8 Books About the Impact of the Japanese Imperialism during World War II

Works of fiction that capture the realities of Japan's occupation of other Asian nations

Unknown, probably Japanese Army photographer, February 1943., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My native Philippines was colonized three times—by Spain for 370 years, by the United States for 48 years, and by Japan for four years. While the Japanese occupation was the shortest, from 1942 to 1945 during World War II, it proved to be the most brutal. 

In the month-long Battle of Manila alone, about 100,000 Filipinos were killed. The Philippine capital was completely devastated. The battle was the beginning of the end of a ruthless reign marked by famine and hardships and replete with rapes, tortures, burnings, and massacres. Estimates of the number of Filipinos who died during Japan’s rule vary, but it could be as high as one million. There’s no official death toll because many executions and carnages were unreported.

The Philippine experience wasn’t unique. The Japanese military regime killed millions between 1931, during Japan’s first invasion of China, and 1945, when it surrendered at the end of World War II. Historian J.R. Rummel estimated that up to 10 million people—Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Indonesians, Indochinese, and Western prisoners of war—died in the hands of the Japanese soldiers during that period.

Emperor Hirohito accepted his country’s defeat in a radio address in 1945, but didn’t apologize for Japanese atrocities. It took 50 years before Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama offered an unequivocal apology for Japan’s colonial rule and aggression.

It’s impossible to fully grasp the depth and breadth of the horrors of Japanese imperialism, but the following books have enlightened me as a reader:

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Japan demonstrated its military might when it won the wars against China (1894-1895) and Russia (1904-1905), but it was the annexation of Korea in 1910 that made it a bona fide imperial power. Pachinko captures the impact of Japanese colonialism on the Korean psyche through the story of one family over four generations. Sunja, plain and poor, loses her father at 13 and gets pregnant at 17. Her lover, slick and wealthy Hansu, is a Korean who works for the Japanese Yakuza. Worse, he’s married with children and he won’t marry Sunja. Baek Isak, a Christian minister who suffers from tuberculosis, marries Sunja to save her reputation and take her to Japan to start anew. 

Sunja gives birth, first to Noah, the son of Hansu, and then Mosazu, Isak’s son. Japan is no land of milk and honey for Koreans. The family endures poverty, discrimination, and catastrophes. Sunja connects all four generations in a span of 70 years. She’s transformed from a naïve teen to an indomitable matriarch in this exceptional family saga. The best-selling novel’s adaptation is a popular Apple TV+ series. 

Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang, translated by Julia Lovell

Eileen Chang’s 1940s Shanghai teems with socialites married to Chinese men who run the Japanese occupational government, idealistic students, and spies. Wang Chia-chih is a beautiful student and stage actress whose most dangerous role is to seduce Mr. Yee, the head of the puppet government’s intelligence agency. Her mission: to facilitate his assassination. Chia-chih befriends Yee’s wife in order to insinuate herself into the bureaucrat’s life. She poses as the unhappy wife of a businessman so as not to arouse Mrs. Yee’s jealousy or suspicion. She succeeds, and Yee becomes her lover, only to change her mind about betraying him in the critical moment of the assassination. 

I read this compelling novella in one sitting. Its plot is what spy thrillers are made of, but Chang wrote it as a tragic yet unsentimental story of a young woman’s impossible love. Chia-chih may be smart and audacious, but she’s ultimately too humane to assume the role of femme fatale. Yee, on the other hand, basks in his lover’s aborted mission as a proof that he possessed her “as a hunter does his quarry, a tiger his kill.” 

Chang, also known as Zhang Ailing, was born in 1920 in Shanghai. She experienced firsthand the Japanese occupation. The Oscar-winning director Ang Lee adapted the book into a film in 2007. “To me, no writer has ever used the Chinese language as cruelly as Eileen Chang, and no story of hers is as beautiful or as cruel as Lust, Caution,” he writes in the book’s afterword. Indeed, Chang adeptly blurred the lines between love and ruthlessness, between loyalty and deception in this memorable story.

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng 

“I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me,” says Philip Hutton in the opening line of Tan Twan Eng’s debut. The story takes place in the Malayan island of Penang when Philip is just 16 in 1939. As a biracial boy of Chinese-English heritage, he grows up lonely despite his family’s wealth. He only finds a sense of belongingness after he befriends a Japanese diplomat, Hayato Endo. Philip shows his friend the ins and outs of his beloved island, while Endo teaches him aikido and the Japanese language. The ambivalence of the men’s relationship, with just hints of homoeroticism, keeps the reader guessing. 

