Tag Archives: Japan

Recommended Read – Silence by Shusaku Endo

SilenceBeneath the light of the candle I am sitting with my hands on my knees, staring in front of me. And I keep turning over in my mind the thought that I am at the end of the earth, in a place which you do not know and which your whole lives through you will never visit.

It is 1640 and Father Sebastian Rodrigues, an idealistic Jesuit priest, sets sail for Japan determined to help the brutally oppressed Christians there. He is also desperate to discover the truth about his former mentor, rumoured to have renounced his faith under torture. Rodrigues cannot believe the stories about a man he so revered, but as his journey takes him deeper into Japan and then into the hands of those who would crush his faith, he finds himself forced to make an impossible choice: whether to abandon his flock or his God.

The recipient of the 1966 Tanizaki Prize, Silence is Shusaku Endo’s most highly acclaimed work and has been called one of the twentieth century’s finest novels. As empathetic as it is powerful, it is an astonishing exploration of faith and suffering and an award-winning classic.

Silence is set in what is known as the ‘Christian century’ in Japan – Christian missionaries first arrived there in 1549 and the faith spread rapidly; the writings of these Portuguese missionaries are the source of much of what we know of Japan at that time. After an initial period where the western visitors – both traders and missionaries – were respected, those in power in Japan were increasingly worried by the influence of the foreign missionaries. This led to a time of persecution in which many Christians were executed and the foreign missionaries were banned, if they came to Japan they were forced to give up their faith or face martyrdom. Many Christians were brutally tortured before being burned, drowned, or slowly bleed to death. Despite this, missionaries from Europe continued to sneak into Japan which is where the novel Silence begins.

The story of Rodrigues, a 17th century Portuguese priest, is a mixture of history and theology told through the interweaving lives of a range of believable characters. Shusaku Endo writes of the conflict between east and west – the relationship between Japan and Christianity – in a way which shows that Christianity must adapt if it is to take root in a culture so very different to its Middle Eastern origins and European development. It is a tale of the struggle between faith and belief, a study of martyrdom versus apostasy written in a restrained style which reflects the time period yet with a simplicity which gets to the heart of the pain and suffering of the Europeans who were often placed in an impossible position.

Endo writes with sensitivity about the clash of cultures creating a novel which is moving and disturbing in equal measure. Although Rodrigues is a fictional character his story is based upon a real person, the Italian priest Giuseppe Chiara, and like Chiara Rodrigues takes a physical and theological journey to his own calvary, struggling with the eternal concept of why God is silent in the face of suffering. Silence gives us no clear answer to that question but leaves us with much to ponder on and apply to our own situation.

Endo has created a novel which paints a vivid picture of life in 17th century Japan whilst at the same time being an excellent study of man and faith, a book which is at times delicate and at other times brutal, a sometimes harrowing picture of the mental and physical challenges faced by the missionary. It is a testament to the translator that the reader can feel deeply the ideas and emotions which the author so clearly wished to convey. If you feel that a story about a missionary in Japan is not for you then you will be missing out on a philosophical novel which challenges many fundamental beliefs and morals and is likely to change the way you think about life.

Silence can be found on Amazon

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China pays the price for Pearl Harbor

As I wrote in my last article, the Japanese attack on the American fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor precipitated the entry of the US into the Second World War. The population of the United States was understandable angry and eager for revenge; but Japan was so far away and America not yet fully prepared for war so what, if anything, could they do to build morale?

Courtesy USA Government @ IWM (OEM 3605)

Within a month of the attack, in January 1942, an audacious plot was hatched by the Americans: why not raid the Japanese mainland? In one blow they could inflict damage on Japanese industrial sites as well as to the psyche of the civilian Japanese population who believed that their homeland could never be attacked by a force coming all the way from America. At the same time, an attack on Japan would also improve America’s relationships with her other allies in the war and boost the morale of the American people.

