INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Yonsei Protagonist Takes Spotlight in ‘Flowers of Edo’

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on September 30, 2010.)

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I’m going to have to start paying a commission to Don Hata. A few weeks ago, he gave me a heads up about “Hogoz,” the online satiric look at life behind barbed wire that went live Sept. 20 (visit hogoz.com and see for yourself). So informed, I contacted its creator, John Powers, and wrote about it in this space on Aug. 19.

The subject of my latest column also has a connection to Professor Hata, who wrote a “jacket blurb” for the debut novel of Michael Dana Kennedy’s new “The Flowers of Edo” (ISBN: 978-1-934287-80-4 [1-934287-80-6] $26.95). It is published by Vertical Inc. and distributed by Random House. Vertical, incidentally, is best-known as a publisher that specializes in translating top-selling Japanese books into English.

I just received a review copy in the mail, but at 544 pages, my take on the book will have to be the subject of a future column. I can, though, give a synopsis of the novel. First of all, it should be noted that “The Flowers of Edo” is a work of historical fiction, a genre in which, for example, a fictional character acts within a historical context, taking into account facts, actual events and places as a backdrop, with actual people who existed often playing supporting parts. But after that, it’s made up. A recent example (for better or worse) is Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Inglorious Basterds.”

As satisfying as it might have been to see Adolph Hitler get his just desserts, as depicted in the aforementioned movie, historical fiction can go off the rails if not done properly and become revisionist history. Still, the genre can be a useful way to tell stories that might otherwise not get the spotlight.

Such is the case in “The Flowers of Edo,” since it takes place in the waning months of WWII and the United States’ war with Japan, with a Japanese American protagonist named Kenji Kobayashi. I had a chance to chat over the phone with the Boston-area author. I was very curious about Kennedy and why he chose the subject matter for his novel.

Michael Dana Kennedy “The Flowers of Edo.”

In Kennedy’s book, Kobayashi is a Yonsei (his ancestors having arrived on these shores as part of the Wakamatsu Colony) serving the United States Army as an intelligence officer. He has been handpicked by none other than Gen. Douglas MacArthur to infiltrate the Japanese military hierarchy as a spy to gather information on how the Japanese plan to prosecute the war as they face imminent defeat.

Facing the Allied forces is the foreknowledge that even with Japan’s defeat an inevitability, the military leadership and mindset of the Japanese people would be to fight to the death before giving up any territory, which would make an invasion of the main islands of Japan a protracted, bloody battle, something that would be a difficult if not impossible notion to sell to the American public in the aftermath of the death toll from Iwo Jima and other battles.

So, Ken Kobayashi infiltrating the Japanese military could give the United States an edge in quickly ending the war and saving lives on both sides. It probably goes without saying that if discovered, Kobayashi would face deadly consequences.

One twist that appears to be crucial to the plot—as I mentioned, I haven’t completed the book yet—is that Ken Kobayashi has an identical twin brother, Tom (as in Tomoyuki), who is serving in Japan’s Imperial Army.

“The Flowers of Edo” is a work that he said was 18 years in the making. Before following his passion to combine his love of history with becoming a full-fledged author, he told me he founded (and subsequently sold) two different medical technology companies. Kennedy’s love of history was sparked as a first grader by NBC’s 1952 broadcast of “Victory at Sea.”

“I watched it every Sunday for 26 weeks beginning in 1952. It was extraordinary,” Kennedy said. Later, he also got sucked into a British documentary production about Winston Churchill titled “The Valiant Years” and later still “The World at War.” Not only that, Kennedy had a girlfriend many years ago whose Japanese American father met his Italian wife when he was part of the 442.

All those details began to converge as the years went by. Still, there was a gap that made him wonder. “Reading history in college, I sort of focused on WWII. There was hardly any mention of Japanese Americans, yet the 100th/442 is the most-decorated unit in history of the U.S. Army,” said Kennedy.

The seed of an idea for a book began to form, coupled with his realization of how little attention was given to Japanese Americans in history. “Japanese Americans never really got their just recognition for their participation in WWII,” he said. He wanted to use the format of the novel as a way to tell an engrossing story while also giving some historical details to readers who might not otherwise know what happened.

After selling his companies, he was fortunately freed from day-to-day worries about having to pay the bills, and Kennedy began writing and researching his book in earnest or, as he put it, “full bore.”

As it turns out, “The Flowers of Edo” is part of a trilogy Kennedy is writing about the Kobayashi family; due next is a “prequel” that takes place hundreds of years ago in Japan, with another yet to come that details the younger years of the Kobayashi twins.

Since “Flowers of Edo” is still relatively new, having only just come out in June, Kennedy said that the book has yet to be translated into Japanese, although that will probably happen eventually. What he’d also like to see happen is a motion picture adaptation of his first book.

Hollywood has yet to tire of the WWII genre, as evidenced in recent years by HBO’s “The Pacific,” which boasted Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as producers; there’s also the pair of Clint Eastwood-directed movies, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” So, you just never know what could happen, despite Hollywood’s lousy track record with regard to depicting Japanese Americans.

Anyway, I plan to finish reading the book and will follow up with my impressions in an upcoming column. If you’ve already read “The Flowers of Edo,” drop me a line—I’d love to hear the reactions to this novel by others. Or, if you’re now inspired, get a copy of the book yourself. I noticed that on Amazon.com it is selling for just under $20.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Past columns can be viewed at IntoTheNextStage.com. Copyright (c) 2010 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

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