Empire of the Sun

by J. G. Ballard

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

Jim, the eleven-year-old son of an English cotton-mill owner in Shanghai, accustomed to the privileges of colonial life, finds his comfortable existence shattered by Japan’s declaration of war on the Allied forces in December, 1941. After wandering through war-torn Shanghai for several months as one of the few Europeans overlooked by the Japanese, Jim is held for three years in a prison camp. There he learns the art of survival, while thousands die around him. Empire of the Sun in many ways resembles a boys’ adventure story but is actually much more. It is more, too, than reminiscence by J. G. Ballard, who states in a foreword that the novel describes his experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese from 1942 to 1945.

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Ballard suggests by the end of the novel that World War II was an ominous illustration of mankind’s propensity to destroy itself. During the last days of the war, Jim is drawn into a new series of adventures, roaming the countryside as the lackey and dependent of a cosmopolitan crew of bandits. A strange notion takes the mind of the boy, who is by that time age fourteen. He believes that World War II has ended simply so that a third war can begin. That notion arises partly because Jim is naive, confused as a result of hunger and illness, and influenced by the profiteer bandits. Most influential, however, is Jim’s impression when he sees in the sky the glow of the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, some five hundred miles to the northeast.

For the bulk of the novel, Ballard makes similar, less portentous arguments against the folly of war. Throughout, Jim’s innocence underscores the foolishness of adult oppressors.

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As the novel begins, Shanghai has been in Japanese control for four years and is a crossroads of war. As Jim plays, Nationalist Chinese execution squads troop off to dispatch Communists in public stranglings. Japan is preparing to turn its guns on Great Britain. Having grown up far from Great Britain, Jim suffers from a confusion of sympathies. He judges all sides in the conflicts according to how brave they appear. On this score, the Japanese, especially the kamikaze pilots, generally come out ahead. They are, he notices, his only protectors from the marauding forces outside the camp. Failing to recognize the Japanese as his dire enemy, he disdains the British war effort because it requires him to watch newsreels constantly.

He decides, witnessing the gory leavings of war-the severed heads on spikes and the bodies stacked high about the countryside-that in what he calls a “real war” one does not know what side one is on. Among the prisoners, collaboration with the Japanese, for the purpose of winning larger rations, is rife. Only a few prisoners, including Jim and his self-declared guardian Dr. Ransome, are moved to help others. At the opposite pole is Basie, an American merchant seaman who takes Jim under his wing simply to gain a servant.

Before being captured by the Japanese, Jim spends several weeks surviving on party supplies in the luxurious houses of well-to-do Europeans and Americans, whose luxury appears hollow now that it has come to nought. During captivity, Jim manages habitually to sneak out of the prison camp, enlarging his world a little while the worlds of most of the inmates, and increasingly the Japanese guards, shrink and wither. Throughout, Jim’s spirit remains vital, while those of most captives and captors sicken.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268

Jim Graham is an eleven-year-old schoolboy from a privileged expatriate family living in Shanghai, China, on the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Jim is fascinated with the coming war; he loves airplanes and admires Japan’s military strength. In early 1942, amid the chaos of the first days of Japanese attacks on the Americans and British living in Shanghai, Jim becomes separated from his parents.

Jim returns to his family’s mansion to find his parents and the servants all gone. The Japanese occupying Shanghai have not yet restored order to the city, so Jim is able to live undetected for weeks in residences vacated by the Americans and British whom the Japanese army have arrested. When his food supplies become exhausted, Jim is forced onto the streets of Shanghai. With no friends or protectors, Jim finds his way to scuttled merchant ships in Shanghai’s harbor. There, he chances on two American merchant seamen who, like Jim, are trying to avoid capture. Basie, a cabin steward on passenger ships, takes an interest in Jim.

Basie provides Jim with food and shelter. Jim hopes Basie will be a protector who helps find his family, but he soon realizes that Basie intends to sell him to the highest bidder. No Chinese want a young British boy, however, and Jim is told he is worthless.

Japanese soldiers come upon Jim and his companions and arrest them. Jim is glad to escape from Basie and feels safer with the Japanese. He is sent to a detention center in an open-air movie theater. During a three-week stay there, Jim sleeps under a concrete overhang and becomes ill with a fever. Jim sees that the stronger detainees are being assigned to various prison camps, but he is always left behind with the older and weaker detainees. He thinks he will die there.

A severely beaten Basie arrives at the detention center, and Jim nurses him back to health. The Japanese guards prepare a truckload of detainees for a prison camp at Woosung, on Shanghai’s northern outskirts. Basie is assigned to the truck but makes no effort to take Jim along. Jim realizes that he remains disposable, but at the last minute he manages find a place on the truck.

