A Boy Called H

views updated

A Boy Called H

Kappa Senoh 1997

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


A Boy Called H: A Childhood in Wartime Japan (Japanese, 1997; English, 1999), by Kappa Senoh, is an autobiographical novel. Senoh describes his life growing up in the port city of Kobe, Japan, from the 1930s until a few years after the end of World War II. In fifty short chapters, each focusing on a few incidents, some minor and amusing, others tragic and moving, the novel gives a remarkable picture, through the eyes of a young boy, of a society at war. H describes how life in Kobe gradually changes as the war with China, and later with the United States, drags on. There is an increasingly authoritarian atmosphere, marked by excessive nationalism that no one dares to question openly. H learns there is a difference between official versions of events, as reported in the newspapers, and what is really happening. He also goes through some harrowing experiences. In a massive air raid by American B-29 bombers, his home is destroyed. On another occasion he narrowly escapes being killed by machine gun fire from an American fighter plane. These experiences force H to grow up quickly, and the novel is really a coming-of-age story. As he reaches adolescence, H quarrels with his parents and moves out of the family home. The story ends during the post-war U.S. occupation of Japan, as H trains to be an artist.

Author Biography

Kappa Senoh was born in Kobe, Japan, in 1930. His given name was Hajime, which he later changed to Kappa. His father was a tailor, and both his parents were Christians, a minority faith in Japan. As a boy, Senoh demonstrated a talent for drawing, and on leaving school a few years after the end of World War II, he worked as a graphic designer. When he was in his twenties, he became a stage designer. He has since been the set designer for numerous operas, theater productions, and musicals and is recognized as one of Japan's leading designers. He has won many awards for his work.

Senoh is also a best-selling essayist and illustrator in Japan. He is particularly well-known for his travel book series Kappa Takes a Look at …, which describes various parts of the world and is notable for Senoh's detailed drawings.

In 1997, Senoh published his autobiographical novel A Boy Called H: A Childhood in Wartime Japan. This work was his first venture into full-length book form. The novel was a best-seller in Japan and other countries in Asia, selling over two million copies. It was adapted for the stage, and a television dramatization was made in 1999. The novel was translated into English in 1999.

Plot Summary

A Boy Called H begins in 1937. H (short for Hajime) lives in Kobe with his father, mother, and younger sister. H is about seven years old. Japan is at war with China, and this conflict forms the background for the early part of the novel. It can be seen when H befriends a young man who works at the noodle shop and is shocked when his friend is arrested by the police as a communist and made to join the army. Another of H's friends, the projectionist at the movie theater, hangs himself rather than be drafted into the army.

In "Tambourine," H tells of his parents' backgrounds. His father, Morio, came to Kobe in 1918 to become a tailor's apprentice; his mother, Toshiko, came to Kobe to marry Morio. She also became a devoted Christian, but H hates the sound of the tambourine she plays as the Christians preach in the street. Toshiko likes to ape Western customs and insists that her family eat with knives and forks rather than chopsticks.

H's father takes him to a restaurant, and H is allowed into the adjoining movie theater for his first taste of a film. Not long after this experience, H gets a chance to make money of his own through an ingenious arrangement. He resells the paste that his father uses in his tailoring business to his school friends for use in their handicraft classes.

But H's life has its troubles. "Maps and Eggs" describes the futile efforts H and his parents make to curb his bed-wetting. And in "Love," H learns to his embarrassment that the word love can have many different connotations. In "A Boy and a Sea," he and his friends row a dinghy too far from the shore and endanger themselves. Then torrential rains drench Kobe for days and lead to a serious flood. In his borrowed book The Three Treasures, H secretly reads children's stories in a book he borrows from a friend, even though his mother disapproves of his reading fiction.

In "The Living God," H asks his schoolmasters awkward questions about the emperor, who is regarded as a god. He soon asks more awkward questions about the global political situation, which he learns about from his father. Japan allies itself with Germany and Italy, but Morio thinks this will damage Japanese relations with the United States. H decides that Germany is not to be trusted.

World War II begins. In Japan, the state controls more and more aspects of individuals' lives and decrees that everyone should wear a new national dress, unlike Western clothes. This edict badly affects Morio's business, since he makes Western-style suits.

In "Military Secrets," H learns about the restrictions on his hobby of drawing. Instead of sketching ships, he goes into business exchanging photos of sumo wrestlers. "The Founding of the Nation" describes the five-day celebration, in 1940, of the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the Japanese nation. Studies at H's school become more patriotic. Japan signs a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, which displeases Morio since it will further irritate the United States.

War with the United States breaks out after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. Morio is skeptical of the official versions that explain why Japan went to war, and he tells H he must form his own opinions and not accept everything he hears. Christianity in Japan comes under attack because it is also the religion of Great Britain and the United States. H is taunted at school for coming from a family of Christians.

Toshiko becomes head of the newly formed neighborhood association, and H learns air raid drills. The radio reports a continuing stream of Japanese military victories, but Morio remains skeptical because the Americans have far greater resources.

The first incendiary bombs fall on Kobe, and the residents are issued gas masks. In a spy scare, Morio is detained by the authorities because he has foreign clients for his tailoring business.

For their summer holidays, H and his sister visit their mother's relatives in the countryside near Hiroshima. When they return to Kobe, there are more changes: American and British films are banned, and people are urged to give up all their metal goods for use in the war. H passes his Second Middle exam by mouthing the patriotic slogans he has read in the newspaper, knowing his examiners want to hear them.

At his new school, H joins the riding club and learns how to ride a difficult horse called Kamikeru. But he runs foul of Inspector Tamori, who is in charge of military training. Tamori is furious when he discovers in H's notebook a drawing of a nude woman, copied from a painting by Manet. To escape Tamori, H joins the rifle club, where he learns military drills and target practice. This training culminates in an arduous night march.

The military exercises continue. H fires live ammunition for the first time and discovers that he is a good shot. Another military exercise involves students simulating leaping up from a hiding place in the ground and throwing a grenade at an enemy tank.

During 1944, after Paris has fallen, air raids on Kobe increase. A dead Japanese fighter pilot is laid out in the school reception area, and the first Middle school student is killed. The big raid comes in March 1945. H's family home is destroyed and fires rage throughout the city. H and his mother escape and obtain lodgings in a church. H and his father, who works at the fire station during the raid, retrieve his damaged sewing machine. Wandering around Kobe, H is astonished at the extent of the damage and is relieved to find that his friends are safe. But another adventure is soon upon him: he is strafed by machine gun fire from an enemy plane and narrowly escapes being hit.

H goes to stay with his Uncle Hadano, but he cannot settle there and returns to Kobe. At the Second Middle school he works in the school factory, assembling motors. In another adventure, he is summoned by a military policeman to assist in the capture of an American pilot who has been shot down over Kobe.

Germany surrenders, and H realizes that Japan will lose the war. Meanwhile, in the school factory, workers are urged to increase production. The government publishes a manual teaching people how to resist in hand-to-hand combat. Shortly after, H hears that the United States has dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, although the authorities minimize the damage it causes.

