Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s World War II Story – Marc Tyler Nobleman and Melissa Iwai, Clarion Books, 2018
People seem drawn to children’s books about reconciliation. After all, even adults feel comforted by the idea, however illusory, that every terrible event has a valuable lesson or conclusion. When reading with children, we want to be even more careful to emphasize redeeming moments within even the worst events whenever it is possible to do so. However, this inclination shouldn’t lead to disrespect for the truth. Marc Tyler Nobleman and Melissa Iwai’s Thirty Minutes Over Oregon is a profoundly disturbing, if compellingly narrated and gorgeously illustrated, story. Nobleman purports to tell the story of a sensitive and contrite Japanese bomber pilot and the Americans who forgive him for his unsuccessful attempt to destroy a community in Oregon in 1942. The book completely whitewashes the context of this terrible event; it is more the story of an American author wanting to find the good in an overwhelmingly dark period of history than it is the story of a failed Japanese bomber.
Japanese aggression in the cause of consolidating economic and political hegemony in Asia led to their alliance with Nazi Germany and their attack on Pearl Harbor. In China, Korea, and other parts of Asia, millions of people suffered and died because of Japanese fascism and militarism. Allied soldiers died in the Pacific Theater of War, and many more returned with life-long injuries, both physical and psychological. Of course, the Japanese people themselves suffered tremendous losses, culminating in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in order to end the War. While Nobleman chooses to focus his story on the personal experience of pilot Nobuo Fujita, he fails to provide the context of this man’s personal near-tragedy and search for forgiveness. In a book for elementary school-aged readers, this omission is serious, as is Nobleman’s rather manipulative choices in describing historical events.
First, the design and the illustrations of the book are outstanding. Melissa Iwai is a gifted artist whose pictures capture both the human actors and the epic proportions of the story, including the first two- page spread where Fujita approaches the submarine that will transport him to his mission. He appears quite small in relation to his airplane and even smaller in comparison to the massive sub. Nobleman presents Fujita, not as the loyal servant of a dictatorial regime, but as a somewhat positive example of Japanese culture, as he “strode across the slippery deck,” and “gripped the 400-year-old samurai sword that had been in his family for generations.” While family symbols and deeply rooted customs may be either good or bad, there is nothing here to indicate any problem with Fujita’s modern application of an ancient code of war (for a counterpoint, see here).
Nobleman does describe Fujita’s mission as one of destruction, as his bombs will aim to ignite and destroy Oregon communities. Yet the picture of him in his bombing gear looks heroic, and we learn that he left his wife “strands of hair and fingernail clippings” to be buried if he did not return. Everything about his failed mission is described from the pilot’s point of view, with little commentary. After both his first and second attempts fail, Fujita vows to die “with honor” by deliberately crashing his plane. Only confusion about the actual failure of his mission allows him to avoid suicide. He returns home; as his ship lands, Fujita “gazed through binoculars to mask his tears.” No child reading or listening to this story will feel anything but empathy for the pilot, who was only one of many who served a tyrannical regime, whether willingly or reluctantly.
Fast forward to 1962, when the residents of Brookings, Oregon, or at least some of them, decide to invite Fujita to a Memorial Day celebration. Nobleman and Iwai depict those residents opposing this choice as hard-hearted fanatics. We see a frowning picketer bearing a sign that says “NO to Nobuo Fujita.” This is only seventeen years after the end of a war that cost millions of lives. “Despite the pressure to cancel the visit,” the town would host Fujita, as a “symbol of reconciliation not just between individuals but between nations.” Residents of the town he nearly destroyed joke with their former enemy that he is “one of the worst fire-setters in the world.” Again, it seems doubtful that children will understand enough about the Cold War and the eagerness to avoid Soviet influence that contributed to encouragement of reconciliation with former Axis powers. Support for Fujita’s visit appears completely as a spontaneous outpouring of forgiveness. In a telling indication that Fujita’s remorse is tinged with the very obedience to authority that he upheld during the War, he brings his samurai sword to Oregon because, if his apology is not accepted, “he would use the sword to commit seppuku, traditional Japanese suicide by a person overcome with shame.” This book has received positive reviews. Am I the only reader to find it strange and alarming that a book for young children uncritically describes suicide as a response to shame? Is Nobleman blinded by the fact that seppuku is part of a foreign culture, and therefore somehow not subject to moral judgement?
When Nobuo Fujita again returns to Oregon in 1990, by which time World War II is a distant memory, he is greeted at another celebration, where he is served “a large submarine sandwich topped with a plane made of sliced pickles and a half-olive helmet.” It’s difficult to comment on this stunningly inappropriate joke, except to point out, again, that children reading this book will not see it as evidence of historical ignorance or insensitivity.
Nobleman’s “Author’s Note,” which might have provided some clarification, is disappointing. He refers in it to the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. This unforgiveable and unconstitutional infringement on the civil rights of loyal Americans should never be forgotten, but Nobleman fails to include other relevant facts about the War and Fujita’s mission. He briefly mentions one episode that really transforms the presentation of Fujita’s story from a pathetic failure to an ominous precursor. In 1945, a Japanese balloon bomb did explode, again, in Oregon, this time killing six people. Nobleman fails to mention that they were members of a Sunday school class on an outing; the dead included both students and the minister’s pregnant wife. Finally, Nobleman refers to Fujita as a “noble figure.” No, he was not. He was, like many soldiers in wartime, a cog in a machine. He may indeed have felt sincere remorse and suffered emotionally for his deeds, but I don’t believe that we should present his life to children as an example of nobility. Were Nazi soldiers noble? Were Southerners who died fighting for the Confederacy? Even when people have limited choices and we feel reluctant to judge, glorifying their deeds to children is a terrible idea. If you would like to read a true example of noble behavior by a Japanese dissident, I recommend Passage to Freedom: the Sugihara Story, by Ken Mochizuki and Dom Lee.