By Homare Endo
Albany, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2016 (reprint)
304 pages, ISBN: 9781611720389, Paperback
Reviewed by Anne Prescott
Manchuria, Changchun, Yangji, Tianjin. Most people will recognize that these are places in China; many could place them in or near the northeast of the country. Beyond that? The Japanese took over Manchuria and created a puppet state they named Manchukuo, some bad things happened at Changchun, Yangji is close to the Korean peninsula, and Tianjin was a treaty port. That is about all that some of us know, and perhaps a few more of us are familiar with some of the historical details of these places. But for many, these names are just a part of the blur of mid-twentieh-century history. However, for Homare Endo, these are critical sites in her personal narrative and have further meaning as keys to understanding domestic Chinese history and greater global issues that continue to resonate today.
Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun is Endo’s recollections of her childhood experiences in China in the above-named locations. Born in China in 1941, her narrative weaves together the strands of her life between 1945 and 1953 (with a brief look back to 1944) in China in a way that few others do. With the benefit of adult insight into the significance of the events she experienced, her story is an engrossing, sobering, and thoughtful examination of many historical events that are not well-known.
The story begins with a stable family living a relatively affluent life in Changchun. Endo’s father was a successful businessman who held the patents for and manufactured Giftol, a medicine that was widely used in China to combat narcotic addiction. But over the span of a few short years, the family went from a comfortable life where they enjoyed good relations with both the Chinese and Korean residents of Changchun to great personal loss, starvation, and abuse. They witnessed some of the worst atrocities imaginable before finally regaining a relatively stable existence. Many of the positive relationships formed in their Changchun years would serve them well in the ensuing chaos in China, but even those were not enough to protect them from some of the worst of human conditions. The story ends when the family is repatriated to Japan in September 1953.
With Japan’s surrender on August 15th, 1945, the Russians enter Changchun and the family’s life begins a downward slope to instability.
While many Japanese were repatriated to Japan, the production of Giftol was necessary to the Chinese, and the family remains in Changchun under ncreasingly troubled conditions of the Chinese civil war. Endo’s tales from these months reveal a fascinating push-and-pull between those who despise Japan’s actions during the war and those who value the product produced by a Japanese man and his company.
During the Chinese civil war, including the siege of Changchun, the family suffers the loss of life, material goods, and, to some extent, their spirit. The chapters covering this time demonstrate the complicated relationships between the Communists and Nationalists, and how these impact Endo’s family and other Japanese who had yet to be repatriated to their home country.
The family’s situation worsens until they finally flee Changchun via the only escape route available, but they become trapped between the Eighth Route and Nationalist armies at Qiazi, the Chinese term for this military no-man’s-land. Believing this escape route would lead them to the liberated zone, they are shocked to find themselves trapped in horrific inhumane conditions, living among piles of dead bodies and enduring starvation and disease. They shoulder the additional burden of having to abandon some fellow Japanese to escape from Qiazi and save themselves. The Chinese government today denies much of what happened in Changchun and Qiazi, so Endo’s stories are important in focusing a spotlight on what happened to the innocent people who were caught up in the chaos of the civil war. After making their way out of Qiazi, the family complete a long, arduous journey and finally resettles in Yangji. However, with the outbreak of the Korean War, they face new fears and dangers from the Korean majority living in the region. Korean anti-Japanese sentiment is strong, and the family endures intense verbal abuse from some Koreans in Yangji. It takes a chance encounter with a man who had known them in Changchun and vouches for their kindness to Koreans to alleviate some of their suffering. The family’s experiences help us look beyond the situation on the Korean peninsula during the Korean War to see that conflict in a broader perspective that impacted both Koreans and Japanese in China during those years. In Yangji, the family also has their first confrontation with Communist indoctrination and anti-Japanese rhetoric in mandatory study groups.
When the family moves to Tianjin, their living conditions improve remarkably, but the anti-Japanese and Communist rhetoric to which they are subjected continues. Endo excels at school, in part because she embraces the challenge of memorizing all the required Communist propaganda. But her status as a Japanese becomes even more noticeable when she fails to be chosen to join the Youth Pioneers because of her nationality.
Endo’s very personal and nuanced narrative of the family’s experiences in Changchun, Yangqi, and Tianjin provide valuable lessons about political ambitions, armed conflict, and societal upheavals, and their effects on ordinary people. In the afterword, Endo draws on her adult knowledge of world events and comments on how the events she witnessed still impact Sino-Japanese relations today.
In summation, this book helps readers understand that there is no single view of history and that not every story fits the dominant narrative. The reader gains insight into the reasons why and the conditions under which one Japanese family stays behind in Manchuria after the end of the war. In addition, the narrative contributes greatly to our understanding not only of individual historical events, but how they affect those who experience them. Teachers at all levels, as well as high school and college students, will benefit from reading about Endo’s experiences and learning how people, places, and events, both then and now, are connected.