United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas (Review)

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I was really happy to receive a copy of Peter Tieryas’s new book United States of Japan. I’ve reviewed Peter’s books before, and I respect him as one of the most creative contemporary thinkers in Asian American fiction today. I respect his unique ideas and his embrace of thinking that goes far beyond the typical issues that many Asian American writers try to address. With USJ, he once again pushes the boundaries of imagination and inquiry. Peter also bravely enters the political arena of history and intra-Asian debates. It’s by far Peter’s most ambitious novel to date. This has also been the most thought-provoking book I’ve read all year.  I loved it, and I hope you do too!

The United States of Japan is a science fiction novel that portrays an alternate history in which the Nazis and Japanese win World War II. The Japanese have taken over the United States and have created the United States of Japan. The book opens as Japanese soldiers liberate Japanese Americans from Roosevelt’s internment camps in 1948, after the Japanese have won the war by dropping a nuke on the U.S. It appears to be good news for the liberated Japanese Americans until it becomes apparent that the new victors are not what people expected. Fast forward to 1988 and the main story begins: Captain Beniko Ishimura, who is three-quarters Japanese and one-quarter Chinese, serves the USJ military as a video game censor. A new video game has asked players to imagine a world in which the United States won. At the same time, there is a real battle going on with rebels who are trying to overthrow Japanese rule. Peter Tieryas shares an action-packed story about how Ishimura deals with the contradictions of being a Japanese subject born of Asian American parents. Joining him is Akiko Tsukino, a Eurasian agent with the Tokko, Japan’s secret police.

The book excels in its imagery, suspense, and storyline. Tieryas employs excellent skill with suspense and surprise; he keeps the reader on edge and curious until the very end. The tech imagery was cool. It was interesting to read Tieryas’s vision of how America would have been Japanized if Japan had won. He portrays the unchecked brutality of a regime that historically did commit atrocities, both against the Chinese whom they defeated in war and the Koreans whom they colonized. Tieryas’s portrayal of the anti-Japanese rebels were also interesting. Check it out here. Now if you want want to read further, I’ll share with you my one criticism, and why this was the most thought-provoking book I’ve read in the last year. But please be aware that there is a spoiler. (…although it’s not a major spoiler, since it’s clear where the novel is going after the first 40 or so pages.)

Spoiler alert

I had one major criticism for this book, but to be fair, it’s something that I wouldn’t even know how to begin doing myself. In fact, I don’t know if it even can be done in a way that brings forth the anti-revisionist themes that seem present in Peter’s book. My one criticism is that in my reading, the book didn’t go far enough in portraying an actual full-Japanese person, i.e. a person whose lineage goes back years with pure Japanese blood, a person who is undeniably nothing-but-Japanese. I think this portrayal would have made the themes stronger, given that there are two sides in every conflict. While victims of Japanese brutality are also victims of Japanese revisionist history, real Japanese are also victims of revisionist history. Considering how Japan has doctored and whitewashed their textbooks, I don’t know how we’d ever make progress on this. But perhaps it’s a question that Tieryas should have asked.

Let’s think about this another way. If this is an anti-violence book or an anti-historical-revisionism book, think about some other effective tracts that have been written in the last century. Think about Barefoot Gen (Hadaka no Gen), which portrays families which eat together and play sumo wrestling together until they’re hit with a nuke that spreads radiation and causes children to die and lose body parts. Think about Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. All of these books view humanity as the main force that can overcome an oppressor or a tyrant or a desire for violence. Humanity is present among the victims, but it’s also present among the families of the aggressors.

In United States of Japan, there’s not a single Japanese-Japanese character who is developed to the same extent as Ishimura and Tsukino. Without a Japanese-Japanese character, it’s impossible to show the effect of indoctrination when a reader compares this world to his own. Ishimura and Tsukino are both of Japanese descent, but they’re not 100% Japanese. It’s hard to see the lost humanity without the perspective of someone originally from that culture, whereas in fact those from the culture arguably lose just as much. In the context of an alternate history, it seems likely that Japan would have imported teachers and overseers from Japan to the United States.They likely would have forced the Americans to learn and speak Japanese and to adopt Japanese names, which they did in the book as well, but the effort to enforce this culture would have required real Japanese people —teachers, military people, scientists, lawyers—to travel to the United States to enforce their culture. They would have brought their families, and some would have resettled here. But we don’t hear from them in the book.

