Epeolatry Book Review: Inujini by Angela Yuriko Smith
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Author: Angela Yuriko Smith
Genre: historical Asian fiction, literary fiction, historical literary fiction
Publisher: Yuriko Publishing
Release Date: 23rd June, 2024
Synopsis: Three indigenous Ryukyuan girls are stripped of everything in a war their people will gain nothing from, except loss. As they struggle to survive, they learn the power of resilience lies in connecting with who they were, who they are and who they will be together.
Kaori, Yuki and Shigeko are three island girls on the edge of womanhood who find themselves trapped in a fictionalized Battle of Okinawa. Based on true events, the three girls endure hunger, injury, humiliation and gender based violence as everything they love is stripped from them.
They each survive parallel story arcs that entwine in the last act as they connect to their intuition, in the form of the shiisaa guardians specific to Okinawa, and each other. Shamanistic magic may be what brings them together, but in the end it’s the girls themselves that wind up being the heroines. Their sisterhood is what defies and defeats those that threaten them.
Trigger warning: Sexual violence is an essential part of the plot to represent the real life situation women in Okinawa face to this day, but there are no graphic depictions of the act in this story. It remains only a threat to the characters.
History should not be forgotten, nor should it be hidden. If it lurks in the shadows then it should be dragged into the light regardless of attempts to supress what may be uncomfortable to one regime or another. Without shining a spotlight into these dark corners, the truth is distorted and betrays too many who have suffered.
In Inujini, Angela Yuriko Smith chose to shine her light into her own past and share with the reader a fictional account of the reality of her ancestor’s lives, the people of the Ryukyuan Kingdom, whose heritage has been systematically destroyed by the Japanese government which annexed the islands and turned them into the Okinawa Prefecture. I say ancestors, but when you consider this is only a few generations back, in this instance I think I prefer the term family—it is that recent, it is that personal to the author.
Inujini is set during World War II in 1945 when the Japanese are under attack from the US and Japan has stationed its soldiers across the islands, including those of the Ryukyuan. Whilst their presence is ostensibly to protect the people, they also provide a threat to the families. Young girls are at risk, homes are used as billets, and the people are treated poorly. On Zamami Island, we meet Shigeko, 14, and already being harassed by the soldiers. She lives with her parents, and her little brother Chiga. Her survival story involves her belief in the shiisaa, figures made by her grandmother which carry protection. On South Okinawa, we meet Yuki, another girl of similar age who likewise carries her own shiisaa as guardians. And finally, we meet Kaori from North Okinawa. She has remained behind to search for her younger brother who has been missing for a year. She too, believes in the shiisaa.
As each girl takes her particular journey, whether with family or alone, we run with them, hear the bombs and the guns and the shouts, and above all else, we feel their fear. To cope with the latter, all pray to their guardians, and the shiisaa either guide them, or, in Kaori’s case, materialise to destroy the soldiers, wiping out units in a brutal manner and leaving bodies dismembered and scattered across the ground – much as the bombs from above have similarly destroyed people and land. This belief and the faith the girls have in the protection of their ancestors makes for a very spiritual book despite its bleak nature. It allows the girls to retain hope, that they will survive and that they will cleanse their islands of the interlopers, Japanese and American alike. That they need this belief is explicit. As Yuki grips the shiisaa she considers ‘The hard clay guardians would keep her safe. She had to believe in them.’
Nor are the horrors of war sugar-coated. One of the girls is caught by a group of predatory soldiers but only the onset of menstruation – and the men’s disgust at the blood – prevent her from coming to harm. Rape is a war crime, but that is something which has long been ignored, with recent events in Ukraine and Israel both throwing up horrific examples. I look forward to the day when society in general finally condemns utterly and completely that which women have been subjected to for far too long.
And even when the families are supposedly safe, their threat comes from within the midst. To me, one of the most shocking revelations was the idea of Group Self-Determination, where the Japanese handed out grenades to husbands and fathers so that they would kill themselves and their families rather than be captured as a matter of ‘honour’. Shigeko overhears her father: “It is for honor,” he said, “It is a gift to protect our children.” Her mother responds, “Her voice was venomous. ‘I apologize. I am too weak to kill my own children.’”
The trauma these girls endure is almost unbearable as they flee again and again to find a place of safety. Horrible sights await, a woman’s body lies in a stream and her dead baby is found held against her chest. One moment someone is standing in plain view, the next a crater and no sign of their existence. The pages fly by, keeping pace with the girls as they seek safety in the chaotic mess of war. Guns and bombs pound land and people and the guardians are kept busy. The book is classed as 12-18 and whilst what I have recounted sounds, and is, horrific, it is treated in such a way that aspects are not as graphic as you might think. As a former librarian for this age group, I would be more than happy to have loaned this book to a student – having made them aware there are aspects which they will find disturbing. It is a thoughtful book. What is hinted at as a fictionalised representation of the truth is not gratuitous or heavy handed in the way that many films and games aimed at this age group are. I believe it would also have a place as a class book for discussion.
Angela Yuriko Smith has written a moving story, one even more pertinent in today’s world, of a people under attack. Nobody has the right to wipe out the existence of a people or culture. But mankind, being what it is, will always seek to impose its own conformity on others. Until that imposition stops, the world will never know true peace. I hope this story of the Ryukyuan will mark the beginning of a greater awareness of these people and their suffering, not just at the hands of the Japanese, but also at the hands of the US which leases the islands. There are too many crimes committed against the islanders even today.
Inujini is an important book, and a powerful condemnation of the treatment of a people. Read it and weep for those who were destroyed in the war, then read it and weep for their descendants destroyed during peace time.
Available from Amazon.
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Stephanie Ellis writes dark speculative prose and poetry and has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Her longer work includes the folk horror novels, The Five Turns of the Wheel, Reborn, and The Woodcutter, and the novellas, Bottled and Paused (all via Brigids Gate Press). Her dark poetry has been published in her collections Lilith Rising (co-authored with Shane Douglas Keene), Foundlings (co-authored with Cindy O’Quinn) and Metallurgy, as well as the HWA Poetry Showcase Volumes VI, VII, VIII, and IX and Black Spot Books Under Her Skin. She can be found supporting indie authors at HorrorTree.com via the weekly Indie Bookshelf Releases. She can be found at https://stephanieellis.org and on Blue Sky as stephellis.bsky.social.