In November 1952, 1,000 Japanese thronged the pier at Yokohama to greet the arrival of the liner Chitose Maru. When one alighting passenger gazed down at them from the gangway, the crowd broke into a cheer. There was something about the kimono-clad woman from Okinawa that mesmerized people. Especially the five men on the dock who had gone through five years of hell with her on a desert island.

Cage on the Sea, by Kaoru Ohno, translated by Giles Murray.
Bento Books, Fiction.
Rating: ★★★★★

It was certainly not her looks. Kazuko Higa was a diminutive, lantern-jawed woman who could have been charitably called handsome. And yet here, the headlines screamed, was the celebrated “Queen” of Anatahan, a Pacific island where she’d ruled over 31 men that were World War II holdouts. Higa, the papers speculated, was involved in the deaths of a number of them.

“On the islet, sparsely studded with coconut and banana trees, Mrs. Higa became the queen bee — and alleged source of passion, love, intrigue, hatred and murder,” The Associated Press gasped.

Indeed, Higa’s tale inspired a sexed-up 1953 film by Joseph von Sternberg that depicted the Japanese conscripts and sailors succumbing to savagery as they vie for her. In a lurid Italian promo poster, Higa is the master manipulator, casually watching two men at each other’s throats in their lust for her.

If Kaoru Ohno’s “Cage on the Sea” is anything to judge by, however, the reality was far more nuanced. Originally written in 1998, this dramatization of the events on the island has been translated into English for the first time. The author of many books on Japan’s war years, Ohno offers a meticulously researched guess at what really happened on the island between 1944 and 1951, when the last of the holdouts surrendered to U.S. forces.

The main part of the tale begins with the sinking of three Japanese supply ships under enemy fire off Anatahan, a tiny volcanic isle located some 120 km north of Saipan. The survivors are taken in by the head of a coconut plantation there, Kikuichiro Higa, and Kazuko, his live-in wife. The Japanese endure savage U.S. air raids, dwindling food supplies and a breakdown in discipline until a “Lord of the Flies” dynamic sets in. The martinet Sgt. Junzo Itami, the senior officer on Anatahan, sees his authority evaporate as the group splinters into factions to eke out a living. But wherever they are on the 9-km island, either ransacking a crashed B-29 for precious materials, fleeing from the occasional U.S. landing party or assuring themselves that Japan could never be defeated, Kazuko is a continual obsession. Soon, men are dying in mysterious circumstances.

The narrative itself is anything but straightforward. As if to heighten the mood of mutual suspicion and confusion, the perspective shifts in time and from character to character. The framing narrative is told from the point of view in 1991 of retired U.S. Navy Capt. James B. Johnson, who is reflecting on his role in securing the surrender of the holdouts 40 years earlier. Then we are seeing the action on Anatahan firsthand through the eyes of reservist Sugataro Nakai, a onetime balladeer who is tormented by memories of his wife’s affair with his master in the traditional theater. To top it off, there are about 30 men on the island, most of whom are swarming around Kazuko. Keeping track of their names, backgrounds and motivations can be challenging for the reader.

Ohno, who toured the island for research, brings the castaways’ everyday lives into sharp focus, detailing their methods of brewing moonshine, hunting bats and, amid their descent into lawlessness, the memorial services they still hold for the dead. The psychology of holdouts is laid bare: When the men find early 1950s Japanese magazines left on the beach by Americans trying to convince them the war is over, the loudest among them proclaim that the now-famous photo of Emperor Hirohito standing with Gen. Douglas MacArthur must be fake.

Anyone like Itami who thought Japan actually had lost the war was cowed. “The ignorant mass of people are always under the sway of anonymous ‘someones’ with their ability to color the general mood, thought Itami,” Ohno writes. “The ‘someones’ can’t make official decisions but the average person’s happy to believe their will is the will of all.”

Ohno is most sympathetic with his portrayal of Kazuko. Despite the unexplained deaths, she emerges as a much abused but triumphant survivor instead of a Machiavellian queen. Escaping the island first, she returned to Japan and found fame as a kind of tropical temptress, telling her story to newspapers and theater-goers, before falling into prostitution and abject poverty — a personal history that Johnson, the retired captain, is driven to unearth. While working as a garbage collector, Kazuko Higa died at age 51, one of millions whose lives were wrenched beyond repair by war.

“Cage on the Sea” is a gripping, vivid and poignant account of the riddle of Anatahan — how one woman survived the clawing lust of dozens of men in desperate circumstances. Kazuko is a tragic figure, and yet somehow transcends her lot one night when she sings an Okinawan folk song among their drunken revels:

If I am not alone

looking at the moon

then why these tears

as I look at its shine?

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