A Boy Called H begins in 1937. H (short for Hajime) lives in Kobe with his father, mother, and younger sister. H is about seven years old. Japan is at war with China, and this conflict forms the background for the early part of the novel. It can be seen when H befriends a young man who works at the noodle shop and is shocked when his friend is arrested by the police as a communist and made to join the army. Another of H’s friends, the projectionist at the movie theater, hangs himself rather than be drafted into the army.
In ‘‘Tambourine,’’ H tells of his parents’ backgrounds. His father, Morio, came to Kobe in 1918 to become a tailor’s apprentice; his mother, Toshiko, came to Kobe to marry Morio. She also became a devoted Christian, but H hates the sound of the tambourine she plays as the Christians preach in the street. Toshiko likes to ape Western customs and insists that her family eat with knives and forks rather than chopsticks.
H’s father takes him to a restaurant, and H is allowed into the adjoining movie theater for his first taste of a film. Not long after this experience, H gets a chance to make money of his own through an ingenious arrangement. He resells the paste that his father uses in his tailoring business to his school friends for use in their handicraft classes.
But H’s life has its troubles. ‘‘Maps and Eggs’’ describes the futile efforts H and his parents make to curb his bed-wetting. And in ‘‘Love,’’ H learns to his embarrassment that the word love can have many different connotations. In ‘‘A Boy and a Sea,’’ he and his friends row a dinghy too far from the shore and endanger themselves. Then torrential rains drench Kobe for days and lead to a serious flood. In his borrowed book The Three Treasures, H secretly reads children’s stories in a book he borrows from a friend, even though his mother disapproves of his reading fiction.
In ‘‘The Living God,’’ H asks his schoolmasters awkward questions about the emperor, who is regarded as a god. He soon asks more awkward questions about the global political situation, which he learns about from his father. Japan allies itself with Germany and Italy, but Morio thinks this will damage Japanese relations with the United States. H decides that Germany is not to be trusted.
World War II begins. In Japan, the state controls more and more aspects of individuals’ lives and decrees that everyone should wear a new national dress, unlike Western clothes. This edict badly affects Morio’s business, since he makes Western-style suits.
In ‘‘Military Secrets,’’ H learns about the restrictions on his hobby of drawing. Instead of sketching ships, he goes into business exchanging photos of sumo wrestlers. ‘‘The Founding of the Nation’’ describes the five-day celebration, in 1940, of the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese nation. Studies at H’s school become more patriotic. Japan signs a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, which displeases Morio since it will further irritate the United States.
War with the United States breaks out after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Morio is skeptical of the official...