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A Boy Called H: A Childhood in Wartime Japan

A Boy Called H: A Childhood in Wartime Japan

by Kappa Senoh, John Bester (Translator)

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This is the fascinating true story of a Japanese boy's growing disillusionment with the conduct of a patriotic war.

Boy H's father was a tailor, his mother a tambourine-banging Christian in a country of very few Christians. His childhood unfolded in the 1930s, when militarism was steadily strengthening its grip on Japan; it ended when the nation lay in ruins.


This is the fascinating true story of a Japanese boy's growing disillusionment with the conduct of a patriotic war.

Boy H's father was a tailor, his mother a tambourine-banging Christian in a country of very few Christians. His childhood unfolded in the 1930s, when militarism was steadily strengthening its grip on Japan; it ended when the nation lay in ruins. What set H apart from other kids, despite the shared preoccupation with schoolmates, movies, and sex, was an unusually sharp eye and a precociously skeptical attitude that made him a bit of a loner in a conformist society.

Though at times dark, his anecdotes are arranged with the lightest of touches and a sharp sense of humor. The total effect is of a rich, varied, and intensely readable novel, but one that involves real lives, actual events.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A bestseller in Japan, Senoh's memoir (written effectively if unusually in the third person) of his childhood in wartime Kobe is refreshing in the honesty with which it faces some ugly realities in Japan before and during WWII. Senoh describes in meticulous detail the Orwellian nature of wartime Japan, with its secret police, its press censorship and its suffocating atmosphere of enforced conformity. Senoh and his family were suspected of disloyalty because they were practicing Christians and had friends in the U.S. What's most shocking about Senoh's account, however, is that despite his inner rebellion against the war, he consistently did his "public duty." In the book's most revealing episode, Senoh gives a passionate speech to a school admissions board about "smash[ing] the American and British fiends." Again and again, Senoh robotically mouths the party line when the situation requires it. He even assists an army officer in capturing a downed American pilot. How does Senoh resolve the breathtaking inconsistency between his doubting private self and his gung-ho public self? He doesn't. Senoh seems more comfortable hinting at, rather than directly confronting, big questions about personal responsibility and collective guilt. Maybe these questions remain too painful, both for himself and the entire Japanese nation, but failing to ask them leaves a gaping hole at the center of this narrative. At times, the book reads more like a detailed historical account and less like a personal story of survival; readers expecting an intimate memoir might be disappointed by Senoh's choice to tell his story from the distance of an emotionally detached third person. Nonetheless, this book is engaging, well-crafted and original. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Once in a blue moon, a book comes along that makes you want to put the world on hold. A Boy Called H is such a book. This fictionalized autobiography by a leading Japanese stage designer, essayist, and illustrator re-creates the boyhood years of the eponymous H or Hajime Senoh. The Senohs, a Kobe family of modest means, were distinguished by their Christian faith and their extensive contact with foreigners. (H's father was a tailor.) Precocious, inquisitive, and irreverent, H came of age during the dark years of Japan's descent into the abyss of war and was a middle-school student during the conflict. The 50 vignettes that comprise this book provide an accessible, unforgettable, and intimate introduction to the effects of the war upon Japanese family life, friendships, school, and society. A Boy Called H ranks with a handful of classics about children in wartime. It belongs in multiple copies in all libraries.--Steven I. Levine, Univ. of Montana, Missoula Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Product Details

Kodansha International
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
8.90(w) x 6.00(h) x 1.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Red Label

    "So—you're Master Senoh, eh?"

    The question, coming from a stranger in the street, was a shock to the boy.

    "How did you know my name?" he asked, puzzled.

    "Because you've got it written on your chest," said the man with a smile. "You might just as well be walking around with a label on you."

    Ever since first grade at primary school, the boy had been dressed in a sweater with the name "H. Senoh" knitted on the chest.

    His mother, Toshiko, had got the idea from a letter that had come from America, with their address written in English on the envelope, and a photo inside. The photo showed a woman wearing a sweater with letters on its chest.

    The person in the photo was a Mrs. Staples who'd once lived in Kobe as a Christian missionary and who was much admired by Toshiko for, among other things, her dress sense.

    The sight of her standing there smiling, in her lettered sweater, had brought back pleasant memories of this lady she'd known so well.

    Back then in 1937, nobody had had anything like that sweater, even in Kobe, with its many foreign residents. Toshiko, who was the kind of woman who threw herself enthusiastically into any new idea, decided she'd knit a similar one for her son, emblazoned with "H. Senoh" in large Roman letters.

    Done in white on a dark brown background, the name stood out even at a distance. But the boy, far from sharing his mother's pride andpleasure, found the idea of wearing something so different from other boys' clothes a major embarrassment.

    Worse still was knowing it was his own name that was written there so large.

    "I'm fed up," he complained, "walking around in something with my name on it like this. Just make it H for Hajime, couldn't you? Nobody'd know with just the one letter."

    So from third grade on it was agreed that it should be just the letter H.

    Since pencils often had "H" engraved on them, it was one letter of the alphabet that everyone could read, and in no time "H" became his nickname.

    H's father was a tailor. If you'd said to anyone living in Kobe, "The tailors at 6 Honjo-cho on the road down to the sea from Takatori Station," they could have got there without a map.

    Partly, of course, that was thanks to a big vertical signboard saying "Senoh, High-Class Men's Tailors" that hung from the eaves over the second floor, but actually there were no other tailors in the district.

    The self-proclaimed "high-class men's tailors" was in fact a small business in an ordinary house in which the family also lived, and which faced the road the buses went along.

    They were not far from the residential area of Suma, but unlike that quiet, affluent district this one, on the east side of the Myohoji River, was typically working class, with a market and a small rubber factory; shops, drinking and eating establishments, public baths, an ironworks and suchlike, all mixed up with the dwellings.

    But though the atmosphere of the area was utterly different from that of neighboring Suma, the two were equally lucky in their setting, which was close to both the hills and the sea.

    Although H's parents were keen on education, they believed that homework should be done after the evening meal, and that those daylight hours when the children were not at school were a time for them to play. Thanks to that, once H got back from school every day he was free to amuse himself in the hills or on the beach without interference. All in all, H's days were a busy round of fun.

    The hilly area that was one of H's playgrounds was quite close to his home. A particular favorite was Mount Takatori, whose summit was only a four-kilometer trek to the north, and which the children were almost convinced was their own private territory.

    There was a sandy beach, too, just three hundred meters south of the house, which was virtually their own exclusive stretch of shore.

    So during the summer holiday H's mornings were spent climbing in the hills and his afternoons swimming in the sea.

    H was particularly fond of the sea. Rushing out of the house wearing nothing but a loincloth, he would race down the street and plunge straight into the water.

    So he was proud of the district where they lived, and he felt still more smug at the thought that these were things the rich kids of Suma could never do....

    There were lots of other hunting grounds besides, all calculated to make the children of the well-off districts envious. The marshaling yards to the north of Takatori Station were full of all kinds of locomotives belching smoke and steam as they went about their business, and the stretch of open land where the branch line ran to the Rising Sun oil tanks made an ideal baseball ground.

    Rising Sun was an oil company originally financed by American capital, and the railway tracks were used to convey oil, brought by sea, from the tanks where it was stored. The freight trains would come through twice a day, in the early morning and around noon, so the children playing on the open ground had only to be careful at those times. But even those trains had become steadily more infrequent; in fact they were now quite a rarity, which made it a still more convenient place for H and his friends to play in.

    "Not many freight trains go through nowadays," he told the man at the charcoal store. "The rails are beginning to get rusty."

    "That's because the war with China's still dragging on," the man said in a low voice. "It's a sign they're running short of oil. But you mustn't tell people that—it's a military secret." And he nodded with a rather stern look.

    H didn't take the military secret bit too seriously: the charcoal man was known for telling tall stories.

    His store sold okonomiyaki, too, a kind of pancake with various vegetables, meat and so on mixed in it. In summer it turned into a store selling cold drinks and the like, and a banner saying "Ices" fluttered in front of it. In the season for ices—which meant plain shaved ice with flavored syrup poured over it—the place attracted a lively crowd of children on their way home from the public bath. With his fund of information and his gift of the gab, the shopkeeper was a favorite among the local kids. But they didn't set much store by his tales: too many of them were too good to be true.

    There were plenty of other unusual people in the neighborhood besides the charcoal man. There was the "young man who might be a man or a woman"; the young man from the noodle shop who went around on his bike singing at the top of his voice; the "old soldier" who said that everything was done "for the sake of His Imperial Majesty"; the man at the Yumiya toy store who yelled "Out of my sight!" and brandished a bamboo sword whenever he saw a child....

    H's own favorite was the young man at the noodle shop farther along from them on the other side of the main street. The grownups living thereabouts couldn't quite place him. "Seems he's from Tokyo," they'd say. "He looks too smart for a delivery boy."

    The young man himself said he was a relative of the family, but the proprietor's wife always insisted he wasn't a relative but the son of an acquaintance. The lively way he delivered things was popular among their customers, she explained, so they kept him there on a live-in basis.

    The way he spoke was certainly a bit odd. He did his best to talk like Kobe people, but sometimes he'd lapse into Tokyo speech, and H would poke fun at him.

    He did his rounds on a bicycle, singing loudly as he pedaled along. That was what attracted H: whenever he heard the delivery boy singing he'd jump on his own bike and pedal off after him.

    The way H rode his bike, unfortunately, was not exactly graceful. They'd bought him, secondhand, an adult's bike, and his feet wouldn't reach the pedals if he sat on the saddle, so he had to put his foot through from the side. Even so, he got up quite a good speed and would tail the delivery boy closely, singing along with him as he went.

    In H's home there was a ban on singing anything apart from hymns and the officially approved songs taught at school, so he was careful not to start up until he was quite a way from the house. It was fun, bellowing "Woman is fi-hi-ckle...."

    Then one day Noodles said to him, "If you're so keen on singing, why don't you come up to my room one evening after supper? I'll play some records for you. But don't tell anyone. Sneak out when you come so they don't see you."

    H left home saying he was going to the bathhouse. After walking quite a way along the main road in that direction, he dived off into a sidestreet, then went around so as to get into the noodle shop from the rear entrance. As he went in, he looked back to make sure nobody was watching.

    The kitchen was deserted, work done, the big, empty room visible in the dim light of a bulb hanging from the ceiling. H, who'd never been behind the scenes like this before, moved about rather timidly, poking his nose into things here and there.

    The two cauldrons used for cooking the noodles stood side by side, still warm around the outside. There was a big pot that gave off the smell of the stock used for the noodles. H lifted the lid and stuck a finger in to taste; perhaps it had still to be seasoned, because it didn't taste too good.

    "Hey—what are you up to?" His friend was coming down the stairs, so H hastily turned on the water tap and wetted the cotton towel he had with him.

    "I told them I was going for a bath, so it'd look funny if it wasn't wet, wouldn't it?"

    Noodles slapped playfully at H's head. "I can see you're the intellectual type of criminal."

    H didn't know what an intellectual type of criminal was. but took it as a compliment. "Not really," he said with an embarrassed little smile.

    The young man's room was a poky place only three tatami mats in size on the left at the top of the stairs, but there was a bookshelf liked with lots of books and a large number of records.

    "Here—stop gawking at everything," Noodles said. "Would you like some coffee? It's a bit bitter, but if you don't mind that ..."

    H, sensing that he was being treated as an adult, felt pleased and said, "That doesn't bother me. Yes, please." They always drank black tea at H's home. He'd never once had coffee.

    With a smile, the other took a box down from a shelf, put some dark-colored beans in it, and ground them with a loud rasping sound. There was a smell rather like tobacco, which H found a bit disturbing, but he did his best not to show it.

