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Avoidance of conscription in Japan during WWII was the most heinous of crimes: worse than rape, or murder.  Those who were caught were beheaded.  And yet some did refuse.  At least some were fictionally imagined to have done so, as in Saiichi Maruya’s 1966 novel, Grass for My Pillow / Sasamakura, translated by Dennis Keene in 2002.

Shokichi Hamada is an assistant Registrar’s Clerk at a Japanese university in the 1960s.  When he receives a death announcement for his lover of twenty years before, memory begins to surface.  Their time together had been during four war years he had spent moving from small town to small town in Japan, avoiding the authorities and certain conscription.

He was “quite convinced that what was euphemistically referred to as ‘The China Incident’ was merely the prosecution of open war under a false name, and that the Japanese army was a totally corrupt and terrifying institution. For this reason he’d decided he could not ally himself with that institution, preferring to sacrifice his liberty as a citizen for the sake of his freedom as a human being.”

A thoughtful young man, he had classified his reasons for refusing conscription:

One: opposition to war in general,
Two: opposition to this particular war,
Three: opposition to armies in general,
Four: opposition to this particular army.

Nor was he alone in his opposition. Others talked about how they might avoid the army, and apparently in enough numbers that the army had to respond.

“The idea of cutting off your right index finger so you couldn’t pull a trigger had the disadvantage of maiming you for life, and the authorities had also gotten around this trick recently by sticking you into some branch of the service other than the infantry.  One method was to wet your bed every night in the barracks, but the M.P.s would soon be onto you  The traditional method was to drink soy sauce just before the physical, as it gave you a high temperature, but there was a considerable danger that you might do yourself real harm. Pretending you were insane was another possibility…”

It was not out of cowardice, he explains to one of his co-workers later.

“Look.. I didn’t refuse to join the army because I was afraid of Chiang Kai-shek or Roosevelt. I wasn’t afraid of being killed. I just didn’t like the idea of killing people. And I’ve always hated wars and armies as long as I can remember. I was just born like that.”

In fact, he says,  “I still think what I did was right. I don’t feel one bit ashamed of it.”

Even so, everything is not, for any of us, crystal clear:

“They were bellowing at him now, at the draft dodger. God knows he’s thought about it enough; thought enough before he did it, while he was doing it, and when it was all over as well. “Scattered like blossoms, down the soldiers fall.” Had he been a coward? Had he been afraid? Was he still afraid, even now it was over? No, nothing was ever over.”


In alternating chapters, we learn of his  four years on the run and of his current life, competing for advancement in the university while his colleagues and supervisors, aware of his non-service in the war, and sharing in the 1960s change of mood from war-shame to national pride,  mock him for cowardliness and lack of patriotism.

It would seem unlikely that a conscription-aged young man could escape notice for four years in a highly-militarized and emperor-obedient nation. But taking up a life of vagrancy, dressed shabbily and road-worn, unshaven and hair uncut, he does not look like potential soldier material.  He learns to repair clocks and radios; he does sand paintings for local festivals. He ekes out a living, learning from other vagrants and cast-offs until he meets a young woman, Akiko, who shares his adventurous spirit and easy sexuality, even in 1940s Japan. Together they travel from “one obscure fishing village to another,” with nothing but  “grass for a pillow. ”  Mysterious men seem to be tracking him. A casual conversation turns to battleships and armaments: what can it mean? What may have been a policeman turns out to be a recruiter for the mines — a tempting possibility– where outcasts, drifters and army refusers can hide away. For a time the two cohabitate with her mother, he doing gardening and staying out of sight.

Along the way, we get quick views into the condition of war-time Japan, as black tea leaves are mixed with rice to provide meals, as well as the rising nationalism in the 60s: acquaintances are circulating right-wing magazines denying war crimes and arguing the necessity of Japanese acquisition of an H-bomb.

Maruya himself was of the generation which fought in the war.  He was drafted while still in high school though the war ended before he was sent to an active unit.  After a university degree in English literature he embarked as a writer by translating James Joyce, not only Portrait of the Artist, but the impressively difficult Ulysses.  As he developed his own style, influenced by his knowledge of English, he became known for a comic-ironic viewpoint, particularly in his best known novel, A Singular Rebellion, also set in the rebellious 60s. The Joycean influence is lightly apparent in Grass for My Pillow as past and present sometimes follow each other with no helpful textual representation, leading to occasional puzzlement and return reading of several paragraphs for clarification.

I’m speculating here, but the fact that Maruya wrote this is 1965, published in 1966, during the rise of opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam, around the world but particularly large in Japan, suggests to me that his story of war resistance had some connection to the stories of draft and war resistance in the U.S.

What Japanese readers will enjoy more than westerners, even in Keene’s excellent translation, is the evocation certain place names –regions and towns–  might bring, much as Japanese would lose what Mendocino, Portland, Couer d’Alene, Waco or Birmingham might mean to American readers.

What will be understood by many, though clearly not enough,  is the outsider’s view in the heady days of war in the offing.

“… those festoons of the flags of all nations you saw at school sports days and in large restaurants in department stores, the string of vulgar color or all kinds, reds, greens, blues, yellows, swaying in the air. Was the real intention of such displays, both of the child watching with apparently innocent wonder the lurid bursts of brilliance in the sky and for the middle-aged woman eating her solid, boring lunch beneath it, an announcement that there were all these countries in the world and we would have the pleasure in the near future of fighting the whole lot of them, much like those strings of photographs of film actresses in magazines that serve only to stimulate masculine lust?

Or, that even having followed one’s conscience has its own difficulties.

“The war was over. The Japanese army had ceased to exist, and he no longer had any opponent to fight.”  this meant he had won. … But what was he to do now?