Welcome to the World Wide Web Home page of Road to East Asia
Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
Vol.2, no.3, June-August,1997
Between 1931 and 1945, the Japanese military committed some of the greatest atrocities against humanity in history. While East and Southeast Asia were devastated by Japan, its people who supported such callous behavior were also victims, not of the American bombs which decimated the Japanese archipelago at the end of the Second World War, but of a mythology--the force or will behind Japanese imperialism. The military's ideology was legitimatized by Shintoist doctrine and sustained by national propaganda and lies. Both narrators in Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World and Kenzaburo Oe's "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away" confront the myth and reality of imperial Japan, but the manner in which they perceive and deal with their experiences differs.
The novel Silence, by Shusaku Endo, explores the emotional struggles of a Portuguese Catholic missionary in 17th-century Japan when the officials see Christianity as a representation of the values of an intruding western culture. As for some of the poor peasants who are oppressed by landowners, Christianity offers hope in a better life to come. Shortly before dying for their faith, they often sing, "We're on our way to the temple of paradise." Because the Tokugawa Bakufu severely punishes all converts, the protagonist questions God's "silence," for there is so much that does not make sense. Yet at the same time perhaps it is this helplessness that leads one to cry out for a savior who represents love in its deepest, most incomprehensible form. The author himself appears to have no answers to these questions and doesn't pretend to know of any. His choice of imagery at times reminds the reader of the theme of cosmic indifference that permeates the works of Thomas Hardy.
II. Of parents and children
Most noteworthy in Oe's fiction are the characters modeled in part on his son Hikari (meaning "light"), born in 1964 with what doctors believed to be a herniated brain. Oe was told that even if the baby survived surgery, he would likely have only "a kind of vegetable existence." Oe's works reflect his personal struggle: whether he should follow the doctors' advice and let the child die "naturally" without surgery or let him live and be forced to come to terms with the "monster baby." Oe's works after 1964 shed light on the darkness of human despair, as well as the lighter, lesser-known joys of raising a disabled child, whose appearance is as disruptive to the author's life as a nuclear explosion.
The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) in China, which devastated the nation's economy and socio-political structure, broke up families and destroyed personal relationships. After Mao Tsetung's death, notes translator Frances Wood, "the torturers are now back at work with those they tortured." Although the characters in Dai Houying's novel Stones of Wall must carry the burden of history, they try to rebuild their lives with what they have learned from the past.
III. China: Past and Present
A group of young poets who had incited a rebellious spirit after the Cultural Revolution founded the literary magazine Today in 1978, but it was banned in 1980. Three of the most famous writers of that period were Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, and Shu Ting, best known for their so-called "misty" poetry. In the broad sense of the word, it means "vague," "indirect," and "elusive." Three major themes recur in their work--individualism and self expression, the bond between man and nature, and struggle against oppression. In 1989 the magazine finally resumed publication, this time out of Stockholm. By then, Bei Dao and Gu Cheng were banished from China, giving them the unfortunate position of being writers-in-exile. Shu Ting still lives incognito in southern China, and Bei Dao is now rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Literature prize.
During the reign of Emperor Qinlong (1735-96), there was a rule that allowed the government to take land from its rightful owner for military uses. Should the farmer disobey the edict, he would be immediately executed. In Xi Xi's Deer Hunt, one such victim is Wong Ah Weg, whose dream in life is to own a cow so that he can provide for his family. After his eviction, Wong has to work in a remote place and can only visit his family occasionally. The novel is a historical fantasy, which portrays the power and, ironically, the vulnerability of the emperor.
IV. Korean blues
For centuries, the Korean people did not have a strong collective voice, for they either emulated the Chinese or were subjected by the Japanese and then the Russians. In the postwar era, Korean writers began to express the plight of a country which, divided along the 38th Parallel, had existed in the shadows of three superpowers. There is hope that the two governments will put aside their differences one day, and Korea could be peacefully reunited like a pair of Tanjong cranes soaring toward the sky.
The short novel Flowers of Fire revolves around a Korean family's struggles with the socio-political changes between 1919 and 1950, a time of servitude and foreign oppression for the Korean people. Each of the three generations chooses to liberate themselves from their tormentors differently. Old Man Ko, the narrator's grandfather, exemplifies the traditional Korean beliefs in geomancy and resignation to fate. The old man's first son is the antithesis of his father. Against all odds, he remains a visionary patriot, struggling to liberate his people from Japanese imperialism. Moreover, he is a Christian who believes in the existence of a benevolent and just God. It is only because of martyrs like him, who actively try to change the circumstances, that dreams and visions will ever materialize. As for the narrator, he struggles to choose between the examples set by his grandfather and his father. His greatest challenge is to overcome a tendency to run from problems.
V. Japan: Past and Present
Images of death hover over Kenzaburo Oe's The Silent Cry and Kazuo Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills as if they were phantoms from a nightmare. They cast a pallid gloom with scenes of violence--war, brutal murder, and gruesome suicide--marching in procession across Oe's world, and contribute to the aura of mystery in Ishiguro's. While the 1994 Nobel laureate addresses contemporary and age-old issues with unprecedented candor in Japanese literature, the Booker prizewinner veils his world in ambiguity.
The quest for liberation from urban life and criticism of it mark today's Japanese literature, of which the works of Ooka Akira, Kobayashi Kyoji, and Yamada Amy are representative. Their fiction explores the issues of modern times: anxiety, disintegration, search for a new identity, and rapid changes.
The inferior position of women in Asian societies often stirs indignation among their counterparts in the West, especially in America. As a result of the social restrictions placed on them, many Japanese and Korean women see the West as a better place to live, and cherish the lifestyle it represents. The Japanese novel A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and the Korean story "The Young Zelkova," by Kang Sinja, portray three young women with differing views of the West and their East Asian heritage.
Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe focuses on the anxiety and identity crisis the Japanese are experiencing in a rapidly changing society. He does not pull any punches in his portrayal of characters whose only escape is suicide. Looming large in the background are apocalyptic landscapes, against which they seek glimmers of hope.
After its surrender in 1945, Japan was occupied by the Allied forces, chiefly the United States, that changed its military, political, and educational systems (Coillier's Encyclopedia, 1981, 484). A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro, demonstrates the struggle of Japan's prewar generation to keep their Japanese identity, values, and traditions, as well as the responses of the Nagasaki survivors to Western influences.
VI. Group discussions
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