Major-General Curtis LeMay, the man responsible for the US army’s tactic to “bomb [the Japanese] back into the stone age”, once remarked that if the United States had lost the war, he would have been hanged as a war criminal. As it turned out, the dropping of a couple of atomic bombs proved enough to finally persuade the Japanese to accept the terms of the Potsdam declaration, leaving America to implement its interpretation of justice. And it is the concept of justice, and the moral relativism that shapes it, which Yoshimura uses to construct a novel on the immediate post-war period in Japan.
The narrative hinges on juxtaposing two differing interpretations of justice. The first interpretation comes from a Lieutenant in the Imperial army, Kiyohara Takuya, who volunteers to take part in the execution of captured US pilots. Takuya rationalises the taking of the American soldiers lives on the grounds that, in deliberately bombing Japanese civilians - itself a violation of International Law - these airman are no different to mass murderers. In Takuya’s mind, “the American military had ceased to recognize the Japanese as members of the human race”. This was compounded by the fact that the captured pilots showed a complete lack of remorse at the atrocities they had committed. Rather, after the bombing raids, the soldiers confessed to spending the flights back to base listening to jazz and looking at pornographic pictures.
The second interpretation of justice comes after US army has taken effective control of Japan. The Americans regard any one who mistreated their captured soldiers as having broken International Law and so answerable to a military tribunal (presided over by the US army), with the outcome, seemingly irrespective of responsibility or severity, ending in “death by hanging”. Naturally, given that America was the victor, it’s interpretation of justice overrode Takuya’s. So, after receiving a tip-off from a former colleague, now working as a translator for the Americans, that the US army were aware of the execution of the airmen that Takuya had taken part in, he is forced to become a fugitive in order to evade his own capture.
Takuya does this by moving around different parts of Japan for two years and it is through these movements that Yoshimura relays the utter devastation that was wreaked upon Japan, in which all but the city of Kyoto were completely destroyed, as well as the total desperation of the Japanese people, who had to rely on massive US food aid in order to avoid famine. However, Yoshimura also charts the reconstruction of Japan and this is echoed through the changing sentiments of Takuya from the defiance at the prospect of an American invasion during his army days to his later submission to their overbearing presence.
Through a lean and sparse narrative, Yoshimura has created a psychologically complex character in Takuya that is completely realised. Through Takuya, the extreme circumstances of war are used to explore morality and justice. In doing so, Yoshimura gives an understanding to the experiences and the emotions felt by the Japanese following their defeat in the second World War. However, it is this singular portrayal of a demobilised officer that also represents the novel’s main weakness, in that the full horrors of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial army are never mentioned. Given that the novel sets out to explore the moral relativism of justice, the failure to acknowledge the part played by Japan in the war means that the actions of the US army are not set in the wider context and consequently the debate loses some of its validity.