“Inheritors” by Asako Serizawa

Inheritors, Asako Serizawa (Doubleday, July 2020) Inheritors, Asako Serizawa (Doubleday, July 2020)

The histories of Japan and the United States have been intertwined for a hundred and fifty years. In her new collection of similarly interrelated short stories, Asako Serizawa both mines events from this history as well as reaches into the future. 

Most of Inheritors, however, centers around events in World War 2 rarely included in history books. In one of the most memorable stories, Masaaki and his American-born wife, Sara, bring their daughters, Luna and Katy, from the US to Japan to visit Masa’s parents. Sara is impatient with Masa’s desire to visit old WWII sites, especially in the heat of summer. But this history is important to Masa, and more than he thinks.


The tunnels there were built to form a huge underground maze, designed to hide the Emperor. Many people died during the construction. Most were Korean, forced to work there by the Japanese.


Masa, as he learns on this family trip to Japan, was born to a Korean mother in Japan and put up for adoption as a baby. His future parents lost their teenage son, Seiji, when their home was bombed late one night during the war. Seiji was mysteriously missing from his bedroom when the family evacuated. His parents, Masaharu and Masako, willingly take in a new baby—Masaaki—to make their family complete again. Masa’s parents’ struggles are told in the stories “Allegiance” and “Willow Run”, which center around the American occupation after the war. Masako tirelessly searches for the whereabouts of her disappeared son, Seiji. She finds work as a typist in an American military office, but then she finds a way to learn more from the intelligence community in Tokyo. In “Allegiance”, Masaharu follows his wife to her office and realizes why she has been working overtime.


At first he failed to connect the dots, his skittering brain unable to grasp anything. Then he did, and for a moment he stood rooted: the MPs; the line of GIs; the alley into which his wife had disappeared. His body shimmered with a new fear. The front doors swung open. He saw the smiling proprietor; he saw the row of women. Their faces were too far for him to make out, but every one of them had the same short bob he’d enjoyed on his wife.


Masaharu does not confront his wife; he is reliant on her to earn money for the family. A leftist journalist, he had already faced jail time for his articles under a fascist regime, and feels he can’t cause any rift in his family. He can’t work as a journalist under the Americans, as the occupiers also curtail the Japanese population’s civil liberties in the name of stopping Communism.

Masako tells her story in “Willow Run”, giving voice to a woman who made a very difficult choice, desperate and willing to do anything for her family.

While Serizawa’s characters acknowledge that prostitution for US soldiers, in which the women are paid, is not the same as the “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers, the result in these cases is pretty much the same: women are used as a tool for men who kill.


Another haunting story is “Train to Harbin”, in which Masaharu’s physician brother, Sadao, moves for a few years to a town called Pingfang in occupied northeast China. He’s employed at a hospital, where he and his colleagues perform inhumane medical experiments. Chinese are injected with infectious diseases to see how they react. A pregnant woman is cut open against her will well before she goes into labor. When Sadao thinks about what he did in Pingfang, he wonders if it was only because Japan was at war. Would he have turned back from torturing people if his country wasn’t at war?


I would like to imagine so; in my right mind I am certain of it. But here lies the problem: the issue of “transgression.” In peacetime all lines are clearer; one needs only assemble one’s motives and evidence for the courts to make the determination. And even if proceedings are flawed and verdicts inconclusive, in one’s heart, one likely knows if one has transgressed. But in war? Does transgression still require intent? Or is it enough for circumstances to conspire, setting up conditions that pressure one to carry out acts that are line with, but not always a direct result of, orders? I do not know.


Sadao’s demons will plague him for decades after the War. And, as Serizawa tells later in the book, the United States knew about these medical experiments, but did not report them to the international war tribunals. Instead, the US kept this information for their own knowledge as tensions grew in Korea.

To help the reader keep track of the different characters and their relationships, Serizawa includes a family tree at the beginning of the book, as well as a list of the stories and when they take place. Without the family tree, the connection between the characters can get a little confusing: some characters appear in more than one story, and the stories are not presented in chronological order. But these are powerful tales of men and women struck by war; in Serizawa’s stories, war has no winners.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.