Reviews / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Wartime Atrocities: Homare Endo's Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun

by Kimberley Clarke


Homare Endo (author), Michael Brase (translator), Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun: How I Survived China's Wartime Atrocity, Stone Bridge Press, 2016. 304 pgs.


In the introduction to her recently published memoir, Homare Endo states her objective: to give an account of the horrendous experiences she endured and bore witness to during the siege of Changchun, an event which the Chinese government does not acknowledge to this day. Considering this is an event excluded from official history, Endo asks "How many Chinese know that when they sing praises to prosperity, they are standing on the bones of those who died at Changchun?" Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun is Endo's eyewitness account of this event from the perspective of a girl born to Japanese parents during Japan's occupation of Manchuria in Northeastern China. During the Revolutionary War, Endo, then seven, survived starvation at the hands of Mao's Revolutionary Army as the capital became contested territory. The Communist Army cut off food, water and medical supplies to the city in order to force the Nationalist Army out, a tactic which had a devastating impact on the civilians of Changchun.

Endo's aim is for the siege of Changchun, in which several hundred thousand are said to have died, to be recognised as the significant historical event that it is. She articulates her story in terms of a truth that must come to light:

It is not my intention to pass from this life hiding the truth. It is not my intention to lead a life of lies. Telling the truth is a matter of human dignity, the human spirit.

Endo's memoir not only tells the story of how she and her family escaped from Changchun but also their experience of being trapped in the Quazi (a desolate "no man's land" surrounding Changchun). The story continues after she reaches "safety" to reflect on how this harrowing experience continued to affect Endo's childhood and influence how she struggled with the mental trauma caused by witnessing such atrocities.

One of the main issues for Endo after the civil war was how she struggled with her identity as a Japanese/Chinese citizen, and she writes that "in China I was reviled as a 'Japanese devil'; after returning to Japan I was called a 'red.'" After surviving and escaping Changchun and resuming some normality by attending school, Endo was subjected to further psychological trauma. She was bullied by her Chinese classmates simply for being Japanese, and the unfairness of a child being held responsible or accountable for Japan's brutalities is powerfully portrayed.

Though this event may not be part of official Chinese history, this is nevertheless not the first book to depict the events at Changchun. Zhāng Zhènglóng's White Snow, Red Blood provides an account of Changchun, along with accusations about the conduct of the Russian Red Army and a senior party leader of the Communist Party who was smuggling opium during the civil war. Such controversial accusations led White Snow, Red Blood to be censored in China. Like White Snow, Red Blood, Endo's memoir accuses Russian, along with Nationalist and Communist soldiers, of horrific conduct and their leaders of hypocrisy.

Endo's critique of China is very often an attack on its communism, showing the hypocrisy of the powerful "upper echelons" benefiting as "profit-making machines" while enforcing communism upon its "suffering masses." Yet, "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is much more closely linked to global capitalism than is implied by its "communist" label, something which is not explored by Endo. Indeed, communism is constantly attacked in the book, but capitalism comes under very little scrutiny for its role in China's politics and war. Her father—a Japanese capitalist and part of the bourgeois class before the civil war—is depicted as a saint-like charitable hero whose "upright character produced unfortunate results" during this time for him and his family. Yet he only achieves his attributes of charity and generosity by doing excessively well under a system of capitalism during a political period in which Chinese and Korean citizens in China faired very poorly. Endo's claim that there is no difference between the bureaucratic capitalism of the Republic of China and the China that replaced it after the Revolutionary War is a convincing one. However, she lays blame onto corrupted officials and human hypocrisy and depicts all systems of communism as nefarious rather than holding to account a powerful and corrupted system of global capitalism that systematically benefits the few not the many. The difference is vital if Endo's ultimate aim is to hold all those responsible for such atrocities to account.

Endo also addresses the role of opium during wartime in China in that there is a direct connection between the opium trade and her personal fate. Endo's father was the inventor of Giftol, a pharmaceutical drug which "cured" addiction. The invention of such an effective miracle drug prevented seven-year old Endo and her family returning to Japan during the One Million Repatriation, as they were forced to remain as her father proved to be indispensable to China. Endo uses opium as a symbol for the hypocrisy of the establishment, highlighting how processing truths for those in power can be an illogical process. The Japanese State of Manzhouguo, for example, provided "one curious condition" to the approval for the commercial sale Giftol. It could be sold but not advertised due to the government's five-year plan to eliminate narcotics:

If advertising via the written word were officially approved for Giftol, this could be construed by foreign powers as meaning that Manzghouguo cannot successfully execute its five-year plan without the help of private enterprise.

When her father later attempted to retrieve a patent given to him by the "state of Manzhouguo" from a soldier of the Korean Eighth Route Army, he is told "What the …? Just say that again … There is no such country as Manzhouguo." Thus Endo shows how those in power engage in a constant management and negotiation of truth, foreshadowing the denial of the events at Changchun.

Endo, in comparing the victims of Changchun to the victims of Tiananmen Square as "sacrifices not to be spoken of … the defenseless lives lost were felled by the People's Liberation Army," shows how this historical event from seventy years ago—with its continued omission from history books—is still very much relevant today. She also demonstrates the importance of acknowledging hidden historical truths in order to hold governments and ruling powers to account. For this reviewer at least, telling the truth has nothing to do with "human dignity" and "the human spirit," as it does for Endo. At the same time, in this case especially, there are political and social reasons which make revealing and insisting on the truth a necessary and important stand to make. The book not only reveals the power of official history to write its own story and exclude what troubles that narrative but resists this.

As well as this main theoretical argument, Japanese Girl at the Siege of Changchun gives a good historical briefing so that its readers do not need prior historical knowledge of the event, and thus works as a decent introduction to the subject. It will be useful to students of Chinese history, as well as those interested in the theory and politics of historical narratives.

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