Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, May 23, 2016

Japanese WWII Literature- A Guide to Getting Started

Getting Started in Japanese Literature
Five Great WWII Literary Works
by Japanese Writers
The Japanese Literature 3 challenge opened up a whole new reading world for me.  I think a lot of people would like to read more or even their first Japanese Literary work but they do not know where to start.   If you wander the big chain book stores you will not see much besides the work of Haruki Murakami.    Since I read my first work of Japanese literature back in July 2009 I have read about 100 works.     I am not an academic and make no claims of expertise at all but I want to share my experience a bit.   I  will do, I think, three or four Reading Life Guides to Japanese Literature to help participants in the challenge decide what to read.     The first one will be The Reading Life Guide to Getting Started in Japanese WWII literature.  I have read about 20 novels and shorter works written by Japanese authors about the Japanese experience in WWII.   Some are by Japanese  soldiers, some by victims of the Atom bomb attacks, and some were by Japanese opposed to the war.  I will post briefly on my "Top Five Japanese WWII Works.

  1. The Crazy Iris and other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath selected and introduced by Kenzaburo Oe.     Eight stories about the days right after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some by survivors.    These are some of the very wisest and saddest stories I have ever read.     Some of the writers went on to become big literary stars, some never wrote another story.
2.    One Man's Justice by Akira Yoshimura.    This is an account of the post WWII 
       life of a Japanese soldier who cut the head off an American POW after he and
       his unit knew they  had surrendered.   I think this is a totally brilliant novel that 
       makes us understand what it was like for the Japanese after WWII.   We follow
       the central character as he runs from the Americans, as he spends his time in
       prison and in his years of freedom.   In his mind, he did nothing wrong (as far 
       he was ever told by his leaders the Americans and their allies had attacked
       Japan and killed millions of civilians out of race hatred.) This is a great novel.

3.    Fires on the Plain by Shohei Ooka centers on the experience of a Japanese 
       soldier in the southern Philippines right after the return of the Americans.
       He is too ill to fight so he is turned out of his unit and told to go to the 
       coast and look for a boat home.    In other words he is thrown out as useless
       with the expectation by his superiors that he will be killed.    We see in this
       novel the conman humanity in this soldier as he slowly begins to
       understand his superiors care nothing about him.   Ooka was himself a 
       combat soldier in the Philippines until he was captured by the Americans.
      He carried a copy of The Red and the Black in his rucksack.

4.   The Burmese Harp by Michio Takeyama is a world class treasure.   UNESCO
      sponsored its translation into English.     It is about a soldier in a Japanese
      Army unit stationed in Burma.   The casualty rate among Japanese soldiers 
      was very high and when a soldier was killed his body had to be left 
      where it fell, contrary to all religious tradition.    This powerful book
      is about one man's attempt to live within the strictures of his Buddhist faith
      while serving in the Japanese army in Burma.    This is a great work of art.

5.    The Black Rain by  Masuji Ibuse  takes place in Hiroshima from August 4 to
       August 15, 1945.   The atomic bomb was dropped on the city on August 6,
       1945.     We are there when the residents read the warning leaflets the
       Americans dropped on the city and we are there right after the bomb hits
       and the survivors try to figure out what has happened.   At first a black rain 
       seems to come down on them and they think the Americans are dosing them
       in Kerosene so they can then set them all on fire.   We go through the terrible
       days right after the bomb hits.

       This is a beautiful book about a horrible subject.   As two side notes, as I read
       this I wondered who will be left to write the great novels about it if there is a
       WW III and I was somehow pleased to know Ibuse was also an admirer of
       Stendhal.    Ibuse was drafted into the Japanese army and served as a professor
       of Japanese culture in a Singapore university during the war.

Please let us know what your favorite Japanese WWII  works are.  I know there are lots of other great Japanese works about WWII but these are some ones I endorse without reservation.

I think I will next write a guide to Japanese Noir literature-The Darker Side of Tokyo

Then Japanese Historical novels-I am aware of some wonderful ones

       Mel u


Fred said...

Mel u,

_The Burmese Harp_ is the one I've read and enjoyed very much. I've also seen the film versions of _The Burmese Harp_ and _Fires on the Plain_, both of which were excellent.

After seeing _Fires on the Plain_, I decided not to read the novel as it seemed that it would be too depressing.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful project! I haven't read any of the five yet although I've seen a number of films (including Studio Ghibli's anime Grave of the Fireflies which is really sad). I have read David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero, a novel about the aftermath of WWII in Japan, which was pretty hard hitting but brilliant. I'm looking forward to finding out more great titles!

Suko said...

This is a wonderful list and project. A contemporary novel for readers to consider is Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (currently being made into a movie, I believe).

Sandra said...

There are 3 books here I didn't know about, thanks. I have read one of Yoshimura's books, Shipwrecks, and really enjoyed it. Nice to see another Japanese lit challenge fan. I've just posted my reading and recommendations for JLC5. I look forward to your future posts and suggestions on this subject.

Rise said...

Great list, Mel. I'm particularly interested in #3 and #5. I look forward to the other thematic lists for building (expanding!) my wish list.

Mel u said...

Fred-Plains of Fire is depressing as it is a hopeless situation for the central character-I hope to see the movies you mention

Sandra-I hope to read Shipwrecks soon-I have also read Yoshimura's Parole which I really liked

Rise-thanks very much for your interest

Mel u said...

chasingbawa-thanks for your reading recommendation-I have not heard of the book you mentioned

Suko-thanks very much for your reading suggestion

Fred said...

Mel u,

I think you will enjoy the films. I watched _The Burmese Harp_ and was so impressed by it, I had to search out the novel, which, surprisingly, was in the local library. I eventually got my own copy.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Mel, a great list which I will be rifling shamelessly thanks, also my favourite ww2 so far is the sea & the poison by Shusaku Endo.

Anonymous said...

Your knowledge on J-Lit put me to shame and will count on you to introduce us more to good Japanese authors in the future. :)

@parridhlantern said...

also think I've stated elsewhere here that Black rain really appeals, as does crazy iris

Bellezza said...

The only one I've read from this list is Black Rain. I must admit to novels about war upsetting me terribly, and yet they are a reality and part of each country's history. We can't ignore them. Thank you for this post, and for joining in the JLC7!