Tag Archives: Long Belts and Thin Men

Short fiction by Kojima Nobuo, 1952-61


Kojima Nobuo (1915-2006) was drafted in 1941, shortly having graduated with a degree in English literature (his graduation essay was “Thackeray as a Humorist”) and had an absurd military career: first ordered to forget English, he later was detailed to translating intercepted American military radio transmissions. The rest of his unit was deployed to Leyte, where they were slaughtered



Japan is the prototypical shame-based culture and the protagonists of Kojima fiction (including a Nisei leading character) are often paralyzed by fear of doing something shameful. Surviving the war was shameful (not that easily distinguished from “survivor guilt”), if not as shameful as surrendering before the Emperor ordered it.

As Van C. Gessell explained in The Sting of Death, the writers who emerged after WWII and many others of their generation were

“trained not so much to kill as to die, and armed with the instruments of their annihilation, they were sent forth on a mission they loathed and ultimately failed to accomplish. And though they may have been pleased to fail in the deepest recesses of their hearts, they were also publicly embarrassed by that fact. The rush of circumstances made them into unwilling survivors, since the death that was supposed to be their goal and their national duty had conveniently eluded them…. Those who returned alive, for whatever reason, had somehow failed in their calling, had managed to incur shame without committing a shameful act. Fort this generation, the stigma of survival, the return to a ruined and defeated homeland from which they could no more retrieve their youth, and the humiliation of foreign occupation all combined to complete the uprooting process.”

The infantryman narrator of Kojima’s breakthrough fiction, “The Rifle” (1952), melded with his rifle as infantrymen everywhere are urged to do. When it was taken away from him (before Japan’s surrender), he felt lost. Before that, he had been ordered to shoot and bayonet a Chinese woman. No explanation was given him, and he was traumatized by his part in one of the many atrocities the Japanese Army committed in China (and elsewhere). Lawrence Rogers’ introduction likens “The Rifle” to Gogol’s “The Diary of a Madman.” The obsessiveness about a physical possession seems to me more to resemble Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” as other Kojima fiction brings Dostoeveseky’s Notes from the Underground to mind.

“The Rifle” was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize, which Kojima won for the novella Amerikan sukūru (American School, 1954). Its shame-drenched protagonist, Isa, is an English teacher terrified of having to actually speak the language to a native (certain to be shamed by mistakes and/or being incomprehensible). He is trapped, in borrowed and acutely uncomfortable shoes, in a group of Japanese teachers of English who visit a school for the children of American soldiers and officials. The American teachers are paid ten times as much as the Japanese ones and the school is posher on about the same order of magnitude.

In contrast to the shy and chronically ashamed Isa, is the brash and opportunistic Yamada. Yamada is more than willing to celebrate the swordsmanship he used in decapitating prisoners (including captured American ones) during the war to another teacher, though toadying to the conquerors. He has appointed himself commander of the platoon of teachers, though a kind-hearted female teacher (the only female teacher in the group) Michiko speaks better English.

Michiko and a statuesque American teacher, Miss Emily, try to ease Isa’s physical discomfort, but embarrass (shame) him further as an isolated object of pity. And the principal of the school, Mr. Williams, outdoes Yamada at being a martinet, shaming Yamada. The Japanese males’ free-floating humiliation (from defeat and subservience to alien occupiers) is given some new occasions by the attempted solidarity exercise.

Rogers sees two stories from before Kojima’s American (University of Iowa) sojourn as homoerotic. I would have missed the homoerotic aspect of “Voices” (1955), though it has a man (who sells figurines he makes) taking an inexplicable (to the salaryman rushing to work) interest in Sashara. And Sashara, who works at the Defense Agency (no longer Ministry with the abolition of a standing army) enjoys the commands that drift in from the police academy, not consciously relating them to the commands he heard during the war in the army.

The longer “The Black Flame” (1957) has a protagonist enamored of a coworker, Hiroshi, and having an affair with Hiroshi’s wife, Rumi, to feel closer to his secret beloved. The couple have ceased to have sexual relations, so the narrator is not going where Hiroshi has recently gone, though he often urinates in the same urinal Hiroshi has just used. Though the narrator is enamored with Hiroshi, the story is almost entirely about the (adulterous) heterosexual coupling.


Three of the nine stories derive from Kojima’s experiences and observations in Iowa. He did not want to stay in a dormitory and asked to be placed with American families. The wild — shockingly undisciplined to Japanese eyes with parents who do not try to control them — preschoolers in “The House of Hooligans” (1958) are perhaps a warning against accepting American permissiveness in child-raising. It is an amusing tale of culture shock.

More interesting (at least to me) is “Buffoon in an Alien Land” (1958) in which the narrator thinks about having sex with his (Mennonite) hostess, but is mostly buffeted by the demands to perform Japaneseness by his previous hostess, a remarkably brash Amish woman. She has decided that he will demonstrate how to make sukiyaki –with slabs of beef, frozen and canned vegetables — for/before 70 local women. That he has never cooked, let alone with Iowa-available ingredients (including Chinese soy sauce), is no problem in the view of Marcie. (Alas, the reader does not find out how it turned out or whether the rural Iowa women were enchanted with the “exotic” fare.) The typically timid Kojima alter ego is a keen observer of tensions within the marital relations of his hosts

Rogers (and I) wonder how fictitious those two stories are. The third and shortest, “A Certain Day” (1961) has to be, since it centers on a wife who accompanied the Japanese sojourner, who is an engineer, not a writer. She is startled to look out and see a cow next to the house (the basis for the cover illustration) and seems more comfortable in the alien land than her husband, though he has interacted more with Americans.

“In Our Forties” (1961) similarly displays a couple (safely in Japan) planning to build a house, prefiguring Embracing Family (1965), though the couple in the story are not as estranged from each other as that in the novel are. The wives are more decisive, less concerned about “public opinion” than the husbands in both. These ineffectual males, and the ashamed father in “The Smile” [1954] who is unable to love the crippled son he finds when he returns from the war, suppress their aggressiveness, but otherwise resemble married versions of the narrator of Notes from the Underground (and Shimao’s 1947 “Solitary Traveler”)—the pained, awkward Dosteovesky characters seem to have fascinated many Japanese of the postwar era).

Though I am interested in the psychic aftershocks of war and defeat, and the rapid social change of rebuilding Japan, it is the pained intercultural encounters that most interest me in the Kojima stories collected in the just-published Long Belts and Thin Men. (The title is Rogers’ not Kojima’s: when he first went to Japan soon after the war he was struck that many men were wearing belts so long that they extended to their backs. I suspect that rather than being a stylistic choice/ fashion statement that the explanation was that belts manufactured for American girths were dumped on the Japanese market, and then-impoverished thin Japanese made do. He does not seem to have asked anyone whether they felt that American were 1.5 times greater (in girth or anything else) than they were.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray