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Review: My Postwar Life
August 21, 2012

My Postwar Life:
New Writings from Japan and Okinawa

Elizabeth McKenzie (editor) Karen Tei Yamashita (foreword)

We in the West are still fascinated with Japan, although the focus of the fascination has changed from Japan's more classic arts toward popular culture such as anime. Even sushi has become so mainstream in the U.S. its roots are starting to blur, like pizza is less and less like pizza in Italy. Most of the original fascination with Japan lies in its many centuries of distillation of its high arts, aesthetics, and ways of thinking. But more than perhaps any other culture, its current state has been defined by two days of events – the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when Japan began an immense transformation in the blink of an eye.

In this collection of essays, fiction, poetry, plays, and other documentation, the change from the aftermath of the war to today’s modern state is captured and explicated. In reading this volume, I recommend starting not at the beginning and going straight through, but picking out a genre or a few of the pieces that sound most interesting. I chose “Superflat Tokyo” an essay by Roland Kelts, “The Art of Passing Through Walls” a short story by Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani, the illustrated “Diary of Noboru Tokuda, Soldier in the Imperial Army,” and the poem “Walking” by Keijiro Suga.

Kelts uses his dual residences in Tokyo and New York to provide an aerial view of the differences of the two mega-cities, neither entirely representative of their respective countries, but the two most well known, each the center of finance and culture, and the government in the case of Tokyo. “Superflat” refers to a Japanese artistic style that lacks shading for perspective, and has also been used to describe the thinning of technology. Kelts uses the term to describe the ubiquitous train station neighborhoods of neon-lit karaoke bars, noodles shops, izakaya (small food and drink bars), fast food counters and elegant hostess bars. “Wherever you alight in the City of Tokyo this is what you expect and this is what you get. Superflat. … after decades on the world’s stage, it remains as much a cipher as Hello Kitty – tantalizing and expressionless, massive but hidden, an empty vessel you can fill with your densest dreams. Oh, what a town.”

In contrast to Kelts’s broad, visionary sensibilities for Tokyo, Lowitz and Oketani take a more modest and intimate portrait of rural Japan, seen through the eyes of Rika, a Japanese American and recent high school graduate visiting her grandfather in Japan for the first time. The elderly man is amazed to learn Rika knows the Japanese martial art of stealth and invisibility called sozu, although she doesn’t know it is called this. Her mother passed some of its skill to her, and now the grandfather teaches Rika an advanced level of the art called “passing through walls.” Learning this secret and others, she also learns more of her identity and that of her mother, and the realization astounds her.

“The Diary of Noboru Tokuda” is a fascinating diary made of sketches drawn by a young Japanese sailor who was trapped on a small island in the Philippines near the end of war. He was eventually captured and interned in Singapore until he was returned to Japan. The sketches are vivid examples of the horror and self-reliance required to survive in the chaotic finish of the war. The sketches were annotated by the sailor’s wife after he returned. Several sketches show how they were cut off from supplies and had to forage and hunt for food while running for shelter from regular bombings. “When I think about how the infantry barracks were later reduced to worthless splinters by a bomb, I remember how chills ran up and down my spine.”

“Walking” by Keijiro Suga is a narrative poem of the emotive thoughts of a person walking through a vast changing landscape. The feeling imparted is a floating journey through history as much as across shorelines and mountains. “Finding our way between the mineral world and the vegetal world, We went on, climbing the northern slope of summer. The path became a stream, then mud, Then occasionally stairways hard to climb because of exposed roots. The path was situated between the mud and the sky.” In the end the walker can no longer distinguish light and dark, earth and sky, self and not-self.

A couple of other works I recommend are the erudite and informative essay “The Atomic Bomb Survivors: A Jungian Contribution” by Janice Nakao and the surreal short story “Passing into Twilight Alley” by Tami Sakiyama. Overall, the collection has consistently high quality works, a credit to the editor, Elizabeth McKenzie. Each work provides unique insight into what Japan has become from where it was before the singular events sixty seven years ago.


Number of comments: 1
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Lee Witte
Sounds like a great anthology. I get a copy to see if I can use it in a class I'm going to teach.


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