Review of “Eddokko”by Julia Bernicker June 26, 2018
“Eddokko: Growing up a Stateless Foreigner in Wartime Japan” is a story that a reader must begin by closely examining the table of contents. Just by looking at the array of places and dates that title the memoir’s 30 chapters, it is clear that author Isaac Shapiro has seen a great deal of the world and has witnessed some of the greatest historical events of his time.
Shapiro was born in Tokyo as the fourth son of Jewish musicians who moved to Japan to escape pogroms and violence in their Russian hometowns. At birth, Isaac’s identity is already complicated, and intensifies as he moves to China with his mother for the beginning of his childhood. When he returns to Japan at the onset of World War II and later finds himself in Hawaii for the end of high school, Isaac struggles to make sense of his many backgrounds and to survive as an Eddoko, a child of Edo (Tokyo’s former capital), in a country that has never felt quite like home.
There is no doubt that Shapiro has led a most extraordinary and unusual life, one that my 17-year-old self can hardly believe to be true. At the same age I learned to ride a bike, Shapiro’s mother was kidnapped by Japanese police in China. And at the same time I entered my first year of high school, Shapiro was acting as an interpreter for the U.S. Navy.
I may not be able to relate to preparing for an air raid or watching American occupation troops land in Japan, but my favorite parts of the book are when Shapiro tells of his everyday life in wherever he was living at the time, be it Japan or China or Hawaii. These are the moments that remind me that Isaac was once a high schooler just like me. He had a first crush, he loved movies and went camping with his friends. The fact he managed to find normalcy throughout one of the most intense times in Japanese military history makes his childhood all the more fascinating.
At times, the book feels repetitive, and doesn’t need all of the historical and family background the author provides; But this is also a testament to the amount of effort and research Shapiro poured into telling the story of his life, along with the lives of his large and spread out clan. Despite passages clunky with dates and technical information, