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Tuesday, Oct. 26, 1999

This 'East Wind' blows ill

Staff writer
RIDING THE EAST WIND, by Otohiko Kaga. Kodansha International, 1999, pp. 518, 3,500 yen (cloth).

The history of Japanese-American soldiers who fought for the United States in World War II is well-documented, but the story of an American-Japanese pilot who served in the Japanese Imperial Army remains virtually unknown -- and almost unbelievable.

Yet it's true. The flier was the son of an American woman and Saburo Kurusu, the Japanese diplomat who, in a bizarre twist of fate, was in Washington working for peace on Dec. 7, 1942, as Japanese bombs were raining down on Pearl Harbor.

The Kurusu family's truly extraordinary situation is the seed from which Otohiko Kaga cultivates his novel "Riding the East Wind." He's changed their last name to Kurushima and altered the destinies of the son, Ken, and Saburo, but the rest of the story seems to stick to the facts.

Ken's predicament is unique, in the full sense of the word. He was probably the only American-Japanese in Tojo's army and almost certainly the only pilot. While "Riding the East Wind" examines Saburo's envoy mission and the difficulties faced by Alice, his American wife, in wartime Japan, it is Ken, the Japanese pilot with Caucasian features, who is the focus of the book and, literally, the embodiment of the conflict between East and West.

The first physical description of Ken comes from Alice, as she's reminiscing before he returns home on leave: "Ken's hands were hairy." Shortly afterward, he makes his dramatic entrance: "Against the flood of backlight, Ken's tall figure stood out bold and dark."

Unfortunately, that's about it. He remains a two-dimensional character, a shadow puppet, more of a concept -- the "gaijin" in the Imperial Army -- than a flesh-and-blood character.

This lack of description is compounded by the author's presentation of Ken, and the whole family, as "Japanese." Without the inner conflict and emotional turmoil from an internal debate on self-image, Ken remains flat, and the story goes slack.

The account of Saburo's last-minute diplomacy is interesting enough and brings to life the frantic situation at the Japanese Embassy in Washington on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Similarly, Ken's experiences as an engineer in the Imperial Army reminds us that not all soldiers were imperialists and not all pilots were kamikazes.

But the sections of "East Wind" that deal with Ken's family blithely accepting their "Japaneseness" continue to disappoint. Margaret, Ken's teenage sister, sums up the issue of bloodlines with these comments: "Papa is pure Japanese, but Mama's Japaneseness is messed up by her having been born in an enemy country. And Ken, Anna and I are Japanese with enemy blood in us. The women have it better, we can get by without having to kill anyone. But Ken, what a weird situation he's in . . ."

Alice is particularly annoying. In the middle of the war, with the police harassing foreigners, Ken is concerned about how his mom's getting along, "What about you, mama?"

"Me? I'm Japanese. I'm perfectly comfortable here, thank you."

Ken is equally clueless and unreflective. He's fighting a war against his mother's country and suffers some hazing because of his looks, but it's not until he shoots down some American fighters, nine-tenths of the way through this tome, that he looks in a mirror and realizes the situation he's in:

"The person he saw there wasn't Japanese; he saw someone as white as the man he'd murdered today. No wonder people see me as a gaijin, an outsider, an American. But then he thought, I don't give a damn about my body, in my heart I know I'm Japanese. I think in Japanese, I went to a Japanese school, I'm a soldier in the Japanese Army . . ."

Alone with his guilt, Ken thinks his inner being is true nihonjin. But his examples of language, school and job are outside influences, not inner convictions. Yet the author doesn't draw these conclusions from the thoughts he puts in Ken's head. Ken's revelations simply mean he is loyal to his fatherland.

". . . And yet, unlike other Japanese soldiers, I just can't bring myself to simply see Americans as 'the enemy' and kill them without batting an eyelid. . . . The enemy (sic) simply isn't human. But for me, he is. Just as my mother is human and I am human, Americans are human."

Ken's mixed blood, multicultural family and immersion in American society until he was 8 years old adds up to no more than an understanding that people are human.

This scene, with explication and an investigation of Ken's psyche, should have have come at the beginning of the book, rather than page 460, and could have been followed by a moving account of the family's conflicting loyalties -- the son divided against himself, the father torn between love for his son and duty to country, the mother worried that she is a traitor for her allegiance to a foreign country. The author could have sought answers: When is loyalty a virtue and when a vice? Does the desire to please one parent mean a rejection of the other? Does nurture destroy one's nature?

For Ken's final thought during this self-reflection is, "What a horrifying, stupid war this is!" Yes, we can imagine, but we should have heard it from you.

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