Now just to be clear, I’m offering this criticism as someone who doesn’t have the answer. Among the Japanese (not Japanese American) and American people I know in real life, people don’t ever talk about stuff like this. Years ago, I had one non-Japanese friend mention the Korean comfort women on Facebook, only to have one of his Japanese-Japanese friends unleash a ridiculous, incoherent, nonsensical string of denials and conspiracy theories about how Japan was framed and maligned by the Allies and the Koreans and the Chinese. Japanese textbooks teach revisionist history, and most Japanese, unless they travel outside of Japan, know nothing of Japan’s war crimes. Most are completely ignorant of what really happened, and when they speak about it, it often comes across as cray-cray to the rest of educated humanity. But how does one bring this up, especially with a culture that is less outwardly expressive to begin with? How does one bridge that cultural gap? United States of Japan didn’t fully ask that question, but I don’t even know if that question has any viable avenues for progress.

Anyway, as mentioned, this was the most thought-provoking book I’ve read this year. I hope some of you will check it out and let me know what you think. It’s available on Amazon right now.

9 thoughts on “United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas (Review)

  1. Amazon’s “Man in the High Castle” has similar themes, but being white mainstream targeted propaganda there are no Japanese-Americans either and only the brutality of Japanese from Japan.

    Yet, the Japanese characters are played by JA actors putting on bad fake accents.

    Curious to see the movie adaptation of USJ and how it works out. lol

  2. Aardvark,

    They’re actually based on the same work, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Thanks for the info on that Amazon show. I do want to check it out.

    One other thing that’s occurring to me right now. And you know it’s a deep book if I’m still thinking nearly a week after finishing it…

    As I mentioned above, Agent Tsukino is Eurasian, and I thought it would be interesting to hear the perspective from someone who is undeniably nothing-but-Japanese. From the very start, Tsukino comes across as more American in her mannerisms. English is her primary language, and she’s American because of the forceful way she argues her points, including the words she chooses to use. When Japanese-Japanese people interact, there is often an element of the culture and language where they leave out stuff. They’ll say stuff like, “Soko ni itte…” (“I went there, and….”) I used to sit there and wait for the speaker to finish the sentence. But the sentence is actually already done; the listener is supposed to complete the idea because it’s implied.

    I think it’s more than just language. Lots of stuff is left out. I’d be interested in learning how one puts stuff in while leaving stuff out. It happens all the time in Japan, but I wonder how it would take place with the topic of war crimes and healing. How does one navigate those subtleties while expressing something that isn’t so subtle?

  3. Aardvark,

    Also, that was one of the things that grabbed me right from the first page. How often is history told from the perspective of Asian Americans affected by it? Usually we’re just side-characters. In this book, history comes from our perspective. It’s refreshing.

  4. The unwholesome title and book cover sent shivers of extreme anxiety and horror up my spine.

    We are talking about a regime that regularly beheaded and machinegunned more civilians than IS, defeating the most industrialized CONTINENT in the world at the time, projecting power not just to America but by necessity the entire Pacific and Indian ocean, perhaps up to Africa and the Middle East.

    The world as we know it today simply would not exist. Brutality, authoritarian rule and brainwashing would be the norm, carried over from a time when even their own recruits were subjected to corporal and collective punishment.

  5. @bigWOWO,

    Perhaps I should actually go read it now. lol But your description didn’t sound like Asian Americans are front and center in the novel, just as props to white racist fantasies. I’m hoping the story has Captain Ishimura be the hero if you don’t want to give that away, but my “cynicism” is that Asian Americans are mostly represented without any humanity.

    Amazon’s “Man In the High Castle” mostly relegated the Japanese and Japanese Americans to the background without any good/positive representations. Are there any resistance fighters of APIA heritage like a Chinese-American in either franchise?

    What’s revolutionary is Australia’s xenophobic movie/YA book series “Tomorrow When the War Began” that featured a confident and romantic AM front and center as the love interest of the main female character. Check out the movie:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1456941/

  6. @Sengge Rinchen,

    The world as we know it today simply would not exist. Brutality, authoritarian rule and brainwashing would be the norm, carried over from a time when even their own recruits were subjected to corporal and collective punishment.

    Sounds like the British Empire and most of the other EU colonial powers actually…

    Go see Ghandi again! ^_^

  7. Aardvark,

    You’ll like the book. It’s only $10 on Amazon. I’ll give that much away: Ishimura is the hero. He’s not a prop; he’s a fully thinking Asian American, nothing less than what you’d expect from Peter Tieryas Liu. Check it out!

  8. Sounds awesome. I’ll get a copy tonight then.

    You sure can make a deal. lol

  9. Pingback: United States of Japan Releases and a Small Review Roundup! | The Whimsy of Creation: The Blog of Tieryas

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