Short Story Sunday: ‘The Blind Chinese Soldiers’ by Hirabayashi Taiko

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories

I haven’t read any long Japanese literature. It’s only ever been poems and short stories. I’ve seen a lot of their cartoons, films and played the games though. ‘Blind Chinese Soldiers’ is the most striking story I found in this little gem of a collection.

The author is a woman who was writing at a time when both Japanese women writers and working class writers were beginning to distinguish themselves. By all accounts she was incredibly intelligent, very politically active and had a very tough life – she suffered from tuberculosis, cancer and her only child died from malnutrition. Despite this her prose is very measured and avoids the over-the-top flowery sentimentality that would be easy to slip into.

‘Blind Chinese Soldiers’  is set in Japan near the end of World War Two and while much more understated than the obvious comparison that’s part of the point. The whole country was devastated by the war yet very little information was available. The story is set in a train station and as the protagonist is waiting to board his train a lot of Japanese policemen arrive and it turns out that the train is occupied by both Prince Takamatsu and almost 500 Chinese prisoners of war. These soldiers have been blinded, most likely by experimentation and they are lead off the train and treated very roughly by the Japanese escort.

Stop what you’re doing. Go watch this now. Bring tissues.

People stand and gawk but ultimately are more concerned about their own personal tragedies than the larger problems of the country. The train is a great metaphor for this as people come and go, have brief moments of connections and then forget, yet they are all connected through the train of carriages.

There is massive diversity in this collection but this story is so brief – much like the encounter it depicts – so pared back and raw, that it is one of my favourites.

Notable Lines: All of them half-closed their eyes as if it were too bright, and tears were dripping from every eye. It was certain that every one of them was blind.

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