A famous Chinese proverb reads, “The palest ink is better than the clearest memory.” With her memoir finally published in English and Chinese, Homare Endo’s ink firmly spells out a call for historical reconciliation.
Endo was 7 years old when she endured the 1948 Siege of Changchun, in which Communist forces encircled the northeastern Chinese city to coerce the final surrender of Nationalist soldiers. Between 150,000 and 300,000 civilians died in the siege — up to an estimated 80 percent of the population.
When she and her family were finally set free after months of starvation, they were nurtured by the very army that had contained them. Eventually settling in Tianjin, south of Beijing, Endo’s father continued the humanitarian work that had brought him to China before the war, manufacturing an antidote to opium. The family finally returned home to Japan in 1953 when a cease-fire in the Korean War made the Sea of Japan safe to travel again.
Endo’s poetic yet painful retelling of her life in China, “Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun: How I Survived China’s Wartime Atrocity,” is a powerful anodyne intended to heal the lingering pain caused by governmental silence. China has yet to officially recognize the siege.
In life, Endo’s actions speak even louder than her words. Fluent in Chinese, Endo has made it her vocation to help young Chinese students in Japan, and has traveled to China numerous times to collaborate with the board of education in her role as a visiting researcher and professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Endo is also director of the Center of International Relations at the Tokyo University and Graduate School of Social Welfare, and professor emeritus at the University of Tsukuba. Throughout her academic career, Endo has drawn on her Asian expertise to publish widely, authoring over 40 books and academic papers on China on subjects ranging from foreign policy to Chinese manga.
“I didn’t write my memoir to tell people how a Japanese person had suffered in this incident, but to pray for the souls of all who died,” Endo explains in an interview with The Japan Times. “Terrible things happen in any war and this kind of atrocity tragically occurs in every conflict zone; for the survivors, the suffering only continues.
“That’s why war must be stopped,” she says. “It doesn’t end on the battlefield. War affects people’s entire lives, and the suffering even carries over to the next generation.”
Her experiences after returning to Japan also shaped Endo’s humanitarian view, as she faced cultural and political hypocrisy in a young life already indelibly marked by tragedy — in the aftermath of the siege, Endo’s psychological wounds had led to a suicide attempt. Returning to Japan brought new emotional challenges.
“I had been born and raised in China and had heard about Japan’s invasion,” she recalls. “I was bullied because I was Japanese; I believed that Japan must be a horrible country for what they did in China. I really resented Japan for making my life so miserable, as I resented war itself. I returned to Japan when I was 12 years old with this attitude.”
“We were told in China that the Japanese people were suffering greatly under the Americans after the war,” Endo continues. “My teachers told me that when I got to Japan I should try to start a revolution with the Japanese against the American imperialists.
“When I landed in Maizuru, however, I found the people there were not suffering but looked happy and wealthy. I wondered why Japan had invaded China in the first place. But when I started an elite high school in Tokyo, I understood more clearly how it happened. The teachers had been teaching there all through the war and had such arrogant attitudes.
“Within this entitled perspective, I believe Japan’s militarism began: the narrow idea that the only purpose of studying was to score high enough on exams to enter Tokyo University. I rebelled against this way of thinking, but I finally understood why war happens. I had started high school full of ideals, only to find it was still undeniably rigid and militaristic.”
Education had been a lifeline for Endo in China, silencing the bullies once she achieved top marks at school. Yet studying in Japan became anathema to the young scholar. She began cutting classes, giving up on her dream of becoming a doctor after lab dissections brought back too many horrifying memories of the siege.
“I pretended I went to school every day so my parents wouldn’t worry,” she says. “I wanted them to think of me as a ‘good kid’ and not realize my suffering. Instead, I went to the library, and read all kinds of books about everything — from the world we live in to the meaning of our existence.
“I became more and more interested in philosophy and read works by Kant and others. At the very edge of the study of philosophy is the study of theoretical physics. I decided to go into this field in the hope that it would answer some of my questions about the meaning of my existence.”