    The first mouthful of coffee was incredibly bitter.

    "How is it? Do you like it?" asked Noodles.

    "I think I'll like it when I've had it a few times and get used to the bitterness," said H.

    "Hey—you don't have to force yourself to like it! I don't want you drinking all my coffee." Busily turning the handle of a phonograph, he placed a record with loving care on the turntable. "This is a record by Yoshie Fujiwara that includes the song I'm always singing."

    He lowered the needle gently onto the record. There was a scratchy noise for a moment, then suddenly the sound of a male voice singing.

    "What!" H exclaimed in surprise. "Is Yoshie a man?" Yoshie was more common as a woman's name.

    "You thought he was a woman, did you? He's a famous tenor. Of course he's a man. 'Like a feather in the wind' is a famous aria."

    "What's an aria?"

    "A song in an opera that makes you feel particularly good."

    It really did make you feel good, thought H. He got him to play it again, and then again. The third or fourth time, his friend got fed up and said—in Tokyo dialect—"Come on, that's enough. You'll wear the damn thing out."

    H didn't want to go home yet, so he pressed him to play something else instead.

    "This Fujiwara record is a 'red label' one made in America and it's a lot more expensive than ordinary records. He's the only red-label Japanese singer there is. Okay, then, shall I play 'Leaving the Harbor' for you?" he said, winding up the gramophone as he spoke.

    "Is that an old song?" asked H.

    "What year were you born in?"


    "This went on sale in 1928, so it's before you were born."

    "I know it!" H burst out. "It's a nice aria, isn't it," he added self-consciously.

    The young man laughed. "This isn't an aria!"

    He played other songs for H, too, things like "Moon O'er the Ruined Castle" and "Pretty, Pretty Plover."

    H still couldn't tell the difference between them and an aria. Even so, he ventured an opinion: "This Yoshie Fujiwara is good, isn't he! He can sing all kinds of different pieces."

    "Right," said Noodles looking pleased. "If you can tell that, then I'll play some for you again another day. That is, if you don't tell anyone you came here and listened to records."

    "No, I won't tell anybody," said H. "Here—let's swear on it." He crooked a finger and held it out.

    "If you don't keep your word, I'll boil you alive," his friend said, smiling as he crooked his little finger around H's.

    Almost every evening after that, H went to the young man's room.

    After three days in a row without going to the bathhouse, he was afraid his mother was going to find out, but just in time his father, who seemed to have some inkling of what H was up to, saved him by remarking, "You ought to wash a bit more thoroughly."

    After a number of visits to his room, H found himself liking the delivery boy more and more and decided that as a mark of respect he'd give him the nickname "Red Label."

    The next time he went to visit, he told him about it.

    To his surprise, the smile was wiped off his face in a flash. "No, thank you!" he said in a loud voice. "You stick to 'Noodles'—I don't want any 'Red Label.'"

    H was startled; he'd never been shouted at like that by him before.

    "All right," he said, though he didn't know what he'd done wrong. Either way, he didn't want to put him out.

    A few days later, the young man told him not to come that day. "I've got a friend coming tonight, so it's off today," he said, peering hard into H's face. "You're not to come under any circumstances. Okay?"

    He sounded so firm about it that H said in a knowing voice, "All right, I won't. I expect you've got something private to talk about."

    The fellow looked taken aback for a moment, then said, "It's a friend I haven't seen for a long time."

    The noodle shop, being not far up the road on the other side, was plainly visible from the upstairs window of H's home, so he looked across at his friend's room after it got dark. The curtain was drawn, so he couldn't tell who was them, but the light was on in the room. There seemed to be someone there. H felt a bit left out, but tried to accept it.

    Late that night there came several shrill blasts on a whistle and a clamor of voices: "There—up on the roof!"

    H was asleep but awoke, startled.

    "What was that whistle?" he asked his father, who was in bed next to him and had woken up too.

    "The police are after someone. But you're not to go outside, okay?"