The students gather at school to hear the emperor's radio broadcast, accepting the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. No one mentions directly that this event involves Japan's unconditional surrender.

After the war, H continues to resent the lies the government told. When occupation forces arrive in Kobe, he marvels at the superiority of their vehicles and weapons. An American serviceman allows him to sketch an M1 carbine, and H gets a favorable impression of U.S. soldiers. He also finds out the purpose of the occupation is to eradicate militarism and instill a democratic spirit. He is irritated by the fact that some of the teachers who were ardent militarists now become ardent democrats.

Living in a temporary dwelling with his family, H gets angry about everything he does not like. Under emotional strain, he quarrels with his parents and leaves home. He intends to commit suicide by lying under a train but pulls back at the last minute. For a while he lives in secret in a building at the school. Unsure of whether he will be allowed to graduate, he decides to study art. He seeks out a well-known artist, who allows him to work at his studio. The novel ends with H working as a sign painter during the day and studying at night with fellow artists at a studio.

Key Figures


see Haruo Ota

Joji Fujita

Joji Fujita, whose nickname is George, is a year older than H, but the two boys become friends when they work together in the same school factory. They have a lot in common. They both come from a family of Christians, but both are atheists. George speaks excellent English and always knows a lot about the war because he listens to the American radio broadcasts.


Fukushima is a friend of H in Second Middle School.


Furuta is one of the members of the Second Middle School rifle club, and he encourages H to join.


see Joji Fujita


see Hajime Senoh

Uncle Hadano

Uncle Hadano is a civil engineer. He is a close friend of the Senoh family, and that is why H calls him uncle, although he is not a blood relative. H is fond of him and regards him as another father. The affection is mutual. H stays with Uncle Hadano for a while towards the end of the war. Uncle Hadano gets sick with cancer and dies shortly afterwards.

Iwao Hayashi

Iwao Hayashi is a friend of H. They are in the same grade at primary school. Hayashi is a champion wrestler; he is also intelligent and like H is good at drawing.

Instructor Hisakado

Instructor Hisakado, a teacher at Second Middle School, is in charge of the rifle club. He was formerly a watchmaker, and he is interested in art and music. He is a decent man and the students trust him. He teaches them that the true warrior is not one who does not fear death but one who has the skills necessary to protect himself.


Itchan is a close friend of H at primary (or national) school. H confides in him that he owns a postcard from New York and talks to Itchan about the United States. Itchan passes this information on to another boy, who writes "spy" on H's desk in chalk. However, H and Itchan are soon reconciled.

Ryohei Koiso

Ryohei Koiso, a well-known artist, helps H in his studies after he graduates from Second Middle School.

Mr. Matsumoto

Mr. Matsumoto is the teacher of English at Second Middle School. H likes him because he says he will continue to teach them English, even though it is the language of the enemy, as long as he is able.

Mr. Nakata

Mr. Nakata is H's physics and chemistry teacher. He and H dislike each other.


Nishioka is a friend of H in Second Middle School.

Muneo Ogura

Muneo Ogura is a close friend of H toward the end of his time at Second Middle School.


Okubo is a friend of H in Second Middle School. Like H, Okubo does not believe the official versions of the war.

Haruo Ota

Haruo Ota is one of H's classmates and the head boy. Haruo is known as "blackpatch" because of a birthmark on his head. H calls him "Donchan." Haruo lends H a book called The Three Treasures from his father's collection.

Red Horse

See Instructor Tamiyama

Hajime Senoh

Also called H, Hajime Senoh is the son of Morio and Toshika Senoh. As a young boy in primary school he is intelligent and mischievous. According to his father, Hajime has a habit of saying the first thing that comes into his head. Hajime learns ways of getting what he wants even if he has to be devious. When he has no money but wants to see a "puppet peepshow" at a fairground, he tries to scare off the adults who are watching it by telling them they can contract an eye disease by touching the lens. Significantly, his favorite god in Japanese myth is Susanowo, who has a reputation for behaving badly.

Others tend to see H as an odd boy, although he has plenty of friends at school. But he is always questioning authority and asking awkward questions about why things are as they are. He is puzzled by the adults who say that everything that happens in the war is the will of the emperor, since H cannot see how the emperor can possibly be aware of all the things being done in his name. H's instincts are pacifistic, and he does not want to join the rifle club because he feels it is too warlike. He makes up his own version of a patriotic jingle, neatly reversing its meaning. He becomes exasperated when he realizes that the newspapers are not telling the truth about the war.

H rebels against what is expected of him in many ways. He skips classes when he is supposed to be studying for examinations. In response to the drive to collect scrap metal, he refuses to give up his precious collection of metal buttons. Rather than hand them over as a contribution to the war effort, he digs a hole and buries them. H also has a habit of turning in an exam paper with nothing written on it except his name and sometimes a sketch of his own hand on the back. He reserves this treatment for teachers who have a reputation for hitting their pupils. H is also impatient with what he sees as hypocrisy. After the war, if a teacher he dislikes comes into the classroom, he simply bows and walks out.

H does not want to be a tailor like his father. Instead, his greatest talent is drawing, and at the age of sixteen he resolves to become an artist.

Morio Senoh

Morio Senoh, H's father, is a kind, mild-mannered man, a tailor by profession. He moved to Kobe when he was fifteen years old to do his apprenticeship. After he married Toshika, he too became a Christian, although he is less enthusiastic about the religion than his wife is.

Morio's tailoring business suffers when all citizens are encouraged to wear national dress rather than the Western suits that he makes. Then when he joins the fire brigade during the war, he only has time to practice tailoring part-time. During his fire service, he distinguishes himself with his courage in saving lives.

Morio has a lot of common sense, and he is skeptical of the official claims that Japan is winning the war. He always suspects that the United States will eventually win. Since as a tailor he has many foreign clients, he is more cosmopolitan than the average resident of Kobe.

Morio is unfailingly kind and attentive to H, always ready to give him sound advice. Even when H throws a rice pot lid at him and walks out of the house, Morio does not blame him and welcomes him back with warmth.

Toshika Senoh

Toshika Senoh, H's mother, came originally from Hiroshima but moved to Kobe when she was eighteen and her family arranged her marriage to Morio. Toshika enthusiastically embraces whatever new ideas come along, and in Kobe she converted to Christianity, even though her birth family were Buddhists. Toshika is zealous for her religion, playing the tambourine on the streets with a group of Christians. She also tries to bring up her children in the Christian faith and does not let them read anything other than the Bible. Her habit of trying to express Christian love for everyone and everything irritates H. He often reacts negatively to her emotional and impulsive nature. During the war, Toshika becomes head of the neighborhood association and performs her duties well.

Yoshiko Senoh

Yoshiko Senoh, H's sister, is two years younger than H. She likes to cling to her older brother, and H finds this attachment a nuisance. But in one incident Yoshiko shows him kindness and he thinks better of her. This event occurs when she insists on eating with the fork that has one prong missing, even though it was H who broke the fork. Yoshiko is evacuated to the countryside when the air raids start.


