Quiet on the Western Front, or Wooden Crosses, or Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse 5?


¹ Perhaps France’s Les dieux ont soif (The Gods Are Athirst, 1912), set in Paris during the French Revolution, with a true-believing follower of Maximilien Robespierre and his contribution to the bloody events of the Reign of Terror of 1793–94.

² Zola wrote a scathing novel, La Débâcle, (The Downfall, 1892) about the failure of the French military leadership in the Franco-Prussian War, followed by suppression of the Paris Commune

³ See Irish Chang’s  The Rape of Nanking (1998) for more.  Several films have been made in the past few years, incuding Nanking (2007), City of Life and Death, from China, 2009,  and many more.  Fiction and non-fiction accounts are available as well.