The book is an example of what I guess could be called Japanese postwar “YA”–it was written right after the end of World War II, and for the audience of a juvenile magazine. Some critics and reviewers online have argued that it idealizes the military, and that is an understandable argument: the Japanese army was, after all, responsible for a lot of atrocities all over Asia. But at the same time, the book seems to be written with the awareness–so rarely evident in those same critics–that plenty of enlisted men in the Japanese army were in fact victims of the Japanese Empire, if less so than the colonial subjects.
Miyako no Sora is the school song of the First High School of Tokyo, the one its students sang in farewell to classmates who had to leave to go to war. One after another they went away, as if beckoned by some great invisible hand, and it seems that for a time the song echoed through the school grounds, morning and night. We learned it from an alumnus of this school, when his company happened to be stationed in the same town that we were. It was a fine tune for sending off young men, a tune with a bright, gay rhythm and yet a poignant sadness to it. Even now I can hear it whenever I close my eyes. As I listen, it awakens vivid memories of those days. If the Japanese people had sung more fine songs like Miyako no Sora during the war, instead of cheap patriotic songs, everyone might have survived with greater dignity.
–From Harp of Burma by Michio Takeyama (trans. Howard Hibbett),
It does idealize the Japanese army in parts–though it also paints a pretty damning picture of the effect of enlistment on some Japanese men. (The cult-like aspects of military indoctrination are presented loud and clear in the section near the end, in a particularly harrowing encounter.) At the same time, the book presents a slightly patronizing view of the Burmese natives in general, and a downright racist-seeming depiction of a group of hill tribe people, with a stereotypical cannibal-threat plotline… yet it manages to be so harshly critical of the Japanese society of its time that I cannot bring myself to dismiss it… especially when those criticisms seem so pertinent for Japan’s sociopolitical heirs, among which, like it or not, South Korea stands foremost.
Here’s another criticism, from another part of the book, that seems pertinent:
We Japanese have not cared to make strenuous spiritual efforts. We have not even recognized their value. What we stressed was merely a man’s abilities, the things he could do — not what kind of a man he was, how he lived, or the depth of his understanding. Of perfection as a human being, of humility, stoicism, holiness, the capacity to gain salvation and to help others toward it — of all these virtues we were left ignorant.
Here, Michio Takeyama is clearly falling into the projections discussed by E. Taylor Atkins in Primitive Selves: Koreana In The Japanese Colonial Gaze (which I discussed here): the Burmese people become a kind of fantastical receptacle containing all that the Japanese people feel anxious about having lost amid the anomic distress of modernization. The idealized primitive, under threat by modernity, is a projection, of course, and that role is one to which the Japanese themselves were subjected, in American “gilded age” depictions and discussions of Japan. (Americans were, likewise, mostly talking about what they felt they–the people of America–had lost in the course of modernization and urbanization.)
It’s much easier for me to overlook all that to some degree: I’m not Burmese or Japanese, after all. But likewise, I think these kinds of blind spots are common in literature, because they’re common in people. Othello and The Merchant of Venice and the Wife of Bath (as a character) make us nervous, and they should. History should not be offered as an excuse, either: as my wife has noted, in fifty years, when even in South Korea gay marriage is considered socially acceptable, people will look back and say, “Oh, but in 2013, nobody knew any different…” Which enrages her, because of course she–and some of her friends–know better. But idiots will always rewrite history to exclude those people who were smart enough not to fall prey to common idiocies. There were figures in the ancient world who argued that slavery was immoral, too, and no matter how often people claim, “People didn’t know better,” it doesn’t erase the fact that some people did, and most people couldn’t be bothered to listen to them.
But I think it’s possible to read books that have problems, just as it’s possible to have friends with whom we don’t see eye-to-eye. I think a book that partakes of vices may also have virtues. One of those, I’d say, is how the book uses music and magic. It is written in what seems a fantastical mode, of the sort people who daren’t admit to reading fantasy might call “magical realism,” and involves a group of soldiers whose sanity was maintained through group music, specifically choral practice under the direction of one Corporal Mizushima, accompanied by musical instruments built from spare parts and discarded junk. Which is to say, they took what was least valuable in the world, and created the things of greatest value–sanity-saving art and beauty. The music in this story overcomes danger, violence, fear, language and culture barriers, and almost everything else wrong with humanity, even ultimately human weakness. Music, indeed, is what allows one Japanese man to embrace his transformation from being Japanese to being Burmese.
That’s a radical kind of argument about art and what it can do, and I have to imagine that somewhere in the moral logic of the book, one could find enough to undercut the more offensive moments and the one truly troubling subplot–an event stretched over a few pages, really. Then again, maybe the book serves as its own critique of the idea: beauty is not enough, not in the real world, just was it was not enough to halt the oil-and-screeching-metal slide into World War II.
For those interested in adaptations, there’s a film version, from 1956 and directed by Kon Ichikawa. It’s even up on Youtube:
But this is a short and enjoyable enough read, that probably doesn’t take any longer to enjoy in book form than it would as a film. Worth a look.