The initial plan was to launch a bombing raid from aircraft carriers, recover the planes and head back home; but whilst the B-25 could take off from a carrier it soon became obvious that landing on a ship was going to be much more difficult. It was therefore decided to launch the attack from ships positioned east of Tokyo, but instead of turning round and heading back to the aircraft carriers the planes would fly on to either China or Vladivostok in the Soviet Union. When approached about this Stalin was not keen on the plan as he was afraid that it might provoke Japan to attack Russia and so the Americans decided that all of the planes were to head for China. (For an overview of US/China relations at this time please see my article about Pearl Harbor).

James H Doolittle with some of his Raiders

The raid was to be led by Lieutenant Colonel James H Doolittle; the planes to be used were prepared for the mission by adding extra fuel tanks and stripping out all non-essential equipment to lighten the aircraft. The volunteer crews began their training in early March 1942 with a focus on night flying, cross-country flying, low altitude approaches, and evasive manouvers.

The Japanese knew that the Americans would not let the attack on Pearl Harbor go unpunished and so were monitoring US naval radio. From this they knew that an attack was planned for some time in April but had no radar so their early warning system was poor, relying on converted fishing trawlers positioned in parallel lines offshore to act as pickets. Surprisingly, one of these pickets detected the approaching US ships on 18th April, 650 miles from Japan, and whilst the plan had been to launch at closer to 400 miles from land the Americans could not risk losing more ships after Pearl Harbor and so launched immediately. This attack by long-range bombers took Japan completely by surprise as targets were hit in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Yokosuka and Kobe where the American planes met very little opposition before flying on; one plane eventually landed in Vladivostok (where its crew were interned) whilst the other fifteen continued to China.

B-25 taking off from USS Hornet on the Doolittle Raid

The damage inflicted on Japan by the ‘Doolittle Raiders’ was minimal, but its effect on the enemy was enormous. As a consequence of the raid the Japanese decided that it was imperative to meet the US advance in the Pacific head-on (which led to the Battle Of Midway), whilst for civilians the belief in the invulnerability of their homeland was now gone. For the Americans the raid did a lot to restore their self-belief and pride after Pearl Harbor – their first major strike of the war had been an attack on the enemy capital and they now had the confidence that they would eventually be the victors.

But the story of The Doolittle Raid did not end with the American bombers reaching safety in China, and the consequences were far more wide-ranging than anyone could ever have anticipated. Unable to hit back directly at the Americans it was the Chinese who bore the brunt of the brutal revenge meted out by the Japanese.

Doolittle and his crew after crash landing in China

In early 1942 Manchuria as well as some industrial and commercial centers and key ports in China were occupied by Japan who was determined that she would hold on to these as well as prevent the Chinese from helping the Allied war effort. The American planners of the raid were aware of the situation before they set out, and they knew that the Chinese would suffer for the actions of the US but they went ahead regardless. The eighty volunteers who flew the Doolittle Raid knew before they set out that it was a one-way trip and so were prepared to bail out or crash-land in China when their fuel ran out; when this happened local guerrillas, missionaries and villagers willingly helped and cared for the downed airmen. Japan was quick to retaliate.

Individuals who had helped the Americans were identified by the little thank you gifts which the airmen had given them – maybe a cigarette packet, or a glove, or badge – these people were then tortured and murdered as punishment for the help they had given. But retaliation was not limited to individuals who had helped. One report by a Canadian missionary records how the Japanese flew 1,131 bombing raids against Chuchow (where the Doolittle Raiders first landed) in which 10,246 people were killed and another 27,500 left destitute when over 62,000 homes were destroyed, over 7,500 head of cattle killed and 30% of the local crops burned. Altogether there were twenty-eight market towns in the region, of which only three were not destroyed.

American airmen with some of their Chinese rescuers

The town of Ihwang was one of those where the civilian population helped the airmen, and one of the missionaries who worked there (Father Dunker) later described the Japanese retaliation – they raped all women aged 10 to 65, then shot everyone (men, women and children) as well as all the livestock they could find, the town was looted and then burned to the ground. The bodies of the civilians were left to rot.

The Japanese also took the town of Nancheng where they remained for a month. 800 women were rounded up and kept in a storehouse where they were repeatedly raped, the men were killed. Nancheng had a population of 50,000 when the Japanese arrived, when they left the town had been completely destroyed, hospitals looted, railway lines pulled up and the iron shipped back to Japan. The town burned for three days.

In the summer of 1942 the Japanese razed an estimated 20,000 square miles of China – livestock was slaughtered, irrigation systems wrecked beyond repair, crops burned, bridges and roads and airfields totally destroyed. But that was not the end. When the Japanese finally withdrew they contaminated rivers, wells and fields with plague, cholera, anthrax and typhoid; they left behind food rations contaminated with these diseases knowing that the hungry locals would eat them and so spread the sickness further. This part of China had been prone to such diseases before the Japanese action so it is not possible to know quite how many died as a direct result, but it was in the many thousands.

A US raid which had been designed to lift the spirits of the American people after Pearl Harbor led to a three-month campaign across the Kiangsi and Chekiang provinces of China in which it is estimated that 250,000 Chinese died, with the Japanese retaliation being likened to the Rape of Nanking in 1937-38. America honours the men who took part in the raid, but I hope they will also never forget the unsung, unnamed tens of thousands of Chinese heroes who will for ever be a part of this story.

Pearl Harbor 7th December 1941 – a date which will live in infamy

According to President Franklin D Roosevelt 7th December 1941 was a “a date which will live in infamy”. On that day the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu Island, Hawaii, was attacked by Japanese forces. Many people think that this attack came completely out of the blue but it was, in fact, culmination of more than a decade of steadily worsening relations between the United States and Japan.

American foreign policy in the Pacific in the late 1930’s was to support China against an increasingly aggressive Japan which had taken control of the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931, although open warfare did not break out between Japan and China until July 1937. America continued to support China by giving the country a loan in 1938, and terminating their 1911 treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan in July 1939. By 1940 America was restricting exports to Japan which could be used in the war, and tensions between the two countries continued to mount. Matters were not helped when the Japanese allied themselves with the Axis powers (Germany and Italy). This caused America to sever all relations with Japan, freeze her assets and place an embargo on Japanese shipments carrying materials of war.

Admiral Yamamoto

Many of the hierarchy in the Japanese military resented the fact that America was supporting China and wanted to end their interference. They also saw the German invasion of the Soviet Union as an opportunity for Japan to extend her reach in the Far East without the intervention of Russia. Even so, there were attempts by some to smooth things over between America and Japan right through the autumn of 1941, although the Japanese Prime Minister had already privately decided that war was the only way forwards – his theory was that if the Japanese could destroy the American Pacific Fleet it would leave them able to conquer all of South East Asia unopposed. The attack on Pearl Harbor was planned by the Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet of Japan, Admiral Yamamoto, with the fleet coming together in the Kuril Islands on 16th November, although Yamamoto was prepared to be recalled if negotiations with the Americans proved successful. Admiral Nagano, the Chief of the Naval General Staff did not want to risk the fleet so far from home, particularly as that would limit the forces they could use for other actions in the Far East, but Yamamoto threatened to resign if his plan was axed so all opposition was ignored.

On 26th November 1941 the American Secretary of State wrote to the Japanese to try to smooth things over, however his requirement that Japanese troops should be withdrawn from China and Indochina did not go down well. The note was seen as irrelevant by the Japanese anyway as their forces had already set sail to attack Pearl Harbor on the same day.

Admiral Kimmel

The US Pacific Fleet along with military and naval forces were stationed at Pearl Harbor as the tensions between the two nations steadily mounted. Admiral Kimmel and Lieutenant General Short were warned three times (16th October, 24th November, and 27th November) that war was possible and they should take appropriate defensive measures. Short ordered his forces to be on the alert for sabotage, and moved all of his planes to Wheeler Airfield to protect them, as well as ordering that radar should be monitored from 4 – 7am (the most likely time of day for an attack). Kimmel was equally relaxed in his preparations – although he was not able to locate the main parts of the Japanese Fleet he did not send his reconnaissance north-west (which would  have been the logical direction for an attack to come from); he also allowed personnel on shore leave after mooring the entire fleet in the harbour.

On the US mainland the Japanese Ambassador had asked for a meeting with the American Secretary of State in Washington at 1pm on 7th December (7.30am Pearl Harbor). General Marshall, the American Army Chief-of -Staff sent a telegram to Kimmel to say that war was imminent, but it did not arrive in Pearl Harbor until after the attack began. There were other signs, however, that Kimmel should have realised could be fore-runners of an attack. The first happened four hours before the attack when a Japanese submarine was sighted near the Harbor, it was later fired upon by the USS Ward. Then at 7am, when the radar should have been switched off, Private George Elliott decided to get in some more practise; he noticed a large group of planes on the screen but was told to ignore them as a flight of bombers was expected to arrive that morning. Kimmell was still awaiting confirmation of the submarine encroachment when the air attack began. (Kimmel and Short were later blamed for mistakes and errors of judgement at Pearl Harbor and were dismissed.)

The Japanese had already landed forces in Malaya and Thailand a couple of hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor began (for them, Pearl Harbor was seen as a supporting operation). The attack against America was, however, incredibly well planned with an entire fleet including six air craft carriers, two battleships and three cruisers travelling 3,700 miles across the North Pacific undetected. It was necessary to refuel on the way which could not be done in rough weather and so the Americans did not think an attack could come from that direction. However, they were wrong, and at 7.55am on the morning of 7th December 1941 the attack began with 183 aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy attempting to damage or destroy as much of the US Pacific Fleet as possible.

Kanohoe naval air station, strewn with damaged aircraft and wreckage, 7 December 1941. © IWM (OEM 21469)

In the first attack the planes and hangers on the island’s airfields were targeted by bombers as torpedo planes attacked the warships at anchor. Four battleships were hit in the first five minutes, followed minutes later by the sinking of the USS Arizona when her gunpowder supplies took a direct hit, killing 1,177 of her crew. The attack was devastating, but it was not the end as less than two hours later a second wave of 170 aircraft arrived. The Americans fought back but were completely unprepared (only 6 planes managed to get into the air) and in just two hours 18 American warships had been either damaged or sunk, almost 200 aircraft destroyed and over 2,400 American service men and women killed. The Americans were lucky that the three aircraft carriers, seven heavy cruisers and a division of destroyers attached to the Pacific Fleet were not in harbour and so escaped without damage. The Japanese in contrast lost less than 60 planes, 5 midget submarines, possibly 2 fleet submarines, and less than 100 men; the main fleet returned to Japan without being attacked.

USS Arizona. © US National Archives and Records Administration

The attack on Pearl Harbor had an immediate impact on the course of the Second World War. Up until that time the Americans had been supporting the Allies through the Lend-Lease Agreement by supplying war supplies, but most Americans did not want to get actively involved in the fighting. However, they were outraged by the Japanese attack and the next day the US declared war on Japan, finally entering the conflict on the side of the Allies.

The Tripartite Pact signed by Japan, Italy and Germany in September 1940 meant that Germany was obliged to go to war if America attacked Japan but not if Japan attacked America. Roosevelt did not want to be seen as the one to declare war on Hitler but knew that such a conflict would be inevitable if the US declared war on Japan. As he had foreseen, Hitler declared war on  American in support of Japan on 11th December and the President was able to get the full support of Congress to declare war on Germany.

Roosevelt signs declaration of war. © IWM (HU 56120)

The Japanesse attack was devastating, but six of America’s eight battleships (excluding the Arizona and Oklahoma) were repaired and returned to service whilst the strategically important oil storage facilities on the island remained intact. The most important result of the attack, however, was it’s impact on the American public – the deaths of thousands of Americans in a surprise attack early on a Sunday morning without any formal declaration of war could only have one outcome – a uniting of public opinion behind the war effort, and the beginning of the end for Germany.

Courtesy USA Government @ IWM (OEM 3605)
Arizona Memorial © ZDF Enterprises GmbH, Mainz

The greatest defeat in British military history – the fall of Singapore 15th January 1942

Today is the 75th anniversary of one of the worst defeats in British military history, the fall of Singapore during the Second World War.

