Naïve dreams of military glory are often shattered by the reality of death. Shigeo Imamura, a Japanese officer in World War II, eventually became an American professor and wrote his life story to promote world peace. In the newly published A Thousand Stitches, late author Constance O’Keefe gives his memoir the novel treatment.
Though the novel weaves together tales of four different characters, all four strands heighten the dilemma of one, Sam Imagawa’s: Why did he succumb to wartime propaganda? How did he, a boy who spent his childhood years in the United States, fall for Japanese militarism? His later disenchantment has obvious causes: the war’s destruction of his country; widespread, indiscriminate death; and the unveiling of the myth of propaganda. But how Sam became such a gung-ho soldier in the first place is the book’s substance, an account of how the desire to fit in and conform to Japanese ideals led him to embrace the kamikaze mindset.
This kamikaze is no mere caricature. “I consoled myself with the thought that my death would mean the survival of my family and all the good people I had seen that day,” he says. Luckily for Sam, Japan surrendered before he had to fly his fatal mission. His very insular story—only about Japan, never touching on Axis atrocities—has one purpose: to “help others realize that what they strongly believe in at one point in life, even to the point that they’re willing to sacrifice their lives for it, may ring completely hollow in later life.”
O’Keefe, who worked in international and aviation law in D.C. for more than 25 years, deftly illustrates militarism’s hold on Japanese culture in textbooks, the entire education system, and, most ominously, in the ubiquitous thought police who spied and informed on their neighbors. A Japan-centered creation myth was taught as fact in elementary school so children would worship the imperial family.
The fusion of fiction and memoir has its stylistic challenges, with the welter of memoir detail crowding out narrative development, but the book hits its stride as a novel in the almost incidental story of Sam’s miserable arranged marriage. When he could no longer bear it and suggested divorce, he received a resounding “no” from his and his wife’s entire clan. This romantic interlude, a story within a story, sketches a vivid aspect of Japanese culture somewhat alien to Americans, making that difference more accessible than the leap into what could make a person a kamikaze, which at times seems too remote to fathom. But the tribulations of love (or not-love) and enduring grief for the sake of family approval has been the stuff of novels for centuries, and it moves the book from the mode of merely recasting a memoir to being a compelling novel in its own right.