During the Second World War, the Japanese government stirred the people to support its war effort with the image of ‘One hundred million hearts beating as one human bullet to defeat the enemy.’ Kerri Sakamoto, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Japan-Canada Literary Award for her first novel The Electrical Field, draws on this wartime propaganda in her second novel as she casts light on a fascinating figure from wartime Japan: the kamikaze pilot.
These devout young men offered their lives to fly planes into enemy artillery; both human sacrifice and deadly weapon. A cherry blossom painted on the sides of the bomber symbolized the beauty and ephemerality of nature. Coming back alive from a sacred mission was shameful failure. To succeed meant transformation into an eternal flower — reincarnation — as the plane exploded like a fiery blossom in the sky.
In One Hundred Million Hearts, Miyo is a young Canadian woman who has been cared for all her life by her uncommunicative but devoted Japanese-Canadian father. Her mother died soon after her birth, and a disfigurement prevented the left side of her body from developing the same way as the right, causing her to be reliant on her father’s help. One day, commuting to work by subway when he can no longer drive her around, she is accidentally caught in the train doors, and rescued by a man who quickly professes his love for her.
The joy of this nurturing and joyful relationship removes her from the almost claustrophobic shelter of home, but as she grows distant from her father, his strength begins to fade; until one day she receives the terrible news of his death. It is only then that she discovers his secret past. The woman he always called his girlfriend was in fact his wife; they had a daughter in Japan, but gave her up for adoption. Now the daughter, Hana, is an artist in Tokyo. Amazed that she has a half-sister, Miyo travels there to meet her. Hana is bitter about being abandoned by her father, and has thrown herself into her work with almost destructive intensity.
Through Hana, Miyo learns more of their father’s hidden past. Though born in Canada, he was sent to university in Japan; in 1943, Japan was losing the war and the army began conscripting even students. He volunteered as a kamikaze pilot; yet he survived. Hana’s obsession with their father’s wartime history takes the shape of huge paintings of flowers adorned with the faces of kamikaze pilots and the red threads that one thousand schoolgirls sewed onto the white sash of every pilot that made this suicidal mission.
“If only he had not hoarded his secrets,” thinks Miyo as she struggles to understand modern Japan and her father’s past. Why did he not fulfill his ultimate sacrifice, but live to care for her? The reader is drawn into the daily struggles of each of the characters and their rich interior lives through a lyrical portrait of Japanese life that has been compared to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. The Montreal Gazette said Kerri Sakamoto has created in Miyo “a marvelously complex, compelling character who is transformed…to a woman who runs and dances and loves, not in innocence, but in full, terrifying knowledge.”
Kerri Sakamoto was born in Toronto in 1959, the younger of two sisters. She has written scripts for independent films as well as writing extensively on visual art. In 1998 her first novel, The Electrical Field, was a finalist for a slew of awards — the Governor General’s Award, the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award — and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and the Canada-Japan Literary Award. The Toronto Star said “Kerri Sakamoto represents a major new force in the landscape of Canadian fiction.”
In The Electrical Field she wrote about the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War from the point of view of her own generation. Her parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents were all forced out of their homes after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when all Japanese Canadians on Canada’s West Coast were “herded into the exhibition grounds in Vancouver where for several months they slept in horse stalls.” Able-bodied men were then sent away to work, the others transported to live in camps of tarpaper shacks in the mountains. When the war ended with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese Canadians were allowed to resettle only in designated areas of eastern Canada. Sakamoto’s grandparents lost the homes and businesses they had worked so hard to acquire.
Kerri grew up in mostly-white suburban Etobicoke of the 1960s and ‘70s; her parents avoided talking about the camps, or even about Japanese culture and history, even though racial taunts were a fact of life. She found out about the internment camps at the age of twenty, reading a magazine article. Then she read Joy Kogawa’s Obasan in 1981, and worked with Kogawa in the redress movement for two years, although her parents refused to attend the meetings. “It was the idea of being visible once again that was uncomfortable for them.” She felt compelled to write about the internment and its residual effects.