Japan in the 1930’s was a country looking to expand its influence in the Far East, and the Allies tried to halt Japanese campaigns in China by imposing sanctions. These actions were effective and oil reserves in the island Empire were soon rapidly depleting. With the situation becoming ever more serious the Japanese felt that they had to do something to secure their vital resources so plans were put in place to attack Great Britain and the United States. These attacks would open up the way for an invasion of the Dutch East Indies which were rich in oil.

singapore

At the southern end of the Malay Peninsula is the island of Singapore. Nicknamed the ‘Gibraltar of the Far East’ it was the key to British defence strategy in the Far East and it was believed that the island was impregnable. Britain’s possessions in Asia would have been vulnerable without a strategic military base to protect them, and this role fell to Singapore where the expensive defences were completed in 1938. Japan was seen as the only country which could possibly be a threat in the area, but the British believed that the Japanese army was inferior to their own and only capable of defeating the backward Chinese.

Japan did not believe that they were any way inferior to the West just because their culture was different. They refused to accept interference in their designs on China and so made almost simultaneous Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and in north Malaya and Thailand which led to Britain declaring war on the Empire on 8th December 1941.

PEARL HARBOR,HAWAII: The USS Shaw exploded after being struck during the attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941.
PEARL HARBOR,HAWAII: The USS Shaw exploded after being struck during the attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941.

The defences at Singapore were manned and the forces ready to repel an attack by sea so the British were taken completely by surprise when the Japanese attacked overland. The Allies believed that the Malayan jungles were impassable to a military force, but the Japanese were aware of this and so made their way through the jungles and mangrove swamps of the peninsula, taking no prisoners to slow their advance. Japanese aircraft attacked the airfields in Singapore, destroying almost all of the RAF’s frontline planes and leaving the island with no air defences. In an attempt to halt the Japanese, the battleship ‘Prince of Wales’ and the cruiser ‘Repulse’ put to sea from Singapore on the 8th December and headed north to the enemy landing sites. On the 10th both ships were sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers, delivering a crushing blow to British forces, and British morale back home. The east coast of Malaya was left exposed and the Japanese were able to continue their landings unopposed. Only the army could stop the invasion now.

hms-prince-of-wales

Lieutenant General Percival led the Allied forces of 90,000 men, the majority of whom had never seen combat. The Japanese forces, on the other hand, were led by General Yamashita; most of the 65,000 men he commanded were much more experienced than the Allies, having fought in Manchuria against the Chinese. Moving swiftly on foot and stolen bicycles the Japanese were ferocious, killing captured and wounded soldiers, torturing and killing Malays who had helped the Allies. The British forces were shocked by the brutality of the enemy and, after the fall of Jitra on 12th December 1941, retreated towards Singapore. Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaya, was captured by the enemy on 11th January 1942; the Allies continued to fight fiercely even though things were looking increasingly bleak for them. One example of the determination of the defenders happened at Bakri where Lieutenant Colonel Anderson fought the Japanese for five days (18th – 22nd January). It was only when his men ran out of ammunition that he was forced to retreat, leaving behind about 150 wounded Australian and Indian soldiers. These men were later all killed by the Japanese. Anderson was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in the fighting and withdrawal.

Charles G W Anderson
Charles G W Anderson

The retreat forced the Allies into an ever smaller area of the peninsular until the British and Australian troops finally crossed the causeway which separated Singapore from Malaya and prepared to make their last stand on the island, destroying the causeway behind them. Churchill ordered that a strong defence should be put up and surrender was not to be considered until there had been ‘protracted fighting’ to try to save the city. The British believed that the Japanese would attack Singapore across the Johor Strait; unsure of just where the attack might come Percival decided to position his men so that they could defend the entire coastline, stretching to some 70 miles. He had overestimated the strength of the enemy and this spread his resources too thinly so that they could not adequately defend any one section of the line. When the attack came on the 8th February 1942 many of the defenders were too far away to influence the battle, and Percival was reluctant to move them closer in case the Japanese attacked on a second front. 23,000 Japanese attacked with surprising speed and ferocity, while the British continued to doggedly defend Singapore. On the evening of 10th February Churchill sent a cable to Wavell, saying: ‘I think you ought to realise the way we view the situation in Singapore. It was reported to Cabinet by the C.I.G.S. [Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Alan Brooke] that Percival has over 100,000 men, of whom 33,000 are British and 17,000 Australian. It is doubtful whether the Japanese have as many in the whole Malay Peninsula … In these circumstances the defenders must greatly outnumber Japanese forces who have crossed the straits, and in a well-contested battle they should destroy them. There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs. The 18th Division has a chance to make its name in history. Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no mercy to weakness in any form.’  This was a forceful, no holds barred message which could not be ignored; even though the Allies had lost their food and fuel supplies to the enemy Wavell told Percival that the ground forces were to fight on to the bitter end, and that there should be no general surrender in Singapore.

