Crime and punishment

In the final days of World War II, justice becomes an atrocity

"One Man's Justice," the third book by bestselling Japanese author Akira Yoshimura to be translated into English, is all about perspective: One man's justice proves to be his condemnation. Takuya, an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army, is on the run. World War II is over, and Japan is in shambles. Meanwhile, the occupying US military forces are on a manhunt for alleged war criminals, and Takuya is on the wanted list. His crime? Decapitating a war prisoner - a downed US fighter pilot. Was it cold-blooded murder or serving justice? In this gripping, remarkable novel, Yoshimura offers no obvious answers.

Takuya is a fiercely loyal officer, in charge of an air defense operation. He follows orders and acts responsibly. War is anonymous: Takuya's "perception of the enemy had been limited to the airplane itself, and that somehow he had forgotten that there were human beings inside the aircraft."

When a US B-29 fighter plane is downed, Takuya is suddenly confronted with individual faces. "It shocked Takuya to think of the Superfortresses ... being manned by young men scarcely past their teens." In spite of their youth, the prisoners become for Takuya "the embodiment of an enemy who had slaughtered untold numbers of his own people."

Indeed, as far as Takuya had experienced, US bombers moved beyond incendiary attacks on military installations and destroyed urban areas, and then targeted medium-size and even smaller towns populated by civilians - many of them women and children. Not only were countless innocent lives lost, but the resulting destruction of shelter and food sources meant bleak conditions for survivors.

As if to add insult to injury, when questioned about "the scene inside the aircraft after dropping the bombs," the US fighters recounted listening to jazz on the radio or admitted to flaunting pornographic photos among the crew.

Takuya realizes that "these fliers had been treating the bombing raids as sport." He is shocked that the captured "men felt no guilt at all for having destroyed the lives and property of so many Japanese civilians."

Takuya knows this is war, but the nonchalance and pride at destroying common civilians eventually sends Takuya to commit the "crime" for which he will later be hunted.

"Based upon the tenets of international law," which Takuya and his superiors cite repeatedly, prisoners "found guilty of the murder of noncombatants ... were sentenced to death."

While waiting final justice for the captured flyers, the US atom bomb destroys Hiroshima, then Nagasaki. In shock, Takuya and his colleagues listen to the emperor's "strange, high-pitched voice" broadcast an unconditional surrender. In a frenzy to destroy all pertinent documentation before the impending foreign occupation, the Imperial Army orders the prisoners to be executed.

Takuya's reaction is immediate: "Taking the life of one of the prisoners with his own hands would be his final duty." But this final act as an officer sends Takuya into a fearful life of uncertainty and everyday terror. Not only is he unable to ensure his personal safety as he runs from one hiding place to the next, but Takuya loses his own conviction in his deeds, in his duty.

A deft, accurate writer, Yoshimura captures a man in limbo with unnerving insight and definition. He's unflinching in his descriptions of brutality, and neither side is spared: the Japanese with their medical experiments on US prisoners, the victorious US and their senselessly violent post-war treatment of the occupied inhabitants. Yoshimura daringly explores the way honor, duty, and justice are tested when manmade death and destruction reign.

Terry Hong is books columnist for aMagazine: Inside Asian America.

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