Japan at war, in trans-Pacific eyes

November 14, 1999|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

"Riding the East Wind: A Novel of War and Peace," by O. Kaga. Kodansha International. 520 pages. $28.

"Riding the East Wind," a powerful Japanese novel of social realism and historical documentary by Otohiko Kaga, was a 1982 best seller in Japan. Now being translated into English for the first time, Kaga is a professor of criminal psychology turned novelist. Set during World War II, his novel centers on the Kurushima family. Saburo, a diplomat, is based on the real-life Japanese ambassador who signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, yet fought valiantly behind the scenes to avert the Pacific War.

His wife, Alice, is an American; their children suffer the confusions of mixed loyalties and textured identities. Alice is upset that her elder daughter, Anna, submits to the cruelties of a pro-fascist husband, the journalist Arizumi: "had her daughter turned into some traditional Japanese woman, ready to choose a life of submission, willing to bear her sufferings in silence?" Yet Alice has become so Japanese that, unknowingly, she even provided food for the rebellious right-wing officers during their attempted coup on Feb. 26, 1936.

"Riding The East Wind" excels in "mise-en-scene," the atmosphere of place that so distinguishes Japanese painting and cinema. Kaga depicts extraordinary moments, such as a B-29 crashing in downtown Tokyo. Starving people shop for "steel-plated hand mirrors for protection against grenades," for "pumps for purifying water," for "soap substitutes," and for "rubber working shoes." The Kurushimas scrounge for sweet potatoes and stray shoots of grass.

In Washington, Saburo meets with Secretary of State Cordell Hull and President Roosevelt in an attempt to prevent a war with America. Even as Tojo has already planned the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Saburo negotiates. "A surprise attack would be outrageous," he thinks. Saburo is astounded by the contrast between already war-plagued Japan and America, "a land not at war, a land that knew no want."

Before long, Saburo realizes that the Americans have broken the Japanese military codes. Kaga makes it clear that Saburo himself knew nothing in advance of Pearl Harbor, that he "would never accept a mission whose only goal was to deceive the other side."

The strongest character is Saburo's son Ken, tall and with the heavy body hair of his Caucasian mother. In the Imperial Army he is denounced as "keto," a hairy barbarian, a half-breed. His service to Japan is pure and as a test pilot he risks his life unstintingly.

For aficionados of aviation, there is copious detail about Japanese aircraft. You could learn how to fly a Japanese Hayate from reading this book: "the Hayate might, at a pinch, be a match for the Mustang, but against the B-29 it's useless."

Unable to compete with superior American technology, the Japanese devote their endgame to Kamikaze suicide planes. Ken, a Japanese who hates war, refuses such a mission. He flies solo as a bomber, and is destroyed, not by the Americans, but by his own people. Wounded, babbling in English while insisting he is "Japanese," he is annihilated by peasants armed with bamboo spears.

Kaga's ending is deeply moving, uncompromisingly humane, and forged with the energy of moral conviction.

Joan Mellen has written 13 books, three of them about Japan. She teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia and is at work on a biography of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.

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