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Asia: Words and Soldiers

ISSUE:  Autumn 1939

Inside Asia. By John Gunther. New York: Harper and Brothers. $3.50. Wheat and Soldiers. By Corporal Ashihci Hino. Translated by Baroness Shidzue Ishimoto. New York: Farrar and Reinhart. $2.00.

The swarming pages of John Gunther’s “Inside Asia” contain a wealth of assorted information on a vast area of the world, little known or understood by the average Westerner but destined to exercise a dominant influence on his future. Mr. Gunther’s kaleidoscopic and vivid saga of Oriental personalities and politics begins in Japan and proceeds indefatigably through China, the Philippines, Malaya, Siam, India, Iran, and Iraq to the Near East and Palestine. To accomplish this gargantuan assignment Mr. Gunther wherever possible follows the formula, used earlier in his “Inside Europe,” of telling his story in terms of the outstanding personalities involved.

To the interested but not too informed reader, the book may well seem an easy and delightful means of becoming “well informed” on Asiatic problems. Presentations of national characteristics, religious customs, caste systems, ethical concepts, thumb-nail historical sketches, superstitions, economic conditions, political and financial structures, language analyses, and hundreds of pen pictures and biographies of outstanding personalities flow from the author’s facile pen, richly enlivened by pertinent anecdotes both true and apocryphal. Emperor Hirohito, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the Soong family, Quezon, Gandhi, Nehru, and dozens of less important but extremely interesting figures emerge, not only as symbols of important historical forces but also as human beings.

This very wealth of material, however, which makes “Inside Asia” so interesting, paradoxically enough lessens its value for the reader who wants not only a general view of Asia but also a clear-cut understanding of the fundamental forces that are guiding its destiny. The difficulty of arriving at such an understanding results from two factors. One is that Mr. Gunther has been so lavish but so unselective with his facts, both important and unimportant, that often the significance of events is lost in the maze of detail. For the novice in the history of these countries, such indiscriminate reporting can only be confusing, and for the expert it is of necessity too superficial and lacking in new material to be significant. Another reason for the lack of an emerging pattern in this maze of detail is the fact that although Mr. Gunther knows that the pattern is there, he himself seems to have lost it.

The pattern that Mr. Gunther had planned to use as a framework on which to hang his facts was the thread of imperialism which has run through these countries for the past century or two. But except for an occasional use of the word “imperialism” in explaining such phenomena as extraterritoriality, extreme poverty, and nascent nationalism, he has failed to picture, in the larger sense of the word, the fundamental forces operating in what is predominantly the colonial section of the world. Every citizen of the Western world should have a clearer understanding of events in Asia which, though apparently remote, are in reality so closely related to his own security and well-being. If Mr. Gunther’s book does not in itself provide the means for such an understanding, it nevertheless serves a very useful purpose in stimulating the interest of thousands of readers in a subject which deserves continued study.

Of all the countries covered by Mr. Gunther, Japan is perhaps the most difficult to understand. In view of the fact that the Japanese people are kept in complete ignorance of what goes on in China, Corporal Ashihei Hino’s war novel is significant. “Wheat and Soldiers” is surely the most interesting book that has come out of Japan during the Sino-Japanese War. Written by a Japanese infantryman in the ranks, it is an account in diary form of his experiences, describing his departure from J apan, the landing at Hangchow Bay, and the drive on Kiashan. It includes also an account of his experiences during the Japanese drive for Suchow.

According to Baroness Ishimoto, the translator, the book has been a sensation in Japan, nearly half a million copies having already been sold. American critics too, have been greatly impressed by the book. William Henry Chamberlin says that” ‘Wheat and Soldiers’ possesses some of the timeless, epic character that made Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by general agreement the outstanding book on the World War,” and adds that “the first quality that lifts this work far above the general run of ‘war books’ is the complete absence of any propagandist element. Hino is neither pro-war nor anti-war, neither pro- Japanese nor anti-Japanese.” Other critics are amazed that the Japanese government, with its strict censorship, allows such a book to be printed. But from a careful reading emerges a perfectly good explanation. Far from being completely objective, as it appears on the surface, the book is an extremely clever and subtle piece of pro-war propaganda.

It is quite true that Corporal Hino (who is in reality Katsunori Tamai, recipient of the Shutagawa Prize, Japan’s highest literary honor) tells of his sadness on leaving home, of his blistered feet, of his fears and pains, and of comrades wounded and killed, but he never stops at that. For example, when he imagines the dangerous landing at Shanghai he quickly follows it with, “No matter how dangerous the task may be, we must go through with it. And we should have no fear.” When his men are talking of the probability of death in battle, he adds, “It is a real satisfaction to die in battle, like a petal falling from the mountain cherry tree.” He ends an especially graphic picture of men, horses, and gun carriages making a difficult drive through the mud, with “Indeed, I thought this impulse to be a part of a great mass movement is a noble thing. Individual hardship is submerged in a spirit of sacrifice for the whole.” His descriptions of the wounded and dying are also significant. The first casualty in Hino’s command says apologetically with tear-filled eyes, “I’m sorry I’ve been Wounded,” and the first man to die cries, “Emperor, Banzai 1” and “Keep on fighting!”, while another dying man cries, “May our Emperor live a thousand years.” Hino later pictures himself dying gloriously, crying with his last breath, “Long live the Emperor.” When they finally enter the city of Kiashan, he says, “Our flag, the red Rising Sun, floated proudly from the highest point above the gate. My heart contracted with pride when I saw it and tears came to my eyes,” and he feels that “We had been welded solidly in the fighting into a group sworn to fight, through everything, for the fatherland. It gives us strength and makes us able to die in the field, almost unconsciously saluting the Emperor with our last breath. The hardships that had seemed so great at the time, almost unbearable, were now quickly forgotten. Indeed, they now appeared, in my mind’s eye, to be bathed with a pure and radiant light.” For anyone cognizant of the credo of the Japanese soldier, which makes it an honor to die for the Emperor, it is easy to see why the Japanese government does not discourage the sale of this book.

On the negative side, also, there could be no official opposition, It is true that in one small paragraph Hino expresses his indignation at war in general, but he never questions the reason for this particular war or for his own presence in China. He can be sentimentally sorry for a dying Chinese woman clasping a crying child, but it remains a purely individual emotion.

“Wheat and Soldiers” is far from being another “All Quiet on the Western Front.” It has none of the latter’s power as a social anti-war document. It is purely and simply a pro-war propaganda book for Japanese consumption. And a very clever one at that!


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