Charles Happell, The Bone Man of Kokoda (Pan Macmillan Australia 2008)
I’m not one of those people who are fascinated by World War Two. When war comics were all the rage in my primary school, I was off in a corner reading Donald Duck, Superman, Captain Marvel and a sophisticated detective whose name I don’t remember. But lately I’ve been getting myself an education on the subject. My sister-in-law gave me this book on the strength of recent blog entries, and I approached it with a double sense of obligation: it was a Christmas present, and it promised yet another perspective on a subject that had lain unconsidered in my mind most of my life. Obligation rarely leads to enthusiasm, and I started the book with a heavy heart.
It turns out to be a fabulous book, another of those micro-histories described by Judith Keene as making up history – where hers swam against the main current by being traitors, the hero of this one does so by extraordinary loyalty. It’s a man who, having made a solemn promise in his early 20s, dropped everything in his 60th year, not to go into comfortable retirement but to devote the next 26 years to keeping the promise. When his wife and sons objected, he gave them everything – the house, his thriving business, even his antique samurai sword – set out on his mission, never to speak to them again. His daughter, who understood something of what drove him, remained in touch and now looks after him in his old age.
What drove Kokichi Nishimura was the horrendous experience of being part of the Japanese invasion of New Guinea, seeing all his comrades killed in the jungle, mainly on the Kokoda Trail, and returning as part of a defeated force, despised in some quarters for not having suicided according to the code of bushido, and suspect in others because of the well-publicised atrocities committed by the Japanese forces. What do you do with the rest of your life after that? How do you live when you have fought in the battle of Brigade Hill at the age of 22, in kill-or-be-killed hand-to-hand combat:
Nishimura’s wounded arm was useless, but he drew his sword with his left hand and thrust it at the Australian’s chest; it hit a rib and stopped. The Australian grabbed the sword’s blade with his bare hands and kicked Nishimura in the stomach. The Japanese fell on his back and the sword went flying.
Noticing his enemy’s face up close, Nishimura was struck by how young the Australian was … For a moment, he thought: Why am I fighting this boy whom I don’t even know? But in the next instant he realised he would be killed himself if he didn’t get to his feet and tackle the Australian.
Nichimura launched himself again at the bigger man. Somehow, in the ensuing struggle, he regained his sword from the ground and this time drove it into the Australian’s stomach. The soldier pierced the air with a wail that sounded like an air-raid siren as he fell down, and slipped into unconsciousness. It was a chilling scream that Nishimura never forgot.
Some survivors committed ritual suicide. Many, possibly the mainstream, embraced the new pacifist Japan and tried to forget the war. Some foment rightwing nationalist politics. Nishimura’s path is strikingly individual. He promised his dead companions that he would return to honour their remains, and since 1966 his life has revolved around an uncompromising quest to keep his word, to bring families of the slain, if not the remains of their bodies for burial, then emotionally significant mementoes – a lunchbox, a flag, in one case a rusty pump. As a corollary, he invested his time and resources into projects to help the locals in the places where he conducted his search – building a school, bulldozing roads, helping people get training and set up enterprises.
He’s a fascinating man, a lesson in integrity. And the book is all the more fascinating because written by an Australian. Maybe the ghosts of the Pacific War are on the way to being laid to rest.
My current favourite mystery word makes two appearances in this book.
On page 86, Nishimura sustains nasty damage to his right leg when his ship is sunk by a US torpedo:
In a way his injury proved fortuitous. It meant he could again rest up in hospital and eat regular meals.
And on page 151:
He had relied heavily, too, on the fortuitous windfall he received from the sale of his parcel of land in Kochi.
In the first quote, ‘fortuitous’ clearly means ‘lucky’. It could be replaced by ‘fortunate’ with no change to the meaning. Or perhaps it has a slightly greater emphasis on the arbitrariness of the good fortune. Whichever, it’s used in a way the dictionaries recognise, though some still frown on it.
In the second, the word could almost have its pure, pedant-approved meaning, ‘happening by chance’, though paired with ‘windfall’ it is completely redundant if that’s what it means. It only adds meaning to its sentence if we understand it to mean ‘especially fortunate’.