PILLE: ‘Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun’ is honest, dark memoir
Evan Pille Nov 21, 2016
“Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun,” a new memoir written by Homare Endo in Japanese and translated to English by Michael Brase, aims to reveal a forgotten truth behind the founding of modern China.
After the end of World War II, many Japanese people were living in formerly occupied lands in China. Among these people was Takuji Okubo, a chemist working in Changchun and the father of Homare Endo. For three years, the family lived and worked in the city, forbidden to leave due to a siege by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
Homare Endo is one of the few people who survived this event. “Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun” documents her life as a young girl in unbearable conditions – not only starvation, but also thievery among those caught in the siege. For the civilians living there, supplies ran out quickly. An estimated 300,000 people died from starvation. The toll of human suffering was incalculable.
Endo speaks of these things with painful honesty. She doesn’t bother to insinuate, and she doesn’t bother to hide the truth. There are things written in this book that are difficult to repeat aloud – haunting moments that stun the reader and stick in his or her mind long after the book is closed. This book is not a light read by any stretch, and it’s not a book written to make the events more palatable. Instead, they are laid bare and become a backdrop to a dark and despairing story.
But even in this, there are moments of respite. There are moments of happiness and hope, even if fleeting. Some are almost astounding, almost unbelievable. But the most powerful moments, the most innocent and pure, are small gestures. When she can’t handle any more, these gestures allow Homare Endo to survive. More importantly, they let her retain her humanity and, eventually, recover from the trauma that would plague her for decades to come.
Endo’s personal account allows for a measure of intimacy with the reader. Through her eyes, we see the loss of innocence and the struggle to live. With her perspective, the story is more than a retelling of a historical event. It depicts the humans behind it, the people who lived, suffered and died. Their story is at the heart of this book, a fact made clear in its words.
The language employed is generally plain. In many ways, this works to Endo’s advantage, as nothing is toned down for politeness, and nothing is turned up for effect. The horror is not dramatized or exploited for shock value. In fact, many of the bleakest moments are told as if they were just another detail of the story because in many ways, that’s what they were.
For the people living in the siege, it was another part of their daily reality, another fact of life. This sense of numbness reflects itself in the blunt nature of the memoir. It strives for honesty more than entertainment.
By and large, this is a noble trait. But there are some moments when the language is somewhat too plain. The translation from Japanese to English seems to have imparted some stiffness and formality to the narrative voice, and there are some moments that could be more impactful if the writing had been more elegant.
But the plain language does allow for easy reading. As heavy as the subject matter is, it’s delivered at a brisk and even pacing, and at no time was there any confusion about was happening. Ultimately, the focus is more on plot than language, with the characters and events at the center.
In the introduction of the memoir, Endo calls her book a “memorial to the dead, a memento of my fight to make the truth known.”
In many ways, Changchun is a forgotten tragedy, swept under the rug of history behind bigger wars and war crimes. In some ways, this has been intentional, as the Chinese government has suppressed knowledge of this event, knowledge that the People’s Liberation Army had once been the cause of so much suffering. Even today, no Chinese publisher has been willing to publish this book for fear of retribution.
That’s what makes “Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun” so important. It reveals a truth hidden for so long and brings to light stories of the people who suffered, the people who were forgotten. If nothing else, this memoir is a historical record of significant value. But it’s more than that. It’s a reminder of how far human apathy can sink, the destructive power of selfishness and the necessity of empathy. It’s a reminder of how far people will go to survive and how much farther they will go with hope of a better life. It’s a monument to the truth and a memento to the forgotten dead."