Itoh’s novel tells tale of young woman in wartime Shanghai

After working for years at institutions including the United Nations and the World Bank, Keiko Itoh ’74 decided to return to school to pursue a PhD in economic history, which eventually resulted in her producing a semi-biographical historical novel, “My Shanghai, 1942-1946,” on which she gave a talk last Monday.

This talk was organized by Professor Haili Kong, head of the Chinese section in the department of modern languages and literatures, and was facilitated by the Asian studies program, Chinese and Japanese sections, department of history, and the Advancement Office.

I happened to teach a Lu Xun seminar this fall, and Itoh’s book is not directly related to Chinese literature, but it somehow offers a historical and social background of the time. Another reason I arranged this event is because Itoh is a Swarthmore alumna, which may also open up a possible path for Swarthmore students, current or alumni, to take: creative and literary writing,” he continued.

Itoh’s intent when she returned to school was to study some of the unique aspects of her family history. Itoh’s mother and father met in London, where Itoh currently lives. They left London during World War II, and were married in Japan before moving to Shanghai. As such, her research initially focused on the pre-war Japanese community in London. After completing her PhD, she published this research as her first book. She then turned towards Shanghai, where her parents lived during the war.

“The natural next step for me, given I was dedicated to finding out about my family history, was to look into the Japanese community in Shanghai, [during] the period when parents lived there, which was from 1942 to 1946. This community turned out to be a completely different ball game. For one, the number of Japanese living in Shanghai was far more than in London,” she said.

Due to the much larger size of the Japanese community in Shanghai, Itoh decided to limit her studies to Japanese people in Shanghai who were similar to her parents and aunt and uncle. She focused on employees of large international trading companies and banks and members of the same social circle as her family, which included Japanese Christians, British Quakers, and Chinese citizens across the political spectrum. She was inspired by an article by James A. Fogel.

“The great majority of Japanese in Shanghai in those tense years were most concerned with ensuring their government’s active involvement in protecting their community and its interests against the Chinese. There were, however, less well known voices among the Japanese, who called for peace and urged their compatriots and government to take the Chinese into account,” she said, quoting Fogel’s article.

These less well-known voices included her family and characterized the group she intended to study. Sadly, after contacting Fogel and conducting her own research, it became clear to Itoh that there was simply not sufficient information on this group of Japanese nationals in Shanghai during the war to facilitate the writing of an academic piece. Intent to continue her exploration of her family’s past without the necessary information to complete her research, Itoh turned to fiction and began writing “My Shanghai, 1942-1946”.

“It is the story of a young Japanese woman who spent her teenage years in London, who then goes to Shanghai in 1942 as a young wife and mother. Eiko is in Shanghai because of her husband’s work, and since her husband is the manager in a big Japanese corporation, even among the Japanese, they are part of a privileged group … But, as the war progresses, with Japan’s control tightening, Eiko starts to see what occupation means for both her international friends and Japanese civilians, whose lives become harder and harder,” said Itoh.

In writing this novel, Itoh incorporated her research, including her mother’s stories and details of her life. In constructing the plot, she tried to pursue what originally drew her to her mother’s stories of Shanghai: how fond her mother’s memories of Shanghai were, despite living there in the midst of a war.

“As a child, my mother’s time in Shanghai sounded so wonderful, so rosy, but then I realized it was in the midst of the war. There must have been lots of hardship and deprivation, and yet, to her, the experience was overwhelmingly positive,” said Itoh.

She attributes her mother’s positive memories of Shanghai to two factors. Shanghai saw her mother reunited and living with her older sister for the first time in several years. Secondly, her mother was in her early 20s when she lived in Shanghai, so the city was a large part of her initial journey into adulthood. As such, Itoh wanted “My Shanghai, 1942-1946” to be a coming-of-age story. The title reflects that, referring the the great influence Shanghai had on the protagonist as she was in the midst of growing up.

“How could the Japanese point of view be clearly indicated in a succinct way fit for a title?” asked Itoh.

“‘My Shanghai’ was suggested by a friend of mine, and it clicked straight away. With my Japanese name appearing under the title, it seemed to become obvious, without any mention, that it was a Japanese perspective. It was my publisher who added the years “1942-1946,” and here too, it becomes immediately obvious that it is the war years,” she explained.

Others had different perspectives on the title. One audience member questioned the title, pointing out that it implied a possessive nostalgia for the subjugated city. The sentiment was echoed in several other audience questions regarding the novel’s treatment of the subjugation of the Chinese by the invading Japanese.

“Despite her emphasis on the personal and fictitious, I believe that it is impossible for this work to escape the very political reality it is founded upon,” said Hali Han ’19, who attended the talk.

“For Ms. Itoh’s sheltered, privileged young protagonist to have been able to have a ‘My Shanghai,’ Japan must have first invaded, conquered, and completely subdued the city and its people first. As someone who has had family members die at the hands of the Japanese army, who is part of a generation that has inherited part of the collective pain, outrage, and trauma of the atrocities that occurred during that time, I know that this perspective will be difficult,” Han continued.

In her talk, Itoh actually described her reaction to similar criticism she received online, which mentioned the Rape of Nanking, a massacre of Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers that occurred immediately prior to the events of the novel. Itoh responded by pointing out the context of the novel, the story of a privileged young woman who arrived after the massacre, just as her mother did, and who was sheltered from the atrocities of war by the society she lived in.

“Now, it was quite eye opening to me that some people could read my novel as a historical account of Japan’s occupation of China and interpret it only in the context of their own historical perspective. This book is about one young woman’s moral ambiguation through a turbulent world where her Western, Christian upbringing and her loyalty and love for her country are constantly at odds with each other,” said Itoh.

The several audience questions regarding the treatment of the Chinese followed this explanation, indicating that the audience wasn’t entirely satisfied. The question and answer session did not become an argument, but the audience expressed a persistent desire for the novel to do justice to the suffering of the Chinese, and were critical where they felt it did not.

“As an audience member who attended her talk, I was disappointed that a writer who had conducted such extensive historical research, who cannot be unaware of the pain of those who are implicated in her work and of the ones who read it, was unable to speak to the political responsibilities that her work, no matter how personal, must possess,” said Han.

Despite her criticism of the novel, Han also found value in the perspective that it offered.

“Ms. Keiko Itoh’s book offers a private and unique perspective into a contentious and painful history that challenges the particular slant at history I’ve been raised with … I appreciate the opportunity to hear other sides, and I believe Ms. Itoh’s work is a necessary part of a larger dialogue that must take place as we work towards understanding and healing,” Han said.

Itoh took the criticism seriously, but did not seem shaken. It’s possible she was expecting this response from the Swarthmore community. After all, Itoh began her talk by mentioning that it was that exact socially conscious, intellectually driven spirit of Swarthmore that indirectly led to her writing this novel.

“It’s indirect, but I think the kind of things you learn at Swarthmore are really how to think, how to question, how to pursue your curiosity, and I think those kinds of values that you acquire are the things that later in life continue to live inside you and make you want to think, ‘ok, well, it’s ok, fine, I’ll go back to graduate school because I want to study this and look into that,”’ said Itoh.

Itoh’s book is available online and at the Swarthmore Campus and Community Store.

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