, , , , , , , ,


Zone of Emptiness by the Japanese novelist Hiroshi Noma,  when it was published in 1952 after years of military censorship, was both shocking to Japanese readers, and widely praised.  Like e e cummings’ 1922 The Enormous Room, it is a war novel with no scenes of war.  Like From Here to Eternity (1951), much of the narrative is about prison and army cruelty, arbitrary orders and men going against the grain.

Published as Shinkū chitai, it was translated into French as Zone de vide by Henreitte de Boissel in 1954; that French edition was translated into English by Bernard Frechtman and published by World Publishing Co, in Chicago, 1958.  While a translation of a translation is not auspicious there were few times where I thought meaning was disturbed.  Felicity, perhaps, but since the original Japanese would have had structural and grammatical variance from most western writing, I’m not sure that a direct translation into English would have been able to avoid some of the style and structural choices.  It is quite readable, though the culture and behavior of the characters make an easy reading just out of reach; more engagement is needed.

The story takes place in a large war-time army camp near Osaka, Japan (Honshu Island) where new recruits up to Fourth-Year soldiers, along with NCOs and officers,  are in various stages of training, rehabilitation and being shipped out.  Newspaper accounts alert one of the men to the Allied invasion of Italy, September, 1943, so the novel, taking place over a week or two, is in that time frame.  No American bombing of Osaka has yet taken place yet.  That would start in February 1945.  The Battle of Midway (4-7 June, 1942) and Japanese evacuation from Guadalcanal (February 1943) had already happened, however, and was known despite censorship.  Discouragement and doubt are seeping into the men.

Some 40 characters are named.  Two carry the weight of the story: Kitani, a Fourth Year soldier, who has just been released from two years in military prison for a relatively minor crime of theft of an officer’s wallet.  He is filled with thoughts of revenge, both on the officer who pushed the maximum punishment, and his woman friend, a prostitute in town, who also testified against him. Tough and smart, he is from an impoverished, rural background, as were most of the recruits.    His counterpart is Soda, a university student and Third Year soldier who does not want to become an officer, the normal path for university men.  When Kitani hears that Soda has a master’s degree, he

“…suddenly felt as if a wall had spring up between Soda and himself.  A master’s degree.  Though he had no notion of what the words meant, they had a tragic ring for him.”

Unlike most of the soldiers and officers in the camp, and in the army over all, Soda is sensitive and caring of others.  Even when a recruit begs Soda to beat him, as ordered to by a senior, Soda will not. When the senior criticizes him for endangering the army by being lax on discipline, he still refuses.

Other minor, but important men appear:  Lieutenant Hayashi, whose charge of theft had sent Kitani to prison;  First Sergeant  Tatezawa — “Only first sergeants have a voice like that;”  Senior Private Chino – in charge of teaching the new men and constantly correcting those below him.  These and others allow Noma to explore the daily life, and discipline of the 1943 army.

The army of that period prided itself on its unremitting toughness –a euphemism for cruelty.  Not only was verbal abuse and severe physical exercise part of “boot camp” as is true in armies around the world, it continued throughout time in the army.  Senior men were expected to order junior men to fold clothes, wash dishes, sweep barracks.  In the novel, recruits are ordered to crawl on hands and knees around a room apologizing to everyone in it. One recruit is ordered to stand on his head until he reveals something to his sergeant; when he collapses he is beaten almost senseless. Throughout men are beaten by others. One, two months in the service, is forced to eat horse hay for a transgression. Physical punishment with fists and wooden canes comes often and is expected.   In many cases, men of the same platoon gather around to watch.  Those who cower and don’t pick themselves up after a beating are thought to be unsoldierly and are shunned by the others.

It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to read that orders were given and carried out that Kitani, after two years in prison, is to be returned without prejudice.  “Officially” he was in hospital instead of in prison. Several welcome him back with warmth.  He is not required in the first days back to enter fully into the barracks discipline. We don’t find out why this is, unexpected in an army so proud of its fierceness. Once the news gets out that he was in fact “a jailbird,” harassment begins.

Interestingly, Noma writes of homosexual behavior in two of the characters, one a vicious, face-changing sergeant, Osumi, who sometimes “simpers,” and shows special concern in “honeyed phrases,” but will later beat a man nearly to death with his walking stick, screaming “I will kill him!”  Soda, on the other hand, is kind and caring to many but is particularly attracted — in ways he does not quite understand– to Kitani, the tough ex-prisoner.

“The image of Kitani flashed across his mind.  At once it took complete possession of him, driving out all the daydreams, fantasies and regrets.  Soda could see the fierce but tender face, the somewhat wide mouth, the brutal jaw, the powerful neck.  He was so overcome with emotion that he had to stop walking. ‘It can’t be love,’ he said to himself. ‘I’m a normal, healthy man’  He uttered a forced laugh, tried to mock himself and again accused the army, ‘It distorts or makes suspect even the simplest feelings.’  … “the enslavement of one human being by another,.’ he thought.  ‘The inordinate power of the human face.’

