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The Changing Nature of Warfare: Nobuo Kojima’s The American School

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    The Changing Nature of Warfare: Nobuo Kojima’s The American School

                Nobuo Kojima’s 1954 short story, The American School, is set in Japan during the occupation period following the end of World War II followings its defeat.  The story is essentially a mix of drama with a mix of comedy and is all about adjustment and coping with the new situation that has befallen the Japanese.  But the story hides a rather implicit theme, it also depicts a “war” from within which is quite different from the war fought previously and the school serves as a battleground of this “new” yet unusual kind of warfare. After the formal surrender ceremonies, American soldiers promptly occupied Japan which they used to think would fight tooth and nail to the very end should they have invaded it.

    The Japanese regarded Japanese soil as sacred and would not allow a “barbarian” to defile it by setting foot on it and this was evidenced by the dogged resistance put up in Iwo Jima and Okinawa as the war was gradually coming to a close.  The planned invasion of Japan was perceived to be very bloody in terms of casualties on the Allied side but it did not push through when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hastening the end of the war with Japan’s surrender.

                The story follows the travails of three Japanese teachers who work in an American school teaching English.  Their “battle” began when they were taken to an American school initially to observe before they can formally begin their jobs.  These are the three principal characters of the story. Each one of them has a distinct personality brought into play and the story deals on how they coped with the occupation of their country. Yamada is a former officer of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) who took on his new profession as an English teacher as the IJA was demobilized. As a soldier in the last war, it is suggested that he beheaded a lot of prisoners of war (POW’s), which also included Americans he encountered.

    One may think that Yamada hated Americans through and through but in a strange ironic twist, Yamada appears very accommodating to the western ways of his conquerors. Yamada has taken great pains to learn and adapt the ways of his conquerors such as strictly speaking English only and wearing a rare pair of leather shoes to look every inch westernized.  This was underscored when he remarked, “They should avoid speaking Japanese in front of their hosts in order to display to the fullest extent their command of English” (Kojima 2586). Despite his past experience, where he was well versed in military ways, he did not like to apply his military mentality as evidenced by his resentment of using the whistle to bring students to attention and make them march in rigid formation (Molasky 31; Sminkey 31).  Yet, in all that zeal, Yamada is depicted as arrogant, self-righteous man.

    “And when he came up against colleagues whose English was better than his own, especially if they were women, he would try to defeat them on other grounds, to browbeat them if need be with the brute strength of his manly will. But in the end he often lost anyway” (Kojima 2598).

    He was so obsessed in perfection for self-serving purposes, to assert his superiority over his fellow Japanese, even if it means humiliating them in the process, all the more it would enhance his self-esteem and make him feel superior.

                Isa represents the antithesis of the trio.  Like Yamada, he is also a former soldier now taking on a new career as a teacher.  He is the one who appears or “nationalistic” when he by disagreeing with Yamada’s insistence they only speak English in front of their hosts.  Despite his “nationalist” stand, he appears to be very deferential, if not shy or timid most of the time.  This is evident in the scene where he had a rather unpleasant encounter with an American soldier who tried to give them a lift to the school (Orbaugh 134).  This encounter did not make him feel much better and it was observed,

    “No matter how dire his need, the very thought of riding next to a foreigner again made him sick” (Kojima 2591).

    Like Yamada, Isa also wears a pair of leather shoes on their way to the school.  Nationalism aside, he did it for the sake of having a job. If he had his way, he would wear his old, worn-out army boots to work with his uniform to boot.  Nevertheless, he would prefer this anytime over anything western.

    It can be inferred here that Isa was one of the few who would have probably resisted the Americans had they attempted to invade Japan.  Like all Japanese, he heeded the call of his emperor to yield but that did not mean he did so completely.  If there was one thing he could not yield, it was his Japanese identity.  Although Yamada was a former enemy of the Americans, he comes off the story as an opportunist, eager to capitalize on anything that would benefit him, a characteristic that is rather alien, if not an anathema to the Japanese who are known to be a collectivist society that frowns on individualism.

    “But so long as he was not obliged to speak, he was resigned to suffering these minor indignities. Nevertheless, he was desperately eager to return to the group, to become again only one among many” (Kojima 2598)

    Because of his timid nature, he keeps his resistance to himself.  It can be further surmised that Isa was looking forward to the day the Americans would someday leave and he could be Japanese once again.

                The sole female of the group, Michiko, also appears to have wholly embraced American ways which was underscored by her manner of dress – western suit with hat to compliment it and high heels, something totally alien to Japanese women accustomed to wearing flat-soled sandals, resulting in her awkward movements as she is not accustomed to wearing such footwear.  She is shown to be very proficient in English and would occasionally spar with Yamada on who is more proficient in the use of English.

    “Michiko reflected that her command of a foreign language and her general level of education might set her far above most of the residents; nevertheless, it was she who had walked four miles for the privilege of visiting their school” (Kojima 2600)

    During the trip, however, despite having the appearance of being westernized, Michiko’s subtle actions betray her Japanese identity as her mannerisms give her away.  Such examples would be when she gave Isa a can of cheese and shared chocolate with her fellow instructors which she got from passing soldiers.  Another was the scene were she was using chopsticks.

