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  • Homecomings: The Belated Return of Japan's Lost Soldiers by Yoshikuni Igarashi
  • Michael A. Barnhart (bio)
Homecomings: The Belated Return of Japan's Lost Soldiers. By Yoshikuni Igarashi. Columbia University Press, New York, 2016. xii, 302 pages. $35.00, cloth; $34.99, E-book.

Yoshikuni Igarashi wrote Homecomings as a sequel to his earlier work, Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945–1970. [End Page 506] The connection is close. Homecomings begins with a chapter examining images of Japanese war veterans in early postwar films, followed by another on Kurita Shigeru's (pen name Gomikawa Junpei) part novel, part memoir, Ningen no jōken (The human condition, a work itself made in film version.

These beginnings are interesting enough in their own right. But the value of Homecomings becomes more apparent, and more pointed, as Igarashi turns to the records of actual Japanese servicemen and civilians, the overwhelming majority of whom had been taken prisoner by the Soviet Union during the last week of the Asian-Pacific War and the chaos that followed. These numbered three quarters of a million. One hundred thousand would die in captivity. Most of the remainder were returned to Japan by 1950. But there were others, and these late homecomings form the core of Igarashi's study.

Predictably, given the author's approach, this core has two sides. Igarashi is interested in the experiences of the returnees themselves but equally fascinated by the reaction their return created in the Japanese media and society in general. Accordingly, his account ends in 1991, when the splintering Soviet Union released the names of forty thousand detainees to virtually no one's attention in Japan.

There was plenty of attention before then, but not in any intuitive way. Kurita's moving Ningen no jōken found critical and literary favor yet was not the stuff of bestseller lists. Ishihara Yoshirō's collections of poetry were even less well known among most Japanese. Although Igarashi does not offer a direct view as to the reasons, he suggests that most Japanese, whether they were military veterans or not, preferred to forget the war years and any experiences associated with them. Veterans themselves were a living reminder and were at times stigmatized as such. They were seen as either duped by fanatic, brutal, often sadistic Imperial Army officers or as brutal and sadistic themselves, potential or even real serial rapists and murderers. Kurita's and Ishihara's jarring works only confirmed these dark images and shadows. Kurita's protagonist, based in Manchuria, tries to do right by the Chinese, but he is alone among a Kwantung Army made up of beasts and demons, and the film version of the work portrays Imperial Army training as a deliberate way of making humans into, well, beasts and demons.

If the returnees were not deemed criminals from the start, they hardly found much sympathy from press or public during this period. They had betrayed their oaths to the emperor by allowing themselves to be captured. They had shown themselves weak-minded by succumbing to Soviet "democratization" brainwashing. Or they had shown themselves fascistic by refusing to recognize that Soviet society was more human and humane than the capitalism imposed upon Japan by the Allied occupation. [End Page 507]

As these receptions illustrate, Igarashi often has more to say about the Japan returned to than the returnees themselves. His insights are potent, but he usually prefers to offer them by inflection. In some respects his decision is a missed opportunity to respond to the prevailing perspective that, unlike Germany, Japan has not openly or directly addressed its wartime deeds or misdeeds. Embedded in Homecomings is an implied narrative on exactly this subject but one the reader will have to extract independently.

The reaction to the brief burst of returnees in the mid-1950s provides one illustration. During the occupation and prime ministership of Yoshida Shigeru, most Japanese subscribed to the idea that the Imperial Army had led polity and people badly astray with catastrophic results. Alas for the returnees, they were less sympathetic figures in this story than the haunting shadows of civilians vaporized at Hiroshima. But this time also...


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pp. 506-509
Launched on MUSE
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