Kojima Nobuo (小島信夫) wrote the short story “American School” (アメリカンスクール) the same year as “Stars” (星). The similarities in tone and approach are readily noticeable. Although written in 1954, the story is set in 1948 in the midst of the US occupation of Japan. It centers on a visit of a group of Japanese teachers of English to a school run by the Occupation forces, hence the title.

The characters are archetypes and the lampooning of the contemporaneous social realities is representative of Kojima’s satiric approach. Personal relationships between the characters drive the story, the majority of which centers on a group march to the American school. Isa, a cowardly fellow who is scared to death of speaking English—yes he is an English teacher—wants only to be left alone. Yamada, a sycophant to authority and overweening jackass to everyone else, is above all an opportunist (there is a similar character in “Stars”). Yamada sees Isa as a non-hacker and desires to publicly humiliate him. Isa, in turn, despises Yamada. Michiko, the only woman in the group and very popular with the Occupation forces, sticks close to Isa, for a variety of reasons. The most apparent reason is that he has something she wants.

Kojima is the witty god of his fictional world, poking fun at everyone involved. He jibes, albeit gently, at the hypocrisy of the Occupation:

Isa had once been pressed into service at election time as interpreter for the Occupation inspection team (all elections were to be conducted impartially under the watchful eyes of the authorities)

(121).

But he reserves his salient derision for the Japanese. He writes a group of people who just three years prior led a life much different from the one they are expected to lead presently. The worldview, the values, all changed—at least publicly—overnight. The unavailing struggle to fight any actions that may be perceived as smacking of militarism appears as the butt of a few jokes.

…he blew the whistle to assemble the others. Yamada protested that the whistle would sound a shrill note of unreconstructed militarism; furthermore, for the same reason, they should not march in a solid phalanx. Shibamoto granted his point and ordered the group to fall out. When the command was given to reassemble in loose ranks, Yamada placed himself like a staff adjutant at Shibamoto’s side

(123-4).

Kojima’s stories are not, however, caricatures. They have a bit of range. Against a backdrop of “victim’s history,” in which the militarist state is cast as the malefactor while the citizenry pled the Nuremberg defense, he tackles the chilling topic of war atrocities, in an understated but scathing criticism of the Japanese as individuals. A particular dialogue proves especially unsettling:

“It must be hard, cutting off heads.”

“Not really. It takes a good arm, a sharp sword, and practice, of course. that’s all.”

“How many did you polish off?”

“Let’s see…About twenty, I guess. Half of them must’ve been POWs.”

“Any yanks?”

“Naturally.”

“You’re lucky they never caught up with you.”

“…I was only following orders.”

(127-8).

Yet at the same time the story is infinitely sympathetic with the plight of the Japanese, who lived in such poverty where “true good will was translated into gifts of food,” and who are consistently and somewhat cruelly reminded of their own defeat (124). Isa’s characterization as “a shy but spirited little man in the jaws of adversity” is especially representative of Kojima’s commiseration. Although a comedy, “American School” nevertheless explores the serious issues of the Japanese self-perception a both victims and victimizers (perhaps most famously taken up by Endō Shusaku in The Sea and Poison), life under the Occupation, the rebuilding of a nation, and the hardships of the average citizen.

Kojima published this story two years after the US ended the occupation, and four years after the Red-scare-fueled “reverse course” policy reinstated many of the previously purged militarists to power. May Kojima not have wondered by then, what has the American School taught us?

Story published in English, translated by William F. Sibley in:

Hibbet, Howard. Contemporary Japanese Literature: An Anthology of Fiction, Film, and Other Writings Since 1945. New York: Knopf, 1977.

©M.I.