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Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 14:22 03/09/2007
Book Review #55: November 26, 2003

A Jewish Girl's Account of Pre-war Japan

Reviewed by Tomohiko Taniguchi (Editor at Large, Nikkei Business Publications, Inc.)

Title: That Last Glorious Summer 1939: Shanghai - Japan
Author: Rena Krasno
Publisher: Old China Hand Press (Hong Kong and Shanghai)
Date/Time: November 2001
Pages: English text 177 pages (soft cover)
ISBN: 962-7872-17-2


The author's unusual talent brings the readers back to Setonaikai (Seto Inland Sea) and Karatsu (in Saga Prefecture), in the short summer of 1939, letting them see what she saw, smell what she smelled, and feel the way that she felt toward a handsome young Japanese student she spent time with on the beach. Readers will find themselves seeing pre-war Japan through the eyes of a 16-year old Jewish girl. If traversing history is part of the joy of reading, then this small book is a shining jewel.

Before and during the war, Shanghai was the place of last resort for "stateless refugees" escaping from tyranny in Bolshevik Russia and from pogroms prevalent in Nazi Germany. Nowhere else but Shanghai accepted Jews with no passport, as it was a place no territorial sovereignty reigned. A rare period of history, it was the time when a large Jewish community of more than 30,000 population existed a short distance outside Nagasaki.

In the summer of 1939, the passenger ship Asahi-maru brought Rena Krasno with her mother and younger sister to this port town of Nagasaki, to spend what would turn out to be their last glorious summer holiday. Remember that on the first of September that year Hitler started invading Poland, igniting WWII.

By keeping a journal every day, apparently the bright teenage girl remembered almost everything. It is her gift of recollecting the past that makes this book a superb page-turner. In the early part of the book, to take an example, she speaks of a Frenchman whom she and her family met on a boat in Setonaikai. His mother runs a Maison de Couture in Tokyo, whose customers include Alice Grew, the wife of the well known US Ambassador, Joseph C. Grew. She then tells us what she heard on the boat from the Frenchman: Alice Grew was a granddaughter of Commodore Perry.

The fault line drawn by the defeat of the war is so wide and deep that many things that were part of the shared knowledge for the contemporaries in pre-war Japan would, after the war, completely evaporate from the collective memories of the Japanese. The anecdote above on Mrs. Grew is one of those lost memories. But what Rena the sensitive teenage girl remembered most, and what Ms. Krasno the author wanted to remind the readers 69 years later, was about the people: how they smiled, how they tried to communicate with her by smiling, and that at dusk on the beach, the young boy Yorifumi looked gentle, smart, and handsome, so much so that Rena….

In an e-mail sent to this reviewer, the author, who is 80 years old and living in California, described her motive as follows: "My feeling is that the young people in Japan today somehow miss some of the beauty and innocence of pre-war Japan. What I wanted to share is the ambience of the country (and about) the good simple people carried away by events". In the year 1939, not everything in Japan was painted black, gloomy, or oppressive, whatever the conventional post-war wisdom may have held to the contrary. "The good simple people" lived their happy humble lives knowing nothing about what would occur to them within the next six years. The places she visited may have been filled with uniformed soldiers about to be sent abroad, but they were also full of cheerful laughter, reserved smiles and extremely cordial people. Wherever Rena went, she would find everything kept clean and tidy, as if to evince that the Japanese very much liked the way they lived, itself a stark contrast to life in Shanghai. In sum, whilst in Japan, she felt happy, refreshed, and was almost in love with the handsome Japanese boy. This book has succeeded in mending one of the lost links, however small that may be, of the chain that is Japan's modern history.

Again, in her e-mail cited above, Rena Krasno also stated that "My love for your country has remained. I lived again in Japan later with my husband and children from 1953-1961." She authored an award winning children's book, Floating Lanterns and Golden Shrines: Celebrating Japanese Festivals (Pacific View Press, Berkeley, USA 2000). With the reviewed book as a prequel, she also wrote Strangers Always: A Jewish Family in Wartime Shanghai (Pacific View Pr. 1992). It is a pity that while these two are available at normal online bookshops, one can buy That Last Glorious Summer only in Shanghai's foreign language bookstores, or directly from the publisher, whose website is below.

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