Inheriting the Legacy of Japanese Imperialism

Asako Serizawa on complicating the role of victim and perpetrator in her short story collection "Inheritors"

Japanese propaganda poster from the occupation of Malaya via Wikimedia Commons
1940s Japanese propaganda poster from the occupation of Malaya via Wikimedia Commons

Take a kaleidoscope, peer inside its lens and turn the dial: the jeweled-mosaic pattern within deforms and reforms anew. Asako Serizawa mirrored her debut short story collection Inheritors after this complex design. Out of chronological sequence, the thirteen short stories locate twelve related characters across 1868 (the Meiji Restoration) to 2035. A grandmother wanders the streets of California, marking her past by the kinds of tomato plants she’s grown, as her memory takes flight. Then, a young daughter witnesses the dissolution of her parents’ marriage when her father’s identity is completely overturned during their family trip to Japan. 

Inheritors by Asako Serizawa

Other stories experiment with form, mimicking official historical documents. A one-sided transcript about comfort women supplies only the subject’s answers; a police interrogation file stacks evidence against a boy for a Communist assassination plot; the last flight log of a young pilot records his last days, hours, minutes. 

At first, their connections are unclear, so each rereading offers a fresh revelation about a character glimpsed or refracted through the memory of another. The family tree of five generations included at the beginning is helpful to orient oneself and navigate the timelines, connections, and perspectives scattered across the globe.  

“Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant,” wrote Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the aftermath of the Holocaust and Nazi fascism, a consequence of the Enlightenment’s seductive notions of human progress and superiority. This quote serves as the epigraph to Inheritors, which grapples with Japan’s fascism, among other things. 

Given the fraught relationship between Japan and the countries it occupied—Korea, Malaya, Manchukuo, and islands across the Pacific Rim (for context on Singapore and Malaysia, Tash Aw reviewed the collection for the New York Review of Books)—as well as the US and its global hegemony, Serizawa’s Inheritors is a welcome corrective and a deeply-considered, impressive debut. Serizawa complicates the cut-and-dry categories of victim and perpetrator by showing how one can so easily slip into being either. Oddly, for a book on horrific human violence, the collection gave me hope for the possibility of reparations, restitution, and light. With its myriad voices, Inheritors opens space for more stories effused with empathy, repelled by rather than bound to triumphant resolution.   

Esther Kim: I first heard of Inheritors from my partner, who came across your book at Lit Books, an indie bookshop in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia during the early pandemic days. He texted me a photo of the author’s note at the end, which immediately made me want to borrow it.

So I want to start with a question at the end, the bio that mentions you grew up in Singapore and Jakarta. Can you tell me about your childhood in the cities, and how they may have shaped your thinking on this subject of World War II?

It’s difficult to talk about the trauma of a perpetrator because you don’t want to end up excusing their actions. And yet, these are people who have done these things, and they live with this thing.

Asako Serizawa: Because of my father’s job, we left Japan when I was one. And I lived in Southeast Asia until the middle of high school. I think my parents assumed that we weren’t going to be there very long, and this was an opportunity for me to learn English. When kindergarten started, I essentially entered the British-based international school system and got this colonial type of education, so my knowledge and understanding of the history of the region was general and pretty vague until we returned to Japan. This was also the height of Japan’s economic dominance, so I never really got confronted with this history even though I spent my early years in Southeast Asia. 

The region is disfigured by American, European imperialism and colonialism, and more recently, Japanese imperialism and colonialism and certainly invasion and occupation during the Second World War. When I started to learn this history when we returned to Japan, it was shocking to realize that I had lived in this area for so long, and I had the privilege of not really knowing that much about it. 

That experience of finally learning about this history stayed with me and really got me thinking about institutional, systemic, or structural collusions that allow for this muting of certain stories.

In Japan, World War II is a ubiquitous topic. Growing up, we returned to Japan to visit my grandparents. The war was such a reference point, especially for that older generation, and so it was always a topic. It was always on TV—and it’s a fraught history—so it’s always on the news. Yet there’s this curious silence around it. My grandparents lived through the war, and my parents grew up during the American occupation, but they never talked about that history. They’ll mention things like, “Oh, you know, war is bad,” but they never really talked about their experiences. 

EK: You’ve mentioned in an excellent interview for Asian Books Blog that this collection took 12 years to write. In your author’s note, the line I really loved was where you say, “What I can say is my concern was less to capture a time, place, or event than to responsibly represent that time, place, or event.” And that word “responsibly” really stuck out to me because that suggests there’s also an irresponsible way to write this. What was it like to apprehend these stories?

AS: This book was written as a counter-narrative to several different kinds of official historical narratives: the sort of triumphalist American narrative on a successful democratizing mission; the Japanese ultra-nationalist narratives that tend to downplay or outright suppress atrocities to really create a streamlined, convenient history. All of these things have this way of presenting a history with a clear beginning, middle, and end that serves their particular political viewpoints. 