    “It remained a secret shared by Isa and Michiko alone that she had fallen while clutching at this homely artifact of their native land” (Kojima 2606)

    These actions reveal that while Michiko is able to accommodate certain aspects of western culture, she maintains a part of her being Japanese.  One can say that she shares the same sentiment as Isa although she is more open as opposed to Isa’s resistance.

    Other characters in the story are Shibamoto, an official from the Education Ministry who arranged this excursion as a way of preparing the newly-minted teachers for their new jobs.  Unlike the three principal characters, Shibamoto appears to have no issues whatsoever.  The other two are Americans – Mr. Williams, the principal of the American school and Emily, one of the American teachers.  Both Americans are cast as condescending towards the Japanese which can be inferred that the war has made them poor and miserable and they felt that they needed to be charitable to them, most especially Mr. Williams.

    As stated earlier, the story conveys another message beyond the apparent meeting of eastern and western culture.  It also shows a new kind of conflict looming despite the end of the war and to borrow Samuel Huntington’s words, a “clash of civilizations.”  It was no longer a war of politics – militarism and democracy, but a war between two cultures considered alien to one another.  The United States represents the irresistible force and the Japanese the immovable force.  When the Americans occupied Japan, their goal was to remake it into a modern democratic state, thereby erasing all traces of its militaristic past which they saw was very horrible in the light of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the lands they occupied.  They are hoping that by democratizing the Japanese, it would make them more “civilized.”

    What is noticeable here is that the Americans in the story underestimated the Japanese as far as their being “civilized” was concerned.  The Japanese boasted of a highly cultured civilization they have cultivated for centuries.  They pride themselves in taking the best of anything foreign but this did not mean they are accepting everything about it.  They “indigenize” any foreign influence, assimilating it to their culture.  The Japanese are acutely aware of the consequences of blindly absorbing anything foreign to their culture; if it threatens their culture, it threatens their identity as a people and to lose their identity is to lose their soul which why the Japanese have resisted any attempts to be colonized in the past.  Despite their military defeat in the Second World War, it was rather apparent that the Japanese still showed defiance as far as defending their culture and civilization was concerned.

    In the story, the characters symbolize this clash of cultures.  The “war” going on was the apparent “guerrilla” warfare being waged by the Japanese and surprisingly the protagonist in this case is Isa, not Yamada.  Although he claimed to have killed Americans in the war, Yamada represented the opportunist.  In wars, such characters are common.  They are ready to change sides so as long as the circumstances are favourable.  It can be inferred that during his army stint, Yamada served diligently so as long as his side was winning.  His decapitation of POW’s underscored the superiority of Japanese arms and he felt proud of it.  But upon their defeat, he made an abrupt about-face the moment the articles of surrender were signed.  But as stated before, he is doing this more for personal gain above everything else.

    Isa can be considered the true “warrior” or rebel who is defying his occupiers in his own unique way even though he could no longer bear arms to do so. It can be inferred that he is every inch a Japanese and in his heart, he felt they were not defeated and this was underscored by this observation:

    “Listening to these mellifluous English voices, he could not account for the fear and horror which the language had always inspired in him. At the same time his own inner voice whispered: It is foolish for Japanese to speak this language like foreigners. If they do, it makes them foreigners, too. And that is a real disgrace” (Kojima 2596)

    Michiko is the first to understand and later sympathize with Isa’s stand. It is observed, “…no doubt one reason for Isa’s hatred of the foreign language: when you spoke it you stopped being yourself” (Kojima 2604).  She represents the neutral party.  Where Yamada is the self-serving opportunist, she is an opportunist of a different kind.  Yamada’s opportunism is seen as the divisive force here.  She sees the best of both worlds.  While she welcomed the benefits of western civilization from clothes to language, she still retains her Japanese image as shown by her generosity and use of chopsticks to show she is Japanese and not ashamed of it.  This shows that she is clearly on Isa’s side.  Isa is clearly the rallying point here despite his passivity.  It shows that one need not be violent not aggressive to resist when spoke out,

    “He called out to him in Japanese: ‘You’ll have to speak our language. Speak Japanese or else! What would you do if someone really said that to you?’” (Kojima 2587; quoted in Sherif & Koda 107)

    Isa is clearly showing his defiance here.  As far as he is concerned, he is not defeated or conquered.  He is letting the Americans know who they are dealing with and where they are.  They may be defeated but they will not allow themselves to be conquered (culturally).  He further demonstrated this by removing his shows and using his chopsticks which he later lent to Michiko.  These are symbols of his defiance and as far as he is concerned, there is still a war going on and it is one where he is determined to win.

    In conclusion, if there is one conflict that still persists, it is the war of civilizations underscored by the war of wills on a personal level as shown by Isa.

    Works Cited

    Kojima, Nobuo. The American School. In Howard Hibbett (Editor). Contemporary Japanese Literature. New York: Knopf, 1977.

    Molasky, Michael S. The American Occupation of Japan and Okinawa: Literature and Memory. New York: Routledge, 1999.

    Orbaugh, Sharalyn. Japanese Fiction of the Allied Occupation. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    Sherif, Ann & Koda, Aya. Mirror: The Fiction and Essays of Koda Aya. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

    Sminkey, Paul. An Analysis of Japanese Attitudes during the American Occupation as seen through Post-War Japanese Literature. A paper delivered in Kagoshima, Japan, 2000. Retrieved 4 August 2010 <>.

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