I started reading Inheritors, Asako Serizawa’s collection of interlinked short stories—which spans five generations but always comes back to Japan’s wartime trauma—a few days after the annual Nagasaki Peace Ceremony last year and, it turned out, the day before four Japanese cabinet ministers made an official visit to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors not only Japan’s war dead but also officials convicted of war crimes. The timing of my reading was coincidental: for most Southeast Asians of my generation, born in the 1970s and after, Japan’s actions in World War II are something we remember only from school textbooks and have little bearing on our daily lives. The same cannot be said for my parents’ generation: each year in the middle of August, my uncle dutifully sends articles from Chinese-language news channels to the family WhatsApp group, reminding us again of the enduring tragedy of Japan’s wartime involvement.
My uncle, like my parents, was only an infant during the war. But he grew up in a region haunted by tales of the Japanese army’s persecution of Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese population, an extension of the brutal conflict between China and Japan on the Chinese mainland that lasted longer than the war in Europe. Among the older generations of ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia that I know, the war remains a murky, almost taboo subject, referred to only in passing. News clips are the closest they get to communicating their pain to their younger relatives.
The drip of reports about the ministerial visit to Yasukuni Shrine made me wonder how uncomplicated my own relationship with World War II really is, and whether I have inherited more than I care to think of my parents’ unexplored grief and turmoil—raising the question of how modern Asia addresses the legacy of its historical violence. Economic growth in East Asia during the past ten years has created a sense of self-confidence that has in turn diluted anti-Japanese sentiment among the nations Japan once occupied, and softened their criticism of the periodic official visits to Yasukuni. Still, the sensitivities surrounding Japan’s wartime campaigns lurk near the surface. In Inheritors, Luna, a young, bicultural Berkeley professor, arrives in Japan to deal with her father’s affairs after his death. It is 2010, and she finds “the whole of East Asia focused on whether the new Japanese prime minister will visit the Yasukuni shrine.” It takes an outsider to articulate the dynamic. Luna is acutely aware of the political landscape around her:
Almost sixty-five years after the end of the Second World War, the battle over the narrative of history and who might control it—her father’s lifelong concern—seems to be intensifying, not lessening, with regional stability hanging in the balance as the world, strained by old frustrations and new restlessness, creaks and shifts, exposing unresolved fault lines normally buried under market priorities.
This rapid summary of a vast geopolitics declares the scope of the book’s ambitions and suggests its eventual complications. Is it possible to excavate personal and national trauma if the people and countries concerned would prefer their pain to remain buried? In the absence of clarity about what happened, how are we supposed to anticipate the future? Serizawa’s characters attempt to decipher the past by tracking down lost relatives and unearthing family secrets, but they wind up walking in circles. Occasional moments of revelation succumb to a familiar, frustrating silence.
Inheritors is a series of thirteen stories that follow the generations of Luna’s family for more than a century, beginning with Masayuki, a rice farmer born in Niigata in 1868, and ending with his great-great-grandchildren in the United States in the mid-2030s. It is not quite the dynastic epic suggested by the intricate family tree printed at the start of the book, given that the majority of the characters remain unknown to one another and that there is no sense of each generation building on the achievements of the preceding one. If anything, this carefully mapped genealogy serves as a reminder of the fragility of family structures. Masayuki’s descendants move away from home and test their notions of origin and obligation.
The first story opens in the 1980s. Masayuki’s daughter, Ayumi, is an elderly woman with dementia whose memories of her migration from Niigata to California seven decades earlier filter back in brief snatches: her experience hiding from the Civilian Exclusion Orders, which brought the forcible removal of Japanese-Americans from large parts of the West Coast; her largely uneventful marriage to a white American named Edward, who dies from a fall while changing a light bulb; the early tensions with her American-born children widening over the years into an estrangement that none of them seems able to resist, much to their frustration. Serizawa’s description of Ayumi’s life is a telling way to begin a collection about nationality, identity, and deracination. Her growing detachment from the world, told in placid and at times tender prose, hints at unresolved suffering, as in a recollection of ice skating in childhood:
Hot sun on her shivery back. She remembered the glint of the ice, her slashing blades, her fear of sliced fingers. Her skates skipped: the surprise of hard ice on her back and her father’s swishing blades crisscrossing so close to her face she could taste the metal slicing her breath.
