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'The Barren Zone': A POW's trauma doesn't end at home

by Martin Laflamme

Contributing Writer

Tadashi Iki was a brilliant military officer. In the dying days of the Pacific War, he was sent to the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo on a mission that was to last a single day. By then, Moscow had declared war on Tokyo, and the Red Army was approaching fast. The smart thing to do was to finish the job and decamp, but Iki chose otherwise. For this act of loyalty, he would pay a steep price: 11 grueling years of hard labor in various camps across the Russian Far East.

The Barren Zone, by Toyoko Yamazaki, Translated by James T. Araki.
392 pages
METHUEN PUBLISHING LTD., Fiction.

Iki is a fictional character, the main protagonist of “The Barren Zone,” a novel serialized by Toyoko Yamasaki between 1973 and 1978. For hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers, however, his story was their grim reality. The lucky ones, like Iki, survived. Tens of thousands did not, succumbing to disease, cold or mistreatment. Yamasaki interviewed more than 20 camp survivors while researching her novel on this mostly forgotten aspect of the war. Her portrayal of the soldiers’ misfortune is chilling and meticulous.

Iki is one of the last to return home, in 1957. By then, Japan has moved on; Iki has not. It takes him two years to accept a job, grudgingly, at a trading company, where his younger colleagues look down upon him, an oddity from the old imperial regime, a nuisance with no skills for the new Japan. But the cutthroat world of postwar business, which Yamasaki describes brilliantly, has, in fact, much in common with war. Therein will Iki — and his country — find redemption.

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