Themes in Steamy East and related fiction

All facets of human experience

By William Wetherall

Themes of Steamy East fiction run the gamut of dramatic possibility in the human condition. Most stories are mysteries or thrillers intended to entertain more than educate. Mysteries are today as likely to be written by woman as by men, while most thrillers are written by men.

Mysteries and thrillers alike involve mainly crime and intrigue complicated by romance -- or romance complicated by crime and intrigue. Most crimes are committed by individuals for corporate, family, or personal gain. Some are committed in the name of state against a rival or enemy state.

Thefts of industrial or state secrets or of works of art, and smugglings of drugs, weapons, or people, are likely to leave a body or two in the wake. Such crimes and associated murders are solved by amateur or private detectives, if not by police or other agents.

Some Steamy East stories dramatize the psychological and spiritual experiences of travelers, sojourners, adventurers, refugees, and others who cross national borders into unfamiliar surroundings. The protagonists of these stories are also likely to deal with boy-meet-girl complications, as they learn (or avoid learning) the local language and adapt to local cuisine and toilets.


Asian and Pacific wars

A map of international relations over the past few centuries will show that practically all regional wars are genetically related. The DNA of conflict between, say, Japan and China, or the United States and Japan, is passed from one generation of government to the next.

No conflict between governments -- for that is what all wars between countries come down to -- is born without impregnation and a period of gestation, usually very long. While unforeseen events may alter the course of existing conditions, conflict is always rooted in these conditions, which are created by the thoughts and actions of government powerholders.

Countries are like planets in that the movement of one is affected by the movements of all -- the proverbial "n-body" problem. Japan is responsible for its policies and behaviors regarding China and Korea during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But what the United States did or did not do, regarding these countries and Japan, had huge consequences for the course of Japan-China and Japan-Korea relations, and contributed to Japan's military expansion in Asia and the Pacific.

This is not to blame the United States for what Japan did over the decades, years, and months leading up to its attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It is simply to recognize that the conditions which enabled the Pacific War, however much the war was sparked by a unilateral provocation from Japan, stemmed from numerous multilateral provocations over the centuries.

As a fighting war between Japan and the United States, the "Pacific War" began in 1941 and ended in 1945. As a dynamic set developing conditions, however, the war began no later than the middle of the 19th century, and continues in this the 21st century.

The Pacific War is a "Hundred Year War" -- if one takes as its benchmarks the arrival of Commodore Perry in the Ryukyu islands and then at Uraga at the mouth of Edo bay in 1853, and the signing of the San Francisco Treaty of Peace in 1852. This, however, is to ignore the history of the conditions that existed when Perry arrived, and the conditions that exist today as a result of how the war was formally settled -- or left unsettled.

War as a never-ending story

To speak of the "Pacific War" as an event that lasted four years, from Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is like talking about a pimple only when it bursts and bleeds -- as though its festering and growth, and its healing and scarring, were not also part of the narrative.

The "Pacific War" was fought in the "Pacific Theater" of World War II, the setting of what was mostly a "US-Japan" war -- which is not to forget the involvement of many other countries. The point is that "Pacific" draws attention away from East and Northeast Asia -- particularly China and Korea, but also Manchuria and the former Russian territories of Japan -- the foci of conflict from Chinese, Korean, and Soviet points of view.

Yet the more Sino-centric "Greater East Asia War" or "Second Sino-Japanese War" or "Fifteen Year War" distracts attention from contributing factors -- particularly the presence and behavior of the United States states in Asia and the Pacific over the centuries, decades, and years leading up to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

Nothing quiet on the Eastern front

While the shear scale and intensity of the Pacific War may warrant it a central place in regional history, its causes and effects are reflected in all related wars past, contemporary, and future. I am introducing the expression "Asian and Pacific wars" to refer to the entire set of such closely related wars, including:

  1. The Pacific War as part of World War II, and all contemporary wars in Asia
  2. All wars that preconditioned World War II in the Pacific and Asia -- including the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and World War I, and
  3. All wars that have followed World War II in Asia and the Pacific and are part of its legacy -- including the revolutionary war in China in the late 1940s, the Korean War in the early 1950s, and the two wars that embroiled Vietnam and other countries in Indochina from the late 1940s to the mid 1970s.
Chinese Revolution and Taiwan Straits War

The communist revolution in China, directed against nationalists, continues in the standoff between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China, now in control of only Taiwan and a few other islands. The United States, and also Japan, are very deeply involved in this standoff -- which has the potential of exploding into a war international war that makes the 1954-1955 "straits crisis" look like child's play.