Sumiyama, a friend of H in Second Middle School, is kind to H when H's house is burned down. Sumiyama also enthusiastically practices how to fight and kill enemy soldiers if they should land in Japan.

Instructor Tamiyama

Instructor Tamiyama is a military instructor at the Second Middle School. He is nicknamed "Red Horse" because of his long face and red complexion. He is popular with the students. He volunteers to go to the battlefront.

Lieutenant Tamori

Lieutenant Tamori is the teacher in charge of military training at H's Second Middle School. All the students fear him. He is known as "His Lechery" because not only does he cultivate an imperious manner, he also makes inappropriate inquiries about the boys' sisters. Tamori takes a dislike to H when he finds H's sketch of a female nude in his notebook. In another incident, Tamori hits H for what he regards as an insolent remark. H joins the rifle club to escape him. Later he hears a rumor that some years earlier, Tamori's wife ran off with another man. This information makes H believe that Tamori must be lonely, and he feels compassion for him.

Mr. Tan Watanabe

Mr. Tan Watanabe is a teacher of English grammar at Second Middle who makes fun of Lieutenant Tamori.


Yokota is a friend of H, and H considers him to be worldly-wise. Yokota is one of the students who participates with H on the arduous night march and other military drills. He and H go on a secret riding excursion together and are consequently expelled from the riding club. Yokota's family home is burned down following the big air raid on Kobe in 1945. Not long after this event, his father is killed in action in the South Pacific.



Lurking behind the day-to-day experiences of the growing boy is the specter of the imperialism and militarism that characterized Japanese society in the 1930s and continued until the Japanese defeat in 1945. Imperialism and militarism are apparent almost from the beginning, in the passing reference to the neighborhood celebrations that followed the fall of Nanking, China, to invading Japanese forces in 1937. H is affected by the war when he is only seven years old, when two of his friends are called up to the army. One of them commits suicide rather than enlist.

In the schools, boys are indoctrinated with the belief that their highest duty is to sacrifice themselves for the emperor, to die for the nation. No one except H seems to question this view, and as the years go by, militarization gets more pronounced. When H is about nine, the boys have a swimming class and are taught the "navy's way of swimming," which means to swim slowly and not splash much. "If your ship sinks, whether you survive or not will depend on this," the students are told.

Topics for Further Study

  • Based on your reading of the novel, why were so many ordinary Japanese people caught up in militarism and war fever during the 1930s and 1940s?
  • Is there ever a justification for press censorship during times of war, or should the press always be free?
  • Research the U.S. dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. Why did the United States drop the bomb? Was the decision to use the bomb justified?
  • Research the American Occupation of Japan after World War II. How did the American authorities go about eradicating militarism and instilling a democratic spirit?
  • In what ways has the novel given you a better understanding of World War II?
  • By the end of the novel, does H still seem like a boy from a foreign culture, or does he seem more like teenagers in other places? Is he very different from an American or not?

In Japanese wartime society, everyone must be careful about what they say. No one dares to voice sentiments that might be considered un-Japanese. Everything is secretive. Even the weather forecast is removed from the newspapers, on the grounds that it might give information to the enemy. A telling incident occurs when H is about eleven years old and takes a trip to the country by train. When the seacoast comes into view, the passengers automatically, without anyone saying anything, pull down their window blinds because the government has made it clear that no one is allowed to look out to sea. Warships may be visible, and that must be kept secret.

H always questions the need for such extreme secrecy, and at the end of the war he believes that the constant indoctrination of such ideas as dying for the emperor has made people unable to make mature judgments about how to behave and what to believe.


The narrative begins when H is about seven years old and ends when he is seventeen. During the war years he is forced to mature quickly. He learns to think for himself, to take charge in moments of crisis, and to discover his own identity.

H's transition from childhood to early adulthood is apparent in several major episodes. Firing live ammunition with the school rifle club for the first time is a significant moment, for example. So are the many times when he questions the validity of reports he reads in the newspapers about the progress of war. But the most important episode is when the family home is set on fire following an American air raid with incendiary bombs. Fifteen-year-old H immediately takes charge, giving his mother instructions about what to do and dousing a quilt in water so that they can put it over their heads as they flee. When his mother stops to pray, he tells her they must keep moving. In fact, she has fainted, and H's slaps get her conscious again. Then they come upon a woman whose son is badly injured. H almost faints at the sight of the blood, but he regains control of himself and offers the woman his flask of water, which she gives to the boy. But this is not enough to save him. For the first time H witnesses death, and H feels compassion for the dead boy—at least he is no longer in pain.

A short while later, he again takes the lead when he returns with his father to their ruined house. He is mature enough to ask his father whether he wishes to see the badly damaged sewing machine, since he knows that his father's livelihood depends on the machine and fears he may be upset by its ruined condition.

A few days after the bombing, H observes the area around Hyogo Station, which is completely leveled. Dead bodies yet to be cremated are visible in the area. It is a sobering moment for H, who as a result of the air raid has been forced to lose any childhood innocence he may have had left: "'So this is war,' he thought as he gazed over the seemingly endless sea of destruction."

In the coming-of-age process, it is common for a teenager to get into conflict with his parents, and H is no exception. He becomes impatient with what he sees as his father's apathy after the war, and his mother's brand of pious and missionary Christianity annoys him more and more. When he throws the heavy lid of a rice pot directly at his father, he knows it is time to move out. He then tries to commit suicide but thinks better of it at the last minute. This experience is all part of the maturing process. H has to find out who he is and what his vocation in life is, independently of his family. By the end of the novel it appears that he has succeeded, since he is set for a career as an artist.


Point of View and Language

Although A Boy Called H is an autobiographical novel, the story is told in the third rather than the first person. In this case, the point of view—the consciousness through which the story is told—is limited to H. Other characters, and all situations and events, are seen through his eyes. And since H is a young boy, the style employed to convey his point of view is for the most part quite simple. The sentence structure is simple, and the vocabulary is appropriate for a boy of H's age. Also, the story is told in a straightforward, chronological manner. There are no flashbacks (except in chapter 2, when H tells of his parents' backgrounds) or other more sophisticated literary devices.

The diction includes both informal and colloquial elements, as well as a fair amount of slang. (Of course, the translator has had to find English equivalents for the Japanese slang expressions.) The effect of this choice of diction is an unpretentious style. The narrative is not weighed down with deep thoughts or reflections, only such as arise in the immediate context of events, and even these are not dwelt upon excessively. The result is a somewhat detached, objective style, which gives the impression that H is a good, steady observer of life, rather than someone who gets too emotionally caught up in things, although that steadiness is sometimes belied by his rebellious behavior. It therefore comes as a surprise when late in the novel H comes close to mental breakdown and suicide. It suggests that the rather flat, even tone of the narration hides a depth of emotional turbulence which eventually finds its way to the surface.

Although the manner of narration is generally matter-of-fact and literal, occasionally the author uses poetic, figurative language to striking effect. A notable example is after the air raid on Kobe. When H sees the unburned pages of his books caught up in the wind and swirling in the air, he at first mistakes them for white butterflies: "The scene, with white cabbage butterflies dancing round and round over the overall black of the ruins, was dreamlike, fantastic." He feels that the white flakes are "the very souls … of the books."

Historical Context

Japan in the 1930s and 1940s

Like the rest of the world, Japan suffered from the great economic depression of 1929 to 1931. As other countries introduced import tariffs on Japanese exports, the Japanese economic situation rapidly deteriorated. Needing new markets and raw materials, Japan turned its attention to China, knowing that a military conquest of China would give it exclusive control of a large economic area, including markets and raw materials. In 1931, Japan occupied Manchuria and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo to the south. China was militarily weak and could not stem the Japanese advance. By 1933, the Japanese had reached the Great Wall of China.

Japanese expansion into China created friction with the United States and Britain, both of whom had interests in the Far East. The League of Nations condemned the Japanese invasion, and in 1933 Japan withdrew from the League. After this decision, Japan began to look to Germany for support.

In 1937, Japan, Germany, and Italy signed a tripartite pact against Russia. With the United States still neutral, Japan launched on a major war of conquest. In the first few years, Japan met with unbroken success. Most of Northern China was under its control. It had seized the chief ports, and it controlled the railroads and all lines of communication. The Japanese navy controlled the seas. Although out-fought, China continued to resist as well as it could.

In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, the signatories of the tripartite pact mutually acknowledged German and Italian leadership of Europe, and Japanese leadership in East Asia. Britain, fighting in Europe against Nazi Germany, had few resources to spare for protecting its far eastern outposts or countering Japanese expansion.

Relations between Japan and the United States were tense. In the 1930s the isolationist United States took no steps to curb Japanese expansion other than to affirm the principle of Chinese integrity. But hostility to Japan was growing, particularly after 1937, when Japan stepped up its assault on China. The United States began to build up its Pacific navy, banned oil and other exports to Japan, impounded Japanese assets in the United States, and closed the Panama Canal to Japanese ships.

Negotiations between the two countries continued throughout 1941, but in December, without warning or a declaration of war, the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. This event brought the United States into World War II, with Germany and Italy declaring war on the United States.

For the first six months following Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces put together a string of spectacular victories. Hong Kong, Sarawak, and the Malay Peninsula fell. In February 1942, the British naval fortress of Singapore, previously considered impregnable, surrendered. By March, Japanese gains were such that even Australia was threatened with invasion. By May 1942, the Japanese controlled Burma, and the whole of southeast Asia and the Western Pacific were in Japanese hands. The British and the Americans had been expelled.

But Japan's resources were stretched too wide, and the tide began to turn. In June 1942, the United States defeated the Japanese navy at the battle of Midway. American air power also soon began to tell. In 1943, from new bases in the Pacific, U.S. forces were destroying Japanese positions in the empire and in Japan itself. The first raid on Tokyo was in the spring of 1942.

Little by little, the Japanese were pushed back, in spite of their dogged resistance. By the spring of 1945, it was clear that Japan had lost the war. Its navy had been completely destroyed, and American aerial bombardment was wiping out whole Japanese cities. H's home city of Kobe was not spared; it suffered devastating air raids in March and June 1945.

In July 1945, the three great powers, the United States, Britain and Russia, called on Japan to surrender or face utter destruction. On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. About one hundred thousand people were killed in the first ten seconds. Three days later the United States dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki. On August 14, Japan surrendered unconditionally.

By the end of the war, Japan had lost all the territories it had conquered, including Manchuria, and submitted to an American occupation. The Allies conducted trials of those it charged as war criminals, and Japan was given a new, democratic constitution.

Critical Overview

When first published in Japan in 1997, A Boy Called H quickly became a best-seller. Over two million copies were sold, and critics hailed the book as an outstanding example of literature about World War II, although there was also a feeling that the book was not absolutely reliable in its historical details. Most of these details were minor. For example, in an incident that takes place in the book in the summer of 1942, H's sister sings a patriotic song that was not published until 1945.

When the book was translated into English and published in the United States in 1999, the critical response was enthusiastic. For Steven I. Levine, in Library Journal, the book provided "an accessible, unforgettable, and intimate introduction to the effects of the war upon Japanese family life, friendships, school, and society." Levine argued that the book belonged "with a handful of classics about children in wartime."

Hazel Rochman, in Booklist, commenting on how World War II becomes increasingly real for H, noted that "The writing is quiet, almost detached at times, until you come to realize that the young boy is fighting emotional breakdown."

Compare & Contrast

  • 1930s—1945: Increasing tensions between Japan and the United States lead to war. The United States is victorious after nearly four years of conflict.

    Today: The United States and Japan are allies, and their alliance ensures political stability in East Asia.

  • 1930s—1945: Japan is an authoritarian society in the grip of an imperialistic, militaristic way of thinking that glorifies war.

    Today: Japan is a democracy based on Western-style political institutions.

  • 1930s—1945: The Japanese emperor is considered divine. Emperor Hirohito reigns over his people as a distant, god-like figure, often pictured on a white horse.

    Today: Japan retains its imperial family. But like surviving European monarchies, Prince Akihito, the son of Hirohito, is a figurehead and does not wield real political power.

The reviewer for Publishers Weekly described the book as "refreshing in the honesty with which it faces some ugly realities in Japan before and during WWII." The reviewer commented that one of the most shocking aspects of the novel was the way in which H, although he held many private doubts about the war, nonetheless in public was openly zealous about it and always supported the propaganda of the authorities.


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses the issue of press censorship in wartime, from Japan in World War II to today's United States.

A recurring theme in A Boy Called H is the extent to which the Japanese newspapers during wartime did not report the truth. H gets frustrated with what he reads about the war because he senses, as does his father, that they are not getting the whole story. When the first air raids are made on Kobe, the newspaper headlines read, "The Neighborhood Association Spirit Beats the Raiders." This puzzles H because he knows that, in fact, the air raid had taken the Neighborhood Association by surprise and that, in practice, the hazards of putting out fires were nothing like the smooth drills they had been regularly practicing. Also, someone is killed in that first raid, but the newspapers fail to report it. H decides that the newspapers "are just a pack of lies!" and he does not change his opinion from then on.

On the overseas battle front, the Japanese press enthusiastically reports Japanese victories but engages in subterfuge whenever there is a Japanese setback or defeat. One example in particular is quite amusing, illustrating as it does the extent to which language can be manipulated to disguise meaning. In 1943, Japanese forces were facing stiff opposition in the islands of the South Pacific. One morning the newspapers report the following:

Our forces operating on Buna Island in New Guinea and Guadalcanal Island in the Solomons, which had been smashing persistent enemy counterattacks despite a shortage of manpower, have now achieved their objects and in early February were withdrawn from the islands and ordered to advance in another direction.

Behind the welter of difficult words, H concludes that this means Japan is losing in that area of the war. He asks his father, "Does 'advancing in another direction' mean retreating?" His father does not give him a satisfactory answer.

As H and his father guess, the newspapers in Japan during World War II were indeed subject to government and military censorship. This pattern was a matter of some importance, since Japan was (and still is) a nation of newspaper readers. Before Japan went to war against the United States in 1941, daily circulation of newspapers was about nineteen million, which was more than one newspaper per household. Newspapers were not controlled by the government, and they were free to criticize politicians, although even before the war they tended to be supportive of the government's foreign policies.

After the war began with China, the government expected the press to be loyal to the Japanese cause, and restrictions were placed on it. Any news regarding the economy or foreign events was considered to be a state secret and could not be published without permission. (In A Boy Called H, H frequently expresses annoyance and frustration at the number of things that are declared state secrets.) Further regulations made it a punishable offense to deviate from official guidelines or to reveal any information considered helpful to the enemy.

In Politics and Culture in Wartime Japan, Ben-Ami Shillony states that as long as Japan was successful, press reports of the progress of the war were largely accurate. But when the tide turned and Japan experienced defeat after defeat, official bulletins printed in the newspapers were glaringly false. Shillony uses the decisive battle of Midway in June 1942 as an example. In that battle, Japan lost more than twice as many ships and planes as the United States and nearly twelve times the number of men. But the Japanese press was obliged to present Midway as a victory for Japan, denouncing any other view as enemy propaganda.

What Do I Read Next?

The defeat on Guadalcanal was also initially reported as a success, until, as H found out, it was conceded that Japanese forces had made a "sideward advance" (which as Shillony shows is a translation of the Japanese word tenshin and is the equivalent of the phrase "advancing in another direction" that H reads about).

  • Peter Wuden's Day One: Before Hiroshima and After (1984) tells the story of the making of the atomic bomb, the decision by President Harry Truman to use it in 1945, and the effects the bomb had on Hiroshima. The book includes maps and photographs.
  • Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (1970), by John Toland, is a history of Japan and its wars during the years covered by A Boy Called H. Toland views the events largely from the Japanese perspective.
  • Diary of Darkness: The Wartime Diary of Kiyosawa Kiyoshi, translated by Eugene Soviak and Kamiyama Tamie (1998), is a diary kept by a liberal journalist in Japan from 1942 to 1945. He records his opposition, which he could not express openly, to the rampant Japanese nationalism and bureaucratic control of every aspect of life. He also notes Japan's descent into poverty and crime as the inevitability of defeat loomed.
  • Anne Ipsen's A Child's Tapestry of War (1998) is a memoir about Ipsen's Danish childhood, which included the Nazi occupation of Denmark during World War II. Although born into a privileged family, Ipsen is touched by the horrors of war, as when her elderly half-Jewish cousin is sent to a concentration camp; a school is accidentally destroyed by bombs; and she hears her father's account of a mission to help concentration camp survivors.

Although H frequently bemoans the fact, censorship of the press in wartime is a common phenomenon, not only in Japan but elsewhere. Governments usually assume that keeping up public morale in difficult times is more important than allowing the press to report the unvarnished truth. In the United States during World War II, the press censorship was voluntary. It was supervised by the Office of Censorship, which was a civilian, not a military, body. In January 1942, guidelines for news reporting were sent out to all U.S. newspapers, magazines, and radio stations. During the course of the war, not a single print journalist and only one radio journalist deliberately flouted the censorship guidelines. This compliance was in part because the war was generally supported by the American public, and journalists were no different. Along with most Americans, they felt that the war against Hitler's Germany and Imperial Japan was justified and were more than willing to support the government. Of course, had results on the battlefield not, after mid-1942, begun to favor the United States, the censorship guidelines might have come under strain, as they did in Japan. It is much easier to report the truth when one's own side is winning.

After the war, the U.S. occupation forces maintained extensive censorship of Japanese newspapers, as H finds out when the newspaper he reads, the Asahi Shimbun, has to suspend publication for two days at the order of the U.S. commander, General Douglas MacArthur. As William J. Coughlin explains in Conquered Press, the censorship code was designed to prevent the publication of false stories and any story that was likely to arouse ill-feeling towards the Occupation forces. Nothing could be printed that put the United States in a bad light. Much international news was censored, including the deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Anything that encouraged the reemergence of militarism was also banned. Some Japanese complained that there was less freedom of thought and speech in U.S.-occupied Japan than there had been during the war.

H, however, prefers American censorship to the Japanese version, and he explains why in the chapter, "Homes for Air Raid Victims." In his experience, it was easier to find out the reason why a certain article had been banned or had displeased the censors than it had been under Japanese censorship, when no reasons were ever given.

Press censorship in Japan was eased in 1948, when it was made voluntary. It was assumed that the Japanese editors had absorbed the censorship code and would observe it voluntarily. In most cases this was true, but there were many instances of Japanese newspapers being fined or reprimanded for stepping out of line.

Since World War II, the subject of the freedom of the press in wartime has not come up again in Japan, since the nation's postwar constitution forbids it to engage in war. However, the same subject has been a thorny issue in the United States. Relations between the government and the press during the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, were sometimes strained. U.S. war correspondents were critical of military strategy, and the U.S. Army command accused them of giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

The Vietnam war provides another example. As the war, which began in the early 1960s, dragged on into the late sixties, with no end in sight, the press became increasingly critical of U.S. war policies. In one devastating episode, in 1971, the New York Times published what became known as the Pentagon Papers. Drawn from seven thousand pages of secret documents, the Pentagon Papers exposed many of the shortcomings of U.S. policy in Vietnam. Such a bombshell dropped by the press would have been unthinkable in World War II. The difference was that World War II was a popular war, a "good" war, whereas the Vietnam war, certainly by its later stages, was an unpopular war that many Americans believed should not have been fought.

Press freedom in wartime continued to be an issue after Vietnam. In 1983, for example, journalists were banned from directly covering the U.S. invasion of Grenada. They were only allowed into the country after U.S. forces had the situation under control. The same rules were applied to the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. The U.S. military believed that it could not rely on journalistic discretion or self-censorship in reporting the military clashes. The U.S. actions in both Grenada and Panama were widely supported by the American public, but later investigations suggested that the operations had not gone as smoothly as was at first believed.

"In a democratic society, there is an inherent tension between the government, which likes to 'manage' the news, and the press, whose job it is to seek it out and report it objectively."

None of this should be surprising. In a democratic society, there is an inherent tension between the government, which likes to "manage" the news, and the press, whose job it is to seek it out and report it objectively. In wartime, this tension may increase, since the government usually feels the need to prevent public confidence in its policies from being undermined by an inquisitive or critical press. On the other hand, at times when the nation is united in war, tensions between government and press may abate. A case in point is the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. After President George W. Bush's declaration that the nation was at war with terrorism, the press rallied around the president. No one wanted to appear unpatriotic in a time of need. Only gradually over the course of the following year did some muted criticism of government strategy in the "war on terror" begin to emerge in the mainstream press.

As young H found out in wartime Japan, the relationship between the government and the press is not always ideal. H relied on his common sense and his independence of mind in order to not be fooled by the official line of the Japanese government, especially when it contradicted his own experience. Although we may suspect that the author exaggerates the extent to which H was able, with his limited sources of information, to reach skeptical conclusions about the information he read in the newspapers, it is as well to be reminded of the fact that the words of those who claim to be defending the national interest should not always be taken at face value.


Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on A Boy Called H: A Childhood in Wartime Japan, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

Catherine Dybiec Holm

Holm is a freelance writer with speculative fiction and nonfiction publications. In this essay, Holm looks at how Senoh captures the insidious effects of war in a young boy's daily life.

For those of us in a country that has never seen traditional warfare on its soil, it can be difficult to imagine the day-to-day realities of living in a nation under attack. Even news coverage cannot come close to capturing the insidious ways that war can affect individual lives. Kappa Senoh's fictionalized autobiography, A Boy Called H: A Childhood in Wartime Japan, does a fantastic job of capturing the process of war and its increasing presence in the life of H and others. The book's precocious protagonist does not flinch from making his views about war known to the reader, even though H feels he must keep his opinions to himself in many public situations.

Right away, we are given a hint of the public paranoia that will increase over time. So early in the book, this instance of subtle public fear is an almost unnoticed foreshadowing of events to come, since it is combined with other apparently pleasant details of everyday life. H becomes friendly with a man from the noodle shop. When Noodles (as H calls him) invites H up to his apartment to listen to records, H is so taken with the music that he calls Noodles "Red Label," after the labels on the record collection.

H found himself liking the delivery boy more and more and decided that as a mark of respect he'd give him the nickname "Red Label." The next time he went to visit, he told him about it. To his surprise, the smile was wiped off his face in a flash. "No, thank you!" he said in a loud voice, "You stick to 'Noodles'—I don't want any 'Red Label."'

Later it turns out that Noodles is captured right in H's neighborhood; and that Noodles is thought to be a Communist informant. But when H hears the neighbors talking about the incident and tries to decipher their meaning, he is brushed aside. "'What're dangerous thoughts? Who're the secret police?' H asked them anxiously, but the grown-ups suddenly clammed up. 'Keep your voice down,' he was told with a look of fierce disapproval."

H notes that the paper never reports on the incident. Throughout the book, he'll continually notice discrepancies between reality and what the news reports, especially as the war accelerates. And possibly, for the first time in his life, the concept of being an informant is really understood by the boy. He begins to fear that Noodles will think H informed on him.

Even though Japan is not at war in the beginning of this book, the stage is being set as the author skillfully accents aspects of H's life that will later prove to have a direct relationship, in some way, to war. Early on, H's mother is described as an ardent Christian. The practice of Christianity is not the norm during this period in Japan. H's mother came from a family of Buddhists, and "no one had dreamed for a moment that she might become Christian, and it caused quite a stir in the village." Later, H's family is suspect in a general way, as wartime propaganda paints a picture of Christianity as the religion of the "British and American fiends." H's family is considered unusual in the community of Kobe, since H's father is a tailor and has customers of all nationalities (Kobe has an international population). As the wartime situation becomes more tense, H's family needs to consider how openly they can practice their religion. H's father wonders if he'll still have international customers and how his business will fare.

In the fourth grade, H experiences another side to the war besides the patriotism that is touted by the government and, increasingly, by the press. Girly Boy, a young man in the community that H is friendly with, gets his call-up papers. Three days after Girly Boy leaves, the military police come to Kobe looking for him; apparently Girly Boy has deserted. When H and some friends are playing, H discovers Girly Boy in an old shack. Horrified, H realizes that Girly Boy hanged himself to avoid serving in the war.

H is indeed horrified, even if the tone of the narrative is relatively subdued. In fact, throughout the book, H seems to process many horrifying experiences in a subdued, almost clinical way. It is difficult to tell whether this is part of the author's style or whether the protagonist, as reviewer Hazel Rochman suggests in Booklist, sounds detached because "the young boy is fighting emotional breakdown."

It is immediately after the Girly Boy incident that H's true feelings about war begin to become clear. H begins to have the courage to process such thoughts internally, even though they run counter to what the government would have the public believe about the war. With surprising clarity for a young child, and an unusual lack of fear at the circumstances, H reflects on the situation. "His friend hadn't wanted to be a soldier, he thought to himself: suicide was the only alternative. He wondered if hanging himself had seemed better than being killed by a bullet on the battlefield."

Throughout A Boy Called H: A Childhood in Wartime Japan, H continues to have troubling thoughts that explore the ethics of war. His musings are mature for a person his age, probably in part because his parents are thoughtful and deviate from the norm. Keeping his thoughts to himself, or occasionally confiding to a few like-minded adults (including his father), H questions the official party line and finds discrepancies in news coverage of the war. In some cases, H realizes that his views differ from those of his friends or his teachers. In riskier instances, he is silent, as when he is interviewing for a slot in school and is asked about his opinion on the war. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly suggests that this discrepancy

… leaves a gaping hole in the center of the narrative. Senoh seems more comfortable hinting at, rather than directly confronting, big questions about personal responsibility and collective guilt. Maybe these questions remain too painful, both for himself and the entire Japanese nation.

While this reviewer might find that these "big questions" would have been dealt with more directly had H voiced them aloud, H does, on many occasions, struggle with the questions internally, giving the reader a good argument regarding the ethics of war.

It is understandable that H would be cautious, even paranoid, about voicing his true feelings during the tense social climate of wartime. Senoh makes it clear that Japanese felt the need to modify their behavior during these times, and hide or draw attention away from certain pursuits that used to be undertaken without a worry. Thus, H's Christian parents worry about practicing their religion too visibly, since Christianity is now associated with western nations and the "British and American fiends." Passengers riding a commuter train automatically draw the shades down when the train passes the ocean, so no one will see the ocean that the train is passing—and possibly witness a "military secret." Such paranoid and necessary behaviors become a part of everyday life for the Japanese, until the populace can barely remember living any differently. Senoh makes the experience ultimately knowable for the reader, since anyone can imagine being in these everyday, real yet surreal, situations.

"Senoh seems to be asking us—Who can make sense of the insanity of war?—even though each person may hold a different opinion or have suffered different losses during wartime."

But H has been struggling with his conscience even before the acceleration of war. These internal ethical struggles are ones that readers can identify with. How many people, for example, have experienced modifying what they truly wish to say, for fear of reprisal? H recalls how he was singled out as a first grader, because of his family's religious practice:

He'd been surrounded by other boys who said to him, "Your family are Amens, aren't they? You people are supposed to love your enemies, right? So you love Chinks, do you?"

Frightened, H was so keen to get away that he blurted out tearfully, "I'm not a Chink-lover. I don't love them. I hate Chinks!"

The incident continued to bother his conscience long after that.

H fights with his conscience through much of the book. In showing this, Senoh has made the book completely readable, since H is confronting aspects of the human condition others can relate to.

War continues to make its presence known in everyday life, often in surprising and detailed ways. H and his classmates are taught specific ways to swim and remain afloat in a survival situation. When air raids become common, schoolchildren are given detailed instructions on how to take shelter on the floor under desks, and to open their mouths and cover their ears and eyes so that their ears and eyes stay intact during an explosion. When food shortages increase, residents receive information on how to use parts of the rice plant (such as rice grass) that were previously considered inedible. In Senoh's unsurprised, detailed narrative, the already surreal events become even more surreal to the reader. These changes become commonplace and accepted as an everyday part of life, much like the words "terrorism" and "anthrax" became a more commonplace part of American reality and language after the terrorist attacks against the United States in September 2001.

With a true nonconformist's mentality, H makes it clear early on that he respects people who stand for their principles. Though his mother has forbidden him to read anything but the Bible and textbooks, she finds that he is secretly reading The Three Treasures (H loves books and movies). When she confronts an unsuspecting teacher about this, the teacher covers for H, saying that reading such books was good for H, and reading only the Bible "wasn't likely to do [children] much good." H admires the pragmatism and forthright nature of the teacher. Given such glimpses at H's parents, it is easy to see how such a young protagonist developed such a questioning and intelligent nature. Although his mother is an evangelist, she is at least willing to change her stance regarding H's reading material after meeting with the teacher. H's father also has a number of interesting discussions with H on the subjects of war, tolerance for other religions and cultures, and ethics. At one point, H's father tells the boy, "If you're going to call religions that other people believe in 'heathen,' you can't complain if other people refer to Christianity as heathen."

From early on, H has been taught by his parents to consider both sides of any issue. But perhaps his reluctance to voice his opinion begins with friends at the beach in the winter of 1940.

"Say what you like, Japan's got a strong navy!" cried Shogo in a shrill voice.

"If it was a real war, though," said H, even though he was just as excited, "the enemy wouldn't just sit still, they'd fire back."

This prompted an immediate barrage of cries along the lines of "Whose side are you on anyway?" from the others, so H decided he better be careful about this habit of putting forward the other side of things.

This is an intensely real, human reaction—one that any reader who has taken a risk (or considered taking a risk) in voicing a dissenting opinion will recognize.

In an interesting scene toward the end of the book, H expresses sudden joy that the war is over. His friend is upset with H's reaction and joy, since the friend's family members are potentially dead or injured because of the war. The friend smacks H in anger, and H experiences a sudden catharsis. "Suddenly, the tear spilled from H's eyes too—not from regret at the defeat, but out of sheer, frustrated puzzlement as to what the war had been all about."

This is also a completely human reaction. Senoh seems to be asking us—Who can make sense of the insanity of war?—even though each person may hold a different opinion or have suffered different losses during wartime.

H is a nonconformist and a pragmatist. He is also a survivor. It's no surprise, therefore, when H begins to pursue a career as an artist toward the end of the book. Many artists, through their work, pursue an ideal of telling the truth, of speaking the truth and letting it be known. Although the character H may hesitate, out of necessity, to voice his opinions, the author has used effective honesty in giving us a look at the difficult ethics and the surrealistic everyday life in wartime Japan.


Catherine Dybiec Holm, Critical Essay on A Boy Called H: A Childhood in Wartime Japan, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

Mary Goebel Noguchi

In the following review, Noguchi praises A Boy Called H for its "gradual development of understanding on the part of the narrator" but questions the accuracy of the story.

Senoh Kappa's A Boy Called H, the English translation of Shônen H, is the story of a bright, curious boy growing up in an unconventional family in Kobe during Japan's "15-year war." It is a tale of loss of innocence, as the boy's penchant for questioning everything is subject to the tightening constraints of the social, educational and political systems of a country increasingly entrenched in war and insistent that its entire population devote itself to ultimate victory.

The hero is dubbed "H" by his friends because his mother, inspired by a photograph she received from a foreign missionary friend, has knit the first letter of the boy's name, Hajime, into a sweater that he often wears. Both of his parents are devout Christians with many contacts in the foreign community of Kobe, and both strive to live according to their principles, especially by showing brotherly love to all people.

The book begins when H is an elementary school student in the late 1930s and follows him through World War II, the fire bombings of Kobe and destruction of his family home, and on through Japan's surrender, when all the contradictions in the society around him drive H to attempt suicide. It ends in 1948 when the youth has finally been able to pick up the pieces of his shattered life and find a useful outlet for his artistic talents. Working for the Phoenix Studio, a sign-maker's shop, he sees his country rising from the ashes of war like the immortal bird in the company name.

A Boy Called H is carefully constructed to recreate the boy's development. The first chapters artfully illustrate his early innocence, curiosity and exuberance with a series of anecdotes reminiscent of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Like Mark Twain, Senoh Kappa narrates the story from the perspective of the youth, so that we see all his questions and confusion about the complex social issues in the world around him, but in a way that allows the more informed adult reader to laugh gently at his foibles.

Although the dark side of Japanese pre-war society is apparent from the start, when a local noodle delivery boy is arrested by the Secret Police because of his "dangerous ideas," H's life during the first quarter of the book seems almost idyllic. He pours his energies into sneaking into movies and peepshows, earning pocket money by selling paste and trading pictures of sumo wrestlers, and spending long days at the seaside learning to row and trying to make salt from seawater.

However, as the military increasingly controls every facet of daily life, H has to come to grips with emperor worship, deprivation, war slogans, fear of the Secret Police, and worst of all, the transformation of schools into factories and military training institutes. With his rationality and Christian principles, H has great difficulty accepting the changes in the society around him. He asks many of the same questions a Westerner or a Japanese youth today might ask: Why does everyone put up with the shortages? Why do they go along with all of the propaganda and the unreasonable demands of the military? Why don't the adults say that the country is on the wrong course? Why don't the newspapers print the truth?

With great compassion, Senoh shows us why. In many cases, H himself is drawn in by goodies distributed to quell the people's anxieties and doubts. When special rations of sake, sweets and rubber balls are to be handed out to mark the fall of Singapore, for example, we find, "For all H's avowed dislike of war, the enticement of such special rations convinced him that victory in war wasn't a bad thing after all."

H's father Morio also helps the boy understand other people's reactions. When H asks Morio why the usually soft-spoken young man at a local shop bellowed out a speech welcoming his draft notice, Morio points out that "he probably has this basic idea that it's a man's duty to give up his life for his country," and even though his "mother and the others in his family don't want to lose him," he "may well have wanted to declare to himself and everyone else that [he] … was a real man now." H also sees Morio himself slowly becoming more circumspect, even in his conversations with his son, since the child's bragging that his father has a picture postcard of a tall building in America is enough to get Morio dragged into the police station for questioning.

Gradually, H comes to be more accepting of those around him who seem to be blindly devoted to the war effort. Although he initially rebels against a fanatical military instructor at his middle school, he eventually finds that "the strong resentment he'd once felt had given way to a feeling that the man was a lonely, pitiful figure. Possibly, as the war situation grew increasingly critical, he was desperately feeling that he should do something, without knowing what that something was."

