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In Serizawa's 'Inheritors,' Family Reflects On Trauma Of War


Seventy five years ago this summer, the United States brought an end to the Second World War. An American battleship anchored in Tokyo Bay in 1945 - Japanese officials and top hats came aboard and formally surrendered to General Douglas MacArthur, who gave a speech.


DOUGLAS MACARTHUR: It is my earnest hope and, indeed, the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past.

INSKEEP: Having invaded China and attacked the U.S., Japan ended the war in ruins. That's the overall story. But what was the experience for people in the wreckage of Japanese cities? Japanese civilians lived and died in U.S. fire bombings, atomic bombings and a years-long U.S. occupation as they rebuilt their devastated country.

The writer Asako Serizawa says her parents and grandparents were among those civilians. She imagines the stories of such people in a book of short stories called "Inheritors." The book had to be fiction because so many facts are buried. One of the interconnected stories tells of a Japanese man just after the war. His son vanished during a U.S. bombing. He's now out of work, so his wife supports them, and he discovers that she's doing that by working in a brothel for U.S. troops.

ASAKO SERIZAWA: She didn't want to tell him to avoid, you know, maybe hurting him or to avoid exposing herself, too. You know, it's a humiliating situation. And then he realizes why she was hiding this, and he realizes that, in fact, she was doing this for him, you know, for her allegiance to him. And he realizes that he has to also do this for her - not to confront her, not to humiliate her further. And that's the moment at which I think he realizes this.

INSKEEP: Should we think of Japan in part as a place where there are perhaps millions of people who have unspeakable memories like that? Or who did have at one time - nearly all of them would be dead now - but who have passed on these experiences?

SERIZAWA: Yeah, I do. And, you know, I think part of this is because, as the perpetrator nation, you know, there was no space for people to talk about this. And I think right after the war, too, during the occupation, there was such heavy censorship, where people weren't allowed to talk about the war; they weren't allowed to talk about, you know, the emperor or any of these things. And so people who were trying to kind of come to terms with their experiences I think found it really hard to do that. There was no space, really, for that kind of expression.

INSKEEP: You said your parents remember the U.S. occupation of Japan in the late 1940s.

SERIZAWA: I don't know because they won't talk about it, you know? I have never actually heard them mention anything. I mean, indirectly, yes. You know, my father talks about having to go steal watermelons because they were - you know, people were hungry or whatever. But beyond these kinds of - there are really so few anecdotes. But yeah, I mean, I never hear about this time. I do know that - you know, my mother has talked about her father hiding, you know, a library of Marx and Engels, you know, during the occupation and reading them, you know, secretly. But, like - you know, so there are these kinds of details, but she - they've never spoken about the occupation.

INSKEEP: How did you go about trying to imagine these things that were going unsaid?

SERIZAWA: It was a lot of research. This book took a long, long time - over a dozen years. And it's kind of like a rabbit hole; you go to research something, and then you find something else. But it was really a lot of digging. And seeing how, you know, this period is represented, culturally, by other writers or filmmakers or artists and then looking at academic books that might talk about it because they have another way of looking at these things and, you know, then history books - I mean, on and on, I mean, it required a lot of research. And that helped, you know, imagine - because then you have to - as a writer, you have to imagine the human aspects, I think.

INSKEEP: Which is what you constantly do. We're constantly in the presence of the character, only seeing what they see and sometimes disoriented, the way that they're disoriented as the firebombs start to land in the Japanese city, for example. Do you think the experiences of World War II are part of who you are, even though your parents and grandparents never told you much of anything?

SERIZAWA: I do. Part of the reason is that I grew up in Southeast Asia, and I went to these international schools that were British-based. And, you know, it was kind of a colonial type of education. And, essentially, I didn't learn much about Asia and Japan; I knew much more about, you know, England and Europe, you know? But I essentially lived in these countries that were invaded and occupied by Japan during the war. And, you know, I wasn't confronted by this history. But, you know, to learn this fact, you know, later on was disturbing, you know, to think about the structures and institutions that allowed for this kind of oblivion was horrifying to me, personally, you know?

And so yeah - and I do think that also, just in general, like, World War II has a way of cropping up. So, you know, when, for example, like, the Kamikaze pilots of Pearl Harbor was invoked, you know, during 9/11 and how this kind of played a role in justifying Afghanistan or Iraq, I think that all of these things make it really something to look at. And so even though I didn't hear stories, I think the silence itself and the gaps is something that I have thought a lot about.

INSKEEP: I'm reminded, reading this, of the old saying that history is written by the winners. What do we learn when we focus on people who, in World War II, were the losers?

SERIZAWA: Well, I think you get a range of stories that you don't hear in that official narrative. You want to see the mosaic of that collective history, I think, to get a view of it. You know, history can look one way when looked at it from one side; it can look another way if you look at it from another side, and that can complicate the first sort of view of it.

You know, I do want to be careful when I say that because I think that it could seem like I'm suggesting that history is a matter of opinion, which - I mean, it is a perspective, you know, and it's important to look at sort of the construction of that perspective, you know, the worldviews that are in the scaffolding and who this sort of perspective benefits at the expense of who. And I think this is the kind of thing that, when you look at other perspectives - like the victims, for example, or the losers - you do see, you know, how this kind of narrative or perspective allocates power and to what sort of consequence.

INSKEEP: The book is called "Inheritors," and the author is Asako Serizawa. Thank you very much.

SERIZAWA: Thank you so much.