My rating: 5 of 5 stars
more fodder for the notion of heroes!
our hero/war criminal, takuya, beheads an american POW not long before the end of WWII. after the war, he is hunted as a war criminal for this crime.
but is it a crime? when he did it, it was a lawful act, done under orders by his superiors.
now, in a hollywood version, he would resist the order (good guy) or undertake it gleefully (evil guy). (side note: does hollywood even have room for bad guys any more? i think they’ve all slid to pure evil. which is probably another discussion, but does bring up the question of what make evil more evil than bad, and by whose definition? to me, the word “evil” has generally religious overtones, while “bad” can be just “someone whose actions are not in accord with our general standard of good”. anyway.)
fortunately this a book, not a movie, so we can have a more complex case. takuya himself doesn’t waste much time wondering whether his act was bad or heroic, just whether it was a commission well-executed.* not that he’s overly proud of it, either. he was a soldier, it was a war, that was his job.
when you read this book, you have to remember that the events in it took place before the Geneva Convention set out any sort of standard for treatment of POWs. as far as i know, there was no recognized international law dealing with correct behaviour in wartime. correct me if i’m wrong.
so… takuya. when he finds out he’s being charged with war crimes and that his superiors have lied to protect themselves, he runs. the japan that he describes in his travels is heartbreaking. every social bond is unraveling, people are starving, and the newfound cravenness among the people to the US conquerors is revolting.
and yet… japan started it.
it’s an interesting emotional journey, as an american who is a sinophile through and through. it’s hard to hate the japanese, who have more admirable qualities than you can synopsize in a short review. but it’s also really hard to sympathize with takuya when he reflects on what he’s done. and it’s hard to love the americans, even though they is us, when they do asshole things to the japanese, and when they bomb entire cities flat.
they? us? it’s kind of hard to find a good pronoun, here. are they us because they were americans? but that war was over long before i was even born, and the amount of change in our society makes them just as foreign to me as the japanese must have been to them.
so, takuya’s changes in the years of hiding after the war are beautifully explored. as his anger at japan’s capitulation recedes, new (and not always pleasant) ways of being are opened up to him. he starts the book a proud, professional, dedicated man. i’m not going to tell you how he ends up, you have to read the book. but you will find it illuminating.
is he a hero? a war criminal? both, or maybe neither? perhaps the label is relevant only to which side wins.
* i really don’t mean that as a cutesy pun.