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Making a life after surviving the war

by Stephen Mansfield

My Postwar Life: New Writings From Japan and Okinawa, edited by Elizabeth McKenzie. Chicago Quarterly Review Books, 324 pp., $19.95 (hardcover)

The first entry in this new anthology begins with the blackened image of a watch, its hands stalled at 11:02 a.m., the precise moment of atomic implosion in Nagasaki. It is an instant so monumental, we imagine it could stall time itself. It is like the moment a tumor bursts, or a city goes dead. The traumatized timepiece foreshadows many of the themes in this collection: the rupturing of the temporal, the troubled legacy of history.

In “The Diary of Noboru Tokuda,” the World War II navy guard finds himself forced not into warfare, but subsistence farming on a Pacific island. With time on his hands, he is able to create a sketchbook of his experiences. In captions accompanying the drawings, preoccupations with war and death turn to concerns over crop cultivation. A war diary gradually becomes a horticultural calendar and seed catalogue, as the writer notes the comparative merits of growing mangosteens, salaks, soursops and South Sea Apples. Blessed with a war that left him unscathed, he lived to the ripe old age of ninety-seven.

The protagonists of Kentaro Yamaki’s short story “Last Time I Saw You,” are less fortunate. Embroiled in fierce combat in New Guinea, the narrator describes how, as defeat stares them in the face, resentment grows at “the deadly stupid pride among us Japanese agitated by fabricated, state-backed Shinto mythology.”

Samples from the work of Ben Takara, a celebrated Okinawan poet, appear alongside the work of fellow islander Tami Sakiyama. In her highly imaginative short story “Passing into Twilight Alley,” the writer offers up the gritty street vernacular of urban Okinawa. Deni Y. Bechard also has Okinawa in mind in her story, “The Deleted Line.” Here, fact is the inspiration for fiction, as a single sentence — “it is possible that mass suicides and killings took place among the residents” — stands for the lengths a government will go to modify the truth.

Stephen Woodhams interviews Hitoshi Motoshima, the former mayor of Nagasaki, the survivor of an assassination attempt. In a view shared by many but expressed by few, the well-read Motoshima’s transgression was to declare, “I do believe that the emperor bore responsibility for the war.” The shocking realization after reading this contribution is that such incidents are just as plausible in contemporary Japan as they were in the politically superheated prewar period.

Shakuhachi master Christopher Blasdel’s contribution is a moving homage to the poet Craig Arnold, who went missing on a solo exploration of Yakushima. His body was never recovered, remaining in lonely entombment on the island.

Discussions about East Asia often touch on the transfer of technology. In “The Art of Passing Through Walls’” the prolific writing team of Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani, expand on a different idea: the transfer of wisdom — as American born Rika, unaware that her mother’s training has made her a kunoichi, or female ninja, travels to Aomori to meet her grandfather for the first time. In a tale of secret arts, where aerial flotation can be mastered through respiratory discipline, the fabulist is firmly grounded in human emotions and the natural world.

In “Small Fish,” Iona Sugihara has created a pithy, well-structured short story that has its genesis in the sense of entitlement that sanctioned the widespread rape of Japanese women by U.S. servicemen during the Occupation years. In a clever narrative device, unsuspected synchronicities link past characters with those in the present.

It is fitting that one of the latter essays focuses on the Fukushima nuclear reactors. In an admirably unsentimental account, Hiroshi Fukurai, a native of Sendai, reflects on the supreme irony of the only country to ever suffer an atomic bombing being exposed at its own hands to radioactive fallout. Fukurai links the disaster to some alarming facts about ethnicity in Japan, examining the role of nuclear plant subcontract workers.

Known as “Genpatsu Gypsies,” many of these men, recruited from the slums of Sanya in Tokyo and Kamagasaki in Osaka, are members of Japan’s Burakumin minority, descendants of a caste assigned forever to the outer margins of society.

Written with the authority of eyewitnesses and empiricists, this anthology presents a portrait of Japan and Okinawa that is impossible to erase from memory.