AUGUST 13, 2020
AS PART OF the Japanese surrender that ended World War II, Allied forces occupied the country, a task largely carried out by the United States and its acting Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur. As agreed in the surrender, Japan would not be allowed to declare war, and the country changed much of its infrastructure to model the American way of life. The Allied (US) occupation of Japan technically ended in 1952, but Japan has a military only for self-defense purposes. For those who might see such an arrangement as a cushy one — no huge arms expenses, serving as a kind of exemplar of peace in the world, letting other countries fight their battles — Asako Serizawa’s debut short story collection, Inheritors, paints an entirely different picture. The stories depict citizens who suffered mightily during this period, as well as those with roots in the country who continue to struggle with the effects of war, defeat, and subjugation.
Serizawa’s collection centers on a lineage of often mixed-heritage people who deal, sometimes decades later, with a range of physical and emotional trauma stemming from the period of Japanese colonial rule (1910–’45) and World War II. For example, the story “Train to Harbin” takes the form of the reminiscence of a Japanese doctor and scientist who was recruited during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–’45) into helping his government test chemical and biological weapons on prisoners. The doctor recalls the story from several decades’ vantage, but it’s clear the events still weigh heavily on him.
Forty years later, this scene returns to me with a crispness that seems almost specious when so much else has faded or disappeared. Perhaps it is simply the mind, which, in its inability to accept a fact, returns to it, sharpening the details, resolving the image, searching for an explanation that the mind, with its slippery grasp on causality, will never be able to find.
One detects in the story something of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a character obsessing on a thing that does not go away no matter how much he worries about it. Serizawa renders with deftness the portent of the doctor’s chronic psychological unease as he attempts to take any angle on his wartime actions that might allow him to skirt his undoing.
For why dig up graves from a banished past, selfishly subjecting all those connected to us to what can only amount to a masochistic pursuit? Isn’t it better to surrender to a world populated by the young, who, taught nothing, remain uncurious, the war as distant as ancient history, its dim heat kindling the pages of textbooks and cinemas, occasionally sparking old men with old grudges, but nothing to do with them?
To trust the implications of Serizawa’s story “Passing,” such abandonment of responsibility is not what future generations require. They’d prefer just about any true thing to the lack of clarity that the doctor’s silence allows. In “Passing,” Serizawa’s approach becomes more intimate as she chronicles the story of the young adult American Luna, who travels to Japan in 2010 to deal with the effects of her father. To take care of his aging Japanese parents, Luna’s father had abandoned Luna, her sister, and their mother when the girls were children; Luna hasn’t been back to Japan since his separation from them. “Now, twenty-three years later, following a phone call from a Mr. Watanabe notifying the family of her father’s death, Luna, the only one of her family who bothered to learn Japanese, has decided to return to sort the house before demolition.”
Luna — whose life on some levels is progressing well enough — finds herself psychologically tied to the detritus of the traumatic Japanese era of “Train to Harbin,” and she struggles to uncoil the identity issues that surface from her father’s death — specifically, the fact that her father was Korean and adopted by his Japanese parents during the country’s period of colonial rule. As Luna explores her grandparents’ town, she notes the changes that have occurred since her last visit, but she could just as easily be referencing aspects of her relationship to the country:
It’s ridiculous, this place that figured so little in her life, but it prickles her throat, the erasure of her past made concrete by this evidence of change and the foolishness of memory that has clung to what was always a chimera, a tantalizing echo of the mind’s desire to preserve an ephemeral moment.
Luna is an American of half-white and half-Korean descent who has childhood memories of her Japanese grandparents, speaks Japanese, and feels strongly that the country ought to play a role in her identity. She is part of all of these countries and yet feels nothing especially concrete about her connection to any of them, and the need to know who she is won’t fade. The Faulkner quote “[t]he past is never dead. It’s not even past” applies here and throughout the collection. Unresolved trauma caused by the horror of Japanese colonial rule and World War II doesn’t wash away without someone addressing the mess. It seems it’s no one’s job to explain to Luna to whom she — and her coming child — belongs. The funeral she attends isn’t so much for the loss of her father as for the loss of her best chance at understanding her most basic relationship to the rest of the world.
If Luna represents the collection’s point of emotional clarity, “I Stand Accused, I, Jesus of the Ruins” is its most obscure and fragmented point. In it, Serizawa chronicles the story of war refugee and teenager Seiji during the post–World War II occupation of Tokyo. Seiji — who is “the boy” or “the kid” throughout the story but appears elsewhere in the collection — seeks to meet the known communist dissident leader Furukawa. The boy has reason to believe this famous man might know the whereabouts of Konomi, Seiji’s friend and unattainable love interest who has been missing for weeks. In the process of searching out Furukawa, Seiji stumbles upon a murdered corpse: “The body, curled in the corner of the dusky room, was still, and the boy, equally still, stood peering at it as the afternoon light caught the lip of the blackout paper covering the window.”
The war has left Seiji physically disfigured, homeless, without his family, and as likely to wind up a corpse as anyone. The hope for the possibility of his country was exterminated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and sentiment among his fellow Japanese has splintered into political factions, with communist China and capitalist America seemingly the only two games left in town. His people could use a savior, and if Seiji manages to survive the historical moment — not to mention attempts to pin the murder on him — he might need to become his own.
Serizawa plays with point of view throughout the collection. Her stories range from first person, to close third person, to an omniscient third person that feels like historical chronicling. Some of her stories take the form of interviews, and “I Stand Accused, I, Jesus of the Ruins” fits vaguely into the latter category, with a twist. The story consists of fragments of interviews with people close to Seiji and the murder, as well as third person sections meant to serve as the Seiji’s answers to a police interrogation. These third person sections highlight the difference between Seiji’s contributions and everyone else’s not unlike in the Bible, the changing of text color when Jesus speaks. The interrogator’s questioning of the filmmaker and communist Kiyama accents the idea that the disfigured Seiji is special: “Is he vengeful? Like I said, the kid’s whole. His mind doesn’t float like oil on top of his watery heart. He lives for one thing: love. We all know what that is, but do we live by it?”
Seiji is ripe for martyrdom, or whatever role those of his fractious locale might need him to play. The disjointed nature of these interviews suggests the impossibility of nailing down a guilty party among the detritus of a ravaged country. In war, who but a savior emerges innocent? Still, Serizawa suggests through the character of professor Ishikawa that attempts at clarity among the chaos serve as their own hope for absolution:
For isn’t it the mind that endows humankind with the faculty of memory, without which there can be no historical awareness, no accountability? Yet in mere months, tossed into a dog-eat-dog hell, we the defeated have forgotten all our values except the needs of our bodies. Indeed, dawn has broken over our ruined country, but far from illuminating a new society repentant of modernity’s excesses, it has revealed the modern brutality of our civilization, consumed as ever by how to profit off another human’s back.
With her collection, Serizawa has made a point to pull together the emotional pieces of these devastating regional and world events for anyone who, like Luna, might require clarity. It’s a noble undertaking, and one that feels necessary to remove some of the teeth from the horrors of that time for those who inherit it.
Art Edwards’s reviews have appeared in Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Book and Film Globe, and Kenyon Review, among many others. He was co-founder of the Refreshments. His recently finished novel is called Nineteen Ways to Destroy Your Rock Band.