by Vince Kueter
Seattle Times news researcher
If there is any truth to the aphorism that the personal is political and vice versa, it couldn't be more clearly illustrated than by Kazuko Kuramoto's memoirs of life in and subsequent exile from Japanese-occupied Manchuria.
"Manchurian Legacy" is notable not only as a personal account of colonial life in Manchuria before and immediately after World War II, but as a complex and moving self-examination of racial and cultural prejudice and the human costs of imperialist oppression. The stark honesty with which Kuramoto discusses her slowly evolving social consciousness and her early susceptibility to propaganda is courageous.
During Japan's occupation of Manchuria from the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 to the end of World War II in 1945, ethnic Chinese and Koreans were treated as second-class citizens. Growing up in privileged conditions, Kuramoto was not initially troubled by or even noticed the deference paid to her and her family, or realized that it was largely involuntary.
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She did not note anything unusual about the segregated streetcars of Dairen, the Manchurian city in which she grew up. She recalls singing a patriotic Japanese song at a mixed gathering and being surprised by the offense taken by the native Chinese. Only as both the family's social and political positions were reversed did the inequities of the Japanese occupation become clear to her.
It raises the question posed by the segregated American South during the civil rights movement and also by the German holocaust: How does someone raised in a culture of oppression find the humanity within themselves to resist the prevailing culture?
Kuramoto recalls an idyllic childhood as the daughter of a respected Japanese government official in the thriving port city of Dairen on the southern tip of Manchuria's Liaotung Peninsula. The family's lives are soon turned upside down following Japan's surrender and the abandonment of Manchuria by Japanese occupation forces. Rioting Chinese soon drive them from their home, and they are pelted by rocks as they escape in open boxcars on a refugee train.
Soon, the family must leave Manchuria altogether. Kuramoto finds herself in an unfamiliar land - war-ravaged mainland Japan. She struggles to find an identity in a "homeland" that doesn't fully accept colonial refugees. Eventually, she marries an American serviceman, who dies of an alcohol-induced heart attack, and finishes her story as an American.
Kuramoto does a wonderful job recalling all this through the prism of her personal life and that of her family and friends. This is often overlooked by first-time memoir writers, who assume the reader would be more interested in great events than the details of their daily lives. But it is Kuramoto's informality and humanity that give the book its emotional power.
Kuramoto's record of her journey is emotionally powerful and historically important. When the disruptive force of rapidly changing geopolitical events is told from the perspective of one real, very human family, the impact on the reader is only enhanced.
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