Eizo Osada, the protagonist of Kunio Yamagishi’s stunning debut novel, is a shadow, a man without a present. He lives between worlds, between Canada and Japan, between the past and the future, only to discover that he doesn’t live anywhere or hardly at all.

Return of a Shadow book coverFor the last forty-three years he has worked in a foreign country to save money for a family he is slowly forgetting, allowing himself only the luxury of spinning dreams from memories that likely never existed. Eizo’s shadow is born from living on the margins in an unfamiliar culture, a marginal existence that is exacerbated by the horrific circumstances of internment.

Spanning the years 1935-1978, The Return of a Shadow (Austin Macauley Publishers Limited, 2018) depicts the injustices endured by Japanese nationals and Canadian nationals of Japanese descent during and after WWII.

On February 24, 1942, the Canadian federal cabinet issued Order-in-Council P.C. 1486 allowing for the removal and containment of all persons believed to be a threat to the safety of the Commonwealth. The order was general in spirit, but in reality it applied almost exclusively to people identified as Japanese. Japan had just bombed Pearl Harbor, and more meaningful to Canadians, had launched raids on Hong Kong from December 8-25, 1941, killing 290 Canadians.

Just as was true on the west coast of the United States, Japanese immigrants in western Canada had long been targets of discrimination. They provoked the ire of white inhabitants who were jealous over their successes. Few protested, therefore, when the government rounded up the Japanese-Canadians. All in all 90 per cent of Japanese Canadians — some 21,000 people—were incarcerated.

Eizo Osada had set out for Canada in 1935, leaving behind his wife and three small sons in Gifu Prefecture, Japan. He hoped to earn the kind of wages he could not secure in the Japanese countryside. Caught in the snares of a war he does not understand, he is sent to a labor camp. When the war ends, he is given a choice: return to a defeated Japan or relocate east of the Rockies. Having yet to meet his initial goal of earning money for his family, he elects to stay in Canada.

And so the years roll by. Eizo lives frugally, existing only for the promise of reunion with his family.

In 1954, just as he is preparing to return to Japan, his wife Kino sends him a letter suggesting he stay in Canada a bit longer. Still struggling to overcome the destruction of war, Japan has no jobs for a man like Eizo.

And so, he stays.

That was the last letter Eizo receives from Kino. His daughter-in-law, Fumi, writes, though she never mentions Kino. And before long, even her letters stop. Eizo is on his own.

In order to survive, Eizo keeps his head down, refuses to engage with others (after all, it was the hakujin, the whites, who had incarcerated him), and develops an affinity for his own shadow:

Having been a shadow from the society created another deeper shadow within himself. It was a creation due to an extremely long, solitary life he had spent in the huge, inhumane city. The shadow acted as a friend to talk to when he felt lonely, consult with when in trouble, and comfort when in despair: a faithful and indispensable companion who gave advice when he made mistakes and rebuked him for his thoughtlessness. It was created out of necessity. It was his other self and his salvation. To his surprise, the shadow even smiled back at him. This illusive, yet persistent part of Eizo, never twisted his arm against his will (31).

Upon reaching the age of 70, Eizo retires from his last employment. With nothing to keep him in Canada, he prepares for his long-awaited return to Japan. It is 1978. He is nervous about the lack of communication from his family, but eager to finally be able to live his life. One of his three sons meets him in Tokyo and helps him make his way to his rural home. There, the family reunion Eizo had long imagined, does not materialize. His sons hardly speak to him. His eldest is patently hostile, and his wife, Kino, deep in the throes of dementia, does not recognize him.

Eizo comes to realize, shockingly, that his long years of confinement in a foreign country, unable to ever feel at home, have not ended. He is as much a captive and even a foreigner in Japan. He struggles to navigate a culture he does not recognize and live with family members who are little more than strangers. His shadow existence continues.

Author Kunio Yamagishi acknowledges the powerful pull of history motivating his novel. When he first moved to Canada, from Japan, in 1972, he was dismayed to learn about the internment of Japanese, a historical fact never encountered in Japan. He felt the best way to relay the information to others, and the shock he felt when discovering it, was through fiction. Through beautifully sparse prose, he succeeds in making his readers feel the painful sense of injustice and disorientation the incarcerated must have experienced.

Over and above this historical drama, it is the compelling character of Eizo Osada who carries The Return of a Shadow. Yamagishi notes in an interview with Eye-Ai magazine (July 2019) that while he was working at the Japanese Consulate General in Toronto, “I saw an old Japanese gentleman who came to get his old passport issued by the Empire of Japan renewed. He wore a black hat and overcoat and his dispirited figure was etched on my mind. He was a shadow.”

Although The Return of a Shadow is set in a particular place and time, it exceeds these boundaries. It tells the story of all who struggle to survive behind a mask, who suffer in prisons of discrimination and ignorance. A particular scene in the novel struck me more than others. We come across this moment after Eizo has returned to Japan. He has spent an awkward evening with his second son, Tamotsu, and is now parting from him at a train station as he heads to Gifu to see the rest of his family, uncertain of what awaits:

Eizo shivered and tried to shake Tamotsu’s hand, but he had already turned to leave. On the platform Tamotsu stopped. His face was like Kojyo, the Noh mask of sorrow, and when Eizo smiled at him, Tamotsu tried to smile back but failed. A siren blared across the platform. The doors hissed closed and the train began to glide away. Eizo smiled again and waved to his son. Tamotsu responded and then disappeared from sight. Eizo watched the city fly by as the train built up speed, thinking of Tamotsu’s pathetic look (162).

So much of The Return of a Shadow reads like a Noh play, the misunderstandings, the trap of desire, the longing for a past that is only a dream, the continual imperative to return, but without resolution.

Almost all the characters—whether Japanese or Canadian—are caught by history and routed onto paths they cannot control or escape. “Our fears,” Eizo learns, “lie in our being alive, not in our death” (377).

As with a Noh play, we realize that Eizo’s drama will continue, enacted over and over, until he can find his way to absolution. Perhaps then the shadow will lift.

Author Kunio Yamagishi

Author Kunio Yamagishi

Author Kunio Yamagishi grew up in Fukushima, Japan, and attended Hosei University in Tokyo. He immigrated to Canada in the 1970s where he worked for the Consulate General of Japan in Toronto. Additionally, he has worked as an investment banker in Toronto, Tokyo, and New York. His publications include short stories, magazine articles, and academic translation work. The Return of a Shadow is his first novel.

The Return of a Shadow by Kunio Yamagishi
Rubery Book Award Finalist
Publisher: Austin Macauley Publishers Limited, 2018
382 pages