The Japanese driver fails to locate the Woosung camp. Lost, the truck wanders through Shanghai’s outskirts for several days. Among the truck’s prisoners is a young British physician, Dr. Ransome, who tries to get water for the other prisoners. The Japanese guarding the truck have no provisions for the prisoners, but Jim shows initiative by cadging both water and food for himself and the others. Dr. Ransome appreciates Jim’s initiative and courage. Jim, who seemed worthless at the start of the trip, has shown he has value.

Some of the missionaries among the prisoners die of sickness and exposure, but Jim, Basie, and Dr. Ransome all survive. The truck finally ends up in Lunghua, on Shanghai’s southern outskirts. The surviving detainees are placed in a new concentration camp located next to a Japanese air base.

In late 1943, Jim, Dr. Ransome, and Basie have all become accustomed to regular prison-camp life. Jim remains fascinated with the Japanese airplanes at the Lunghua field. He admires the Japanese pilots, and he is befriended by the Japanese guards at the camp, especially Private Kimura. Jim teaches Kimura to speak English and plays with Kimura’s martial-arts gear.

Jim serves on the camp’s food-distribution detail with Mr. Maxted, the father of his old school friend; he obtains extra food through this job. He also continues his association with Basie, who controls a supply of food and other scarce items. Jim benefits from Basie’s gifts, even though he realizes that Basie is self-serving and amoral. Dr. Ransome also helps Jim with food and school lessons, but he disapproves of his close association with Basie. Jim lives behind a rigged sheet in the corner of a small room with the Vincent family, a British father, mother, and a young boy. Their dislike of Jim reflects the unfriendly and unhelpful treatment Jim meets from most of the British in the camp.

Jim misses his parents, but he no longer remembers what they look like. Young and alone, he has acquired the necessary prison-camp survival skills. Some other prisoners see him as an opportunist, but Jim rationalizes his behavior as helping keep life going for his fellow prisoners. Jim comes to regard war, privation, and prison camp as normal. He wants to live but understands that he must expect to die.

By late 1944, as Americans begin raids on Shanghai, the Japanese military cannot find sufficient food even for itself, much less its prisoners. Life for the prisoners in Jim’s camp grows ever more bleak. By the summer of 1945, rations have been cut repeatedly for both the guards and the prisoners. The sheen of power disappears from the Japanese military, and the prisoners’ health declines as the American attacks on Shanghai increase. Throughout this traumatic period, Jim continues his fixation upon airplanes and war. His allegiances shift from the Japanese to the Americans.

In early August, 1945, most Japanese guards depart the camp, and order declines. Basie and other American prisoners escape, but most prisoners remain in the camp. Rumors of the war’s end sweep through camp; food rations almost cease. Private Kimura is shot by an armed prisoner. In the war’s final days, a small Japanese detachment marches most of the remaining Lunghua camp prisoners several miles to a stadium at Nantao. Exposed to the sun, weakened from lack of food, and often ill, many prisoners collapse along the way and die. Jim helps Mr. Maxted on the march, but Mr. Maxted dies after they reach the stadium.

Finally, the Japanese surrender after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and order in Shanghai and in the prison camp breaks down completely. Following the death march, Jim walks back to the Lunghua camp from Nantao only to be denied entrance by the British prisoners, who have taken over and refuse entrance to anyone not inside the barbed wire fences. American B-29 bombers are no longer spreading destruction; instead, they parachute huge metal containers of food and rescue supplies. The prisoners jealously hoard the Spam, chocolate, and other supplies, keeping them away from the remaining Japanese soldiers and the hoards of Chinese refugees in the city. New sources of violence appear from rivalries among Chinese Nationalist and Communist troops, while armed prisoners assault Chinese peasants. In this apocalypse of violence, criminal gangs prey on anyone weaker than themselves. Basie reappears in one of the gangs, and Jim joins him for a while. Jim believes that as World War II ends another war will break out.

Jim comes on the body of a young Japanese kamikaze pilot from the Lunghua airfield. Believing the pilot to be dead from bullet and bayonet wounds, Jim sits beside the corpse to eat a can of Spam. The pilot is not quite dead and sits up. Jim imagines that he has resurrected the pilot, and, for the first time since the war’s outbreak, he takes hope in the future. Exhilarated, he runs back to the Lunghua camp to find Dr. Ransome, who has come to reunite Jim with his parents.

Jim returns briefly to his prewar life with his family in their Shanghai mansion surrounded by servants. Soon, though, Jim and his mother sail for home, an England he has never seen. His father remains in Shanghai to restart the cotton mill he managed before the war.

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