RIDING THE EAST WIND

A Novel of War and Peace

By Otohiko Kaga

Translated from the Japanese by Ian Hideo Levy

Kodansha. 518 pp. $28

Imagine a Japanese version of Herman Wouk's sweeping novel "War and Remembrance," and you have the gist of this heartbreaking World War II story. The perspective, however, is quite different, and that makes this novel all the more interesting.

The story begins in the fall of 1941. Saburo Kurushima, who is married to an American, is sent to Washington as a special envoy to help negotiate an easing of hostilities with the United States. Before his long voyage, he meets Prime Minister Tojo, who tells the envoy, "I'd give you maybe a thirty percent chance of success."

Kurushima feels the prospects are even dimmer when he is told that Tojo and his army are unwilling to make any concessions, beginning with U.S. demands for Japan's withdrawal from China. In Washington, the envoy meets Secretary of State Cordell Hull, but the negotiations go nowhere. A few weeks later the embassy bungles an important cable that takes forever to decode. As soon as the final words--"to reach an agreement through further negotiations would be impossible"--are decoded, Kurushima and Ambassador Tonomura rush over to deliver the ultimatum to Hull, only to be told, "In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions . . . on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them."

The Japanese navy had attacked Pearl Harbor an hour before, to the embarrassment and outrage of the two surprised envoys.

Those familiar with diplomatic history probably can guess early in the novel that our envoy, Saburo Kurushima, is a fictionalized version of none other than Saburo Kurusu, who did arrive in Washington on a special mission a few weeks before Dec. 7, 1941. What was not at all familiar to this reader is the story of his family--his American wife, Alice, who made the supreme sacrifice of giving up her country and staying in Tokyo and Karuizawa during those very difficult war years; their son, Ken, who served in the Japanese army air corps, and their two daughters.

The Kurushimas are a privileged, cosmopolitan family who are most at home in the diplomatic community, who like to dance and listen to jazz and pop music, who are openly affectionate in a society known for its reserve. The Japanese American couple and their interracial children are made increasingly uncomfortable as the war turns badly for the Japanese.

What makes this novel compelling is the author's success in empathizing with the plight of the family, particularly the envoy's son: "Didn't Mama want to raise me in America?" he wonders. "Anyone can see I have Western features. I would have easily fitted in as an American. But here I was always seen as a foreigner. I could never have become completely Japanese. Mama must have sensed that; she must have gone through the same thing herself."

"The reason we left you in Japan," the father says, is that "a diplomat's family wanders from country to country like a ship without an anchor. I wanted you to feel you belonged here."

But life is brutal at school and in the army to which Ken is drafted. He learns to become stronger in an environment hostile to anyone who doesn't look Japanese. Author Otohiko Kaga, who was born in 1929 and is old enough to remember the horrors of the bombardment of Tokyo, tells Ken's story poignantly--his training as a flight engineer and pilot, his friendships with fellow pilots, his romance with the daughter of a Swiss clergyman and the occasional narrow-minded villains who confront him and other members of the family. The atmosphere of the war years in Tokyo and Karuizawa is realistic, and the denouement, all too horribly true (I have read newspaper clippings about what happened to Kurusu's son), is a heartbreaker.

Sometimes, however, the family conversations imagined by the author are unconvincing. For example, Ken's reaction on hearing that Father Hendersen, a family friend and his girlfriend's father, had been murdered by a police chief, is unbelievably sedate.

Ian Hideo Levy, who won an American Book Award for his translation of the Japanese poetry anthology "The Ten Thousand Leaves" ("Manyoshu"), has ably transformed Kaga's popular novel for the English-speaking audience. There are precious few translations of books about the vanquished side of World War II, which is a pity, since much of the chiaroscuro of history is lost without it. Although Kaga's book is fiction, "Riding the East Wind" (the original Japanese title is "Ikari No Nai Fune," "A Ship Without Anchor") helps fill a void in our understanding of what it was really like to live in Japan during the dark years of World War II.

Kunio Francis Tanabe, a senior editor and art director of Book World, who grew up in Japan.