A Review of Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun by Homare Endo

Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun: How I Survived China’s Wartime Atrocity
Translated from the Chinese by Michael Brase.
(Berkely, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2016)

There is an old Chinese curse that says “May you live in interesting times.” It’s not difficult to determine that our world as a social and political constellation is changing fast, and we are approaching very difficult periods of world history. But what to say about the Second World War and the atrocities from the period of the biggest human suffering that mankind witnessed? These kinds of “interesting times,” times of physical and psychological trauma and post-war trauma, are vividly captured by Japanese writer and Professor Homare Endo in her memoir-shaped-as-a-novel, Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun, translated from the Japanese by Michael Brase.

Although a memoir, a story based on real happenings in the past, it is more than clear that we are to discuss a mimetic structure of the writing as a novel, historical and subjective at the same time, documentary and reminiscent, but still a novel. In fact, Homare and her family struggled for several years after the defeat of Japan in World War II in the former colonial state known by the Japanese as Manzhouguo. The author herself, as the narrator, furthermore as the subject of focalization, is telling us the story of one huge event in Chinese history, yet not well known in world history – The Siege of Changchun. However, considering her age at the time, we can and should rather doubt the real omniscient nature of the narrator as well as the omnipresent nature of the above mentioned, which can only mean that what we are really holding in our hands is not simply an historical lament, but a novel with a serious approach to the specific and rather complicated relations between the objective and subjective reality of the past times.

Changchun was the capital of Manchukuo, called Hsinking (Shinkei in Japanese) during the Japanese puppet government’s rule. Following the Soviets’ invasion of Manchuria on Aug. 9, 1945, the Manchukuo government collapsed, as did the vaunted Kwantung Army.

The 320,000 Japanese who had moved to Manchukuo, or were born there, became refugees overnight. About 80,000 of them perished before reaching Japan. These numbers do not include 600,000 soldiers of the Kwantung Army the Soviets captured and sent to concentration camps in Siberia. Not all Japanese refugees started fleeing to Japan at once. Sizeable numbers of them waited for official repatriation, especially in large cities. Also, many of those we’d call “professionals” today were drafted to help the new regime, be it Nationalist or Communist. Endo’s father, Takuji Okubo, was one of them. That would be in short lines the whole syuzhet of the novel.

Still, the work stands out as somewhat of a homage to a, in many ways imaginable, difficult event in the past. The story begins in the capital, Changchun, where the narrator’s father, Takuji, ran a pharmaceutical company, the Shinkyo Pharmaceutical Company. This company produced an anti-opiate addiction medicine called Giftol from “gift,” German for “poison,” plus “toru,” Japanese for “remove”. In China, where many people smoked heroin as others might smoke cigarettes, Giftol created an astonishing demand and Okubo became a wealthy man. His expertise and success would keep him and his family in China long after Japan’s defeat. Homare’s father felt responsibility towards his company’s workers and their fates in the face of defeat. Later, his kindness toward his Chinese and Korean workers, as well as his success with the factory, would allow them to survive several life or death confrontations with Chinese authorities.

First and foremost, what especially draws attention is the portrayal and role of the character of father. In this respect, what stood out as most interesting to me was the impression that beyond and behind the subjective motive of describing one angle of a big historical event, there is a deeper goal and motivation in the novel. We could calmly claim, with left hand on our hearts, that Homare Endo wrote a novel about her father, Takuji Okubo, the main protagonist in the story line, a remarkable person with many gifts in his big human arsenal of capabilities. His pharmaceutical knowledge goes hand in hand with his moral principles and his capacity to comprehend the circumstances and find a way to survive and save his family from the great dangers of war madness. Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun is an ode, a kind of a prosaic poem addressing a man who was immune to the breakdown, corruption, disintegration of human values; moreover, a man who was trying to establish the opposite. Looking after his family, he didn’t fail to preserve the main characteristics that separate a decent human being from militarized traumatized men turned into creatures.

In Endo’s novel we will not find judgment or simplified subjective prejudices in the form of a retrospective, but rather a considerate depiction, not giving up on its own subjectivity. Endo has carefully studied the historical material as well as her own traumas. Consequently, she has elected to place a heavy emphasis on the little things in life and the fleeting moments of another era, shifting her attention away from animosity and antipathy, and preventing us from becoming overwhelmed with enmity.

Finally, the depression, which, much like the war activities, is raised by the flames of a tragic atrocity, is merely a proof of life, rather than death, and one must not forget the meaning of this in a situation when what we are all witnessing today is a variety of modern depressions. Hence this novel, despite the unbearable sadness we can simply conceive among its lines, is still a barrier to oblivion, monument to neglected innocent people who died just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 

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Dalibor Plečić holds an MA degree in philology from the Department of World and Comparative Literature. He is a book reviewer for Booksa, Beton, and Versopolis magazines from Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia respectively, as well as Hype and Hyper magazine from Budapest, Hungary. Plečić has authored one novel, as well as a collection of short stories and essays on science fiction in literature. Aside from writing prose, he has been writing and performing performance poetry at several European poetry festivals and translating prose from and into a number of different languages, with his portfolio including his authorship of texts for a film screenplay.