Japanese troops on bicyclces
Japanese troops on bicycles

On 14th February the Japanese broke through part of the Allied defences and advanced towards the Alexandra Barracks Hospital. The staff there could see no hope of rescue and so decided to surrender, sending a British lieutenant with a white flag to talk to the Japanese; he was bayonetted to death. The Japanese troops then entered the hospital and immediately killed around 50 patients, some of whom were lying on the operating table; doctors and nurses were also murdered. The following day about 200 male staff members and patients (many of them walking wounded), were taken to a nearby industrial area where they were murdered. A small number of the men survived by playing dead and were able to report this atrocity at the end of the war.

By the morning of the 15th the Allies were almost out of food and ammunition. There was a heated conference of the senior commanders who reluctantly agreed that there was no hope of victory and the garrison should capitulate. Percival formally surrendered at 17.15. This was the largest surrender of forces led by the British in history. 100,000 Allied men (British, Australian, and Indian) were taken prisoner when Singapore fell. A number of the prisoners were held in Changi Prison where many of them died, but the vast majority were shipped out to work as forced labour for the Japanese, some in Japan itself, some on the Sandakan airfield, and thousands on the infamous Burma railway (around 9,000, or 9% of those taken prisoner, died on the railway).

Surrender
Surrender

It was not only the Allies who suffered at the hands of the Japanese. A large percentage of the population of Singapore was of Chinese descent and many of these people were massacred by the victorious invaders. No one knows how many civilians were killed, the Chinese of Singapore said it was 50,000 although the Japanese said it was closer to 5,000 (historians believe this estimate to be too low, based on the actions of the Japanese in places like Nanking, and the true figure will never be known).

Japanese atrocities
Japanese atrocities

The shocking surrender of the British forces in Singapore showed the world that, despite expectations, the Japanese army would be a major player during the war. The conflict in the Far East continued after the war in Europe had been won and was only to end with the devastating attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. British forces had planned to liberate Singapore in 1945 but the war ended before they could carry out their attack. The Japanese surrendered unconditionally in September 1945 and British, Indian, and Australian forces moved back into Malaya and Singapore. The Japanese commander, General Yamashita was tried by a US military commission for war crimes; he was convicted and hanged in the Philippines on 23 February 1946.

Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the "Tiger of Malaya," is arraigned before the War Crimes Commission in Manila, pleading not guilty. He will be confined at New Bilibid Prison until his trial, October 29, 1945, in Manila. Here, Major A. S. "Jack" Kenworthy, Military Police prison officer, delivers Gen. Yamashita to the residence of the Philippine High Commissioner, where Yamashita was held for arraignment in the first step of the war-crime trials to be held in the Pacific. The arraignment was open to the public. Yamashita was brought from his cell in New Bilibid Prison in an ambulance for security reasons. The legitimacy of the hasty trial has been called into question by many, as considerable evidence pointed to the fact that Yamashita was either not aware of the atrocities that were committed, or was unable to properly control his soldiers due to communication disruption caused by the U.S. Army during their offensive. One of the atrocities in Manila was even carried out by a unit that disobeyed his orders to retreat. Following the Supreme Court decision, an appeal for clemency was made to President Truman. The President, however, declined to act and thereby left the matter entirely in the hands of the military. In due time, General MacArthur announced that he had confirmed the sentence of the Commission and on February 23, 1946, at Los Banos Prison Camp, 30 miles south of Manila, Tomoyuki Yamashita was hanged.
Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the “Tiger of Malaya

There are few survivors of the fall of Singapore still alive today, 75 years later, but that doesn’t mean we should forget. Perhaps we can take a few moments today to remember all those who died or suffered life changing experiences either during the battle or in the three years of Japanese ruled which followed.

