Kojima Nobuo’s (小島信夫) 1954 short story “Stars” (星) is first of all a humorous read. On the surface its wit expertly pillories the system of rank in the Japanese military during WWII. Like most good humor, however, this story functions on more than one level. The protagonist, a second-generation Japanese-American by the name of George Sugihara, is unfortunate enough to be visiting his grandfather in Japan during the war, and is drafted into the army. The story follows the insecure George (Jōji), who is routinely disparaged for being American, on his journey from buck private to PFC. [Note that there were more than a few cases of Japanese-Americans being drafted in the Japanese army during WWII, see Iwao Peter Sano’s 1,000 Days in Siberia.]

The story quickly becomes a theatre of the absurd. George’s obsession with stars (signifying military rank), and a place in a vertically-oriented organization, exposes the relative and tenuous foundations of man’s self-worth. For George, sitting at the bottom is not all bad as long as there is someone who is just a touch lower than him. Hikida, a pathetic figure, provides George precisely this kind of self-validation. An outside observer may make the mistake of supposing George becomes Hikida’s buddy. One might expect George to develop pity and feelings of camaraderie with Hikida, as he too was once the platoon’s punching bag. Instead, feelings of superiority surface, and George begins to take pleasure in witnessing Hikida’s misfortunes (116-7). The reality is that George uses every opportunity to lower Hikida to a level below his own (they are both of the same military rank), denying the poor soul even humanity: “I wanted him to remain a domestic animal” (122).

George’s every act of kindness towards Hikida is motivated by a power-relationship—helping him makes George feel even more superior (119). The relationship between George and Hikida resembles the time-honored Japanese senpai-kōhai relationship (先輩後輩関係), especially once George is promoted. In its benign form, the “senior” will take the “junior” under his wing and help him along, buy him drinks after work, and the “junior” pretty much does what he’s told. More problematic is the kind of dialectical senpai-kōhai relationship that develops in this story, in which George needs the lowly Hikida near him to feel superior. We may justly suppose that this relationship is a microcosm of the broader militarist culture of wartime Japan.

George’s promotions also beautifully illustrate the self-perpetuating nature of social institutions. Once he gets his star, and becomes “locked into the system” (122), the system itself rises in importance for George (127). All social institutions operate in a similar dynamic. Once you move up in the system, a vested interest in protecting that system develops. Accordingly, even when the war is lost, George clings to the stars and attempts in vain to maintain a dying institution: “If you mess around with the system, we’ll all end up losers” he cautions a rebellious soldier at war’s end (140). It’s a sorry sight, but the stars—symbols of his place in the system—function as the sole sources of self-validation he possesses.

Though published six years earlier, “Stars” channels many elements of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (although Heller did write the first chapter in 1953). The ambiguity of sanity (is the individual insane or the system?), the dehumanizing power of institutions, opportunism of ideologues, and hypocrisy of powerful men, Kojima handles them all with the skewer of a master satirist.

Gessel, Van. The Shōwa Anthology : Modern Japanese Short Stories : 1929-1984. 1st ed. Tokyo ;;New York  ;New York: Kodansha International ;;Distributed in the United States by Kodansha America  Inc., 1992. Print.