She had studied English and French at the University of Toronto, published some short stories, but then wasn’t sure how she would make a living, and worked in a range of jobs, often libraries. Aged thirty, panicking about whether she would ever become a writer, she applied and was accepted to the creative writing program at New York University, where she studied with E.L. Doctorow and Peter Carey. She stayed in New York for six years, enjoying the talks and readings and films, and wrote about art for a gallery. By the time her work permit ran out, exciting things were happening in Canadian literature and she felt optimistic about returning to Canada; soon after her return, The Electrical Field, which she began writing while at NYU, was accepted for publication.
Her second novel examines the many Canadian- and American-born Japanese men who were in Japan at the start of the war and joined the military. Suffering racism in North America but aliens in Japan, they were not accepted anywhere. “It was absolutely conceivable that some of the kamikaze might have been American- or Canadian-born… I think if you’re anxious to prove your authenticity and your allegiance, what better way to do that?” She spent four months of 1999 in Japan doing research. Unable to speak the language, she experienced being a cultural outsider as she visited war museums, and tracked down memoirs and wartime propaganda. The novel, which took five years to complete, reflects her interest in memory and the splintering of history. She is currently working on a new novel set in Manchuria, as well as a screenplay for The Electrical Field.
“Sakamoto invests in each of her characters so fully they seem to live their own lives, struggle with each other through real conflicts, and dance beautifully around the give and take of love. Sakamoto’s writing … occasionally flirts with greatness.”
—Quill & Quire
“Kerri Sakamoto… rips the scar tissue away from kamikaze pilots, the young men who sacrificed themselves, much the way suicide bombers are doing in the Middle East today, in exchange for the promise of eternal glory.”
—Sandra Martin, Elle Canada
“Evocative … poignant… In Miyo, Sakamoto has created a marvellously complex, compelling character who is transformed in the course of the novel from a brave but helpless cripple to a woman who runs and dances and loves, not in innocence, but in full, terrifying knowledge.”
—Merilyn Simonds, The Gazette (Montreal)
“Sakamoto fashions haiku-like prose with a breathtaking economy of words….One Hundred Million Hearts paints a portrait of Japanese life — its ancient ways, its minutely observant citizens — that is similar to those in David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.”
—The Vancouver Sun
“A dazzling, multi-layered novel of loss and regret, of love and death, of sacrifice and self-centredness….Sakamoto writes with a keen, almost merciless eye for detail, a painter’s eye for scene and setting.”
—The Ottawa Citizen
“[One Hundred Million Hearts] question[s] the nature of truth and reality…. This is a strong, rich and often complicated tale of how so many hearts deal with [‘a callus on the heart’]. It’s worth the read.”
—The Hamilton Spectator
“Spare, elegant prose…[a] compelling and sensitively drawn story.”
—Bev Greenberg, Winnipeg Free Press
“[One Hundred Million Hearts allows readers to] see things from a perspective that is both exotic and familiar…. Sakamoto is a very capable writer, and there is much to admire in this novel. …[U]tterly convincing. … Sakamoto opens up a whole new world to us.”
—Robin McGrath, The Telegram (St.John’s)
Praise for Kerri Sakamoto:
“Kerri Sakamoto represents a major new force in the landscape of Canadian fiction.”
Praise for The Electrical Field:
“Kerri Sakamoto is “a writer with a large talent, one capable of unsettling the reader with her disturbing perceptions of a world in which ugliness and beauty are so intertwined that they cannot be teased apart.”
—The Gazette (Montreal)
“Beautiful and poignant. . . . Seldom has any writer so acutely shown a divided heart as Sakamoto does in her creation of one of the most eccentric, conflicted and vivid characters in recent Canadian fiction.”
—The Hamilton Spectator
“Extraordinary. . . . Sure-footed and sophisticated, with a depth of feeling that comes through on every page.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Not since Ishiguro’s early novels has the Japanese experience of the New World been captured so subtly, and with such eerie and elliptical intimacy.”