That experience of finally learning about [the history of Southeast Asia] got me thinking about institutional collusions that allow for this muting of certain stories.

So this is partly why I wrote my book as an interconnected collection, rather than a novel to resist that representation of history. Because in the end, this history isn’t necessarily linear, in the sense that there isn’t a clear beginning, middle, and end. 

A huge question for me was how to access the various stories and narratives within the history. Some stories didn’t emerge until much later, for example, or certain stories are the voices that are suppressed or repressed. The question then was how to access and represent these stories and how these are all interconnected. 

The other part I have an investment in centering—trying to get as much of—the complexity of the context into these stories because I think there’s a way in which this history—or any history—is streamlined, which means that there’s a lot of omissions. I have an investment to get those back in and also create a space for more stories because I think that there are many, many, many, many stories to be told about this time that have been omitted, suppressed, silenced, or repressed. When you have a collection, with discrete pieces like this, hopefully, it’s invitational for other people to add their stories around this history.

EK: I found I learned so much through Inheritors about certain darker aspects of Japanese Imperialism, such as the experiments on humans in Manchuria (“Train to Harbin”) and the Korean miners who tunneled through Japan (“Luna”). Were certain characters’ minds more difficult than others to enter or write? 

AS: I try to find characters that allow me to explore the complexity of the situation, and so, it’s funny, each character had their own challenges. Perpetrators are always tricky to write because I certainly didn’t want to end up inadvertently justifying or excusing war crimes, for example, but for me, it was imperative to lend that humanity to the character. 

Going through all of this material, you realize it’s really a privilege to think “We wouldn’t do these things. We wouldn’t commit these crimes” or “How can one do such horrible things to another human?” And we can sit here thinking, “Oh, we would never do this.” But that’s really not the case. I mean, there are definitely sociopaths. There’s no doubt, but I think that many people were just ordinary people who would have never imagined doing these things. And I think one thing that you hear over and over again is these people’s astonishment at themselves. 

There was a documentary featuring interviews with all these Japanese war criminals that came out a number of years ago. I think it was called “Japanese Devils.” It was really disturbing, not only because you’re hearing all of these horrible and really inhuman things that people were doing to each other, but the other part was just how blank these people were when they were talking. They look completely stricken. Done stuck in a particular place. It was one thing I didn’t expect to see, and I realized that there was a trauma there. These were traumatized people who had basically bifurcated themselves. 

It’s really difficult to talk about the trauma of a perpetrator, the war criminal, again because you don’t want to end up excusing or justifying their actions. And yet at the same time, these are people who have done these things, and they live with this thing. And what do they do with this, these stories, these experiences, these memories? There’s really no room for these people’s stories in the aftermath. Yet it’s crucial to understand them because it’s so easy for a society and for all of us to scapegoat these people and feel like, “Well, you know what, we’re done with these criminals,” and the society is safe. It’s easy to do that, but any of us could occupy that position, given the pressures.

EK: The collection excels at complicating the cut-and-dry categories of “the oppressed” and “the oppressor” (or perpetrator and victim). For me, the short story “Pavilion” illuminates this with the discovery of Seiji and Masaaki’s shared parents and their discussion of fate in Borges’s The Garden of Forking Paths. What were some of the questions you hoped to explore with this pair of characters? 

AS: It gets at one of the book’s gravitational cores for me: the issue of individual agency, alongside personal and collective responsibility, and the entangled intergenerational consequences of imperialism, colonialism, and war. The gnarly family tree that makes up the spine of the book is, in my mind, an expression of this history and its violent cleaving, together and apart, of people, families, nations, and their indelibly etched psychic spaces.

Is genuine healing possible? What would it look like, and what would it entail? And where do we start, not just collectively but individually—personally?

And “Pavillion,” which brings together two strangers, seemingly from opposite sides of the oppressed/oppressor divide, who, as you said, discover their shared parents, is, on one level, an exploration of their gridlocked connection, and the violence, as well as the unresolvable cruelty, inherent in their “blood” ties, their inseparable “familial” roots. On another level, “Pavillion” poses, and the characters attempt to answer, the unanswerable question that haunts not only this story but the book as a whole: is healing, genuine healing, possible? What would it look like, and what would it entail? And where do we start, not just collectively but individually—personally?

EK: Lastly, there’s a short story writer, South Korean writer Choi Eunyoung, who I wanted to recommend to you because she has a similar aesthetic and wrestles with similar questions. There’s one short story “Xin Chào Xin Chào” in her collection Shoko’s Smile in particular about South Korea and Vietnam from a child’s perspective I’m reminded of.

AS: Have you read Elaine Chiew’s The Heartsick Diaspora? She’s a Singaporean Malaysian British writer. It’s one of the short story collections I read during the pandemic that I really enjoyed. I hope that more stories emerge from this period, especially from Southeast Asia, and enter the US and the western part of the world.

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