In Japan, often the only way to deal with history is to forget it. This defective resort deprives some people of the opportunity not only to learn from history but also to be absolved of it. Akira Yoshimura’s novel about the American campaign to capture Okinawa deftly reflects the quandary faced by many postwar Japanese whose detestation of the savagery of American troops in the Pacific War was matched only by a sense of betrayal and shame at the conduct of Japanese imperial forces. The solution for many has been self-imposed amnesia.
The events in “Typhoon of Steel” take place between May and July 1945 and are related by Shinichi Higa, a 14-year old schoolboy drafted with many others into service during the war’s desperate endgame, made to wear the several-sizes- too-large uniforms of dead men.
Yoshimura’s high school-age characters, members of the stirringly named Blood and Iron Student Corps, are too fired up with visions of a glorious martyrdom to grasp the extent to which the islanders have been duped. Anyone who had cared to look at Kushi Fusako’s “Memoirs of a Declining Ryukyuan Women,” published in 1932, would have benefited from the prescient comment, “We always seem to be at the tail end of history, dragged along roads already ruined by others.”
Almost 70 years on from the Battle of Okinawa, the thought of teachers and school principals exhorting their young charges to feel grateful for the opportunity to embrace certain death for their “sacred nation” is still chilling. Even more so as we ponder that the state of mind necessary for this blissful vision of self-destruction is remarkably similar to that of today’s Islamic martyrs.
Yoshimura, a master of irony, demonstrates how Okinawans had little sense of how expendable they were, not only in the eyes of the military command but also mainland Japanese. In fiction that is painfully close to fact, he describes the process whereby a teenager living in a remote island chain could be exhilarated at the sight of an armada of American warships, how he could long to be “enshrined with the war heroes at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.”
Delegated the tasks of looking after survivors and collecting food, Shinichi questions his right to call himself a soldier. The endless heaps of corpses he sees at the side of the road seem to condemn him for his spinelessness as he joins yet another retreat that the commanders are calling a step on the path to victory.
Because the “typhoon of steel,” as the assault on Okinawa was called, was met by an iron resolve, slaughter was inevitable. As the island’s lush subtropical flora and landscapes are turned into a charnel house, the writer describes a scene with “countless explosions making it seem as though hundreds of volcanoes were erupting at once.”
Even as thousands of soldiers, nurses and civilians huddled in the septic filth of caves, The Okinawa News was still printing articles on the glorious deeds of kamikaze pilots and huge losses suffered by U.S. forces. Defiant at first, then cowed by the appalling conditions and darkening prospects, Okinawans retreated into caves, becoming troglodytes almost overnight. Customs and beliefs were among the first casualties. Even the deeply ingrained stigma against the pollution of death is discarded as soldiers clamor for the best position to claim a cave bed when its occupant dies. In the oppressive heat of the putrescent grottoes, some go insane.
Some of the description has a terrifying graphic intensity. Unable to free himself after being pinned under the bodies of comrades after a fierce explosion in a cave, Shinichi realizes that, as rigor mortis sets in, “the corpses would become entangled like a vine and change into a heavy mass that would be impossible to move.”
Yoshimura’s descriptions of warfare, the physical carnage and psychological traumas, are comparable in their fierce authenticity and underlying antiwar message to those found in Bao Ninh’s Vietnam novel, “The Sorrow of War.” Far more than just a litany of horrors, the author demonstrates how, in the throes of mortal combat, most soldiers become numb, an apparent indifference to death that is often misinterpreted as courage.
Yoshimura’s powerful novel reminds us that any effort to whitewash the past is futile, and that history, as Okinawans know better than most, is indelible.