At the heart of the legal dispute is whether the manner in which Japan retroceded Taiwan to China after World War II, and continued to recognize ROC until 1972 (while the US did not switch its recognition to PRC until 1979), lends credibility to the argument that ROC has every right to be treated as an independent state if that is what its people want.

Korean War

The Korean War ended in a truce between the Democratic Republic of Korea in the north and the Republic of Korea in the South. The truce remains tense, however, as the former belligerents -- including substantial US military forces based in ROK and Japan -- continue to face each other across the 38th parallel, the line between the Soviet occupied north and the American occupied south in 1945.

Such a line would never had been drawn had the conditions of surrender had not required Japan to forfeit its sovereignty over Korea, and had the United States and the Soviet Union not had to divide the work of occupying and disarming Japanese territory. Japan's interference in Korea's affairs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was partly provoked by rivalries China and Russia over control of Northeast Asia. America's early acceptance of Japan's expansionism in East and Northeast Asia also contributed to Japan's annexation of Korea following the Russo-Japanese war.

Vietnam Wars

The first and second Vietnam wars left wakes of conflict in neighboring countries. The American Vietnam War (1964-1975) grew out of the legacy of the French Vietnam War (1946-1954). The French war developed from the manner in which the Japan seized control of Vietnam and other parts of French Indochina from the Vichy French government in 1940, a year before Pearl Harbor -- and from the manner in which Japan withdrew from the region at the end of World War II.

Whether Japan's actions in Indochina were right or wrong depends on whether Japan had less right than France to be there under the circumstances. Such questions were obviously moot to Vietnamese revolutionaries in Hanoi, who felt they had the right to oust, by force if necessary, any government they did not want to rule their country -- including the Vietnamese government in Saigon that remained in power at the convenience of the United States.

Ghosts of the past -- alive and well in fiction

All the above real wars -- and a number of related alternative and imaginary wars -- continue to be stages for political, corporate, family, and personal drama in Steamy East fiction. The ghosts of the past are alive and well on the pages of such fiction -- because the legacies of all past wars continue to affect the course history.


Pacific War sagas

Numerous works of historical fiction feature personal and family dramas against the backdrop of the Pacific War. Most such works feature friendships or romances that cross national or racial boundaries or otherwise define and test the character. Many also involve war-related incidents like Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the treatment by Japan of POWs or by the United States of Americans of Japanese ancestry and others defined as enemy aliens.

Historical understanding

Works of historical fiction, like non-fictional historical writing, varies according to its understanding of history. I parse historical understanding into the following three categories.

"Actual history" is what really happened -- whether or not the facts are known -- whether or not anyone understands what happened and why. Historical truth is an ideal, something one pursues with the understanding that one will probably never grasp the full scope of events and their causes.

"Orthodox history" is what most people accept as having actually happened and why. Ironically, states feud over their different historical orthodoxies -- witness the diplomatic wars between Japan and PRC, and Japan and ROK, and even PRC and ROK, over how the governments of these countries prefer to narrate their pasts in officially approved textbooks.

"Revisionist history" attempts to revise orthodoxy by imposing different, usually unpopular and controversial, interpretations of what actually happened and/or why. Though "revisionism" is a dirty word to the ears of those who take the veracity of orthodox history for granted, historians are supposed to continually subject orthodox views to credibility tests as new evidence becomes available, or as standards of analysis and interpretation change.

Both "orthodoxy" and "revisionism" in history are motivated by ideology. Orthodoxy in history owes its momentum as much to political authority as to academic integrity. It takes only a change in political wind or academic whim for today's revisionist views of the past to become tomorrows orthodoxy.

Not a few historical sagas set during the Pacific War explore controversial "revisionist" alternatives to conventional or "orthodox" understandings of these wars. How much did Roosevelt know about Japan's designs in advance of Pearl Harbor? What role did Hirohito play in Japan's prosecution of the war? Did Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan constitute war crimes?

The difference between "historical fiction" and "alternative historical fiction" is that, no matter how extremely the former may attempt to revise understandings of the past, "actual history" as a record of events remains unchanged. Whereas the latter very alters the events, even though it may feature historical figures acting in character with their historical personalities.


Pacific War sagas


Alternate futures and pasts

The Pacific War has been the theme of numerous imaginary stories with developments and outcomes that radically differ from those described in factual histories and in realistic historical fiction. Some such stories were written before the war, some during the war, and some after the war, but all share in common an imaginary or speculative plot that alters what is known to have happened.

Future and past alternatives

As a genre of imaginary fiction, an "alternate" or "alternative" history" is a "what if" version of history, in which different conditions and different choices result in different outcomes.

What if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor or otherwise provoked a war with the United States and its allies? What if Japan had not only attacked but occupied Hawaii, or major westcoast cities? What if Japan had been victorious at Midway and Guadalcanal? Or beat the United States in its attempt to develop an atomic bomb? Of what if the United States and the Soviet Union had invaded Japan's main islands and divided the country in the manner of Germany and Korea?

By "future war fiction" I mean imaginary stories written in the vein of predicting what will or might happen if current events develop in certain directions, with outcomes that could be ideal, favorable, unfavorable, or disastrous.

By "alternative [alternate] historical fiction" I mean imaginary stories written to suggest what might have happened in the past -- i.e., where we would be today -- if certain historical conditions had been different.

Some futuristic fiction is written so far in advance of the plausible future that it is read as "fantasy". Fiction set too far in the past, before historical understanding is possible, may also be read as "fantasy" or "myth".

Futuristic "utopian" and "peril" or "doomsday" fiction encourges people toward heaven or warns them away from hell. Alternative historical fiction may also feature better or worse scenario outcomes by way of suggesting what could have happened in the past had things been done differently.

Futures in the past

As real history outpaces the period in which a story about a future war (or about the yet unknowable outcome of a present war) has been set, the story will be judged in hindsight with respect to the accuracy of its predictions.

Future war tales which have been outpaced by time may inspire future works of alternative historical fiction. And if one ignores when they were written, such tales may be read as alternative historical fiction.

Stories of peril in various hues are discussed under The colors of peril (defined below) and stories of atomic or nuclear intimidation reviewed under Nuclear threats and blackmail (below). However, all such stories related to the Pacific War and other Asian wars are integrated into the following lists.

Future war fiction

1895 The Yellow Wave (Kenneth Mackay)
1899 The Yellow Danger (M. P. Shiel)
1905 The Yellow Wave (M. P. Shiel)
1907 The Yellow Peril in Action (Marsden Manson)
1913 The Dragon (M. P. Shiel)
1925 The Great Pacific War (Hector C. Bywater)
1929 The Yellow Peril (M. P. Shiel)
1932 The Box From Japan (Harry Stephen Keeler)
1933 The Last of the Japs and the Jews (Solomon Cruso)
1940 Lightning in the Night (Fred Allhoff)
1943 Invasion! (Whitman Chambers)

Alternative historical fiction

1994 MacArthur Must Die (Ian Slater)
2001 A Date Which Will Live in Infamy (Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg)
2007 1945 (Robert Conroy)
2009 1942 (Robert Conroy)


POWs, enemy aliens, internment camps

During wars, enemy aliens, like POWs, may be interned in camps. Internment is internment, while aims, methods, and consequences for internees en masse or individually are other matters.

