I thank the America which lets me talk and write freely about people and events which I shall never forget.
This is the quote which introduces a defining account of the life of the artist Iwamatsu Jun’s graphic memoir, “The New Sun”. He had to practice his trade as a painter under the alias of Taro Yashima while collaborating with US government’s propaganda department during WWII. This was in an attempt to protect his friends and family from retribution back in Japan. He believed his efforts with creating a book about his experience would help explain to an American public, who most likely feared or loathe the Japanese, that the demonization of his people was creating more fodder for war. Yashima worked tirelessly in hope of the regenerative possibilities of art and in applying it towards educating and enlightenment whether in his homeland or in the US.
The New Sun attempts in humanizing the Japanese people by describing Yashima’s and some of his peer’s unjustified incarceration while delicately capturing his companion’s collective benevolence, while outlining the appalling actions of their captors who are the aggressors. He presents these captors, the Tokka—Japan’s secret police—as bumbling fools and heartless tyrants which was apt for a government doling out cruelty to individuals who didn’t comply with the aggressive hegemony. With heightened escalation of Japan’s militarist footprint growing, affecting the daily peace of its citizens, Yashima attempted to address this mania through art and public protest. He and his companions were classic political prisoners, though Yashima more so for his public protest. It is from this perspective of a Japanese citizen’s trials struggling against these early twentieth-century ambitions we see the life of a free thinker and the fact that not every Japanese citizen agreed with their government’s actions.
The artwork is stark as his imprisonment, rendered by brush, stylized in a woodblock-carving aesthetic; the accompanying text helps makes this book’s narrative approachable giving a greater explanation to the images. The wonderful humane moments of the story come when Yashima speaks of his companion’s help and kindness towards each other while in captivity. Even under the torturous actions of the Tokka guards towards these men, the compassion that the men displayed help Yashima retain a faith that this situation could eventually change; working well with the use of light and dark he exposes the reader to these experiences. His wife also became a target and was beaten in prison while she carried their second child, which Yashima could only suffer through while listening to it occur. After their incarceration, Yashima made his way to the United States as a political refugee with his wife escaping continued persecution.
While safely working for the US government, Yashima still viewed himself as citizen of Japan though appreciated the help he received as a resident alien. The narrative captures his razor’s edge balancing act, possibly looking contradictory by working for the enemy, while keeping his heart in Japan, pushed him to work towards ending the war by possibly convincing his countrymen to stop fighting and return home to their families. It is, in fact, the very humble grace in which he strived to banish the rhetoric of war’s embrace by overcoming it. Yashima confronted the nationalist fog that many did marched to. He had a lot going against him considering most of the US’ citizens probably would never read a book by a Japanese National, political refugee or not.
The dents possibly made by this memoir are everlasting and made available again by University of Hawai’i Press. Oddly enough, The New Sun resonates descriptively of actions of many of today’s governments. This documentation is an important one in which we collectively should meet the unknown other, so we may understand their action and possibly understand our own. Taro Yashima embraced his ideals and attempted to humanize a denigrated people to the American public, which either by sway of national rhetoric or strong-arm militarism was no longer in control of its destiny. Yashima commanded his own destiny with ideals we all should attempt live up to.
“The New Sun” by Taro Yashima. University of Hawai’i Press, 2008.