Friday, August 11, 2017

What it was like as a Marine corpsman in Korea

You rarely hear a veteran talk about actual combat. My theory: the experience is so intense, so extreme that any attempt to convey the reality is inevitably inadequate. Unless you've been there, you cannot apprehend the situation. Leonard Adreon, who was a Marine corpsman during the Korean war, has now, sixty years after the experience, made the worthy attempt to tell those of us who weren't there what it was like.

Hilltop Doc: A Marine Corpsman Fighting Through the Mud and Blood of the Korean War is an interesting blend of reminiscences and photographs. Adreon was drafted into the Navy in 1944, trained as a corpsman and stationed at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Mustered out at the end of the war, he joined the active reserves assuming he'd never be called back to active duty. He went to college and in June 1950 the Korean War broke out.

Navy corpsmen serve as the medics for the Marines and in 1951 Adreon was assigned to an infantry company in the 1st Marine Division. Almost as soon as he arrived in Korea—unprepared and virtually untrained—he was in the middle of combat:

"About halfway to the top of the hill I heard my first yell of 'Corpsman!'. . . The wounded man screamed in pain as he rolled side to side, gripping his midsection. I took out my scissors, cut away his jacket and shirt, and pulled up his undershirt so I could see the wound . . . To calm him, I injected morphine into his arm and grabbed some bandages, pressing them firmly against the wound . . . I took the Marine's M1 rifle and jabbed the bayonet into the ground, placing his helmet atop the rifle. That signaled stretcher teams that a wounded man needed transport. I filled out an EMP (emergency medical tag) that spelled out the treatment I'd given, hoping that would help those at the forward aid station know what was needed . . . ."

The 30 chapters are relatively short and Adreon breaks up the war stories with anecdotes about his military background—such as it was—before Korea and after. The chapters are not arranged in strict chronology, but that's fine. Every chapter subhead identifies the place and year, and each brief chapter is complete in itself.

By the time Adreon arrived in Korea in the spring of 1951, the conflict had settled down into a war of attrition. The Chinese were on one side of the Main Line of Resistance; the Marines, US Army, and Republic of Korea Army were on the other. The Chinese would attack, we would resist, try to kill as many Chinese as possible, withdraw if necessary, then counterattack days later and take back the ground we'd lost.

I was interested to learn that after the medics treated the American wounded, they treated the Chinese left behind and sent them back south where they eventually became POWs. We buried the dead Chinese and left no Americans behind unless we were entirely overwhelmed.

I was also interested to read that Hospital Corpsman Third Class Adreon, in addition to his med kit, carried a loaded carbine with extra ammunition, a .45 pistol with a bandolier of ammunition, and grenades. He was not only armed, but used the weapons when his platoon was attacking a hill. His sergeant told him to aim as an enemy's face with the carbine because you couldn't be sure the bullets would penetrate the white padded parkas the Chinese wore.

Adreon includes two helpful addenda to Hilltop Doc: the costs of war and a very brief history. Something like 1.8 million US servicemen and women served in Korea. Of those 103,284 were wounded; 33,739 died on the battlefield while another 2,835 died from other causes. The war never ended. The UN forces signed an armistice, but there has never been a peace treaty with North Korea. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Why did Michiko throw the man under the train?

A successful mystery for me, I've concluded, is an engaging mixture of character, place, and plausibility. If the detective, the killer (you have to have a killer), and the supporting cast are not convincing, the mystery fails. If the author is able to evoke a place and the local culture—Bangkok, Tibet, Ghana, Sicily, places I know nothing about first hand—so much the better. Indeed, following an interesting detective around the landscape as he/she interviews witnesses, collects clues, and makes associations is almost all I want in a novel.

Which is why the plausibility factor spoils so many mysteries for me. Who is the killer? What are his/her motivations? (Pure naked viciousness isn't good enough.) Was the murder planned or impulsive? Generally I'm dissatisfied with elaborate puzzle boxes because I find them preposterous, the kind of mystery that concludes with the detective gathering all the suspects in a room and explains the steps that reveals the murderer.

Michael Pronko's debut, The Last Train: A Tokyo Mystery is doesn't do that and in fact is satisfying on all three counts: character, place, and plausibility.

According to his bio, Pronko has lived in Tokyo for twenty years. He has a BA in philosophy from Brown, an MA in comparative literature from Wisconsin, and a PhD in English from the University of Kent at Canterbury. He is a professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University and has published three collections of essays about Tokyo. He says about The Last Train, "My book goes into the realities of Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, looks at the injustices of economics and the unfair position women are put into. It's not just 'set in' Tokyo, it's about Tokyo, in and of Tokyo."