Definitions of "enemy aliens" and "POWs" will vary according to place and political circumstances. In the United States, for example, most of those interned as "enemy aliens" during World War II were Americans whose parents happened to be Japanese. In Japan, too, some Japanese were interned as enemy aliens.

Prisoners of war are technically military personnel who have surrendered or been captured. But in countries invaded and occupied by Japan during World War II, some civilian "enemy aliens" were treated more like prisoners of war.

Internment camps

During World War II, the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, and other belligerants on either side of the Allied/Axis divide set up camps in which to intern selected enemy aliens.

In the United States, presidential orders concerning enemy aliens legally embraced only aliens of enemy nationality, but some natural and naturalized US citizens of enemy alien ancestry were also interned or forced to move out of areas considered militarily important or vulnerable.

Americans of Japanese anestry residing in designated westcoast zones were exceptionalized in that, though citizens, they were subject to group (as opposed to individual) exclusions on account of their putative race. Americans of Japanese ancestry in the territory of Hawaii, and in states east of Washington, Oregon, and California, were not interned or otherwise subjected to group exclusion.

J. L. DeWitt, 1943, page 101)

In the United States, provisional facilities set up to gather the "voluntary migration of Japanese" from the West Coast Camps were called "assembly centers" built in the United States for interning Japanese, and Americans of Japanese ancestry, were generally called "Relocation Centers". Provisional facilities, set up to gather internees before transproting them to more permanent facilties, were called "assembly centers" as internment camps were called.

Hisaye Yamamoto 2001 Revised and Expanded edition including
"Death Rides the Rails in Poston"
Yosha Bunko scan
Hisaye Yamamoto Cover and spine of dust jacket of 2008 Japanese translation
19 stories and other matter in 2001 English anthology
Yosha Bunko scan

Ethnolinguistic discrimination
Fruit, people, and yellowface English

William Wetherall

Buying and Tasting Fruit

If we want to eat an apple, we go to a fruit stand and buy one. If the fruit dealer trys [sic = tries] to give us a pear we protest, saying "I want an apple, not a pear." If the dealer gives us a fruit that looks like an apple, we pay for it and eat it.

Because the fruit we bought looks like an apple, we expect it to taste like a pear. So if we bite into it and it tastes like a pear, we tend to feel cheated. Similarly, if we buy a pearapple and it tastes only like a pear or only like an apple, rather than half like and pear and half like an apple, we are also inclined to feel deceived.

People and Ethnicity

People taste like their ethnicity. Most generally defined, ethnicity is a personal quality of being or identity based on both cultural and genetic factors. Everyone has ethnicity, and everyone's ethnicity is a product of cultural heritage and genetic lineage.

But cultural heritage is the most important, and it is almost always defined by the homes, communities, and languages in which one is raised. People therefore taste like the cultures in which they were raised or later adopted, not like the genes with which they happen to have been born.

Treating People Like Fruit

People, then, are not like fruit. And yet when you think about it, many of us treat one another like fruit. We sort people out like apples, pears, and pearapples. If we like only apples, the pears and pearapples are sold cheap, or cast aside and allowed to rot.

Yellowface English

"Yellowface English" is my term for the sort of "Confucius say . . ." or "Charlie Chan" and "Mr. Moto" English that is put in the mouths of Asian characters in English fiction written by writers who think Asians either don't or can't speak English like everyone else.


English Journal Cover of March 1978 issue of The English Journal
Picturing "former nisei" interpreter Sen Nishiyama
Featuring articles on Japanese American identity
Yosha Bunko scan
Wetherall "Ethnolinguistic discrimination: Fruit, people, yellowface English"
First page of 7-page article by William Wetherall
March 1978 issue of The English Journal Yosha Bunko scan
"Death Rides the Rails in Poston"

Hisaye Yamamoto
Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories
Latham (NY): Kitchen Table / Women of Color Press, 1988
134 pages, paperback
Fifteen short stories
Does not include "Death Rides the Rails in Poston"

