One Man’s Justice by Akira Yoshimra (Canongate books: 2003). A Japanese novel first published in 1978, exploring the aftermath of WWII in Japan. It focuses on an ex-soldier who carried out his orders and did what soldiers do for their countries in times of war. But his side lost, and now he finds himself hunted and judged as the world settles down to peace.
There are, on my bookshelf, more than a handful of books that have war in the middle of them, or in the background at least. Of them, more than most use WWII in one way or another. I’d wager it’s the same about your bookshelf. It’s difficult to get away from it. War is one of the most terrible and most compelling things in human history. And WWII was filled with pretty much everything. From the larger than history personalities at the top, with their absolute ideologies and good v evil rhetoric, to the heartbreak and ecstasy of the ordinary man and woman, played out millions of different ways.
War, or the possibility of war, is present in more books and films than pretty much any other single thing.
A lot of them leave me a little conflicted. I mean, WWII is a real thing that happened. Real people that fought. Real people that died. It seems a little uncomfortable to be mining those events for what is essentially entertainment. I get the ‘lest we forget’ thing. I get the value of telling and retelling the stories. I get the need to make sure that the memory needs to be kept, and that stories are one of the best ways of doing that.
I don’t know, maybe I’m being too sensitive. I mean, I buy these books and I read them and I enjoy them. But there tends to be a little voice at the back of my head that is driven by the guilt of enjoying reading about war, that says ‘just leave them alone, let them be.’
And just when I’m ready to, I find another take on it, another book that promises a different angle on it all, complete with its very own insights and moral perspective. That’s what I felt when I picked up One Man’s Justice. I’d just finished David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero (about which we’ll talk another time, I’m sure), and I was looking for something to tell me more about the small side of post-War Japan.
And this was it. Fiction, yes, but a story that came with a big reputation and one that promised to explore some of the uncomfortable truths of victory from the side of the defeated.
And it did all of that. This book could have fallen over so many times. Tripped up on so many things. But it didn’t. It kept its feet.
It could have let melodrama creep into the war guilt of the Japanese. It could have oversimplified the lines of guilt and innocence. It could have demonised the villains and patronised the honest. It could have let the historical events overshadow the personal ones. It could have made the action into Hollywood plastic. It could have wailed about the unfairness of it all.
But it did none of that. It took its starting point and then it told its story simply and naturally. All of the emotion and all of the morality dripped through the words slowly and expertly.
There are (aren’t there always) downsides. Not many to be fair, but they’re there. Some of the cast of characters are a little thin, coming in and out of the pages without much meat to them, leaving you with a sense of a film with a gaggle of one line extras. Also, if I'm honest, I would have preferred a true story to fiction that claims to be rooted in fact. And some of the motivations and opinions are a little under-explained in places (probably in an attempt to avoid some of that melodrama that was always waiting to trip it up).
But bah! Picky much? I was looking for a war book that told a different story and told it genuinely. That’s what this did. I’m sure there are hundreds (probably thousands) of other books that tell the story of Japan’s war survivors, and I’m sure that many of them are brilliant and unsettling and important.
But this is the one I found. And this is the one I read. And it hit home.
Next week, I hope to have (finally) finished the big book that Atkins got me hooked on (damn her).