Ayumi is one of Masayuki’s three children and appears to be the most fortunate, having been sent to the US in 1911, at the age of twelve, to join a distant relative. Marooned in her new country in 1924, when America closed its borders to Asian immigrants, she escapes the most horrific consequences of the war across the Pacific. She fears the worst about her family’s plight in Japan, even though she rarely mentions them. A taxonomy of suffering is the closest Inheritors comes to a complete portrait of a family (the siblings, who form the core of the book, rarely refer to one another): with each new story, the shifts in time, setting, and form (some flirt with noir thriller, some journalistic interview, others confession) are so dramatic that it can take the reader a moment to adjust. In the spaces created by these ruptures of time and tone, the reader can’t help but measure one character’s pain against that of the next.
Sadao, the elder of Ayumi’s two brothers, is a scientist involved in Japan’s biological and chemical weapons program in China. He marries a woman named Yasuko, and together they have a son, Yasushi. At fifteen, Yasushi runs away from home and enlists in the Japanese army. During the final weeks of the war, fighting in the last stand in the Philippine Sea, Yasushi dies in the battalions. Sadao and Yasuko spend decades searching for their son, wondering if he is alive, only to have their search end in brutal disappointment.
Masaharu, the younger brother, is a left-wing journalist living on the margins of society in US-occupied postwar Japan, who frequently gets in trouble with the authorities for his political views. To make ends meet in a devastated country, his wife, Masako, finds a secretarial job in Ōfuna, not far from Yokohama. It seems prosaic enough until she is recruited to work in a brothel that serves American servicemen, not unlike the infamous practice of sexual slavery known as “comfort women” that the Japanese army carried out during its military campaign in Asia, forcing women from occupied countries to work in army-run brothels. She goes along with this not only out of financial desperation but because she hopes to meet someone who can help find her son, Seiji, who disappeared at fifteen during the bombardments of Tokyo. In this desolate cityscape, she and Masaharu fail to find their child and end up adopting a Korean baby whom they name Masaaki and who becomes an academic in the United States. Masaaki only learns of his ancestry on a visit to Japan in the 1980s, at which point he abandons his wife and daughters, including Luna, in the US—a sort of voluntary death of the immigrant dream that mirrors Ayumi’s slow decline.
The grief that drives Serizawa’s collection evokes earlier works of fiction that explore how the effects of Japan’s military campaign in Asia fanned out across generations and borders, notably Chang-Rae Lee’s A Gesture Life (1999), in which a retired Japanese storekeeper in small-town America is unable to overcome his guilt about a wartime relationship with a comfort woman in Japan, and Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists (2012), whose Chinese-Malaysian judge strives to process the death of her sister in a Japanese concentration camp. Silence suffuses both books, as the protagonists’ attempts to suppress their memories of war complicate their efforts to look toward the future. In those novels, the characters generally benefit from the passing of several decades. Ayumi and her brothers, however, are fighting for survival during the tumultuous years of the war and its immediate aftermath, and the ongoing trauma makes it difficult for them to articulate the conflicts they face. Their struggles, and the struggles of the families they raise, take up most of Inheritors, which depicts how individuals are shaped by social forces, like patriotic support for the war, and end up breaking—sometimes knowingly—their own moral codes. Sadao spends a lifetime picking apart his transition from innocent civilian to willing war participant:
But here lies the problem: the issue of “transgression.” In peacetime all lines are clearer; one need only assemble one’s motives and evidence for the courts to make the determination. And even if proceedings are flawed and verdicts inconclusive, in one’s heart, one likely knows if one has transgressed. But in war? Does transgression still require intent? Or is it enough for circumstances to conspire, setting up conditions that pressure one to carry out acts that are in line with, but not always a direct result of, orders? I do not know.
Sadao’s story is composed of a description of his time in Manchuria, where he never objects or voices unease about what he sees, but never openly supports Japan’s biological warfare experiments either. He barely speaks of his postwar life, and despite four decades of reflection he is unable to approach any sort of emotional resolution. He calmly justifies the deaths of “a few thousand enemies to save hundreds of thousands of our own,” and notes that his human subjects were fed better than many soldiers, yet he suffers from immense guilt.
Elsewhere, Masako, grappling with the double trauma of losing her son and working—both by choice and out of necessity—in a brothel, debates the nuances of female sexual enslavement with a Korean-American journalist in an interview that turns testy toward the end:
But I heard about a group of white women—Dutch, or half Dutch, I think they were, in Indonesia. That country was under the Dutch, wasn’t it? Before it was occupied by our men?…
Those brave Korean women. To come forward like that. All these years later in front of the whole world….
