#AsiaNow Speaks with Yoshikuni Igarashi

Yoshikuni Igarashi is Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and author of Homecomings: The Belated Return of Japan’s Lost Soldiers, published by Columbia University Press and winner of the honorable mention for the 2018 AAS John Whitney Hall Book Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Homecomings focuses on the former soldiers who belatedly returned to postwar Japan after the end of the Asia Pacific War. It pays particular attention to Japanese POWs detained in Siberian labor camps and soldiers who survived in the jungles of the South Pacific for more than a quarter century. Their returns at various points in postwar history, beginning in the late 1940s and continuing into the 1970s, caused tension between the returnees, who brought home memories of traumatic loss, and Japanese society, which had been separated from the war for a number of years. The book examines the returnees’ struggle to articulate their experiences as well as the ways in which their voices threatened to disrupt Japan’s newly formed postwar narratives.

What inspired you to research this topic?

This book grew out of the research I did for my first book, Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970 (Princeton University Press, 2000). War memory is such an expansive topic that no single monograph could provide sufficient coverage. Out of the sense that my first work only scratched the surface of the issue, I continued exploring sources related to the topic, focusing more on individual experiences.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

The challenge of writing Homecomings was mostly internal. As I began to draft the chapters, I often caught myself reproducing the arguments that I offered in Bodies of Memory. It took me a long time to come up with a new and expanded paradigm through which to critically explore the individual experiences of the Japanese soldiers who return to their homeland belatedly. The rest is usual research frustration, such as what appeared to be promising clues leading to dead ends.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

I encountered several colorful conspiracy theories as to why Onoda Hiro’o decided to finally come out of the jungles of Lubang Island in the Philippines after thirty-one years in hiding. We do not have enough evidence to prove or disprove them (perhaps we never will, and the lack of conclusive evidence is always the hallmark of conspiracy theories). I will not repeat them here since I do not intend to perpetuate them. However, they are highly critical of the larger-than-life figure that the media created out of Onoda’s rescue story.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

There are many excellent books on related topics. This is just a very brief list:

Andrew Barshay, Gods Left First: The Captivity and Repatriation of Japanese POWs in Northeast Asia, 1945-1956 (University of California Press, 2013)

Yukiko Koga, Inheritance of Loss: China, Japan, and the Political Economy of Redemption after Empire (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Beatrice Trefalt, Japanese Army Stragglers and Memories of the War in Japan, 1950-75 (Routledge, 2003)

Lori Watt, When the Empire Comes Home: Repatriation and Reintegration in Postwar Japan (Harvard East Asia Series, 2010)

What are you working on now?

I am about to submit to Columbia University Press a new book manuscript, tentatively entitled Japan circa 1972. This book aims to excavate the fault lines between two Japans—the one before the high economic growth of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the one borne of those years. It analyzes the ways in which Japanese society grappled with the socioeconomic transformation that accompanied the high-growth economy, a struggle in which television played an integral part. Television’s role in this development was not limited to transmitting audiovisual information. Placed at the heart of domestic space, television opened the innermost realm of private life to the larger society. Viewers actively participated in the circular flow of information, transforming themselves into inhabitants of the enlarged, national televisual space. In this space, viewers acquired metavisuality—a new level of reflectivity on their relations with the larger society—by beginning to see themselves as if they were inside their own visual field. Transformed into consumers, each crawled out of the security of his or her old private self and assembled a new collage-like self from media images and commercial products. The title Japan circa 1972 signals that the volume is concerned less with the fiery political activism of 1968 and 1969 than with what ensued at the end of that political era: the somber realization that consumer culture and its attendant effects had taken a tight hold on Japanese society.