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FINDING MONJU, by Earle Ernst. Key West: Eaton Street Press, Inc., 186 pp., 2000, $19.95 (paper).

The late Earle Ernst was the author of that seminal work, “The Kabuki Theater,” first published in 1956 and still in print, and the editor of the 1959 “Three Japanese Plays.” While a member of the Allied Occupation of Japan, from 1945 to 1947, he was in charge of the Civil Information and Education section responsible for Japanese theater. Here he worked through the mazes of postwar censorship restrictions to return to the traditional stage, particularly kabuki, its freedom. Upon returning to the United States, this interest continued and he is credited with reviving Japanese theater studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa and insisting that the Kennedy Theater there be constructed with a full kabuki stage, something that remains a rarity. In later years, he wrote a remarkable novel, “Finding Monju,” which is now, partially and posthumously, published.

“Finding Monju” is a fictionalized account of a U.S. Army officer’s life in occupied Tokyo during the years when Ernst was there. It offers one of the best descriptions of what the occupation was like, a time where one “breathed the ache of destruction,” yet was expected to somehow “beautify it, to get [the Japanese] off the parallel track of their evil behavior and onto the loveliness of ours.”

Yet, at the same time “we were commanded not to fraternize, not to go to their movies or theaters, and not to become friends. We even had to use a different car on the elevated trains, marked Allied Car. Every interesting place was off-limits. Nowhere to meet in the whole, sad, wasted city.”

His steam-heated billet life in the Yaesu Hotel was supposed to be enough. There was even a bar downstairs where, as one character remarks, “except for the uniforms and the Japanese this could be a friendly neighborhood tavern in Grand Rapids.”

It is not enough for the first-person protagonist of this novel, however, because “in this wretched feudal country, I’d found freedom I’d never known in the victorious land of the free.” At the same time “against my good American friends I built walls thicker and higher because I felt increasingly exposed.”

The reasons for the increasing fears of exposure were personal. He finds himself attracted to Japanese men and so he contrives to fraternize. Jun, one of his first fraternizers says, ” ‘I’ve always thought only Japanese men did this.’ I snarled, I bit, I growled, ‘No more Japanese chauvinism!’ “

He finds among the occupiers others of like minds and bodies. “We brought out the secret parts of our lives. Times and places from the past were fitted together into an honest present.” Yet a kind of decorum prevails because “part of our being queer for Japanese is our not being queer for Caucasians.”

And among the Japanese, Hiroshi, another friend, says: ” ‘The occasional blond barbarian . . . I’m a racist.’ ” To which the protagonist replies ” ‘Me too. Dedicated.’ “

So this small but representative group finds a secluded house and uses it to fraternize in. Here “everyone arrived looking expectant, left looking sure.”

The parts of the novel published in this Eaton Press edition are about this dedicated group and what happens to its members. The search for Monju (Manjusri) is the successful locating of “the patron deity of men who love other men.” In two sections, this narrative is a part of the general description of what occupied life was like for both the Japanese and the Americans.

These are, however, just two sections of a much longer work, however — one not yet published. The cutting was done by Ernst himself when it seemed certain that the complete work (much more elaborate, including story segments in the Meiji and Taisho eras) would not appear. These modest extracts are therefore all that one is likely to see of this work.

None of this information is given in this edition. The introduction is unsigned and in any event does not mention the full version. In addition there is a minimum of editorial care — there are numerous errors in spellings of the transcription of Japanese. This is particularly egregious when one remembers how meticulous Ernst was.

This untidy book, however, does at least offer something that few others do: a detailed description of occupied life in Tokyo 60 years ago, the everyday as well as the unusual.

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