Lurking behind the day-to-day experiences of the growing boy is the specter of the imperialism and militarism that characterized Japanese society in the 1930s and continued until the Japanese defeat in 1945. Imperialism and militarism are apparent almost from the beginning, in the passing reference to the neighborhood celebrations that followed the fall of Nanking, China, to invading Japanese forces in 1937. H is affected by the war when he is only seven years old, when two of his friends are called up to the army. One of them commits suicide rather than enlist.
In the schools, boys are indoctrinated with the belief that their highest duty is to sacrifice themselves for the emperor, to die for the nation. No one except H seems to question this view, and as the years go by, militarization gets more pronounced. When H is about nine, the boys have a swimming class and are taught the ‘‘navy’s way of swimming,’’ which means to swim slowly and not splash much. ‘‘If your ship sinks, whether you survive or not will depend on this,’’ the students are told.
In Japanese wartime society, everyone must be careful about what they say. No one dares to voice sentiments that might be considered un-Japanese. Everything is secretive. Even the weather forecast is removed from the newspapers, on the grounds that it might give information to the enemy. A telling incident occurs when H is about eleven years old and takes a trip to the country by train. When the seacoast comes into view, the passengers automatically, without anyone saying anything, pull down their window blinds because the government has made it clear that no one is allowed to look out to sea. Warships may be visible, and that must be kept secret.
H always questions the need for such extreme secrecy, and at the end of the war he believes that the constant indoctrination of such ideas as dying for the emperor has made people unable to make mature judgments about how to behave and what to believe.
The narrative begins when H is about seven years old and ends when he is seventeen. During the war years he is forced to mature quickly. He learns to think for himself, to take charge in moments of crisis, and to discover his own identity.
H’s transition from childhood to early adulthood is apparent in several major episodes. Firing live ammunition with the school rifle club for the first time is a significant moment, for example. So are the many times when he questions the validity of reports he reads in the newspapers about the progress of war. But the most important episode is when the family home is set on fire following an American air raid with incendiary bombs. Fifteen-year-old H immediately takes charge, giving his mother instructions about what to do and dousing a quilt in water so that they can put it over their heads as they flee. When his mother stops to pray, he tells her they must keep moving. In fact, she has fainted, and H’s slaps get her conscious again. Then they come upon a woman whose son is badly injured. H almost faints at the sight of the blood, but he regains control of himself and offers the woman his flask of water, which she gives to the boy. But this is not enough to save him. For the first time H witnesses death, and H feels compassion for the dead boy—at least he is no longer in pain.
A short while later, he again takes the lead when he returns with his father to their ruined house. He is mature enough to ask his father whether he wishes to see the badly damaged sewing machine, since he knows that his father’s livelihood depends on the machine and fears he may be upset by its ruined condition.
A few days after the bombing, H observes the area around Hyogo Station, which is completely leveled. Dead bodies yet to be cremated are visible in the area. It is a sobering moment for H, who as a result of the air raid has been forced to lose any childhood innocence he may have had left: ‘‘‘So this is war,’ he thought as he gazed over the seemingly endless sea of destruction.’’
In the coming-of-age process, it is common for a teenager to get into conflict with his parents, and H is no exception. He becomes impatient with what he sees as his father’s apathy after the war, and his mother’s brand of pious and missionary Christianity annoys him more and more. When he throws the heavy lid of a rice pot directly at his father, he knows it is time to move out. He then tries to commit suicide but thinks better of it at the last minute. This experience is all part of the maturing process. H has to find out who he is and what his vocation in life is, independently of his family. By the end of the novel it appears that he has succeeded, since he is set for a career as an artist.
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