A rare Japanese portrayal of Japanese war crimes

“As long as we refuse to admit that inhumanity is completely human, we’ll just be telling pious lies.”  — Romain Gary

I don’t know why Shûsaku Endô’s disturbing 1957 novel (also its first part) was titled The Sea and Poison. There is no real poison and not much sea in the highly fragmented narrative. The focus of the novel is medical experimentation on downed American flyers during the last year (or so) of WWII, when it was clear to anyone not blinkered with imperialist ideology that Japan was going to be defeated. Not that future war crimes trials were envisioned by the nurses and doctors who participated in what they understood to be vivisection. None of them considered that “research” that could not be published was not going to advance medical science or practice. And there is no indication where/in whom the idea of experiments certain to end in the death of POWs first formed. (Probably Dr. Hashimoto who has just botched an important operation.)


I think the shifting perspectives make it unnecessarily difficult to read and Endô provides nothing about how knowledge of what was done reached the ears of the eventual conquerors. For me, that is more interesting than the excruciating details of the murders disguised as “experiments.”

Japanese are famously not motivated by guilt. An argument could be made that shame at questioning authority and breaking from the herd (in this instance a herd committing atrocities) accounts for the participation of Dr. Suguro, an intern at the time who balked inside the surgical theater at what was being done, though unable to speak out against what is being done or to leave. And Dr, Toda, the intern who “took up the slack” shows some signs of harboring guilt about various things that occurred during his youth, including allowing another student to be punished for a crime he committed (along with an unsatisfying adultery and hypocritical embellishments of an essay about what he did during the summer vacation).


Nurses Ueda and Oba are too preoccupied with their personal problems to notice involvement in something untoward (the vivisection atrocity), and the officers who dine on the liver of one of the fresh corpses are not characters with any characteristics other than oafish insensitivity. The lead surgeons who did the deed are not at all rounded characters, either, though Endô draws some of the micropolitics of the hospital outside Fukioka (and not bombed as the city was, heavily).

There is also some representation of Japanese mistreatment of conquered Manchurians, including unconcern about rape.

And Endô used the name Sugoro again for the autiobiographical protagonist of Scandal (1986).

The rare confrontation of Japanese war crimes won The Sea an Poison the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, which attracted a lot of attention to the author, whose Catholicism and engagement with the West (two years in Lyon exploring French Catholic writers) surely contributed to his being the most-translated and best-known in the West of the third generation of Japanese novelists.There was a 1986 screen adaptation starring Okuda Eiji, Ken Watanabe and Tamura Takahiro.

I cannot forebear mentioning that the introduction by translator Michael Gallagher is exceedingly unhelpful, barely mentioning the book being introduced while nattering about other Endô works, especially The Silence (recently filmed by Martin Scorsese).

For a Japanese account of the mistreatment of a downed American flyer (by villagers) see Oe’s Prize Stock. I have recently posted several analyses of war-justified atrocities, They Would Never Hurt a Fly and Understanding Evil.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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