Historical Context

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Japan in the 1930s and 1940s
Like the rest of the world, Japan suffered from the great economic depression of 1929 to 1931. As other countries introduced import tariffs on Japanese exports, the Japanese economic situation rapidly deteriorated. Needing new markets and raw materials, Japan turned its attention to China, knowing that a military conquest of China would give it exclusive control of a large economic area, including markets and raw materials. In 1931, Japan occupied Manchuria and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo to the south. China was militarily weak and could not stem the Japanese advance. By 1933, the Japanese had reached the Great Wall of China.

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Japanese expansion into China created friction with the United States and Britain, both of whom had interests in the Far East. The League of Nations condemned the Japanese invasion, and in 1933 Japan withdrew from the League. After this decision, Japan began to look to Germany for support.

In 1937, Japan, Germany, and Italy signed a tripartite pact against Russia. With the United States still neutral, Japan launched on a major war of conquest. In the first few years, Japan met with unbroken success. Most of Northern China was under its control. It had seized the chief ports, and it controlled the railroads and all lines of communication. The Japanese navy controlled the seas. Although out-fought, China continued to resist as well as it could.

In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, the signatories of the tripartite pact mutually acknowledged German and Italian leadership of Europe, and Japanese leadership in East Asia. Britain, fighting in Europe against Nazi Germany, had few resources to spare for protecting its far eastern outposts or countering Japanese expansion.

Relations between Japan and the United States were tense. In the 1930s the isolationist United States took no steps to curb Japanese expansion other than to affirm the principle of Chinese integrity. But hostility to Japan was growing, particularly after 1937, when Japan stepped up its assault on China. The United States began to build up its Pacific navy, banned oil and other exports to Japan, impounded Japanese assets in the United States, and closed the Panama Canal to Japanese ships.

Negotiations between the two countries continued throughout 1941, but in December, without warning or a declaration of war, the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. This event brought the United States into World War II, with Germany and Italy declaring war on the United States.

For the first six months following Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces put together a string of spectacular victories. Hong Kong, Sarawak, and the Malay Peninsula fell. In February 1942, the British naval fortress of Singapore, previously considered impregnable, surrendered. By March, Japanese gains were such that even Australia was threatened with invasion. By May 1942, the Japanese controlled Burma, and the whole of southeast Asia and the Western Pacific were in Japanese hands. The British and the Americans had been expelled.

But Japan’s resources were stretched too wide, and the tide began to turn. In June 1942, the United States defeated the Japanese navy at the battle of Midway. American air power also soon began to tell. In 1943, from new bases in the Pacific, U.S. forces were destroying Japanese positions in the empire and in Japan itself. The first raid on Tokyo was in the spring of 1942.

Little by little, the Japanese were pushed back, in spite of their dogged resistance. By the spring of 1945, it was clear that Japan had lost the war. Its navy had been completely destroyed, and American aerial bombardment was wiping out whole Japanese cities. H’s home city of Kobe was not spared; it suffered devastating air raids in March and June 1945.

In July 1945, the three great powers, the United States, Britain and Russia, called on Japan to surrender or face utter destruction. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. About one hundred thousand people were killed in the first ten seconds. Three days later the United States dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki. On August 14, Japan surrendered unconditionally.

By the end of the war, Japan had lost all the territories it had conquered, including Manchuria, and submitted to an American occupation. The Allies conducted trials of those it charged as war criminals, and Japan was given a new, democratic constitution.

Literary Style

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Point of View and Language
Although A Boy Called H is an autobiographical novel, the story is told in the third rather than the first person. In this case, the point of view—the consciousness through which the story is told—is limited to H. Other characters, and all situations and events, are seen through his eyes. And since H is a young boy, the style employed to convey his point of view is for the most part quite simple. The sentence structure is simple, and the vocabulary is appropriate for a boy of H’s age. Also, the story is told in a straightforward, chronological manner. There are no flashbacks (except in chapter 2, when H tells of his parents’ backgrounds) or other more sophisticated literary devices.

The diction includes both informal and colloquial elements, as well as a fair amount of slang. (Of course, the translator has had to find English equivalents for the Japanese slang expressions.) The effect of this choice of diction is an unpretentious style. The narrative is not weighed down with deep thoughts or reflections, only such as arise in the immediate context of events, and even these are not dwelt upon excessively. The result is a somewhat detached, objective style, which gives the impression that H is a good, steady observer of life, rather than someone who gets too emotionally caught up in things, although that steadiness is sometimes belied by his rebellious behavior. It therefore comes as a surprise when late in the novel H comes close to mental breakdown and suicide. It suggests that the rather flat, even tone of the narration hides a depth of emotional turbulence which eventually finds its way to the surface.

Although the manner of narration is generally matter-of-fact and literal, occasionally the author uses poetic, figurative language to striking effect. A notable example is after the air raid on Kobe. When H sees the unburned pages of his books caught up in the wind and swirling in the air, he at first mistakes them for white butterflies: ‘‘The scene, with white cabbage butterflies dancing round and round over the overall black of the ruins, was dreamlike, fantastic.’’ He feels that the white flakes are ‘‘the very souls . . . of the books.’’

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Coughlin, William J., Conquered Press: The MacArthur Era in Japanese Journalism, Pacific Books, 1952, pp. 46–58.

Levine, Steven I., Review of A Boy Called H, in Library Journal, Vol. 125, No. 6, April 1, 2000, p. 113.

Review of A Boy Called H, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 7, February 14, 2000, p. 182.

Rochman, Hazel, Review of A Boy Called H, in Booklist, Vol. 96, No. 12, February 15, 2000, p. 1084.

Shillony, Ben-Ami, Politics and Culture in Wartime Japan, Clarendon Press, 1981, pp. 91–97.

Sweeney, Michael S., Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II, University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Further Reading
Cook, Haruko Taya, and Theodore F. Cook, Japan at War: An Oral History, New Press, 1993. This work of oral history captures in the words of ordinary people exactly what it was like to live in Japan during the time of Japan’s war with China and the United States. As in A Boy Called H, many Japanese express a view of the war that is very different from the official versions.

Nimura, Janice P., Review of A Boy Called H, in Washington Post, August 6, 2000. Nimura comments admiringly on Senoh’s prose that seems so artless but manages to convey an entire social world.

Siegenthaler, Peter, Review of A Boy Called H, in Persimmon: Asian Literature, Arts, and Culture, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 2000. Available on the Internet at http://www. persimmon-mag.com/summer2000/bre_sum2000_3.htm (last accessed December 23, 2002). Siegenthaler regards one of the strengths of the book to be how it shows many ordinary Japanese doubting the official versions of how the war was progressing but lacking the ability to give voice to their doubts in any public forum.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s–1945: Increasing tensions between Japan and the United States lead to war. The United States is victorious after nearly four years of conflict.

Today: The United States and Japan are allies, and their alliance ensures political stability in East Asia.

1930s–1945: Japan is an authoritarian society in the grip of an imperialistic, militaristic way of thinking that glorifies war.

Today: Japan is a democracy based on Westernstyle political institutions.

1930s–1945: The Japanese emperor is considered divine. Emperor Hirohito reigns over his people as a distant, god-like figure, often pictured on a white horse.

Today: Japan retains its imperial family. But like surviving European monarchies, Prince Akihito, the son of Hirohito, is a figurehead and does not wield real political power.

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