The deafening report of war is such that the cries of its victims are often hard to hear, even decades later.
AMSTERDAM UNIVERSITY PRESS, Nonfiction.
This is why Edgar and Ran Ying Porter hope their new book, “Japanese Reflections on World War II and the American Occupation,” will amplify the quiet voices in Oita Prefecture, particularly those of women and children who were caught in the crossfire between state indoctrination and blind nationalism on one hand and the daily struggle to survive on the other.
As Edgar told The Japan Times recently in a joint interview with his co-author and wife, Ran Ying, “It became a responsibility to record their voices and tell people outside Japan what life was like inside Japan during the war. Usually in the States, it’s Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima — people just focus on the big events; they don’t have a sense of what was happening inside the country.” Ran Ying adds, “There’s a lack of awareness inside Japan, too. The younger generation here in Oita never learned from their elders. There was a deeper sense of shame than I had imagined.”
The idea for the book flowed naturally from a casual conversation. While working as a volunteer guide in Beppu, one of Ran Ying’s colleagues, Sadayoshi Yutani, who was 7 years old at the start of the Occupation, related his memory of staring through the camp fences at the children of the soldiers, watching as the young Americans ate exotic snacks or played with toys.
Intrigued at this poignant yet quotidian memory, she shared the stories with Edgar, and the idea to record them in a book was born.
The resulting volume is neither pure historical research nor straight memoir. Instead, the Porters have woven together the memories of students and factory workers, nurses and midwives, teachers, sailors and kamikaze pilots to create a rare account of ordinary life during extraordinary times in the Japanese countryside.
Edgar is a professor emeritus of the College of Asian Pacific Studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) in Beppu, while Ran Ying is a writer of short stories and fiction in Chinese and English. They met in China in 1979, when Edgar was teaching history at a university. They later moved to Hawaii, raised three children and decided on one last overseas adventure before retirement. Both were drawn to Japan, and it “seemed like fate” when they ended up in Beppu after Edgar accepted a position at APU. He explains, “It really came into focus with the young people of Beppu who started helping us, because the history of their own hometown was just unknown to them. Their interest re-energized us to dig deeper because we really wanted to show the social and emotional side of the war, how normal people responded in those abnormal times.”
Oita Prefecture was an important base for air force training during World War II, including preparations for the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it later became home to U.S. Occupation forces at Camp Chickamauga. To make the book, the Porters interviewed over 40 individuals, all now in their 70s or older, and combined their first-hand accounts with archival newspaper articles, military records and private diaries to allow the voices of women and children to speak from the pages of history.
“We played off each other’s strengths,” Edgar says. “Ran Ying has written a novel and short stories, so her language is much more lively than mine. She knows how to make stories come alive. One of my strengths is research — where to find the facts but also finding the people who can support us, the logistics of uncovering the details.”
The book begins with the fishing town of Beppu preparing for war and continues through the launch of the Pearl Harbor attack, the aftermath and the Occupation. Its power lies in the details of daily life it provides about such things as work in a munitions factory, the tragedies of the air raids or the story of the 47th Oita Regiment as it went into China and, coincidentally, into Ran Ying’s own family history.
The interviews reveal a range of conflicted feelings about the war and its aftermath among everyday citizens who witnessed it. Shame and pride are intermingled in comments about the prefecture’s role in Pearl Harbor; people acknowledge wrongs on some fronts and offer fierce justification on others; and there is a determination to honor fallen soldiers and innocent victims on both sides of the Pacific.
The Porters also include the kamikaze pilots, a topic they originally avoided due to the wealth of research already available. However, they changed their minds when Edgar visited a small kamikaze shrine to the fallen in the city of Usa and was struck by the youthful photos of the doomed airmen. “We thought kamikaze were adults,” says Ran Ying. “It was striking how young they were, how they were really just boys. That was really hard to know.”
Ultimately, “Japanese Reflections on World War II” is a clear picture of how the tragedy and suffering of war affects ordinary people and their perceptions.
The book ends with Yutani, whose memories formed its impetus, connecting the past to the reality of today. “I only feel relief that we lost the war,” he says, pondering an alternative to the history he witnessed. “Otherwise, Japan would be just like North Korea today.”