No postwar work of Japanese literature expresses the pity and misery of war for children quite like Akiyuki Nosaka’s story of a brother and sister left orphaned and homeless, “Hotaru no Haka” (“Grave of the Fireflies”). Published first in 1967, this novella, which won the prestigious Naoki Prize, was made into a heartbreakingly moving anime film in 1988.
The story, partially autobiographical (his own little sister died a week after war’s end), is set in Kobe, where Nosaka grew up; and today, Nada Ward has erected a small monument to 14-year old Seita and 4-year-old Setsuko, the brother and sister of the story, who both died there.
“Boku no Bokugo” (“My Dugout”) is a lesser known, but no less poignant, portrait of how a child fares in wartime. As in “Grave of the Fireflies,” we learn here how a child takes in the awful traumas that befall all civilians in war. On Aug. 30, NHK, in their Listening Library series, broadcasted an English-language reading of “My Dugout,” read by Yuko Aotani. (For details on how to access the reading, see below.)
“My Dugout,” which first appeared in 1971, makes no attempt to portray the exceedingly cruel behavior of Japanese soldiers in Asia and the Pacific. Children are unaware of issues of blame and guilt. For them, everything is close to home, and all events are perceived through the fates of family, friends and pets. This makes this kind of literature universal. I am certain that children trapped in any war zone today would identify with the little boy in the story. The boy creates a realistic fantasy in and around the hole dug below the floorboards of his home that gave him refuge from the bombing and a haven for his imagination.
Nosaka begins the story on Aug. 15, 1945. The skies above Japan were suddenly clear of B29s raining fire and destruction on the cities and towns below, which, according to the boy narrator, “were again decorated in soft lamplight for the first time in what seemed like ages.”
The boy’s father, a company employee, had built the dugout under the floorboards of their house before leaving for the front in 1942, telling him it was a “basement.” This left the boy puzzled: He could not understand why a home needed a basement that only a few family members could squeeze into.
The boy’s perception of war was, of course, a naive one. War to him, as it was to most Japanese, was a thing waged in other countries. In the early months of the war, ordinary Japanese had no expectation that bombs would be dropped on them.
Herein lies the paradox of the warmonger’s mentality. Victory was “certain” and the Japanese homeland was protected by the gods themselves. Yet, by 1943, the government began urging the people to build dugouts, promoting them with the slogan, “Be Prepared and Stay Safe.” Did the people wonder why they needed to go to these lengths if their homeland was to emerge from the war unscathed?
The boy’s father dies. His teacher at school labels the death “a glorious fate that even the gods do mourn.” Yet the boy denies the reality of his father’s death.
After Saipan falls in the summer of 1944, the carpet bombing of some Japanese cities begins in earnest, and the boy finds himself in the dugout his father made.
” ‘Daddy!’ I found myself calling out. Amid a hail of bullets, my father leans out of the dugout and bravely returns fire.”
” ‘Give it to ‘em, Daddy!’ “
His father reassures him that the enemy will never get the better of them.
In this way, the boy has created a situation in which he can retain his sanity and his fierce pride in order to feel secure. To the child, security is always viewed in terms of the safety of family members. The boy continues imagining war scenes with his father, picturing himself flying in airplanes with him to rout the enemy.
Eventually, in 1945, the bombing raids on Kobe begin, and he and his mother huddle in the dugout. But he continues to fantasize scenes with his dad, who, of course, is seen only by him.
The 800-plane firebombing of Kobe took place in two main raids in March and June of that year, killing well over 10,000 civilians and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. The characters in the Nosaka stories are victims of the June bombing.
To the boy, action is not about bloodying the enemy but rather about maintaining the happy illusion of security with his father as his role model. There is no big picture here, only the desolation of home felt by the child.
“We’re safe here, because no matter how many B29s come, we’re in a dugout built by dad,” he tells his mother.
(In fact, of the several types of dugouts — some were built into mountains — the ones in the ground were probably the most dangerous. Being in a dugout did protect you from shrapnel. But American planes also dropped incendiary devices. Fires on the ground deprived the air of oxygen, and people taking shelter in dugouts often died of suffocation.)
Throughout the story, it becomes increasingly clear that the existence of the dugout is the very thing that allows the boy to convince himself that his father is not dead . . .
“When the real sounds of falling and exploding bombs broke through the air all the way into the dugout, my mother would hold me tight in her arms. I wasn’t in the least afraid, though, because I heard my father saying, ‘They’re getting a lot closer, but, son, we’re going to blast them to kingdom come.’ “
The war ends, and there is no need for blackouts and frantic dashes into dugouts and shelters. Dugouts all over Japan are collapsed or filled in. The boy protests. He doesn’t want the dugout under his home filled in. His mother tells him that it’s safe now in the town and that air raids are a thing of the past.
The boy continues to speak to his father, but now that the dugout, the medium of communication, is being filled in, he receives no reply.
The two workmen his mother hires to fill in the dugout are not impressed.
” ‘People go and build stupid bloody things, don’t they,’ is what they muttered to each other as they took their money from my mother and left . . .
“Hearing this . . . brought tears to my eyes, and I stared down at the dark earthen floor below the floorboards and understood for the first time that my dad was really dead. . . . I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to talk with him anymore, and I felt miserable. Why did the war have to end and the air raids have to stop?”
Nosaka concludes his story in the following way . . .
“Peace had come, and the lights were on again in the town . . . but one little boy was left alone with his sorrow.”
The NHK radio production of “My Dugout” by Akiyuki Nosaka, translated by Roger Pulvers, can be heard at: www.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/ english/radio/listening-library/index.html