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  • Heaven and Hell: A Novel of a Manchukuo Childhood by Takarabe Toriko
  • Norman Smith (bio)
Takarabe Toriko, Heaven and Hell: A Novel of a Manchukuo Childhood. Translated by Phyllis Birnbaum. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018. viii, 133 pp. Paperback $24.00, isbn 978-0-8248-7655-5.

Heaven and Hell is a disturbing, semifictional autobiographical work crafted by Takarabe Toriko (b. 1933), a celebrated Japanese poet who was raised in [End Page 289] the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (1932–1945), contemporary Northeast China. This translation of the 2005 Japanese book is the latest work of Phyllis Birnbaum, whose scholarship is revealing to English-language readers fascinating and important portraits of life in early-to-mid-twentieth century China, Japan, and Manchuria. Birnbaum's earlier works include a monograph on a cross-dressing princess of the defunct Qing Dynasty, Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy (2015) and the translation of a hugely popular Japanese novel set during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Clouds Above the Hill (2012). Birnbaum's skills as a historian and translator are well suited to do this volume justice.

Heaven and Hell recounts, in two parts, twelve years of Takarabe's childhood spent in northern Manchukuo (Heaven) and the flight from there (Hell) as Japanese refugees from the puppet state's collapse in 1945 were targeted by Chinese locals, Soviet invaders, and the Japanese themselves. The violence that gives the second part of the book its name plagues the desperately fleeing Japanese and permeates Hell overall. However, such violence is also visited in Heaven on the Chinese, especially on the so-called "bandits" (ex-warlord soldiers, criminals, communists, and others protesting the Japanese occupation) who the author's father, as a member of the occupying military, was employed to pacify but more often just killed in cold blood. This tale of Heaven and Hell is told through the experiences of the protagonist Masuko and, importantly, her relations with her father Yamamoto Yoshirō and her mother, Yukie.

Heaven begins in the spring of 1932, with a recounting of the Japanese occupation of Jiamusi, a remote northern city that in a decade grew so much that even members of the Japanese monarchy visited it. The Japanese were led by Captain Tōno, Yoshirō's friend who, after he is killed in battle in China proper, becomes a sort of patron saint to the Japanese in the city, with his own Memorial Hall that later serves as a refuge for Yukie and her children. The early years of Manchukuo are depicted as a time of murder, plunder, and generalized turmoil. In early 1934, Yoshirō and Yukie arrive, with two-month-old Masuko, at the end of a journey in which one could lose "your luggage or your life" (p. 7). En route to Jiamusi, Masuko's parents are awed by the region's differences from Japan—its vast forests, seemingly endless rivers, and a boundless land far less populated. But it was also a type of "Wild West" where people commonly carried arms to protect themselves from dangers that lurked around every corner. The imagined, "exotic" Manchukuo that Japanese leaders touted as a lifeline, and as a bulwark against aggressive Soviet advances into Asia, was severely tested as Yukie was horrified by the sight of Jiamusi's "streets full of severed heads!" (p. 9) Heads of "bandits" hung from telegraph poles and adorned poles and spikes. The title for this first section, "Heaven," is a perplexing and [End Page 290] ironic inversion of the common contemporary assertion that Manchukuo was a "paradise land."

Masuko and her parents, unlike most Japanese in Manchukuo, lived in multiethnic settings, first in a subdivided house with Chinese and then in the Suixi Hotel, where Yoshirō was later employed as an associate manager, among a staff of Manchus, Mongols, and Chinese. Each family member has different reactions to the characters around them. Masuko is curious about others and, befitting a child, is only somewhat aware of the privilege her ethnicity brings her. Masuko is apprehensive of the Russian man with whom her mother has an affair, but she is absolutely terrified of her brutal father, who is said to give "off...


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