Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Michio Takeyama's Harp of Burma

My Charles Tuttle edition of Howard Hibbett's 1966 translation of Michio Takeyama's Harp of Burma (1946) was in a box of books that Tony Hunt gave me when he moved a few years ago, I think. I had no idea what it was, but I put it in the Stack after reading J. G. Farrell's The Singapore Grip (1978), the last novel in Farrell's "Empire Trilogy." It occurred to me that this book was about Japanese soldiers fighting the British in Burma, and therefore in the same army that captures Singapore in 1939, the event at the center of The Singapore Grip. So I queued it up.

A charming and thoughtful book, written originally for children, by a Japanese specialist in German literature who publicly warned against the Nazis and who wrote this book in the countryside of occupied Japan, his Tokyo house having been destroyed in air raids. It is short, 132 pages organized around three sections, basically three overlapping stories. Captain Inoye, the young commanding officer, is a music teacher and choirmaster, and he develops the esprit de corps of his unit by teaching the men to sing. These soldiers are in dire circumstances, slogging through mountain jungle far from home punctuated by deadly combat skirmishes against usually superior British forces, culminating in their surrender after the surrender of Japan and their transport to a prisoner of war camp in Malaysia. In 1956 the director Kon Ichikawa had a popular hit with his film version The Burmese Harp.

Their music helps them in all sorts of ways, even at one point to avoid a major battle that would certainly have killed most of them. Above all they have high morale as the music has taught them to function as a group. A pivotal character is Private Mizushima, the company harpist and a wily and courageous infantryman who is already a hero when he sets off to try to help talk down another group of Japanese soldiers who are entrenched on a rocky peak and refuse to surrender. One appealing point here is the discussion of surrender, it's clear that most units surrendered when they were convinced that Japan had done so, and the infamous holdouts were much fewer in number.

The book also spends a good deal of time with Burmese Buddhism, a variant of the conservative Therevada tradition, and a community that is under great siege from the villainous generals who rule "Myanmar" today. This is intertwined with a discussion of moral obligation for Japanese soldiers, with a number of characters openly wondering if imperial Japan lost its spiritual bearings. An antiwar message delivered with modesty and charming color.

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