The book begins by following a lovely, and determined young woman as she throws a drunken man into the path of the night's last express train.

In Chapter 2 we meet Hiroshi Shimizu, a police detective specializing white-collar crime, and his senpai, Takamatsu. A senpai is a senior, superior, predecessor, mentor; someone whose calls you take. The body on the tracks is a problem for the police: An American businessman. No sign of robbery. Unlikely to have simply fallen. Yet not someone who would kill himself. The American consulate is interested, as is the American Chamber of Commerce. Takamatsu wants Shimizu on the case because Hiroshi, after college in Boston and a romance with an American woman, speaks fluent English.

Pronko tells his story from the points of view of both Hiroshi and Michiko Suzuki, a woman strong enough and skillful enough in akido martial arts to throw a man in front of a train (and a former sumo wrestler through a plate glass window). Both are well-rounded and their motivations comprehensible. Pronko has lived in Japan long enough to understand the nuances of Japanese culture and behavior. We understand—if not agreeing with—Michiko's decisions, which echo those of the 47 ronin, the loyal retainers who took revenge on the lord who caused their lord's disgrace and death.

We follow Hiroshi and Takamatsu (until he ends up in the hospital after tangling with Michiko) and Sagamichi, the former sumo wrestler, as they visit the Roppongi entertainment district, goes to temples, corporate offices, and industrial wasteland in their effort to make sense of what they learn. In a set piece at the end, Hiroshi fights his way through the maze of Shinjuku Station, something anyone who has been there can empathize with. You don't have to know anything about Japan to enjoy The Last Train, but if you do, much of it will resonate—even learn something new as I did.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

What happens to literature when English takes over?

Minae Mizumura is a Japanese novelist I've written about in the past. I've discussed two of her novels, A True Novel and Inheritance from Mother. Her new book—new for Western readers—is The Fall of Language in the Age of English. It was originally published in Japan as When the Japanese Language Falls: In the Age of English (Nihongo ga horobiru toki: Eigo no seiki no naka de) in 2008 where it became an enormous best-seller. The English version, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter, is somewhat different from the original which addressed Japanese readers. The Fall of Language in the Age of English makes a more general, more universal argument.

Mizumura was born in Tokyo in 1951, moved with her family to Long Island, New York, when she was twelve years old. She lived in the States for twenty years but never felt entirely at ease here. She studied French literature and literary criticism at Yale as both an undergraduate and graduate student. She has taught at Princeton, University of Michigan, and Stanford and in The Fall of Language she gives her account of her experience in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2003. She currently lives in Tokyo.

Her book makes a clear distinction between a local language, a national language, and a universal language. A local language is the one you grow up speaking; it may or may not have a writing system. As I understand her argument, a local language in Italy is something like Neapolitan, Calabrese, Sicilian, Venetian—more than a dialect or an accent—a language that outsiders cannot understand; the national language would be Italian. In Japan, local languages include Tohoku-ben, Kansai-ben, Hakata-ben, and more local; the national language is Japanese. A national language Mizumura says "is an elevated form of a local language" and a country like Belgium might have two national languages.

A universal language is one used internationally for science, business, diplomacy, and more. In the middle ages, Latin was a universal language. Today, thanks to British colonial efforts, trade and US strength after WWII, English has become the universal language. More Chinese may speak Mandarin, but "what makes a language 'universal' has nothing to do with how many native speakers there are, and everything to do with how many people use it as their second language . . . What matters is that English is already used and will continue to be used by the greatest number of nonnative speakers in the world." (Italics in the original.)

One of the things this means is that translation becomes far more important than most people realize. If an author writes in her local or national language, her readers are only those who can read it. If an author writes in English, her prospective readers are all over the world, not only in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Many more Japanese are able to read a novel in English than Americans are able to read a novel in Japanese. This suggests that if an ambitious author wants a wide audience, she ought to write in English even though her native language may be Hausa, Tagalog, Tswana, or Tigrinya.

Translation, however, is at best a limited answer to the challenge of literature written in languages other than English. As Mizumura points out "the works that are usually translated into English are those that are both thematically and linguistically the easiest to translate, that often only reinforce the worldview constructed by the English language, and preferably that entertain readers with just the right kind of exoticism." Readers therefore "are not condemned to know that there is thus a perpetual hermeneutic circle—that in interpreting the world, only 'truths' that can be perceived in English exist as 'truths.'"

