As a half-Japanese kid growing up in the Northeast, I masqueraded quite successfully as another disenfranchised suburban Caucasian dude, angry more at being nowhere special than for any definable reason. But two historical phrases instilled unease: “Pearl Harbor” and “The Bataan Death March.” The former’s nasty ethnic stereotypes of the Japanese character—sneaky, cowardly, backstabbing—made me wary of my mother and half of my family, all of whom seemed otherwise sane and trustworthy to me. And the latter left me cold: How could such mindless barbarity even happen? One of these days, I used to think, I’ll be unmasked—as one of them.
Historical anecdotes have very significant drawbacks, of course. In the name of brevity and clarity, they reduce ambiguous human symphonies to palatable and memorable riffs.
But with hindsight and the power of narrative, writers have the power to unlock and conduct mystery back to life. Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman, in Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath, revive the rich choral horror of what seems banal at first: a sixty-six day march of American and Filipino POWS to prison camps in the Philippines, and eventually, Japan, beginning in 1942. By tracing the story of one very much alive American survivor, the now-artist Ben Steele, whose illustrations enhance the book’s capacious stories, and by interviewing American, Filipino and Japanese participants, the Normans beautifully tell a story about a nightmarish event. The Allied POWs were abandoned early on by President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur, largely because the US was preoccupied by the war in Europe and willing to overlook the fates of 76,000 of their own; and the Japanese soldiers, emboldened by a military dictatorship and brutalized into madness by their commanders, successfully dehumanized their booty. The POWs were no different from the prisoners at Abu Ghraib: Spoils for the despoiling.
Tears in the Darkness and pal Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice, about the inner workings of the Japanese mafia and its collusive relationships with the FBI, serve as adequate bookends to my reading year: two books about the dangers of masquerading as anyone but yourself.