War memorial in memory of the civilian victims of the Japanese occupation of Singapore
War memorial in memory of the civilian victims of the Japanese occupation of Singapore

Recommended read – The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

the-gift-of-rain-by-tan-twan-engPenang, 1939. Sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton is a loner. Half English, half Chinese and feeling neither, he discovers a sense of belonging in an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip shows his new friend around his adored island of Penang, and in return Endo trains him in the art and discipline of aikido.

But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. The enigmatic Endo is bound by disciplines of his own and when the Japanese invade Malaya, threatening to destroy Philip s family and everything he loves, he realises that his trusted sensei to whom he owes absolute loyalty has been harbouring a devastating secret. Philip must risk everything in an attempt to save those he has placed in mortal danger and discover who and what he really is.

With masterful and gorgeous narrative, replete with exotic and captivating images, sounds and aromas of rain swept beaches, magical mountain temples, pungent spice warehouses, opulent colonial ballrooms and fetid and forbidding rainforests Tan Twan Eng weaves a haunting and unforgettable story of betrayal, barbaric cruelty, steadfast courage and enduring love.

In ‘the Gift Of Rain’ the reader is immersed in life in Malaya during the 1940’s. Tan Twan Eng writes some of the best prose I have read in a long time, and it pays to take the time to read slowly and savour this poetic and evocative language. Whether he is describing the beauty of Malaya or the brutality of occupation the author places the reader there, in the midst of the action, in such a way that it easy to become lost in this book. Supporting the lyrical descriptions is a cast of characters who are multi-faceted and totally believable. It is easy to sympathise with Philip in his search to find out where he belongs; even when he makes choices which we might not agree with we can understand his reasons and fervently hope that he will find the love, acceptance and peace that he is searching for.

This book is written in two distinct sections. The first, set in Penang in 1939, moves at a gentle pace as Philip meets a Japanese aikijitsu master, and through his lessons with Endo develops a physical, intellectual and spiritual awareness which remains with him for the rest of his life. There is a strange bond between the two which seems to transcend time and space, and the playing out of this relationship is the pivot of the whole book. The second part of the book takes place after the Japanese invasion and is faster paced, dramatic and hard hitting. Philip finds that life puts him in a position which challenges his ethics and morals; does his loyalty lie with his family or with Hayato Endo? Or does he have a much broarder loyalty to the people of Malaya? And where does his sense of self fit within this conflict?

‘The Gift Of Rain’ evokes a real sense of time and place, giving the reader insights not only into the history of Malaya but also of Japan and China. The way that the Second World War impacted on the different ethnic groups and their relationships with each other is the cloth of which this story is woven; it is a testament to the thorough research which Tan Twan Eng has made of the history of these countries, and of the colonial impact which played a part in shaping events. Why does history seem to see British occupation of Malaya as acceptable, unlike the Japanese occupation which is seen as criminal? What responsibility did the colonial power have to the people of Malaya, and they to it? There are no easy answers to this, and the questions raised are played out through Philip’s own personal search for identity.

Tan Twan Eng has created a book which looks at the darker side of life yet which holds an incredible balance. One could almost describe the whole novel as an evocation of the ying and yang of life, the balance of duty and loyalty, the image of a civilised and refined Japan which can be selfish and brutal at the same time. It is a book which is incredibly difficult to categorise. Part historical fiction and part martial arts treatise, part philosophy and part a coming of age story, it is a book which draws the reader in from the very first words and doesn’t let go, even after the last page has been turned. I have read this book a number of times and come back to it again and again, learning something new each time. I heartily recommend ‘The Gift Of Rain’ as one of those few books which will leave a lasting impression on you for some time to come.

The Gift of Rain is available on Amazon 
Tan Twan Eng has a website here
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