Hisaye Yamamoto
Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories
With an introduction by King-Kok Cheung
Piscataway (NJ): Rutgers University Press, 1998
134 pages, paperback
Fifteen short stories
Does not include "Death Rides the Rails in Poston"
Re-issue of 1988 Women of Color Press edition

Hisaye Yamamoto
Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories
With an introduction by King-Kok Cheung
Revised and Expanded Edition
Piscataway (NJ): Rutgers University Press, 2001
178 pages, paperback (19 stories)
Revised edition with four new stories
Includes "Death Rides the Rails in Poston"

Japanese translation

ヒサエ・ヤマモト <Hisaye Yamamoto> (著)
山本岩夫、桧原美恵 (訳)
ヒサエ・ヤマモト作品集: 「十七文字」ほか十八編
< Seven Syllables and Other Stories >
東京:2008年11月10日 初版1刷

Hisaye Yamamoto (author)
Yamamoto Iwao, Hihara Mie (translators)
Hisae Yamamoto sakuhin shū:
"Jū-shichi moji" hoka jū-hachi hen

[ Hisaye Yamamoto works collection:
"17 characters (morae, syllables)" and 18 other stories ]
Tokyo: 10 November 2008 1st edition, 1st printing
408 pages, hardcover, jacket

"Seventeen Syllables" in other English collections

Hisaye Yamamoto
Seventeen Syllables
(Five Stories of Japanese American Life)
Tokyo: Kirihara Shoten, 1985
95 pages, hardcover

Hisaye Yamamoto
Seventeen Syllables
Edited with an introduction by King-Kok Cheung
New Brunswick (NJ): Rutgers University Press, 1994
ix, 224 pages, paperback
Women Writers (Texts and Contexts)
Two short stories and twelve essays.
"Seventeen Syllables" and "Yoneko's Earthquake"

Hisaye Yamamoto, born in 1921, was interned at the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona. She wrote fiction both during her internment and after leaving the camp. Yamamoto's stories have been anthologized in many collections. The Poston story is included in the revised and expanded 2001 edition of "Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories".

1975 Asian American Writers Conference

Hisaye Yamamoto was a panelist at the First Asian American Writers Confernce held in Oakland in 1975. The conference was organized by Combined Asian American Resource Project (CARP), which was founded in 1974 by Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, all writers active in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time, to publish Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers that year. The conference was held the following year at the Oakland Colosseum near Lake Merritt. The conference ran for 3 days, and I attended its events while living in Berkeley, where I was packing in preparation for moving to Japan in July. Evening events including a performance of Frank Chin's The Chickencoop Chinaman, first staged in New York in 1972.

The first Asian American Writers Conference was held at The Oakland Museum in Oakland, California, from 24-29 March 1975. A number of academic reports have said it was held in San Francisco in 1975 or in Seattle in 1976. The Seattle conference, though, was called the Pacific Northwest Asian American Writers Conference. It was held at the University of Washingon from 29 June to 2 July 1976. And the 1976 conference was clearly inspired by the 1975 Oakland conference.

I attended all the general lectures, readings, and panel discussions at the conference, and once evening during the conference I saw a performance of Frank Chin's Chickencoop Chinaman at the museum's James Moore Theater.

At one of the day sessions I raised my hand and asked what I thought was a vital question. One of the panelists was defending the work of American-born Asian American writers who dwell on their own experiences growing up Americans of Asian ancestry. Someone in the audience argued that Asian American writers should endeavor to nurture awareness of ancestral country heritage, else such awareness to the descendants of immigrants. It came down differences in the vantage point of what I would call "Asian Americanist" writers like Frank Chin (b1940), who was born in Berkeley and raised in Placerville and Oakland, California, and other principal conference organizers, and "Asianist" writers like Jade Snow Wong (1922-2006), who was born and raised in San Francisco. I asked whether the cross of a pear and apple should taste like a pear or an apple, and wondered if it was appropriate to treat people like fruit. My point was that, if I were to pick up a novel by a writer with a Chinese-esque name, and it didn't concern life in China, or the life of a Chinese immigrant who waxed nostalgic about things Chinese, would I have a right to feel disappointed and get my money back?