And machine translating, while clearly improving almost weekly, has real problems with languages remote from English like Japanese and Chinese. In a news article or instruction manual where the meaning rests mostly on the surface, a machine version may be adequate. But in a work of literature where much of the meaning—and pleasure—is in the nuance, the implications, the way words can resonate against one another, machine translation, as I can testify from my own experience, has a long, long way to go. And—sudden thought—by the time it gets there, (which is not a sure thing), it may be useless because English has so overwhelmed all other languages that no one is bothering to write literature in her native language anyway.

Given her interest, Mizumura has much to say about Japanese literature, its remarkable florescence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (i.e., during the Meiji and Taisho eras) and, in her opinion, its current low state. Indeed, when her book was published in Japan, she was attacked for her judgment: "She talks down about contemporary Japanese literature, when even Americans say it's great!" As if American opinion is the measure of quality.

I  found the book fascinating. Anyone interested in language, literature, Japan, or all three can read The Fall of Language in the Age of English profitably. Because most of us tend to think in our native language most of the time, we are usually no more aware of it than a fish is of the water in which it swims. Mizumura helps us consider the medium in which we think and write, what we're doing, and the effect the spread of English is having on the rest of humanity.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

How to see the real Japan

Walker Percy has an interesting essay, "The Loss of the Creature," in which he argues that "it is almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon . . . and see it for what it is . . . "

Unlike Garcia López de Cårdenas who discovered the Grand Canyon—or at least was the first European to discover it—it is says Percy "no longer the thing as it confronted the Spaniard; it is rather that which has already been formulated—by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon from the bottom
"As a result of this preformulation," Percy writes, "the the source of the sightseer's pleasure undergoes a shift. Where the wonder and delight of the Spaniard arose from his penetration of the thing itself, from a progressive discovery of depths, patterns, colors, shadows, etc., now the sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex." (Italics in original.)

If what the sightseer sees looks like the postcard, the tourist is happy. If not, he/she may feel cheated. Or complain he was not there at the right time. "The highest point, in terms of the sightseer's satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex."

I reacted strongly to Percy's argument because I have stood at the South Rim at the Bright Angel Lodge and was impressed, but I was not awestruck because the sight met my expectations.

I also spent sixteen days riding a rubber raft through and camping in the Grand Canyon a few years ago and was awestruck because nothing in my experience—no postcard, book, or video—prepared me for the experience. I was filled with wonder and delight; it was, as promised, the trip of a lifetime.

But Percy's argument applies not only to the Grand Canyon. I have had people say, "I want to see the real Japan." Or standing in a silent temple's precincts say, "This is the real Japan."

I suspect that people who want to see the real Japan mean they want to see temples, shrines, medieval castles, geisha, priests, kabuki, noh, bunraku. All of which exist and all of which can, with some effort, be seen. Japan also has a number of parks to which antique buildings have been moved, something like Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, but no one thinks such a reproduction is the real Japan any more than one thinks Sturbridge Village is a colonial town.
The read Japan—Takamatsu on Shikoku
But if the shrines, temples, and all the rest are the real Japan, so are the Lawsons and am/pm convenience stores, the Mister Donut shops, pachinko parlors, kaitenzushi shops (in which plates of sushi ride past you on a little track) underground shopping malls, rivers lined with concrete, and one of the ugliest urban vistas anywhere.

In my experience, all of Japan is the real Japan. Hokkaido is different from Honshu which is different from Kyushu from is different Shikoku. The trick—and I know it's hard, almost impossible—is to go with no expectations. To attempt, as far as possible, to see with fresh eyes. To see what there is as it is without consciously or unconsciously comparing it to what you already know. And to thereby experience the wonder and delight.

Monday, February 20, 2017

What did you do in the war, daddy?

Public Information by Rolf Margenau is a great shambling mess of a novel/memoir set mostly in Korea during the last six months of the war and the ten months after—the sixteen months, I suspect, of the author's tour of duty. We follow Wylie Cypher through basic training and into the "53rd Infantry Division" and his job as a public information officer with detours through the stories of a North Korean conscript, an American prisoner of war, and a small unit action that's now taught at West Point.

Although the book is all Army, these are Marines,
Given that there was no "53rd Infantry Division" in Korea, the potted unit history Margenau supplies and other internal evidence, I suspect he was actually assigned to the 7th Infantry Division, the unit in which I myself spent sixteen months shortly after the war. Our tours did not overlap, but I could identify with many of the book's incidents. For example, walking in Seoul one day, Wylie meets three young Korean teenager who skillfully strip him of the pen in his breast pocket; I lost a good Parker pen the same way.

So. I found much to admire in Public Information. Wylie's experience of basic training, how he happens to end up in the infantry rather than the Army Language School for which he enlisted, the taste of combat, the routine military screwups, his work as—essentially—a public relations man for the unit with an Army censor reading all his copy, the mud and stink of Korea and domestic chaos when the fighting finally stopped all have the ring of lived experience.