You sound just like my son: “recolonization.”…
No, no, I don’t mean to suggest any were brothels—
But I’m not trying to “conflate” my situation. Though one wonders sometimes whether soldiers from one country are so different from another’s. Even now, wherever there are foreign soldiers, even peacekeepers…Your own troops in Korea, Philippines—
So much self-awareness, so little comfort. Throughout the book, the characters display a remarkable capacity to analyze not just their own responses to the circumstances of war, but how their situations fit within wider, often global, conversations about power, domination, and race. Rarely do they reach any sort of reconciliation. It’s almost as if they were paying—making themselves pay—for consciously troubling the calm surface of postwar Japanese reticence about the war. Although their predicaments are based in a Japanese setting, they speak to much of what happens elsewhere in contemporary Asia, where even recent conflicts are consigned to history. As Sadao says:
For why dig up graves from a banished past, selfishly subjecting all those connected to us to what can only amount to a masochistic pursuit? Isn’t it better to surrender to a world populated by the young, who, taught nothing, remain uncurious, the war as distant as ancient history, its dim heat kindling the pages of textbooks and cinemas, occasionally sparking old men with old grudges, but nothing to do with them?
When I mentioned to my mother during a Zoom call that I was writing about a book on Japan and the war, she let out a half-groan, half-laugh. “What more is there to say?” she asked, a shorthand dismissal of any attempt to complicate the discussion of conflict and trauma. My writer self felt duty bound to protest, but another part of me—more filial, more powerful—decided to let it rest. It is a pattern of behavior that I’m accustomed to: I make feeble attempts to tease the past from my parents, but every time I come close to uncovering pain, I am met with a silence that also silences me.
My mother was born in 1942, toward the end of the first year of the Japanese occupation of what was then called Malaya, in a small town on the edge of the jungle in an area known to be a stronghold of the guerrilla resistance force, drawn overwhelmingly from the country’s ethnic Chinese population. The inhabitants of the town were presumed to be anti-Japanese sympathizers who supported the resistance movement by supplying food, medicine, and other necessities to the fighters hiding in the forest.
In school we learned the common, gruesome facts of the Japanese counterinsurgency strategy, which involved strictly controlling rural communities in order to sever the link between the guerrilla fighters and their support base. A frisson ran through my classmates and me at mentions of interrogation and torture, but our schoolboy imaginations were mostly untroubled by personal links to those acts of violence. In the near-total absence of family accounts of life in these towns during the occupation, we felt sufficiently divorced from the war to dryly view it as history instead of a set of events that shaped us and our communities. It was much later, when I was an adult and wondering why my grandfather had suffered from ill health all his life, that I was told—only once, and in passing—that he had been tortured during the occupation. At that time, I didn’t know how to ask any questions.
The desire for clarity across generations is what drives all of the stories in Inheritors. Parents can’t understand why their children zealously sign up for the war effort; children struggle to imagine why their parents abandoned them; Americans and Japanese strive to interpret their respective countries’ seemingly senseless actions. As Luna and her ancestors try to piece together the various fragments of their family histories, the gaps in knowledge often necessitate lengthy interrogations during chance encounters. Arriving in Japan after her father’s death, Luna begins to sort through his belongings. He had chosen, mysteriously and abruptly, to move to Japan and leave Luna and her family when she was a small child, a devastating rupture that left her permanently confused about her identity. Now she discovers that she knows next to nothing about his. She meets Watanabe, one of Masaaki’s former colleagues, and Yagi, who runs a boardinghouse in Tokyo where Masaaki once spent time, and who appears at the family home with news of Luna’s father and her long-lost uncle, Miyagi:
“So he was in Tokyo all this time?” Luna asks. “I didn’t even know my grandparents ever lived there.”
“As far as I know, Miyagi-san was born in Tokyo,” Yagi says. “After the war, there was no way for him to prove his identity, so he took odd jobs, mostly day labor, and helped my father around the shelter. He was involved in those peace protests too, but he was vague about his activities. He was always secretive.”
“How did they find each other?” Luna asks, trying to absorb the details.
