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Pride in our ancestors, and countrymen is common in stories we tell each other, of their hard work, sacrifice and good deeds. We feel somehow related to those qualities, by lineage or proximity.  What about those ancestors, or countrymen, who did inconceivable acts — rape, torture, cannibalism?  Not so many stories there. Lineage or shared culture?  Not so much.

The same asymmetry of interest seems to be true of novelists –professional story tellers.  We have many many stories of heroes of war, fighters for liberty and justice or, lately, those who have suffered much, the innocent victims, their courage and endurance.  Where are the stories of war criminals, of the Hannibal Lecters of our families, nations, wars?  If fiction is to enlarge and deepen our understanding of humankind why would they be missing?  Without acknowledgment of their existence and deeds do we have full understanding of what brought us to our present condition, or towards that which we may be going?


One writer who has grappled with telling such a story is Shūsaku Endō in his 1958  Umi to dokuyaku.  Translated in 1992 by Michael Gallagher and published by New Directions as The Sea and Poison,  it is a short, shocking novella, told in restrained, descriptive prose and dialog. No hyperbole, simply the imaginative re-creation of a small group of doctors and nurses who used captured American pilots in medical experiments, in Japan during WWII.  In a country defeated (unimaginable!) in a war they had initiated (as a great nation should!) and a king who was a god ( whose voice on the radio was more earthshaking than the surrender it announced,) the idea that the sacred military and honored doctors had committed crimes could not be formed.  Endō, with a great deal of courage, did so, telling an absolutely necessary story.  Unfortunately for the English-language reader, the reading is made more difficult than simply the emotional impact, by authorial choices: shifts of narrator, a lack of sharpness of themes and a puzzling lack of conclusion.  The Sea and Poison is, nevertheless, a book to be read when trying to understand human behavior — and certainly not just of  the Japanese.


On the island of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four islands of Japan, the city of Fukuoka was being bombed regularly by American airplanes  — May,  1945.  It was a port city and home to a naval base and hospital where the wounded, soldiers and civilians were being treated. American pilots who had bailed out of crippled planes were being held in a POW camp  Senior doctors at the hospital decided that the cause of medical science , and the return of Japanese soldiers to the war, would be advanced by experimenting on the prisoners; not their corpses, but while alive:  vivisection. This is the story, based on actual events.  Thirty doctors and nurses were tried in Yokohama after the war, for such war-crimes, along with others who had carried out similar experiments on thousands of Chinese prisoners in Manchuria during the war.   Several were executed. Several got long prison sentences.

We don’t know, as we begin to reading, any of the above. A narrator in a Prologue tells of moving to a dusty suburb of Tokyo some years after the war. He meets two men, one of whom says that in China where he had been they “could do anything with the women.” The other, who was military police, “had really seen some things.”  Because of medical needs, the narrator seeks out the town doctor. Doctor Suguro is a strange, withdrawn man, said to be married but whose wife is never seen.  He lives in dark, shabby home and yet is an expert at the techniques of pulmonary injection, between the ribs, needed by the narrator.

Through a chance conversation and subsequent archival research on a trip to Fukuoka he learns the story of the doctor  — which we get only the bare outline of: during the war at a hospital in Fukuoka,  a military medical unit had engaged in “vivisection” experiments on live human beings: captured American airmen. After the war twelve were tried for war crimes.  Several got long sentences; Dr Fukuoka was among them and received two years.

The narrator thinks,

“Even in this West Matsubara to which I had moved, no matter how few its shops and houses, I had got to know two men who had tasted the experience of killing a man.  And I could count Dr Suguro as a third. … How strange, I thought, that up to today, I had hardly reflected at all upon this. Now, this father of a family coming in through the door, perhaps during the War he killed a man or two. But now his face as he sips his coffee and scolds his children is the face of a man fresh from murder. … Just as with the show window in West Matsubara, past which the truck rumble, the dust of the years settle on our faces too.”

The next section begins oddly.   We realize after a few pages that the original narrator is gone, (never to reappear,) and a third-person omniscient narrator is telling a story of years before, in Fukuoka, not the opening setting, and that Dr Suguro is now a major, being-revealed character. Who he is, and what he did, along with others, is now the story.  Of the doctors and nurses introduced, Suguro is one of the kinder, offering sweets to an elderly woman, worrying about an upcoming operation on a young, well-connected, woman.  Others, “The Old Man,” Nurse Oba even Suguro’s friend Toba, are more brusque, less caring.  Contention between leading doctors at the hospital for the directorship, recently vacated, sets up competing operations, and chances taken.

From the hospital on the outskirts of Fukuoka, Suguro and the others can witness the daily destruction of the city. Smoke rises in giant columns and can be seen from the hospital windows.  As Toda says, and repeats,

“The poor bastard that doesn’t die in the hospital gets his chance every night to die in an air raid.”
But what may seem alarming to the reader is no longer a matter for comment:
“Last year, when the Chushu section had been hit hard and the Yaku’n area completely racked by fire, there had been panic among the patients and students. But now hardly anyone asked about whatever section had been burned most recently. No one any longer paid much attention to whether people lived or died…
A well intended operation on a young, well-connected woman fails, and is covered up. Tall, emaciated Americans are brought to the hospital.   Dr Suguro and Toda are approached to be assistants on the experiments to be performed on the Americans.  Both hesitate and both soon acquiesce, Toda with more cynicism:
“When doctors want to try our new techniques, they don’t want to limit their experiments of  monkeys and dogs. Suguro, this is the world, and you ought to take a closer look at it.”
The experiments have medical purpose:
  1. Saline to be injected into blood stream of the first man.  The possible quantitative limits of such a procedure before death are to be ascertained.
  2. Air is to be injected into the veins of the second prisoner and the volume at which death occurs is to be ascertained.
  3.  There is to be an excision for the lung on the third prisoner. The limit to which the bronchial tubes may be cut before death is to be ascertained.

As the operation begins, Suguro suddenly can not go through with it; he backs up and stands, barely, against a wall while regular soldier-onlookers joke and snap pictures.

With the section titled “Those To Be Judged” the style changes again.  A participating nurse and Suguro’s friend Toda tell their own stories, giving backgrounds, friends, incidents of youth, boyhood misbehavior and sexual activity.  Toda is somewhat self-reflective but having recounted several events in which he is not very kind to others he says:

“Despite what I’ve written, I didn’t think of myself as a person whose conscience had long been paralyzed…
These are two unremarkable people, not monsters.
Nevertheless, as he agrees to be part of the operating team, Toda confesses:
“I am able to remain quite undisturbed in the face of someone else’s terrible suffering and death.  [If death is certain, I ignored] “pleas for anesthetic.”    A patient would die;  I would put on a sad, sympathetic expression.”
Now the narration shifts from the two medical personnel back to the omniscient narrator in “Three O’Clock in the Afternoon,” as the operations begin to be prepared.
Officers who are to witness the operation tell stories about eating a “chink’s liver,” in Manchuria, and hope to taste some American. Seguro sees in the young airman an image of the Gary Cooper he knows from the movies.  Suddenly he thinks, this is not an operation to help someone.
“‘We are about to kill a man.’ All at once a dark wave of fear and dismay began to flood through him.”
Though having refused, several times, to not be a part of the experiment, he now can now no longer bear it, and asks to be released.  The officers mock him for cowardice.
“How can a young Japanese be so weak?”
The third and final section, “Before Dawn Breaks” is the final, terrible story of the operation, the physical details and the mental conflicts of Suguro and Toda, the former anguished, the latter not understanding why he is not disturbed.   This chapter, alone, is a powerful stand-alone story, and could be read as such.
The novel ends here.  The original narrator wonders if he should continue to go to Seguro, knowing what he now knows.  We have no summative resolution of what Seguro thinks of himself — though his living conditions of bare visibility indicate this somewhat  There is no moral wash of revulsion in any, except perhaps the reader.  Ordinary people, is what Endo sees; ordinary people over whom “the dust of years settles.”  As with almost all of us, it is convenient to shut away such memories, such failures of empathy, the cowardice of being an accomplice.  Better to try to not know than to ask, for a life-time, how did this happen to people like me?  How can it prevented from occurring again?
Much is made in commentaries and reviews of Endō’s Christianity, from his early boyhood.  He is,  particularly in his Catholicism, compared to Graham Greene, which I see, and don’ t see.  Though two men wrestle with their consciences — as Greene often had men do — we don’t feel this in Endō very strongly; there is no summing and doubling as the novel concludes.  Dr. Suguro couldn’t participate at the final moment and so he got two years and went to an obscure place as a doctor.  We don’t know, except for an inferred shame, about his final self-judgement.  From Toda, nothing.  A wider meditation on Japanese participation in the war – nothing.  In the end, there is no brave statement, no resistance, no revulsion of, “ordinary people do these things.”  This of course is a brave thing in itself to say: these, my country men, men whose families I may know,  did unspeakable acts. Perhaps this is the first step: not to damn but to acknowledge – and so, by acknowledging, to predict: another war, more of this.
Endō has done some hard work, though not I think, hard enough.  In other stories of war from British, American, French, German or Russian,  we read from time to time of a soldier realizing with empathy that the man he is shooting at is a man like himself.  In a few I have read, while able to shoot at an unseen enemy, a soldier is unable to shoot a man come upon while shaving; the story of the Christmas truce, 1914, when Germans and British played soccer and swapped caps and medals is recently re-told.  But a deep, unnerving entry into the soul of the enemy, or the truly ‘depraved’ is seldom if ever done.  Though, for example, several non-fiction historical and investigative books have been published about American war-crimes in Vietnam, and many novels have been written none, to my knowledge have dared what Endō has done, nor French about their wars, nor the Spanish, etc. etc. etc.
[Two authors who did enter into the minds of those who committed such crimes both deal with the Holocaust:

Götz and Meyer: A Serbian Tale of the Holocaust by David Albahari is one of the most amazing books I’ve read. (my review here.)

This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeus Borowski is similarly astounding. (my review here.) ]
Those who have studied Endō say that in this, and his other novels, he writes from a paradigm of the world in which those in Christian cultures have a necessary and visible struggle between good and evil;  that in Japan  with its deep syncretism — Buddhism, Shinto, animism– a means of escape from such struggle is present  — thus the equanimity with which the medical personnel carry out their tasks. Though in interesting idea, and possibly true about Endō’s beliefs, it doesn’t ring true as an observation of human behavior. We know, all too well, that ordinary people, of Christian, Buddhist and Muslim beliefs have carried out similar atrocities against the human person — and with equal lack of moral revulsion preying at them.
By the Way, Endō himself was not in the armed forces but was apparently conscripted, as were many, to work in munitions factories.
The Sea and Poison was made into a 1986 Japanese movie . Directed by Kei Kumai, it stars Eiji Okuda and Ken Watanabe.  I have not been able to find it in distribution, however, a few short trailers on YouTube are nearly impossible, emotionally,  to watch.
Endō’s best known novel, Silence, (1966; William Johnstone, translator, 1999) was made into a well received movie, Silence, 2016, by Martin Scorsese .  With a story about two Jesuit priests coming to Japan in 1640, lost souls, terrible punishments and an impossible choice of abandoning his flock or his God, we have a story that is indeed in the Graham Greene, Shūsaku Endō, Martin Scorsese mold.
For an interesting summary of Endo’s life and Christianity, see “The C.S. Lewis Review”
The History of Such Experiments
Two non-fiction books relevant to Endō’s story are: