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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1325

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...

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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 versions that explain why Japan went to war, and he tells H he must form his own opinions and not accept everything he hears. Christianity in Japan comes under attack because it is also the religion of Great Britain and the United States. H is taunted at school for coming from a family of Christians.

Toshiko becomes head of the newly formed neighborhood association, and H learns air raid drills. The radio reports a continuing stream of Japanese military victories, but Morio remains skeptical because the Americans have far greater resources.

The first incendiary bombs fall on Kobe, and the residents are issued gas masks. In a spy scare, Morio is detained by the authorities because he has foreign clients for his tailoring business.

For their summer holidays, H and his sister visit their mother’s relatives in the countryside near Hiroshima. When they return to Kobe, there are more changes: American and British films are banned, and people are urged to give up all their metal goods for use in the war. H passes his Second Middle exam by mouthing the patriotic slogans he has read in the newspaper, knowing his examiners want to hear them.

At his new school, H joins the riding club and learns how to ride a difficult horse called Kamikeru. But he runs foul of Inspector Tamori, who is in charge of military training. Tamori is furious when he discovers in H’s notebook a drawing of a nude woman, copied from a painting by Manet. To escape Tamori, H joins the rifle club, where he learns military drills and target practice. This training culminates in an arduous night march.

The military exercises continue. H fires live ammunition for the first time and discovers that he is a good shot. Another military exercise involves students simulating leaping up from a hiding place in the ground and throwing a grenade at an enemy tank.

During 1944, after Paris has fallen, air raids on Kobe increase. A dead Japanese fighter pilot is laid out in the school reception area, and the first Middle school student is killed. The big raid comes in March 1945. H’s family home is destroyed and fires rage throughout the city. H and his mother escape and obtain lodgings in a church. H and his father, who works at the fire station during the raid, retrieve his damaged sewing machine. Wandering around Kobe, H is astonished at the extent of the damage and is relieved to find that his friends are safe. But another adventure is soon upon him: he is strafed by machine gun fire from an enemy plane and narrowly escapes being hit.

H goes to stay with his Uncle Hadano, but he cannot settle there and returns to Kobe. At the Second Middle school he works in the school factory, assembling motors. In another adventure, he is summoned by a military policeman to assist in the capture of an American pilot who has been shot down over Kobe.

Germany surrenders, and H realizes that Japan will lose the war. Meanwhile, in the school factory, workers are urged to increase production. The government publishes a manual teaching people how to resist in hand-to-hand combat. Shortly after, H hears that the United States has dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, although the authorities minimize the damage it causes.

The students gather at school to hear the emperor’s radio broadcast, accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. No one mentions directly that this event involves Japan’s unconditional surrender.

After the war, H continues to resent the lies the government told. When occupation forces arrive in Kobe, he marvels at the superiority of their vehicles and weapons. An American serviceman allows him to sketch an M1 carbine, and H gets a favorable impression of U.S. soldiers. He also finds out the purpose of the occupation is to eradicate militarism and instill a democratic spirit. He is irritated by the fact that some of the teachers who were ardent militarists now become ardent democrats.

Living in a temporary dwelling with his family, H gets angry about everything he does not like. Under emotional strain, he quarrels with his parents and leaves home. He intends to commit suicide by lying under a train but pulls back at the last minute. For a while he lives in secret in a building at the school. Unsure of whether he will be allowed to graduate, he decides to study art. He seeks out a well-known artist, who allows him to work at his studio. The novel ends with H working as a sign painter during the day and studying at night with fellow artists at a studio.

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