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Fumiko Hayashi: Haunted to the grave by her wartime ‘flute and drums’

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

If you compare the treatment dealt out in the immediate postwar period to Japanese writers who supported their nation’s military aggression in World War II with that meted out to such writers in Europe, the Japanese literary collaborators seem to have got off lightly.

Of course there were exceptions, such as the gung-ho novelist Ashihei Hino (1907-60). After the war he was publicly vilified, and though he tried to make amends by supporting progressive causes, he took his own life, by poison, out of unrelenting guilt.

But generally, writers who had enthusiastically waved the flag and rattled the saber during the 15-year-long war in Asia and the Pacific melted back into the routine of ordinary life once it was over — many, indeed, continuing to publish.

In France, the novelist Robert Brasillach (1909-45) was executed after Gen. Charles de Gaulle, then prime minister in the French Provisional Government, ignored his pleas for clemency; while in Norway in 1947, the Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) was put through a grueling trial for collaborating with the Nazis, despite the fact that he was by then nearly 90 years old.

Why were the Japanese less vindictive about their literary figures — and they were legion — who supported the invasion of mainland Asia, leading millions of ordinary Japanese citizens to believe that their cause was just and righteous?

The case of Fumiko Hayashi may help answer this question almost exactly 61 years since her death, at the age of 47, on June 28, 1951. For one thing Hayashi’s background and upbringing go a long way to explaining the kind of novelist she turned into — as well as the nature of her preoccupations and obsessions.

Hayashi’s father was a shady itinerant peddler who did not own up to his paternity of her. She spent her early childhood in Nagasaki, Sasebo, Shimonoseki and Kagoshima (her mother’s hometown), among other cities, before moving to Onomichi, in Hiroshima Prefecture, at the tender age of 13. By 18, however, she was writing prose and poetry for the local newspaper — while the following year she followed a lover to Tokyo.

In fact, perhaps fueled by her father’s betrayal, Hayashi was a pioneering feminist who believed that women had just as much right as men to pursue their romantic interests as they saw fit. This became one of the recurring themes in her fiction as well.

In the capital, a series of tough menial jobs ensued, and for a time she was homeless. But in 1928 she began to publish, in what would be 20 installments, her novel “Hōrōki” (“The Diary of a Vagabond”), which came out as a book in 1930. This fascinating autobiographical novel became an instant hit, selling more than 500,000 copies. It was also filmed three times — most famously by Mikio Naruse in 1962, with Kinuyo Tanaka in the lead.

In addition, Hayashi soon made a reputation for herself as a travel writer. In 1931 she went to Korea — then a colony of Japan — as well as to Russia and France, before settling in London for a short while. She returned to Japan in the early summer of 1932.

The trip that started her on her journey as an embedded journalist with the Imperial Japanese forces was one for the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun (today’s Mainichi Shimbun) in January 1938 to Nanjing (then Nanking), where her country’s military had just brutally ravaged the population in what has come to be called the Nanking Massacre.

After that, in 1940, Hayashi was again a safe and trusted embedded reporter with Japanese forces in Manchuria and Korea. Then, for eight months in 1942 and ’43, she found herself in Vietnam, Singapore, Java and Borneo — all places under the control of Imperial Japan.

Finally, in 1944, she returned to Japan and immediately evacuated, with her elderly mother and her adopted toddler son, to a remote hot-springs village in Nagano Prefecture.

Back in 1939, however, Hayashi had bought a plot of land in the Ochiai district of central Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, where she had commissioned the architect Bunzo Yamaguchi to design a home for herself, her husband, mother and son. That was completed in 1941, but she didn’t truly settle into life there until after the war.

Immaculately preserved in every detail, including its lovely tranquil garden, the building is now the Fumiko Hayashi Memorial Hall, run as a museum by Shinjuku Ward. I have been going there for more than 15 years; and it provides a fascinating look into the life of this writer who resurrected her success in the postwar years. (It’s called a Memorial Hall, but it’s really just her house.)

Hayashi was never openly apologetic about her role in the war effort, though she had been the first Japanese woman of note to be in Nanjing after the 1937-38 massacre, and the first to enter Hankow (present-day Wuhan) with the invading Japanese troops in 1938. So why, then, was she effectively exonerated by the public after the war?

She had joined the so-called Pen Corps, following the troops. Her “Hokugan Butai” (“North Shore Corps”) was published by Chuo Koron in 1939, describing life on the Chinese front. There is next to nothing in it about the actual fighting. Rather, it takes up, in documentary-like fashion, the routine personal trials of individual soldiers.

Of course, this too, makes her an apologist for the war effort. But her personalized approach, nearly devoid of tactical details about battles, not only appealed to readers but also mitigated for a less vindictive attitude toward her once the war was over.

In addition, I believe her sincere efforts to redeem herself through her fiction after the war is what saved her from what might have been an expected humiliation. She became a champion of the downtrodden victims of war, particularly women and children.

She wrote tirelessly after the war about women who were victims of the war’s brutality. In fact, after 1943, she had become disillusioned with the war effort and ceased to write about it. In Nagano, in 1944, she jotted this down: “I now see writing about reality today in the face of every obstacle and impediment as a personal sin in itself; and in this miserable country existence, unsupported and at wits’ end, my only salvation is to write children’s stories.”

Under extreme pressure due to having taken on an overly heavy workload, Hayashi died of a heart attack in 1951. So many admirers crowded around the hearse carrying her body that the vehicle could not proceed for some time. Officiating at her funeral was novelist Yasunari Kawabata, who summed up her reputation succinctly: “The deceased often did terrible things to others in order to maintain her literary life,” he said, “but in two or three hours, she will be reduced to ash. Death extinguishes all sin, so I ask you in your heart to forgive her.”

In his play about the life of Hayashi, “Blow the Flute, Beat the Drums,” the late Hisashi Inoue puts very telling words into the mouth of his heroine. I feel as if she could have said these words in real life, and that they represent a certain amount of redemption from her wartime sins. Perhaps the Japanese people of her traumatic era sensed this too — which is why they forgave her and writers like her.

Inoue’s Hayashi says: “I humble myself before the readers who danced to my flute and drums. Thanks to that flute and drums, there were war widows, there were soldiers who had to be repatriated, there were the orphans of war. And so, to show my deep and apologetic regret to my readers, I must write now about their suffering until my arm falls off, until my heart breaks in two … “