Passing exams had never been a problem for Endo, and she eventually earned a degree in theoretical physics. Working toward her doctorate in physics by publishing a number of academic papers, and juggling a young family with a teaching position at Hitotsubashi University, Endo avoided thinking about China.
“Up until that moment in my adult life, I had kept myself focused on the future, refusing to consider the past,” she explains. “Yet I suddenly came to a point where I wasn’t so busy, as I’d finally earned my doctorate.
“Just at this time, I happened to see a poster on a lamppost that said, ‘Won’t you share your life story with us on 100 pages of paper?’ It was sponsored by the Yomiuri Women’s Human Documentary project. My father had never spoken about Changchun until he was on his deathbed. Suddenly, I wanted to ease the pain of silence. I wanted to tell my story. It was like destiny.”
Endo’s manuscript on Changchun was named one of two grand winners in the Yomiuri project, and was published soon afterward in 1984. It quickly gained a readership, thanks in part to support from then-anchorwoman Yuriko Koike, now Tokyo’s governor.
As Endo relates: “The Yomiuri Shimbun is tied up with Nippon Television Network, and at that time Yuriko Koike was working there as a newscaster. My book was featured on her program, and we got to know each other.
“The first publication of 50,000 books sold out in a day. The second printing also sold out quickly. That was how I entered the world of writing books.”
More important to Endo, writing allowed her to finally experience catharsis, and she realized the benefits of opening herself again to China. It was also a relief to write with a deeper sense of purpose than the pressures of academic publications allowed.
“Having been away from this kind of pressure, it was really hard for me to go back to writing about physics,” admits Endo. “Around this time, in 1983, there was a great influx of international students from China at Hitotsubashi. I was once again surrounded by Chinese. I had mixed feelings; along with the horrible memories, I also felt a sense of nostalgia for the place where I had been raised.
“I began to inch closer to the Chinese students as they ate lunch in the school cafeteria, listening to their conversation,” Endo says. “I was still afraid to approach them directly because of all I had been through, but I started moving closer and closer. One day, I finally said hello to them in Chinese, and they were so surprised to hear a Japanese person speak such perfect Chinese. From that point on, my laboratory became like a counseling center for international students. They even came from other universities.”
Later gaining a tenured position at Chiba University, Endo continued to work with international students while focusing her writing work on Asia. Looking back, she regrets the time she spent away from her own young children.
“The more I worked with the Chinese students, the more fulfilled I became myself. The emptiness I had been feeling since Changchun filled, bit by bit, with each student I was able to help; it eased my pain. It reached a point where I became almost obsessed with trying to help these students, to the point that I did not support my own children as well as I should have.”
Despite the book’s success in Japanese, published in three versions at different lengths, it took over 30 years to appear in English and Chinese. At first Endo hesitated, worried about China’s reaction. Only decades later did she begin writing the Chinese version herself.
“I finally decided to do it to achieve a sense of justice,” Endo explains. “I believe in the sanctity of life, so as a survivor of Changchun I feel it’s my mission to tell the world so that this event will go down in history.”
She credits her English translator, Michael Brase, a longtime editor at Kodansha International and freelance translator, for the job he has done with the English version.
“The translation is excellent because Michael has such a good heart,” she says. “He really understood my soul, and wrote it like a poem. I love writing poetry and I wrote the book as if I were writing a prayer. He tried hard to capture this essence, using exquisite yet simple language.”
At 76, Endo continues to hope she will live to hear China’s official recognition of the siege, and in this age of “alternate facts,” she believes it is more important than ever to keep trying.
“When I came back to Japan and learned that every year people pray for the souls of the atomic bomb victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I felt envious. Although it was a terrible tragedy, those victims are fortunate, because everyone honors them and prays for their souls. By telling the story of Changchun, I believe the souls of the victims may be saved. I’ll keep trying until I’ve done everything I can.”