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Sunday, Sept. 30, 2001

Postwar Japan finds a voice

SILENCE TO LIGHT: Japan and the Shadows of War, Manoa 13:1, edited by Frank Stewart and Leza Lowitz. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001, 217 pp.

Manoa, published by the University of Hawai'i, is a twice-yearly journal of Pacific Rim writing and graphic art, with each issue devoted to a particular country or region. The latest, very impressive issue focuses on Japan -- not turn-of-the- millennium Japan, the stumbling economic megapower, but Japan as seen through the prism of the Pacific War. It is the appropriate perspective, given that this year marks the 60th anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and the 70th anniversary of its invasion of China, the real starting point of that war.

The contributions are varied: Japanese, non-Japanese; wartime, immediate postwar, contemporary; fiction, poetry, essays, photography, "manga," letters and other documents, even a film script. Yet they all add up to a coherent perspective, neatly captured in the somewhat gnomic title, "Silence to Light." The phrase, attributed to Louis Kahn, is taken from the script of a documentary film by Keiichi Ogata about Hiroshima, that quintessential city of silence, shadows and light.

The "cinepoem," included here, tells the story of Keiko Sonoi, a young actress who was killed by the atomic bomb but whose image was preserved on celluloid. "As long as we project light through [her] one remaining film," the script runs, "her image will not be erased from our memory. . . . In the beginning was light, followed by dark. The city was frozen in an instant. But when light is given again to the images, they can be released from silence and begin to breathe."

Struck by the similarity between this passage and their own goals for the current issue of Manoa, the editors explain that they wanted to portray Japan's passage from the darkness and silence of war to the light of understanding, however fitful. It was to be a collection of "personal truths and stories emerging from the shadows."

It's that, and more: an anthology of consistently high literary quality and remarkable variety, which means that for all the heartbreak and anger it inevitably inspires, it is also quite riveting.

The selection opens with a story by Kyoko Hayashi that oscillates between the two poles of her own early life: She was in Shanghai on Dec. 8, 1941 and in Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. It is titled "Echoes," a reference to "the blast of cannon fire, stored (in my body) since childhood" and another image that summarizes the issue's overarching theme.

Pieces that follow trace the path Japan took from the Manchurian Incident through the Nanjing Massacre, Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Okinawa, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, defeat and surrender to eventual recovery and reflection. They make for sobering reading.

In "The Canary that Forgot its Song," Shinpei Ishii describes a journey he took to China in 1991, on the 60th anniversary of the Manchurian Incident, to find the burial place of his brother. Fourteen-year-old Kohei Ishii was a student at a middle school in Manchuria at the end of the war and had been inexplicably sent to do manual labor on a farm when the Soviet Army invaded in August 1945. He was one of 3 million Japanese to die or disappear in the war. It was "a dog's death," Shinpei Ishii writes, as the Japanese say when someone dies in vain.

Ishii also pulls no punches in his grief for Japan's Chinese victims. Contemporary Japan shows a deep "contempt" for China, he says. "Twenty million people died as a result of a war initiated by Japan (in China). If the weight and meaning of these deaths are not given even scant mention in Japanese classrooms, history will march on and leave behind countless souls lying in the dust, . . . stray dogs coldly thrown to the elements."

There is an early story by Yukio Mishima titled "Peonies," something of a surprise given Mishima's later embrace of rightwing nationalism. In it, a retired colonel tends a peony garden containing 580 plants, the exact number of people he had killed with his own hands during the war. The narrator speculates that he did it, not penitently, but "to commemorate, in a secret way, his own evil."

There is a story by Osamu Dazai called simply "December 8," detailing "how one impoverished housewife spent 8 December, 1941," Pearl Harbor Day. "Total destruction of the American fleet. . . . I felt so grateful to everyone I couldn't stop shaking." There are last letters from a group of kamikaze pilots, barely in their 20s when they died. There is an excerpt from Keiji Nakazawa's famous manga chronicle of Hiroshima, "Barefoot Gen."

And there are heartrending testimonials from some elderly Okinawan women who were schoolgirls at the time of the battle that killed 200,000 people in a "typhoon of steel." Mobilized as nurses, the defenseless girls were ejected by Japanese soldiers from the caves where they were helping to tend the wounded. Most of their companions were killed, nearly all of them after the Japanese Army's defeat.

Other selections record the impact of the war and its aftermath on non-Japanese. Notable among these are the memoir by the Hungarian photographer Francis Haar and his wife, Irene, of the years they spent interned in Karuizawa (Francis nearly died of malnutrition); profoundly moving testimonials from three Taiwanese "comfort women" for the Japanese Imperial Army; and a gut-wrenching account by the Philippine-American writer Lisa Ottiger of how her grandfather, a POW, died at the age of 37 in a Japanese transport ship.

There is also a superb excerpt from Donald Richie's "Japan Journals" describing the view from Ginza 4-chome one January evening in 1947, when poverty still gave Tokyo an "Asian look."

"Mount Fuji stood sharp on the horizon, growing purple, then indigo, in the fading light . . . ," Richie remembers. "Most of the buildings were cinder. It was a wasteland. And from the crossing, Japan's familiar peak was seen as it had not been seen since Edo times and as it would not be again until another catastrophe."

This anthology has many virtues, but one stands out. The thoughtfulness it both reflects and inspires should help ensure that, whatever catastrophe next lays waste to Japan, it will not be the work of man.

Note: For subscriptions, write to Manoa, English Department, University of Hawai'i, Honolulu, HI 96822, USA or visit www.hawaii.edu/mjournal

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