“Heaven and Hell: A Novel of a Manchukuo Childhood” by Takarabe Toriko

Manchukuo, 1940s postcard Manchukuo, 1940s postcard

In 1932 a new Asian country suddenly came into being in northeastern China. It was named Manchukuo, and it had been created as a result of the so-called “Mukden Incident”, in which Japanese soldiers had detonated a small charge of dynamite on a Japanese-built railway line and then claimed that Chinese dissidents had done it.

No-one was hurt, and apparently a train came by not long afterwards without any problems. However, the Japanese responded with a full-scale invasion of Manchuria, and by 1932 they had taken over the region completely, renamed it, and established as its titular head of state Aisin Gioro Pu Yi, who had been, as a child, the last Chinese emperor of the Qing dynasty. In 1934, he was proclaimed the Kangde emperor of Manchukuo, and ruled under Japanese control until 1945. During this time many Japanese came to Manchukuo, not just soldiers and their families, but administrators and other civilians as well, and when the Kwantung army, as it was called, left for home after Japan’s defeat and the end of Kangde’s shaky empire, many Japanese settlers (there were more than two million of them) were simply left to fend for themselves.

As translator Phyllis Birnbaum points out in her introduction, the military abdicated its responsibility for them, and when one of them asked a Japanese official what they were supposed to do without protection, he merely replied “The only alternative is suicide.” This harrowing book is an autobiographical novel based on Takarabe Toriko’s personal experiences as the child of one of those abandoned families trying to get back home to Japan. The new country had lasted for a mere thirteen years.


Heaven and Hell: A Novel of a Manchukuo Childhood, Takarabe Toriko, Phyllis Birnbaum (trans) (University of Hawai'i Press, September 2018)
Heaven and Hell: A Novel of a Manchukuo Childhood, Takarabe Toriko, Phyllis Birnbaum (trans) (University of Hawai’i Press, September 2018)

Takarabe divides her book into two sections, “Heaven” and “Hell”, dealing with two phases in the life of her persona Masuko and her mother Yukie. In fact, this division is a little disingenuous, because there are episodes of heaven and hell in both parts, although the negativity and horror really sets in for the Yamamoto family after the Japanese soldiers leave.

They live in Jiamusi, a large city in eastern Heilongjiang province, right across the Amur river from Russia, and Russians of various kinds play a major part in Masuko’s life.

For the child Masuko, Jiamusi offers simple attractions like being able to walk around the town eating the various snacks prepared by the street vendors, and mixing with various nationalities, notably the Chinese and Russians. Unlike many of their fellow-countrymen, Masuko’s family lives in a Chinese part of town and thus become well acquainted with the locals.

Almost immediately, however, the dark side of Japanese rule appears in the shape of a cart whose grinning driver “showed off” to Yukie what “he had stuck on the end of his bamboo pole,” which was “a face with a mouth which opened in the same way.” Her husband says matter-of-factly, “That’s the head of a bandit.” As Yukie looks around her, she sees “freshly-severed heads caked with sand… hanging from the telegraph poles.” Takarabe’s father, she is quoted as saying in the introduction, “


was responsible for rounding up ‘bandits’ and getting them to join the Japanese side. Or killing them. My father was a violent man, scary.


Yukie, after seeing the heads, nonetheless decides that


for the sake of her baby, she would not go back to Japan. Just like those Shandong merchants who looked upon Jiamusi as the fulfilment of their hopes and dreams, [she] definitely saw this as the fulfilment of her dreams.


It would seem that Manchukuo was believed to offer the Japanese settlers the same kind of opportunities that North America must have offered European immigrants in the 19th century. And life is actually quite bearable until the Japanese forces, defeated in war, suddenly decamp, abandoning the settlers to their fate at the hands of the Chinese and Russians. Since the soldiers were no longer there, the settlers bore the brunt of any revenge that their former enemies wished to exact. As a child, Masuko doesn’t understand what is going on: “As always, the servant who carried our luggage and Lui saw us off: the only difference was the wagon piled with our belongings.” Her “only clear memory,” she tells us, “was the steam that rose after our horse stopped to pee.”

At that point “Hell,” the second part of the book, begins. It’s here that western readers begin to understand what happened to many non-military Japanese in Manchukuo, a part of the history of that period which does not get much attention in books. Here, the Japanese are the victims; they are not the conquerors who publicly display the severed heads of “bandits” and brutalise Korean “comfort women”, but helpless civilians, guilty only by association, and hardly understanding why terrible things start happening to them.


In the second part of the book, we are taken back to 1945 after the death of Yukie at the age of ninety-one. Masuko finds a journal, and in it Yukie has recorded what she experienced as she tried to escape from post-1945 “hell” and get her remaining family back home to Japan; her husband and her little son Takuo both die before they get there, and the family suffers throughout from poverty, exposure and lack of food.

In a graphic and horrifying scene, Masuko is abused by some Russians, amongst them a woman who forces her to have oral sex while a man, with what looked to naïve Masuko like “a long white rod” climbs on top of another woman. He tells her in Japanese, “Rub her there with your hand. Rub her! And fast. She’ll kill you if you don’t.”

The details, including the smells in the room, are then piled on one after the other with sickening realism, but this is how Takarabe writes: the rawness of the prose stresses the brutality, and when we realize that this is an eleven-year old experiencing these things and remembering them so graphically at such a distance in time, the fact that these people are Japanese no longer matters. This is refugee life at its worst, and Takarabe’s merciless depiction of it perhaps may strike a chord with anyone who thinks about the plight of Syrians or Hondurans today.

Takarabe’s effectiveness as a writer lies in her description of contrasts and her understanding of what happens in a child’s mind as she experiences various things. To a child, many aspects of life in Manchukuo would have been exciting, pleasant or even enchanting. The countryside is beautiful, but no-one can avoid the spectacle of those severed heads. Some Chinese and Russian people are kindly, but others, when they have the chance, are brutal. The violence is always there in one form or another, simmering in the background, but not quite grasped by the child Masuko, who sees everything with eyes of wonder, even when she watches their cook killing ducks for the family’s dinner, rather like the way her own father and his fellow-soldiers kill the Chinese “bandits.”

Readers are never far away from that background of violence, and at the very end of the book we are confronted with a terrible scene—the exhumation of Masuko’s father just before the final evacuation of the family to Japan. Over Yukie’s objection that her late husband wished to remain in China, she is told,


We will take his remains back to his country. This is the wish of all the settlers here. Remember, if our chief is not cremated, no-one else will cremate their dead.


Then follows a harrowing description of the grave’s contents as the observant child sees them. “His squashed face, with features like pickled plums, seemed to be melting away after having slept too long,” she thought, “Yet my father looked as if he was still dreaming, a long and terrifying dream apparently. Weren’t we who stood here playing roles in my father’s dream?” And that dream is exactly what Takarabe’s book is all about.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.