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  • The Burdens of Survival: Ōoka Shōhei's Writings on the Pacific War
  • Steve Rabson (bio)
The Burdens of Survival: Ōoka Shōhei's Writings on the Pacific War. By David C. Stahl. University of Hawai'i Press. Honolulu, 2003. x, 374 pages. $49.00.

Why were you spared? What do you owe the dead? These questions haunt soldiers who survive wars. They can plague the mind at times that should be joyous, such as the consummation of love or the birth of a child, and at times that should be sorrowful, such as separation or bereavement. Trying to escape them can numb the emotions, leading to truncated personal relationships, alcoholism, and even suicide. The postwar writings of Ōoka Shōhei (1909-88) describe both the Pacific War, in which he soldiered, and the process of coming to terms with these questions. David C. Stahl's deeply probing study of Ōoka's life and work examines "the burdens of survival" with sensitivity and insight. His book appears at a time when American soldiers are dying in Iraq and Japanese forces are deployed in a war zone for the first time since 1945. It is another recent book to reflect a renewed interest outside Japan in Japanese literature on war among scholars and general readers. Others include studies and translations by Kyōko Selden (1997), John Whittier Treat (1994), Richard Minear (1990 and 1994), Zeljko Cipris (2003), and Rabson (1998).

The book's chapters are (1) "Memoirs of a Burdened Survivor," on Ōoka's first-person accounts of the war and its long-lingering aftereffects; (2) "Fires on the Plain," on the war novel that is his best-known work which includes accounts of cannibalism among straggling Japanese soldiers in the Philippines; (3) "Lady Musashino and In the Shadow of Cherry Blossoms," [End Page 525] on two novels depicting Japan's early postwar years of desperation, disillusionment, and hedonism; and (4) "The Battle for Leyte Island," on Ōoka's 1,242-page chronicle of the Japanese military's decisive defeat in the Philippines. Stahl gives readers valuable historical background, presenting Ōoka's critical perspectives in hindsight on why Japan went to war, the causes of military defeat, the morality of kamikaze suicide attacks and saturation bombings of civilian populations, and lessons to be learned from Japan's experience at war. This book also offers a wealth of Stahl's excellent translations so that more of Ōoka's timely writings are now available to English-language readers.

Stahl draws extensively on psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton's studies of trauma survivors for his analysis of Ōoka's fiction and memoirs, focusing particularly on the survivor-narrator's "deep-seated feelings of death guilt, self-recrimination, and loss" (p. 8). He examines Ōoka's writings in two directions, using the novelist's memoirs to interpret his fiction, and his memoirs and fiction to illuminate his life. In exploring Ōoka's life, Stahl compares two of his novels to specify a "turning point" when the novelist was finally able to overcome years of "psychic numbing [from] unresolved feelings of death guilt" and to reach a "close identification" with his fallen comrades and experience "empathy and unimpaired mourning" (p. 146). Of Michiko's suicide in Lady Musashino (1950), Stahl writes that Ōoka "didn't yet have access to the psychic resources he needed to openly identify and empathize with Michiko, to mourn or memorialize her loss" (p. 177). Later Stahl contrasts Ōoka's characterization of Michiko with that of Yōko from In the Shadow of Cherry Blossoms (1959), which he also explains in psychoanalytical terms.

After reaching his emotional turning point with regard to his dead comrades, Ōoka was able to do for Yōko what he couldn't do for Michiko some eight years earlier—merge with her psychologically and emotionally from beginning to end and mourn and memorialize her loss. He surely had Sakamoto Mutsuko [Ōoka's friend who committed suicide] and his fallen comrades in heart and mind as he composed In the Shadow of Cherry Blossoms.

(p. 186)

Making other connections between life and work, Stahl explains Ōoka's motivation for writing Fires on the Plain: "Fictionalizing the memoir...


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pp. 525-528
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