When Japan invades Malaya, then a British colony, Philip and Endo are torn between their friendship and their loyalties to their respective countries. Malaya is already under Japanese occupation when Philip discovers that Endo is a spy, and everything he’s taught him has contributed to the swift Japanese invasion. The lyrical writing of Tan, a Malaysian writer and lawyer, and the focus on Malaya under Japanese rule make this novel memorable.

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro 

When We Were Orphans looks like a detective novel, but it’s so much more than that. Christopher Banks is an Englishman born in Shanghai, whose parents disappeared mysteriously when he was a boy in the 1920s. As an orphan, he’s sent to England. 

20 years later, Banks has made a name for himself as a detective, but he has yet to crack his biggest case: the presumed kidnapping of his parents. He returns to Shanghai in 1937 amid the ravages of Japanese occupation. He’s drawn to Sarah Hemmings who was orphaned young just like him. What he discovers about his parents shocks him, but ultimately helps him reconcile what he remembers of the past and the reality of the present. He realizes that his desire to find his parents is the “inescapable fate of one caught in the toils of historical turbulence.” In this novel, Ishiguro—born in Nagasaki, Japan, but raised in England—returns to themes he’s known for: memory, love, loss, and social mores. 

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai 

A family saga reminiscent of Pachinko, this story of four generations of the Tran family is told from the points of view of Huong and her grandmother, Dieu Lan. The family survives famine and the horrors of the Japanese occupation during World War II and later on, the Vietnam War. It’s both refreshing and illuminating to read a Vietnamese story from the perspective of Vietnamese women. 

Huong escapes the bombing of Hanoi with her grandmother during Vietnam War. As bad as Huong’s experience is, her grandmother has experienced worse. Dieu Lan’s father was killed by the Japanese during World War II and her family’s land was taken by Ho Chi Minh’s communist regime during Vietnam’s land reform in the 1950s. In real life, the land reform occasioned mass executions, imprisonment, and torture of landowners in Vietnam. 

The book’s title comes from a wooden carving of a bird—son ca, meaning “mountains sing”—that Huong’s father had given her. The Mountains Sing is the author’s first novel in English. 

The Flowers of War by Geling Yan, translated by Nicky Harman

Originally titled 13 Flowers of Nanjing, this is the story of a group of schoolgirls that find refuge in a church compound run by an American priest. The year is 1937. The compound is located in a neutral zone in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, which is the reason why a group of prostitutes also end up there. They all know they won’t stay safe for long from the rampaging Japanese army. The collective anxiety and individual concerns result in bickering and infighting. 

Told from the perspective of 13-year-old Shujuan, the novel depicts good versus evil, innocence versus worldliness in black and white. The lack of subtlety is understandable considering that the story is set against the backdrop of the Nanjing Massacre. Shanghai-born Yan was inspired to write the book after reading about Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who ran a college in Nanjing during the period. Acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou adapted the book into a film in 2011, starring Christian Bale. 

The Last Manchu by Henry Pu Yi, edited by Paul Kramer 

I first heard about this book after watching Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 epic film The Last Emperor. The story of the Chinese boy who became an emperor at two-years-old and died a lowly gardener is so hard to fathom that I just had to check out the film’s source.

Bertolucci based his award-winning movie on the autobiography of Henry Pu Yi, also known as Puyi and Aisin Goro, the last emperor of China. He ascended the throne in 1908 and grew up in the Forbidden City among consorts, eunuchs, tutors, and servants. His lavish life was marked by decadence even after the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, which ended the Manchu dynasty. He was forced to abdicate, but he remained in the Forbidden City as a nonruling emperor. 

During the Japanese occupation, Pu Yi was crowned the emperor of Manchukuo, imperial Japan’s puppet state. His reign was followed by imprisonment in the Soviet Union after Japan’s defeat in World War II. He eventually returned to China, by then a communist nation, where he was re-educated in prison camps. Chairman Mao Zedong pardoned him in 1960. 

It’s fascinating to read about someone who never dressed or brushed his teeth on his own and was served 20 different kinds of food for each meal. Pu Yi’s autobiography reveals a sad life devoid of agency and completely shaped by external forces. 

Inheritors by Asako Serizawa 

If you’re wondering how the Japanese people feel about their imperial past, this excellent collection of stories features characters grappling with the lessons and consequences of history. Japan’s role during World War II dominates the stories, which span five generations of related characters in Asia and the United States. 

Most of the stories focus on the past, such as that of a doctor living in a Japanese-occupied district in China. He’s haunted by the inhumane experiments he and his colleagues perform. But this book also peers into the future with stories speculating about future ecological ruin and what cyberwarfare might look like.

One of Asako Serizawa’s strengths is her ability to find a path away from stereotypical depictions of Japanese imperialism. Inheritors won the 2021 PEN/Open Book Award.

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