Noma’s main concern, along with the beatings-as-discipline,  is the corruption in the army, up and down the chain of command.  The prison sentence, as it turns out, in somewhat convoluted telling, was because Lieutenant Hayashi, who pressed for the strong sentence, was convinced that Kitani was involved in a wide scale pilfering and black market ring in the camp.  When he confesses this near the end of the novel, it turns out that those who were actually in the ring had managed both Kitani’s imprisonment and the Lieutenant’s deployment to one of the fronts, Malaysia or Southeast Asia, where he had fallen deathly ill.  In another revelation Soda discovers that the wealthy father of a man about to be sent to the front has droped off a few items at the First Sergeant’s home; the son is not sent.

Though corruption and cruelty are major themes, there is plenty about army life in general that catches Noma’s attention, a war veteran himself.  Early on, Soda “is filled again with a violent hatred of the army because it brought out what was worst and weakest in a man.” Or later, “The genius of the army lies in its talent for removing a man from his human element and turning him into a soldier.”

In another paragraph,

“As soon as he was outside (the camp), he felt as if he were being held by an elastic band… as if the army were allowing him to leave it only with a rope around his body.  There was no escaping the army.  It kept pulling him back, tugging at the rope just as he was beginning to feel slightly free.”

 The “zone of emptiness,” to which Soda refers several times is not that which a practitioner of Buddhism wants to find, but the barracks, the camp, the army itself, as well as his own state-of-self while he is there.

In the end, after a brutal encounter between Kitani and Hayashi, with deployment to the front happening tomorrow,  Kitani makes a desperate attempt to go over the wall, in the driving rain and icy mud. It is not from fear of dying, he says, but because he has one more mission of revenge against those in the black market ring who set him up for prison and his now pending deployment to the front.


The novel proceeds in a fairly straightforward time narrative, from Kitani’s arrival from prison until his being sent to the front several weeks later — though the exact time-frame is uncertain.  Several flashbacks fill us in on the lives of the men before they were in the army, some as memories of the character, some in extended passages by the narrator.  Kitani remembers his brother and sister-in-law, who do not like him, and to whom he owes money. When Soda visits home, stores are closed for lack of goods, and civilians, like his father, are drafted to work in critical industry.  As in the army, there are desertions.

  “If the absences increase, the military police are going to take action.  There’s a nest of machine guns on the hill near the factory. The guards are primed for action.”

Several chapters fill in the incident for which Kitani was sent to prison, including several interrogations, suppositions, accusations, cover-ups and lying and deals made.  Diaries are entered into the record, as are letters to family — the privately expressed complaints being added to charges of being anti-army, anti-Emperor, anti-Japan.

There is much description of the freezing cold, not enough coal or wood for fires, of driving rain and sucking mud – which makes the time period of the story somewhat indecipherable.  A note at the beginning says “The action takes place at an army post in Osaka in 1945, at which time the regime and the army were in danger.”  Yet midway are clear references to the Allied invasion of Italy in September 1943.  The events seem to take place over not much more than a week or two; the weather is repeatedly referred to as freezing cold, once going below Zero.  Yet they are in Osaka, a sea port at the same latitude at Los Angeles,  so something doesn’t add up.

Among other things I found interesting, were that

    • Even though Japan was in dire straits, soldiers were still being discharged;
    • Huge cauldrons of soup and rice were brought to the men’s barracks, rather than their going to a mess-hall;
    • Men were involved in care of horses — which had been rendered obsolete in WWI.  They were still a mark of rank and prestige;
    • Some were aware of communism, to the point of reciting sections of the Manifesto.

“You’re not a Communist are you?”
“No,” said Soda, “but I respect people who are capable of sacrificing themselves for an idea.”
“Our cause is the right one. It will win out.”
“I’m not so sure of that,” said Soda pensively;

  • Though soldiers’ behavior to women is crude around the world, I was surprised to read one of the lesser characters regaling his buddies with a story of riding a crowded street-car and masturbating by rubbing against a kimono clad woman, who in his telling, responded with her own movements.


In his preface Noma, writing to a western audience, says “I have tried to describe not only the Japanese army but also what is universal in the Japanese soul … When the war broke out, the country was dominated by militarism. Yet foreigners must be informed that the Japanese people did not identify their destiny with that of militarism. I hope that my novel will provide the reader with a true picture of what my country was like when it was under the yoke of this dominating force.”

Unfortunately,  character development makes seeing this somewhat difficult.   Of the two main protagonists, we have a good idea of Soda,  consistently much kinder than others of his third year rank.  He is steady, and contained in most encounters. He has some choice thoughts about the army, and the war.  He is a man, I suppose, Noma would like us to see as exemplary of the Japanese soul.  He never, however, solves the mystery of his attraction to Kitani. Indeed, he never seems to work at it. There is not one conversation touching on it. Is this part of the soul as well?

