Staff writer It may only bring a wary smile to the face of 72-year-old Midori Yamanouchi when she sees young revelers at drinking bashes toast the legendary kamikaze missions. But the soft-spoken anthropology professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania gets terribly upset when she hears Americans say these pilots were “mindless, robotlike figures who simply followed orders and died.” This gross misperception of the pilots and other wartime Japanese, she said, is what she hopes to correct when her book hits U.S. stores in a few weeks. The work, the fruit of a six-year effort, is a translation of an anthology of letters and diaries by Japanese students mobilized and killed in the war. She hopes the book will “destroy the stereotyped images of Japanese as emotionless and blindly obedient.” “Kike Wadatsumi no Koe” (“Listen to the Voices from the Sea — Writings of the Fallen Japanese Students”) is the first English version of one of the longest-running best sellers in postwar Japan. The original was first published in 1949, and about 2 million copies have been sold. The latest edition, printed in 1995, comprises writings by 74 students. Many entries vividly depict the anguish experienced by the conscripts before they accepted their fate. Some of the writings somehow escaped rigorous military censorship and helped shed light on the mind-set of the young combatants. It has become a sort of spiritual pillar for a number of antiwar groups in Japan. Yamanouchi, who has spent about two-thirds of her life in the United States, knows from experience that those enigmatic young pilots who crashed their fighters into enemy ships were as human as their American counterparts. During the war, her elder brother, Hiroshi, a student at the University of Tokyo, was mobilized, and is among those who lived to tell the tale. She also remembers listening as a young girl to a nightly radio program on which the pilots bid farewell to their families on the eve of their kamikaze missions. Foremost in the minds of the youth in those days — both those on the frontline and back home — was a strong sense of responsibility to protect their families, even at the expense of their lives, Yamanouchi said, and their sacrifice was definitely not for something abstract like the state or emperor. What Yamanouchi sought in the translation was by no means meant to justify the war or glorify the dead soldiers. Instead, she was just desperate to get the truth known, she said. “I have wanted to show (Americans) that these youths were not an idiosyncratic bunch,” Yamanouchi said. However, she found her reach was limited to her direct personal contact. Therefore, she said she saw a golden opportunity to communicate with a far greater audience when she discovered that, despite its strong domestic impact, the book had not been translated into English. “As a person who lived through those painful days and months and shared their sorrows but survived, it is my modest effort — and perhaps self-appointed duty — to give a human face (to these students),” Yamanouchi said in the book’s acknowledgment. She embarked on translating the 500-plus-page book six years ago with her partner, Joseph L. Quinn, a professor of English at Scranton who was entrusted to “lend a muscular tone” to her work. While the old Japanese writing style was not difficult for Yamanouchi, who is well-versed in classic Japanese, it took more than a mastery of language to interpret the documents. Written under the highly charged atmosphere of what they expected to be their final days — and in constant fear of watchful superiors — the writings were often too inconsistent or heavily nuanced to render directly into English. Because of this, she solicited the help of her brother, Hiroshi, in Tokyo, who guided her through the mental labyrinth as one who shared in the campus culture. Yamanouchi also enlisted help from colleagues at Scranton and even former students to help her in the work. However, she and Quinn hit a roadblock when it came to finding English spellings for the names of foreign places abundant in the text. Many of these names, such as Kandy in today’s Myanmar, were those used during the Japanese occupation and no longer exist. To find the Philippine name Kangepot, she contacted the Philippine Embassy and even asked her Filipino students, but could not get an answer. But Yamanouchi’s commitment to a faithful translation ruled out omitting even such trivia. Instead, the pair combed through relevant documents and old maps to locate a corresponding spelling. The result was a translation “very faithful to the original with nuances converted to an easy-to-understand form (of English),” according to Ko Yamamoto of the Wadatsumi Society, which edited the original book. Yamamoto, a 71-year-old former English literature professor at Meiji University in Tokyo, did, however, express doubt about the precision of the military jargon’s translation, as he was too young to experience a stint in the barracks. The book’s publication has been delayed due to scheduling problems at the University of Scranton Press. But the delay could be attributed to more than that, as Yamanouchi couldn’t help but be pleased to learn. “I heard that a lady who was formatting the script had to stop often, as she couldn’t read the computer screen because of her tears,” Yamanouchi said. “By reading this book, English-language readers, too, will perhaps recognize how much alike we all are.”
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