Mount Alvernia High School, Newton, Massachusetts

Kobo  Abe

Caitlin  Corcoran 
The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: Solidarity and Exploitation

The Impact of Isolation and Hidden Identity on Kobo Abe's Characters

During World War II, Japan expanded its territory into the Pacific by using harsh violence and persuasive diplomacy. The Japanese government’s mission for expansion started with the annexation of Manchuria, later renamed Manchukuo, in 1931. Prime Minister Konoe justified this aggressive expansion in 1940, when he created the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. As Japanese armies defeated the Allies’ colonial possessions, the invaders trumpeted the motto "Asia for the Asians." Initially, indigenous populations welcomed the Co-Prosperity Sphere, but once Japan showed their oppressive approach, many fought back as resistance fighters. Resistance led to even greater brutality. With their successive victories, Japan became overly confident and attempted to continue its expansion into Australia. This led to the first significant Japanese naval losses. Allied forces checked the advance of the Japanese army and navy and defeated them at the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway. Japan eventually lost all its conquered territory to the Allies, which caused the Co-Prosperity Sphere to crumble. The lofty goal of Asia for the Asians ended with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Kobo Abe’s novels, set in Japan during World War II, capture the social impact of the war on the individual. In each of his works, he explores the themes of isolation and hidden identity. He represents Japan’s isolation following the war in the consequences that his characters face as a result of their own decisions. Overall, their lack of communication prolongs their seclusion. In The Ruined Map, Mrs. Nemuro experiences isolation and conceals her identity from the rest of society. Her husband is missing and her brother has died, and she chooses to seclude herself in her house. Isolated from the world, Mrs. Nemuro’s struggles to discover her identity are symbolized in her attempts to conceal her face with makeup. The makeup she uses may hide her expressions, but it also conspicuously identifies her as someone who does not want to be recognized. Just as Japan was left decimated and isolated at the end of the war, the novel ends with Mrs. Nemuro isolated from society.

Major Works Consulted:

Abe, Kobo. The Ark Sakura. New York: Knopf, 1988.
---. The Ruined Map.New York: Knopf, 1969.
Bowring, Richard, and Peter Kornicki, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993.
Hart, B.H. Liddell. History of the Second World War. New York: Putnams, 1971.
Photo Credit: Abe, Kobo. Secret Rendezvous. New York: Knopf, 1979.