The Zone was thought by Noma himself, and understood by his readers,  to be an anti-war novel.  We see that.  He was not alone, in the post-war years in wanting to show that the Japanese people, of Western imagination, were not uniformly supportive of the war, were not outside the pale of shared humanity.  There had even been some war-resistance during the war, though little has been shown of that. Much of what there was, was led by the communist party.  Of that I have seen, nor read, none. [See here for review of Kinoshita’ Morning for the Osone Family  and Kurosawa‘s No Regrets for Our Youth for two films about anti-war feeling in Japan.]

However, unlike novels which use wartime extremity on the battlefield to illustrate the futility and suffering of war –see  Fear and Under Fire from France,  Fires on the Plain, Japan,  All Quiet On the Western Front, Germany– there is not much war in The Zone.  Much as the characters in e e cummings The Enormous Room and Dos Pasos Three Soldiers, from WW I, or From Here to Eternity in WWII,  the unpleasantness and anti-war feeling is not about war as a killing enterprise, or out of sorrow for the massive suffering of countrymen and enemy, or of extreme hunger and deprivation.  It is not about death to family and friend.  It is about loss of autonomy, about the army as a further representation of what they find barely tolerable in civilization itself — encroachment on their personal liberty.

It’s not that there isn’t much truth to that. Armies and warfare since at least the Napoleonic marches through Europe are no longer the free-booting affairs of independent, tribally guided men on their own horses, attacking under a general plan but free, and expected, to loot and kill as they will. [For excellent descriptions of the great horse armies of the Asian steppes see Keegan’s A History of Warfare.]

But how are we to understand the men of these writers’ imaginations (and presumably of their experience?)  If we read to enter into and understand, if only partially, other lives, what do we have?

None of the men at the center of the novels are fervent, ecstatic supporters of the wars they are part of, or the armies themselves.  Useful to remember as sides form up in a coming war.  Yet they all have joined. They have joined with a variety of motives, and surely some threat of punishment, yet in none is outright rebellion, outright resistance either to the army, or to the modern life that underpins it.  None really examine the beginnings and causes of the situation they are unhappy about.  None find others like themselves and act.

Kitani, the center of The Zone , flips back and forth, without much explanation, between being shy or sullen, in a rage or petrified, wishing for or pushing away Soda’s friendship– sometimes within a paragraph or two.  He is a rebel, of a kind, especially in the closely watched homogeneity of Japanese culture. But one without direction and without ties except to a fantasy of a woman he once knew.

He is  “an outcast, a man on the periphery,” as Donald Keene calls him, “remarkable [and able] to recognize injustice.”  Yet it is for himself alone, not for others. He is a man without connections.  In the final pages, as he is carried in a cold sea-slopping ship to his assured death, he recovers his feeling for Hanai, his prostitute girl friend, who earlier he had fantasized choking to death for betraying him.  He remembers “…a time when Hanai and he, their destines already forged, existed in some other world.”

Perhaps it is true that as individualism grows, technology making the necessity of others more and more rare, it will prove to be the strongest antidote to war.  The horror of war, the catastrophic destruction, and likelihood of far far worse, has done little to reduce planning and readiness to do it again.  The potential for losing one’s life, which to a visitor from Mars would seem to be enough to stop men from lethal fighting, has  proven over the centuries that it easily gives way before the idea of self-sacrifice.

War is an organized group phenomenon, drawing its power from our neuronal structure: without my group I am nothing.   If culture were to become more and more temporary associations of individuals, the siren call of becoming larger than ourselves in mass action, may begin to fall on uninterested ears. Though I doubt it.  When extreme libertarians learn (again) that that autonomy for some means authority over others, it is never a live-and-let-live world, that without organized communal protection, someone is always ready to take for themselves what is not theirs, they will don the armor of armed authority as in the past.

Noma himself was an interesting man.  Brought up to succeed his father as a Buddhist priest, during University years, where he studied French literature,  he became attracted to Marxism, of the Japanese variety.  After graduation from Kyoto Imperial University in 1938 he was involved in underground agitation and the labor movement.  Drafted when the Pacific war began he was sent to the Philippines and later to northern China.  By 1943-44 (the same time as the novel) he was imprisoned, as it happens, in Osaka prison, for “subversive thought.”    After the war he joined the Communist Party in 1947 but was expelled in 1964.

Of Noma’s considerable work I’ve only found little: none of his essays, say,  about André Gide or Jean-Paul Sartre.  Of his fiction only three other stories seem to be in English translation, all in a single University of Michigan volume,  Dark Pictures and Other Stories.  The protagonists of these are also young men of military age during and just after the war, and so it joins a long list of books I’ve got on my “might be interesting” list. 


There is, by the way, a 1952 Japanese movie of the same name, based on the novel, directed by Satsuo Yamamoto.  I have not been able to find a copy of it.  Yamamoto was a prolific post-war director, known for his anti-war, anti-authoritarian films, including titles such as War and Peace (1947),  Street With No Sun, The War With No Weapons (1960), and others.