I haven’t really thought about the lives of ordinary Japanese people during World War II until I started to read The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama. The concepts that were deeply rooted in my mind were how the war and Japan’s soldiers brought disaster, tragedy, and despair to the Chinese people and to the foreigners who lived in China at the time, as seen in Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking or Empire of the Sun by J. G. Ballard. But the war also brought extreme tragedy to ordinary Japanese people.
The story starts in 1939. Two orphaned brothers, Hiroshi and Kenji, live with their loving grandparents. Hiroshi has a dream to become a great sumo wrestler, while Kenji is fascinated with mask-making for the Noh theatre. They both find mentors and are progressing toward their dreams, when the war smashes everything, including their aspirations. Enduring empty stomachs, they suffer endless air raids and the plunder of their every penny for the war effort by the local police, and witness the bloody killing of a neighboring young woman who bravely protests the war. One of the astounding accounts is the firebombing of Tokyo; the scenes depicted are so destructive, horrific, and heartbreaking, as on a single night so many ordinary people’s lives are destroyed. The damages the firebombing and the war caused for the Japanese people both physically and mentally were so profound that after twenty years, Hiroshi’s wife, Aki, who witnessed the bombing and lost her mother that night, is still haunted by the past.
When asked who has influenced her work, Tsukiyama, who has both Japanese and Chinese ancestry, mentioned the name of the great Chinese Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu (or Tu Fu), along with other poets and writers. Indeed, while reading The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, I couldn’t help but relate to the poetic accounts on war scenes to those poems Du Fu wrote during the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), the war that lasted almost eight years and devastated his whole country while putting ordinary people’s lives in despair.
In an interview with WaterBridge Review, Gail Tsukiyama mentioned: “I believe many books evolve out of the natural curiosity of the writer. Writers are always asking themselves questions and hoping to find the answers.” Indeed, I found that my own curiosity was unwittingly merged into the author’s. The fascinating accounts on the arts of sumo, the Noh mask-making, and fine Japanese culture were weaved in throughout the book along with the brothers paths toward their striking achievements. The amusement of reading this book was that I searched my way in and finally came out from a maze full of Japanese history, culture, and art, together with the author.