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Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2000


Life during wartime through a child's clear eyes

A BOY CALLED H: A Childhood in Wartime Japan, by Kappa Senoh, translated by John Bester. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1999, 528 pp., 3,200 yen (cloth).

In Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha," and again in Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes," we are told of life in poverty-ridden back streets of Ireland's cities as seen by young and precocious boys. In each book, the boy's view of the world and his adventures within it share qualities with childhood the world over, despite the appalling conditions in which they live, the abuse that is dealt out within their families and the tragic circumstances that befall them.

If it wasn't for their naivete and their unrelentingly positive outlook on life -- an outlook that could only be formed by a lack of awareness of how life could otherwise be -- we would read these stories and weep. Instead, we weep and laugh at the same time.

"A Boy Called H" has many of the qualities of these books, although its setting is entirely different. The principal difference, of course, is that this is about a boy growing up in Japan. It is set in the 1930s and takes us through the war, Japan's eventual defeat, and the occupation of Japan by U.S. forces. Despite the different circumstances, "H," like Clarke and McCourt, faces the challenges of his life with the optimism characteristic of a child. His reactions to wartime propaganda, the bombing of his home, the transformation of his school into a factory, and the ways in which his life changes because of war, is like Clarke's and McCourt's acceptance of the same grim facts: These are the cards that life has dealt them, and deal with them they will.

The story begins in Kobe, where H lives with his parents and younger sister. His father, Morio, is a tailor and makes suits for the many foreign businessmen living and working in the city. His mother, Toshiko, is a passionate and committed Christian. Having moved to Kobe upon marriage somewhat reluctantly, Toshiko turned to Christianity where she found an outlet for her emotions.

This singles out both Toshiko and her family within the community. Indeed, both Morio's work and Toshiko's religion provide H with a home environment that exposes him to influences many of his school friends would not have had. His father's work puts him in frequent contact with foreigners; he is exposed to the foreign community and foreign religion through his mother's involvement with the church.

It is not surprising, then, that H grows up with a spirit of resistance to the conformist society that surrounds him. Although he is acutely aware of the need to present an appearance of conformity to the rules and regulations that guide his life, he constantly questions them and is not afraid to persist in his quest to find answers.

This tendency of H to question the rules and regulations of his society quickly develops into a reluctance to accept the nationalist propaganda that begins in earnest during the war. He reads newspapers and books, talks to his father's clients and forms his own opinions and assessments of events. He remains consistently skeptical of Japan's involvement in the war and the motives that direct the war effort.

During the war, H witnesses many changes in society -- for example, the introduction of the National Dress Order, official reform of the language (in particular, ridding it of foreign influences), rationing, the introduction of "permissible" topics of conversation, the call for the formation of neighborhood associations, and so on. "More and more," the narrator reflects, "the individual was finding himself at the disposal of the state with little or no say in his own destiny."

H knows how to work the system to his own advantage. Faced with entrance examinations for a prestigious local middle school, H uses his awareness of newspaper reports and general community propaganda to present verbatim precisely the sorts of answers and opinions the selection committee has been instructed to look for. Precocious though H is, he is all too aware of the need to appear committed to the war for fear of being labeled "un-Japanese."

In the book, H takes us through the trials and tribulations of childhood -- bedwetting, stomach upsets and adventures with friends. At the same time, we see that he is quickly forced to move beyond the innocent adventures of childhood -- indeed, confronted with the imminent possibility of air raids, he is forced to take responsibility not just for his own safety but for that of his mother. At this point, any reckless childhood spirit is lost.

After the war, the momentum maintained by resistance is also lost for H, and he is left with a series of unanswered questions concerning people's reactions to the Emperor's announcement. "Did you immediately realize from the broadcast that Japan had been defeated? Had you thought we'd win the war or that we'd lose? If you thought we'd lose, when did you start thinking that way? Do you think the Emperor was responsible for the war, or not? Did you believe all along that the Emperor was a god?"

He finds no satisfactory answer to his questions, and he falls into depression. His spirit is only revived by finding a publicly acceptable outlet for his creative energy and talent.

At one point, H compares himself to a stick standing in the middle of a stream, resisting the current pulling people in one tragic direction toward war. When the war ends, the current changes direction, but still he sees those around him drawn into the flow of "awesome conformity."

"They were like the seaweed he'd seen when diving in the sea: waving, never going against the current." H confesses that he cannot be as happy as seaweed, so in the end he remains like the stick, standing in the stream, resisting the current.

"A Boy Called H" was originally published in Japanese in 1997 under the title "Shonen H" and was a best seller. I have no doubt that its publication in English will find a similarly captivated audience.

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