    H raced upstairs and furtively peered across the road through a crack in the curtains. He could just make out human shapes scrambling away on all fours over the rooftop. There were two of them; one of them he recognized at once, with a thumping of his heart, as his friend.

    Three men in black who'd got onto the roof from the drying platform leapt on him from in front and behind and pinned him down. There was a short struggle with loud cries of "Hey! Stop!" before someone called out "Got him!" and the young man disappeared with them over the roof to the other side.

    The blasts on the whistle ceased, and a sudden silence fell.

    The commotion seemed to have woken up other people in the neighborhood, for lights went on in windows here and there, only to go out again almost immediately. No one opened a window. Probably they were all, like H, peering through windows from inside darkened rooms. He sensed at once that something really scary had happened.

    At the idea of his friend in the hands of the police, he suddenly began to tremble.

    "Back to bed, now," said his father from behind, tapping him on the shoulder.

    "Just a bit more," said H, still staring down at the road in front of the noodle shop. As he did so, men in dark clothes appeared out of nowhere and gathered in the main street. A fair number of policemen must have been in wait there. H strained his eyes to see if his friend was in one of the groups as they went off, but it was too dark to see properly.

    The next morning, H heard a knot of neighbors talking to each other in hushed voices:

    "It gave me a turn. I mean, half past one in the morning! Four of them caught, they say."

    "He really was a Red, then."

    "It's Dangerous Thoughts, so the secret police will really put him through it."

    "What're Dangerous Thoughts? Who're the secret police?" H asked them anxiously, but the grownups suddenly clammed up.

    "Keep your voice down," he was told with a look of fierce disapproval.

    So, thought H, it was something private his friend had been discussing, something he didn't want the police to get wind of....

    "Anything about the noodle shop?" he asked his father that morning, thinking it might be in the newspaper. But there wasn't a single line about it. Nor was it in the next day's paper either.

    In the winter of the previous year, when an actress called Okada and a stage director called Sugimoto had fled across the border into the Soviet union, the papers had reported it and there'd been a great fuss, but not a word appeared about the deliver boy from the noodle shop. It must be because he wasn't famous, H concluded. Even so, it puzzled him how the police had got to know about him.

    "One of his pals must have informed on him," his father said. "They've begun clamping down recently, so you can't be too careful even with your friends."

    H, who knew what "informing" meant, felt his heart begin to thump suffocatingly.

    He remembered various things now: how his friend had looked almost angry when he'd called him "Red Label," and forbidden him to use the nickname; the large number of records and books that he'd had; and the awkward look on his face when H had said "something private to talk about." No, he hadn't been an ordinary delivery boy.

    "Red," they told him, meant a communist.

    "I kept my promise!" he declared silently. "I didn't tell anyone. It wasn't me who informed on you." And every day, even at school, he worried in case the police came and took him away too. He decided that if they did question him he'd say nothing about how the young man had played a red-label record for him: even that aria might be something they'd forbidden.

    Possibly the proprietor of the noodle shop had been taken in by the police as well, since the shop didn't open again for about a week after that. And from then on, the neighbors took care never to mention Noodles again. When H plucked up courage and asked the proprietor's wife, "Where's your delivery boy now?" the woman looked annoyed.

    "Seems he's been put in the army. I don't suppose he'll be back again. Don't go asking me about him anymore—we've had enough trouble on his account as it is!"

Meet the Author

On leaving school, KAPPA SENOH worked as a graphic designer before making his largely self-taught debut as a stage designer in 1954. Since then his work for the theater, as well as for operas and musicals, has made him one of Japan's leading artists in the field and won him many awards. He is also known as a best-selling essayist and illustrator, especially for his "Kappa Takes a Look at ..." travel book series on various parts of the world, with their uniquely detailed drawings.
A Boy Called H is his first venture into full-length book form.

The translator, JOHN BESTER, an Englishman who has lived most of his life in Japan, is one of the foremost translators of Japanese literature. Among his translations are works by Masuji Ibuse, Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe, and Kenji Miyazawa. In 1990 he received the first Noma Translation Award.

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