This gradual development of understanding on the part of the narrator makes this a valuable work. Not only does the original Shônen H explain to young Japanese today why the nation was led so badly astray a half-century ago, but the English translation also helps make the Japanese of that period appear far more human to Westerners, with their cultural tendency to stick to principles and strive for consistency in their own lives. For this reason, Shônen H was highly acclaimed in Japan by a number of critics and authors who had lived through the war. The pocketbook (bunkobon) edition of the work includes a short essay by renowned author Inoue Hisashi praising Senoh for explaining a period in the nation's history which, to anyone who did not live through it, can only be viewed as a time of sheer craziness.

Published in January 1997, Shônen H became an instant bestseller. The story was adapted for the stage, and a TV dramatization was broadcast in the fall of 1999. Moreover, because Senoh wrote the work in a style that would be accessible to children and insisted that the readings of most Chinese characters be provided, many junior high school teachers have added it to their recommended reading list or used excerpts in history classes.

The English translation masterfully captures the spirit of the original. Veteran translator John Bester conveys just the right combination of naivete and humor in the early chapters and then gradually darkens the tone to set the mood for the hero's descent into the hell of war. He has taken great pains to accurately render the many place names and dated technical terms that fill the work's 528 pages.

Nonetheless, a fair number of awkward sentences, dangling modifiers and small mistakes give the impression that the translation was rushed into publication without the benefit of a careful rereading by translator and editor. However, these are minor quibbles with a basically solid translation.

"… any astute reader should see A Boy Called H as a literary work. Each chapter is neatly constructed to make a single point and could stand alone as a short story, complete with beginning, middle and end."

A more serious problem arises when we try to classify this work in order to understand how to read it. Only at the end of the original Shônen H do we find the label shôsetsu to suggest, that it is fiction. The author has claimed on TV talk shows that the work is an accurate account of his childhood (Hajime being his given name and Kappa his pen name. He has since had his name legally changed to Kappa on his family register). Senoh says he consulted chronological tables and other historical sources to make the work as accurate as possible. He also sent chapters to several people his age to check on the historical veracity of his work and confirmed other facts and figures with people who appear in the story. The personal names in the book are the real names of people in his life, and the Japanese edition includes photographs of Senoh's teachers and classmates as well as those of friends who feature prominently in the story. Maps of his neighborhood in Kobe are also provided to help the reader visualize the locations in the narrative.

Yet one has to wonder about the accuracy of this "autobiographical novel" (as the translator calls it). Do we read it as "The Truth" or as historical fiction? Differing answers to this question have led to controversy over the book in Japan. Early media accounts praised the remarkable accuracy and detail of Senoh's memory. However, by late 1997, the selection committees for two awards for juvenile literature were embroiled in debate over historical inaccuracies in the work. In the end, Shônen H received neither the Shôgakukan Jidô Shuppan Bunka-Shô nor the Noma Jidô Bungei-Shô, even though it had been the front-running nominee for both prizes.

The most vociferous critic of the work has been Yamanaka Hisashi, an author of historical books for children and a member of that year's selection committee for both awards. Yamanaka was so incensed by the uncritical acclaim Senoh's book received that he and his wife, Yamanaka Noriko, wrote an 845-page critique titled Machigai Darake no Shônen H (Shônen H: A Book Full of Mistakes). Yamanaka's tome points out three major flaws in Senoh's book. First, he claims the work is riddled with mistakes in historical fact. For example, in a chapter that takes place during the summer of 1942, Senoh's sister sings a patriotic song that was published and performed for the first time in 1945. In another chapter, a postman delivers a draft notice, even though these papers were actually delivered by special military personnel.

Second, Yamanaka feels that characters in the book, especially Morio, know things and make predictions of the course of the war in a way that was not possible at the time because of media censorship. Yamanaka, who is only a year younger than Senoh, asserts that people in Japan at the time were completely fooled by the government and that there is no way that anyone could have entertained the kind of doubts that a number of the characters in Shônen H expressed. Finally, Yamanaka doubts whether H (Senoh) himself really questioned the war at the time as much as he does in the book.

Senoh apparently recognized the validity of a number of Yamanaka's claims about historical inaccuracies and revised later editions of Shônen H, although the latter two concerns were not addressed by the author. A Boy Called H, based on the 18th printing published in September 1997, reflects only some of the changes. As of February this year, the 29th printing was issued.

I also wondered whether Senoh had added many of the questions H asks and his attacks on the government after the fact. Other historical accounts of this period indicate that most Japanese supported the war. For years, it was impossible in Japan to bring up the question of the emperor's responsibility for the war. As recently as 1990, the mayor of Nagasaki, Motoshima Hitoshi, was shot by a rightist for daring to publicly state that the emperor bore at least some responsibility. Thus it is hard not to conclude that Senoh's recollection of his youth must be tinged by insights gained as an adult.

Yet any astute reader should see A Boy Called H as a literary work. Each chapter is neatly constructed to make a single point and could stand alone as a short story, complete with beginning, middle and end. Senoh said on a TV talk show that the chapters were written so that they would not have to be read in any particular order. Indeed, the author often explains characters and H's current situation in a way that appears redundant to someone who is reading the book straight through.

If taken as an artistic attempt to explain why Japan continued along the path to what in retrospect can only be seen as its inevitable self-destruction, then A Boy Called H serves as a valuable aid for those who did not live through that process to be more compassionate with those who did. As such, it is well worth reading.


Mary Goebel Noguchi, "Compassionate Look at a Nation Co-opted," in Japan Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 2, April—June 2000, pp. 98-101.


Coughlin, William J., Conquered Press: The MacArthur Era in Japanese Journalism, Pacific Books, 1952, pp. 46-58.

Levine, Steven I., Review of A Boy Called H, in Library Journal, Vol. 125, No. 6, April 1, 2000, p. 113.

Review of A Boy Called H, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 247, No. 7, February 14, 2000, p. 182.

Rochman, Hazel, Review of A Boy Called H, in Booklist, Vol. 96, No. 12, February 15, 2000, p. 1084.

Shillony, Ben-Ami, Politics and Culture in Wartime Japan, Clarendon Press, 1981, pp. 91-97.

Sweeney, Michael S., Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II, University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Further Reading

Cook, Haruko Taya, and Theodore F. Cook, Japan at War: An Oral History, New Press, 1993.

This work of oral history captures in the words of ordinary people exactly what it was like to live in Japan during the time of Japan's war with China and the United States. As in A Boy Called H, many Japanese express a view of the war that is very different from the official versions.

Nimura, Janice P., Review of A Boy Called H, in Washington Post, August 6, 2000.

Nimura comments admiringly on Senoh's prose that seems so artless but manages to convey an entire social world.

Siegenthaler, Peter, Review of A Boy Called H, in Persimmon: Asian Literature, Arts, and Culture, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 2000. Available on the Internet at http://www.persimmon-mag.com/summer2000/bre_sum2000_3.htm (last accessed December 23, 2002).

Siegenthaler regards one of the strengths of the book to be how it shows many ordinary Japanese doubting the official versions of how the war was progressing but lacking the ability to give voice to their doubts in any public forum.