Reviewed by Anna Gilgoff
Not a day goes by that China is not mentioned on American news broadcasts or headlines. Most of these stories extol China’s economic growth, scientific innovations, or forward-looking president. Rarely are China’s communist roots or early history emphasized. This memoir focuses on both of these.
In Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun (Stone Bridge Press, October 2016), author Homare Endo recalls troubling times following WWII, as she recounts the horrific trials she and her family endured. For three years, the family lived and worked in the city of Changchun, forbidden to leave due to a siege by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
The book traces the events that took Endo and her family from relative wealth and status to near starvation, as the growing Communist ideology followed on the heels of WWII’s devastation in Asia. The year is 1948, and as governments scramble to write the treaties that would reconfigure geography, Endo’s family suffers years of hunger, deprivation, and near death.
A good part of the book is an homage to Endo’s parents, especially her father, whom she reveres. As a chemist, Takuji Okubo earned an ample salary and an exalted reputation for developing a medicine called Giftol “that was effective in treating drug addiction.”
Though the West certainly knew that opium use in China was widespread, less known were the consequences on average citizens. Mao and his followers likely recognized that the overwhelming problem of addiction would thwart their plans for their new nation, which made Giftol a tool that was all the more valuable.
The development of Giftol fits perfectly with Endo’s belief that her father wanted to serve others from the get go. Time and again, Endo recalls situations where others testify to her father’s character. One Korean defends Okubo by citing examples of his noble treatment of others:
“… he treated the Chinese and Korean workers very well. In particular, he had the young Koreans attend night school, telling them to study hard so that no one could look down on them….To make up for the lost time Dr. Okubo worked in front of the hot kilns until 3:00 in the morning. The missus made the Korean students rice balls, some food to take with them. There is no one to whom we owe a greater debt. We Koreans couldn’t be more thankful.”
On more than one occasion, Dr. Okubo’s decency and kindness keeps the family from total obliteration, though Endo does note the loss of individual family members like her two brothers. Somehow the remaining five children and their two parents survive one ordeal after another.
In contrast to her beloved father is Mr. Azuma, her father’s nephew, aptly known to all as White Rat. He steals from the pharmaceutical plant run by his uncle and even betrays the uncle who provided for him and his family when they had no place to turn. White Rat levels accusations of abuse at his uncle, impugning his character. White Rat also accuses Okubo of being a reactionary and a proletariat. These labels come with dire consequences for Okubo and his family. Though his actions are known to all, Endo’s father ignores White Rat’s cravenness time and time again, sometimes at the expense of his wife and children’s welfare.
Endo explains her father’s reticence or refusal to retaliate against White Rat. “Fathers religion consisted of forgetting the self and devoting one’s life to the welfare of others. It was not, however, a type of philanthropy or charity. It was his philosophy of being, without which he could not exist.”
Endo recalls the brutality of the soldiers of the Eighth Route Army. She personally sustains both physical and psychological injury. She is wounded in the arm by a stray bullet from the Eighth Route Army, but what she endures after that has an even more lasting impression on her. One by one, she watches as those near to her succumb to illnesses incurred by starvation and tuberculosis. Many even succumb to death in the most horrible terms.
All of this literally shocks her into silence and for a while Endo is unable to speak. In time she does recover, excelling in school and eventually earning her doctorate and returning to Japan where she works as director of the Center of International Relations at Tokyo University.
The reader will likely forgive certain liberties with language, like the parts of speech used in unorthodox ways. Examples such as “rollercoastered,” “lipsticked,” and “consternated” force a pause, but the nature of translation makes a plausible defense.
This memoir is a study of history but told in personal terms. Though set in China, the explicitly described events that impacted Endo’s family and 300,000 others that died is more than shocking, but as refugees continue to be forced from their homes in these more enlightened times, one wonders if the endless cycle of man’s brutality toward man will ever come to a halt and how many sufferers will document their unbearable ordeals.