104 pages 3 hours read

Alan Gratz


Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2018

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The Honor Culture of Imperial Japan

The novel explores the complex power dynamic between the ethnically distinct Japanese and Okinawan people. While both cultures emphasize the value of bringing pride and honor to their families, the Japanese army urges the Okinawan populace, whom they consider ethnically inferior, to bring honor to Japan and to Emperor Hirohito by sacrificing themselves in defense of Japan. This imposed cultural norm makes Hideki admire the kamikaze pilots: “Hideki’s heart swelled at the sight of the planes dropping out of the sky into the withering antiaircraft fire of the giant American ships. This was true bravery, he thought. To fight in the face of overwhelming odds” (21).

The beginning of the novel seems to confirm that the Japanese soldiers on Okinawa always live up to the ideals of Imperial Japan. A soldier shames 13-year-old Hideki for his apparent cowardice when he tries to board an evacuation ship alongside his mother and younger brother; the soldier suggests that almost “Fourteen is old enough to fight!” (33). Similarly, we see that Okinawan civilians have internalized the Japanese devotion to the emperor. Hideki’s principal dies while holding a photograph of Emperor Hirohito, doing his best to protect the emperor’s mabui, or spirit; later, Hideki sees that someone has taken a photograph of the emperor off the wall in a classroom full of dead students, safeguarding the emperor’s image while leaving class photos.