Juliet Kono’s Anshū: Dark Sorrow follows the life experiences of Himiko Aoki, the daughter of Japanese plantation workers in Hilo. Due to a premarital pregnancy, Himiko returns to Japan to live with relatives before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and ends up living through the suffering and deprivations of the wartime experience in Japan. Returning throughout to fire as a motif that structures the other symbolic elements of the story, Kono sets Himiko on a foreboding course that readers suspect (and are correct in their suspicions) will lead her to Hiroshima and the atomic bomb.
The story’s appeal to an audience in Hawaiʻi would seem to be the way that it connects the experiences of the Japanese in Hawaiʻi and America with the experiences of the Japanese in Japan during World War II. Kono leaves the story of the Japanese in Hawaiʻi and America mostly untold, alluding with the lightest of touches to what readers already know of Pearl Harbor and internment. Instead, her focus is on reuniting readers with their Japanese national cousins through showing us Himiko’s gendered wartime experiences–including starvation, the firebombing of Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima–as a Japanese American in Japan.
Himiko also becomes a Hibakusha, or scarred survivor of the atomic bombings, and Kono seems concerned with telling the story of these survivors who carried a post-war social stigma. At the end of the novel Himiko eventually reaches a level of Buddhist detachment from ego in which she accepts and relinquishes authority over her scarred Hibakusha body. In a chilling final scene, Himiko allows herself to be objectified through the gazes of American doctors and the public eye of history, empowered in her transcendence of ego. At the same time however, she decides to author her own story (the first-person novel itself) to go along with the pictures of her body that are being given over to science and dominant history. This is the final ambivalence of the text–has Himiko accepted her subaltern role for the sake of spiritual serenity, or is she still struggling to speak through it? Will anyone hear her?
But beneath these projects of remembering and testifying, Kono tells a story in which Himiko struggles with Anshū–defined as “dark sorrow” that is linked to Himiko’s survivor’s guilt. Himiko struggles throughout the novel to deal with the guilt she feels as a survivor who witnesses various family deaths with which she is–to arguable degrees–complicit. She also experiences guilt from the point of view of being the object of guilt, as she struggles with her resentment toward a lover who betrays her. A central question seems to be how to deal with one’s Anshū–one’s sorrow, anxiety, and horror over guilt–especially given the recognition that asking for forgiveness only selfishly burdens others with responsibility for one’s psychic relief?
It makes sense that this complicated novel should return again and again to this question, as the Japanese American community in Hawaiʻi today is indeed a survivor’s community. Not only has this community survived the injustices of wartime and big five Hawaiʻi, most of the population avoided both the comprehensive internment that happened on the U.S. mainland as well as the more materially severe deprivations of the wartime experience in Japan. Today, some critical Japanese American scholars and artists take the further step of recognizing that this survival in Hawaiʻi has come through complicity with U.S. imperialism and at the cost of the occupied Hawaiian nation. Although these sufferings endured by others of close or distant relation may seem removed, they reach out to touch the Japanese community in Hawaiʻi in distinct and real ways. Himiko’s spiritual struggle with Anshū may strike a chord with survivors here and everywhere who grapple with questions of victimization, complicity, and the transformation–the literal and metaphorical scarring–that occurs when one survives trauma, and others do not.
This survivor’s experience is also decidedly gendered, though there may be a sexist undercurrent in this story. The figures that stand outside of the novel’s compassion are both female: Harue Auntie and Sā-chan are small-minded, vain, mean, resentful, and nationalist. Meanwhile Himiko looks to paternal authority figures like Shiichi Uncle and two different Buddhist reverends for spiritual guidance and support. This goes on despite a subplot in which Himiko befriends Hamada-san, a neighborhood mother who turns to prostitution after her husband dies. Himiko at first rejects Hamada-san but after the Tokyo firebombing realizes that she was wrong to condemn Hamada-san’s courage in supporting her starving children. This dabbling into the history of prostitution and sexual slavery in wartime Asia feels stunted when we consider the extent and organization of it, and its repercussions for women throughout the Pacific today who call on us to move past distance and guilt.
Review by Kelsey Amos
Kelsey Amos is a PhD student in the English department at UH Mānoa. A former managing editor of Hawaiʻi Review and small-time poet (published at paradisereview.org), she values the literatures and writers of Hawaiʻi and wants to talk about, praise, criticize, and support them.