Three years later, I repeated this question in a somewhat different way in an article I wrote for the March 1978 edition of The English Journal titled "Ethnolinguistic discrimination: Fruit, people, and yellowface English" (Tokyo: ALC, Vol. 8, No. 4, pages 48-54). See images to right.

Black Dragon

Kirk Mitchell
Black Dragon
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988
410 pages, hardcover
New York: Dell Publishing Group, 1989
407 pages, paperback


Robert Davis
New York: Walker and Company, 1989
222 pages, hardcover

This badly narrated novel has the stamp of a story contrived to exploit the popularity of "relocation camp" stories.


Atomic bombs

The horrific capacity of a single atomic bomb to evaporate, burn, or radiate so many people and their civilization in a flash -- more than the dispassionate regard of similar or greater levels of destruction by conventional bombs -- account for the shock that many people experience when they learn about what the United States did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, from the point of view of those who were there to suffer the attacks or witness their results.

There is no excuse for what Truman's decision to drop the bombs at all, much less on populated areas. Yet history records that Japan and Germany attempted to develop similar weapons to those that the United States ultimately developed with the help of German, Hungarian, and Italian scientists who had fled anti-Semitism and fascism, and had warned Roosevelt that Germany might be capable of developing atomic weapons.

Humans, as animals capable of innovating tools and acquiring technology, have always applied acquired knowledge to expand and defend their personal and collective interests. Neighboring populations that fall to fighting over territorial disputes or other differences that spawn conflict do not hesitate to adopt the most advantageous methods of destruction to win wars and survive.

Morality is a luxury when countries become fearful or vengeful. Both sentiments must have informed Truman's decision to use atomic bombs on Japan -- to bring Japan to its knees as early as possible, so as to avoid the necessity of a land invasion -- as well as to further research on the effects of such bombs on actual human targets -- a populated city being merely an object of military attack.

A number of doctoral dissertations and books have been devoted to the topic of atomic bombs and nuclear weapons as themes in literature and film. Some of the more important are as follows.

Nancy Anisfield (editor)
The Nightmare Considered
(Critical Essays on Nuclear War Literature)
Bowling Green (Ohio): Bowling Green State Univeristy Popular Press, 1991
201 pages, paperback
Collection of nineteen articles on different aspects of nuclear weapons in literature. The best overall introduction to the emergence of war fiction involving nuclear weapons.

Martha Taylor Bartter
Symbol to Scenario
(The Atomic Bomb in American Science Fiction, 1930-1960)
The Department of English, College of Arts and Science
The University of Rochester, Rochester (NY), 1985
Ann Arbor (MI): University Microfilms International, 1989
390 pages, xerographic reproduction
Doctoral dissertation

Philip Duhan Segal
Imaginative Literature and the Atomic Bomb
(An Analaysis of Representative Novels, Plays, and Films from 1945 to 1972)
Ferkauf Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Yeshiva University, New York, June 1973
Ann Arbor (MI): University Microfilms International, 1977
212 pages, xerographic reproduction
Doctoral dissertation

Kyoko and Mark Selden (editors)
The Atomic Bomb: Voices From Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Armonk (NY): An East Gate Book (M.E. Sharpe), 1989
xxxvi, 257 pages, softcover

John Whittier Treat
Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995
487 pages, hardcover

Nobuko Tsukui
Out of the Ruins: Atomic Bomb Literature of Japan
Tokyo: Ochanomizu Shobo, 2002
235 pages, hardcover
Essays and translations of Japanese women writers on the atomic bomb.


Peril and terrorism



The colors of peril



Nuclear blackmail



Mingling of races



Chinks, Japs, and Westerners



Occupation romances


1954 And Two Shall Meet (Raymond Mason)


Oriental dolls



Travel and adventure



Backpackers and sojourners



More like them



Black samurai



White geisha



Oriental mystique



Chinese boxes