“Miyagi-san volunteers at a nonprofit called Sanyūkai, an organization that helps the homeless. A couple of years ago, he got very sick and started talking about finding his parents’ grave. Most people ended up in common graves after the firebombing, so I don’t know what he expected, but with Sanyūkai’s help, he eventually found your father.”
“And they had no clue about each other.”
Luna consistently explains her views on the war with brevity, which invites similarly brief responses that fail to reveal the nuances of such a vast subject:
“Of course, we’ve hung onto our version of the narrative too, in America: World War Two was our last ‘unambiguous’ war. It still gives us leverage. It’s easy for us to tell others to move on, get along, not drag around old issues.”
“It’s not so different here, thanks to our economy,” Watanabe says. “In very different ways, I think for countries like yours and mine, the issue is that war has become a metaphor. There are real wars, real costs to wars, but they’ve largely been outsourced, and daily life is peaceful.”
The problem is that what is “unambiguous” often turns out to be confused. For my mother and those of her generation, the response to Japan’s involvement in the war is unequivocal: she remains anti-Japanese. For a while my mother refused to buy Japanese goods, then in the 1980s, at the start of a period of anti-Western decolonization in Malaysia, when Japan became the “model” Asian country, she joined the local ikebana club and took Japanese lessons for several years (the only foreign language she ever learned). She admired Japan for its economic success and rich culture yet continued to harbor a deep resentment against it.
While Serizawa’s older characters, with their inability to process trauma, suggest the difficulty of scrutinizing historical grief, the younger ones place themselves under enormous pressure not just to decipher their incomplete understandings of the past, but to anticipate its consequences. Luna’s son Erin, born in 2010, is building a computer program in the year 2035 that models the Earth’s fluctuating weather conditions and their impact on agriculture, resources, new habitats—in short, human survival. His story, whose title borrows the name of his virtual planet (“The Garden, aka Theorem for the Survival of the Species”), describes unstable global societies in the near future, set in motion by 150 years of war, migration, and humankind’s failure to resolve the conflicts that mar its history:
Close to the end of the 2020s, it was clear where the world was headed. Cemented by the long-ago wars of the 1930s and ’40s, the United States still had leverage, with its vast market and military umbrella, but along with the Russians and Chinese, it was now just one of three empires competing with varying degrees of subtlety to divide up the world, indenturing the poor and incentivizing countries rich in resources but stingy with cooperation.
Erin is focused solely on the present, with little introspection or appreciation for the histories that formed him—nowhere in the brief glimpses we get of his family, for example, does he connect with his mother or her background. Japan is barely mentioned, and we are left to assume that Luna withholds from Erin the same burdens of the past that her parents withheld from her—that she encourages him to think only about the future. The virtual planet he creates feels very much like the one we live in today, rather than a radical reimagining of the future. As an exercise in genre fiction, Erin’s story is an enjoyable contrast to the grim suffering elsewhere in the collection, but as speculative fiction, it fails to convince us of what life might look like in the decades to come.
The strongest stories in Inheritors are those that surrender to the unknown and the unknowable and fail to make the facile connections expected of much contemporary fiction, with its emphasis on a pleasing arc culminating in a satisfying resolution. “Pavilion,” perhaps the most arresting, is also the most stylistically incongruous: a sort of Borgesian story in which two men discuss a Borges story. Seiji, the son of Masaharu and Masako, lost in the bombings as a teenager, now finds himself miraculously reunited with his parents’ adopted son, Masaaki. On a quest to find out about his parents’ later years, Seiji manages to discover Masaaki’s address and turns up at his door.
We are never told exactly how the trail of information leads Seiji to Masaaki or exactly how they feel about this fortuitous meeting, because they quickly fall into a conversation about a work of fiction they both, coincidentally, admire. In an extended passage they pore over the intricacies of Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” about a Chinese professor spying for the Germans in Britain during World War I. Evading capture by a British agent, he ends up in a deep and labyrinthine conversation with an eminent Sinologist about the nature of chance, choice, and time.
Seiji and Masaaki have spent most of their lives ignorant of each other’s existence. Through this strange, formal conversation—which amounts to an admission that they cannot decode this almost unfathomable story—they are finally able to achieve a sort of intimacy. What they share is not the artificial closeness that extravagant revelations might have been expected to bring—what kind of relief would they have been able to enjoy anyway, after a lifetime of loss?—but an honesty about their foreignness to each other, their estrangement from their own personal histories.