The book reminded me of expressions and events I have not thought about for years. Someone says: "You're SOL if you think . . ." SOL = Shit Out of Luck.

—In the small unit action: "Martinez saved one of [the dead] Carson's dog tags, leaving the other one around Carson's neck." Perhaps, but my dog tags had a notch so they could be jammed into my teeth and not be separated from my body.

—Wiley is told to show up at Thai headquarters in Korea in his Class A uniform. We didn't have Class A—dress—uniforms when I was in Korea.

—For a radio interview to be played for the folks back home, a PIO reporter asks a BAR man how he likes his job (BAR = Browning Automatic Rifle, a kind of machine gun). "It's itchie bon," he says, a GI bastardization of the Japanese for "number one."

For all the pleasures Public Information gave me, I also found it a mess. It needed a good editor. Wylie's occasional letters home add little to the story or to the character and so are lost opportunities. And while I trust most of the military anecdotes Margenau tells from Wylie's point of view—and that Wylie's experience as a reporter could have framed others—I had a hard time believing the subplot of the North Korean conscript/POW/nephew of a South Korean mob boss, a story Wylie could not have learned directly.

Midway through the book, Wylie becomes romantically involved with the lovely red-haired daughter of a missionary who is establishing an orphanage for Korean orphans and the bastard children of GIs who could not be accepted into Korean society. Amelia initiates the sex, and, although Wylie has a girl waiting for him back in New Jersey, he embarks on a rapturous affair with her in the orphanage and on R&R in Japan.

I have a sense that Margenau felt (or was told) that he had to have a romance in his book to make it popular and, rather than write another Madam Butterfly or Sayonara (James Michener's story of doomed love in Japan during the Korean War) and to have Wylie fall in hopeless love with a beautiful, passionate South Korean woman, he invented a beautiful, passionate, selfless American missionary's daughter.

Public Information is long, 424 pages. The second edition, which I read, "incorporates newly discovered information . . . and incidents reported by veteran readers." This reader would have been happier with a tighter book, one that stayed with Wylie Cypher throughout, and limited itself to the incidents Margenau experienced personally or could flesh out as Wylie learned about them directly. If you know nothing about the US Army in 1953/54 and nothing about the Korean War, Public Information is filled with nuggets of information. You just have to know how to pick them out.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Money problems, family lineage, and a marriage gone sour

Minae Mizumura is an important Japanese author, three of whose books have been translated into English: A True Novel, which I reviewed earlier in this blog, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which the Columbia University Press published in 2015, and Inheritance from Mother, which the Other Press is publishing in May 2017.

Mizumura was born in Tokyo, moved with her family to Long Island, New York, when she was twelve. She after studying fine art in Boston and then lived in Paris, she studied French literature at Yale College and Yale Graduate School. While a graduate student, Mizumura published "Renunciation," a critical essay on the work of literary critic Paul de Man. The essay is often cited as one of the earliest contributions toward a comprehensive study of de Man's writings. Upon finishing her M.Phil. program, Mizumura returned to Japan to write fiction in Japanese. She has taught modern Japanese literature at Princeton, the University of Michigan, and Stanford, and has been a resident novelist in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Inheritance from Mother, whose Japanese title includes "—A Newspaper Novel," is a 66-chapter, 448-page fiction Mizumura wrote as a weekly newspaper serial. In Part One, Mitsuki Katsura is a Japanese woman in her mid-fifties who works as a French language instructor at a private university in Tokyo and who cares for her terminally-ill mother until she finally—finally!—dies. It is not an easy death (the mother is not going gently into that good night) and Mitsuki must also deal with her flighty, wealthy older sister and her professor husband who is teaching in Vietnam while having an affair with his current lover. In Part Two, Mitsuki retreats to a lake-front hotel in Hakone, the historic mountain resort south of Tokyo, where she contemplates her impending divorce, her mother's legacy, and her impending independence.

In the course of the novel, impressively translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, we learn a great deal about ordinary, middle-class Japanese life while simultaneously seeing the society and their personal situation through the eyes of well-defined individuals—a neat trick. With an aging population, how are the Japanese coping? What are the effects of class, rank, and education on familial obligations, marriage, aging? What remains of traditional Japanese life and attitudes toward death, dying, divorce? For Mitsuke, "After giving the matter a great deal of thought, she decided that even if she did not go through with the divorce, facing squarely the fact that her marriage had been a failure was the least she could do to live out her life with dignity."

In addition to Mitsuke's interactions with her dying mother and feckless sister, a pleasure of Inheritance from Mother is an observation like:

"Western novels made much of love and lovers, an influence that came to Japan after the country opened its doors to the West. Although the eponymous hero of the classic Tale of Genji was known for his amorous adventures, in Japanese literature romantic love had always been merely one theme among many—certainly less central than the change of seasons. The Western novels that had reached Japan in the last century and a half were almost all romance novels, transforming Japanese readers—especially women—into romantics. Women became more particular. They grew discontented with the husbands chosen for them by parent, relatives, or neighbors, longing like Emma [Bovary] for someone to whisper thrilling words of love . . ."

And in an interesting comment about serial newspaper novels in a serial newspaper novel, Mizumura writes, "If the content of serial novels was no longer as impressive as it had been, neither was the style, which had often been of a rare sophistication . . . Over the course of a century, as newspapers increasingly became part of every household's morning ritual, subscribers were exposed no only to novels patterned after western novels, singing of amour and amants but to articles full of new words translated from the West, among them words for 'democracy,' 'individual,' and 'liberty." Gradually, newspapers shaped a new language and a new breed of Japanese people."

I hope I have not given a distorted impression of the novel by these quotes. Inheritance from Mother, as a Japanese reviewer wrote, is filled with "human longings and hatreds; beauty and ugliness; grace and vulgarity; money problems, family lineage, and a marriage gone sour; sickness and old age. The author's adeptness in dealing fully with a plethora of such themes in simply scary." I can only concur and recommend the book.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The code of the samurai, simplified

Lori Tsugawa Whaley is proud of her Japanese heritage and believes others can learn valuable lessons from it, which is why she has titled her book The Courage of a Samurai: Seven Sword-Sharp Principles for Success.

According to her bio, Whaley "is a third-generation Japanese American and a descendant of the samurai. As a baby boomer, she grew up in a predominately Caucasian logging and farming community in rural southwest Washington state. Lori's character and work ethic were formed by working hard alongside her parents on the family farm. She struggled with being different, especially during the school years." She is now on a "mission to inspire individuals to apply the code of bushido (the way of the warrior) to tap into their sole purpose in life."

Her seven principles are courage, integrity, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor, and loyalty. And for good measure she adds an eighth: ganbaru, the verb that my dicti
onary defines as "be tenacious; be persistent; keep at it; do not give up easily; give all one has got; hold out; stick to it; be full of energy; insist that; stick to; keep saying/repeating; continue to claim . . ." But you get the idea. It's a word you hear a lot in Japan.

Whaley describes each principle and illustrates its application through Japanese-related examples. Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese counsel in Kaunas, Lithuania, signed thousands of transit visas in 1940 for mainly Jewish refugees to escape the Germans, violating orders of his own Foreign Ministry—demonstrating courage.

Michi Nishiura Weglyn researched and wrote a book about the American government's shameful incarceration of Japanese-Americans at the beginning of WWII—integrity.

Dr. James K. Okubo won a Silver Star as a medic in all-nisei (second-generation Japanese-American) 442nd Regimental Combat Team—benevolence.

The Military Intelligence Service, the Japanese-language interpreters, translators, radio announcers, and propaganda writers during the Pacific war illustrate integrity in some way. The way people acted after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami illustrates honesty. Saigo Takamori, the Kyushu samurai who led a rebellion against the new Meiji government in 1876, illustrates honor.

If you know nothing about Japanese history or culture and nothing whatever about the Japanese-American internment or the 442nd, The Courage of a Samurai is an introduction. I'm not sure how useful it is as a way to lead readers "on a path to personal and business fulfillment" as one reader claims. Be courageous she urges! Have integrity! Be benevolent! Show respect! Be honest, honorable, and loyal!

Well, yes. Who would argue otherwise? But how exactly do you cultivate these principles in yourself?

Moreover, what do you do when one principle appears to contradict another? Sugihara
was not loyal to his government by signing visas (and I suspect his Christianity had more to do with his actions than bushido, a faith Whaley does not mention). Takamori did not respect the new Meiji government and raised an army. An overweening sense of honor can lead to disloyality.

Also, Whaley, by reducing the samurai code to seven (or eight) principles, oversimplifies Japanese culture. She never mentions tatemae or honne, both important in Japanese life. The first is what one professes, or says in public; your official position, public stance. The second is one's true feelings; what one is really thinking or underlying motive. I would like to have seen a discussion of how one justifies or reconciles a contradiction between the two.

There is nothing wrong with The Courage of a Samurai and Lori Tsugawa Whaley is right to be proud of her heritage. I am sorry only that her book does not meet her own goal of inspiring and empowering the reader.