A WEEK IN BOOKS

In the weeks surrounding VJ Day, it's no surprise to find a flurry of books on Japan. Since mid-July, they have been massing on the shelves like paratroopers: memories of Hiroshima (Children of the Atomic Bomb by James N Yamazaki) mingle with moral essays (Weapons for Victory: the Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years Later by Robert James Maddox); books on the Allies' plans to invade Japan in 1945 sit beside exposes of Japanese biological warfare (Factories of Death by Sheldon H Harris); can-we-join- in titles (The Forgotten Air Force: the RAF in the War Against Japan 1941- 45 by Air Commodore Henry Probert) jostle with opportunistic items (Japan Encounters the Barbarian: Japanese Travellers in America and Europe by WG Beasley) that cash in on our current fascination with the inscrutable, unapologetic East.

The Japanese premier, Mr Murayama, the man who enraged British feelings this week by confusing his owabi and his shazai (the crucially-different two speeds of saying "sorry") may be puzzled by the British code of honour that seems to require such prostration from its former enemies. The explanation, however, lies in the publishers' lists. By far the most popular genre of Japanese book around at present is the Grisly Tales compendium, those first-person reports of torture and inhumanity from Changi Jail or Outram Road or the other PoW camps, with their sadistic guards and rat casseroles, make grim but compulsive reading: Nippon Slaves by Lionel de Rosario, Back to Burma by Mary Davey (whose husband died on the Burma-Siam Railway), Prisoners of the Japanese: PoWs of World War II in the Pacific by Gavan Daws. Beyond them stretches a chill British compulsion to believe in the worst excesses of Japanese brutality. When I was at school, a book circulated in the locker rooms that gave us a frisson of shock. It was called The Knights of Bushido by Lord Russell of Liverpool and was a graphic compendium of horrors (with drawings) involving barbed wire, sharpened bamboo canes, spikes, fingernails, enema hoses and electric prods. For a generation who grew up after the war, the Bushido volume became lodged in our heads as the epitome of cruelty. Any hope of Japan being forgiven its wartime sins must wait for the book's memory (and the current wave of yellow-peril volumes) to fade.

John Walsh

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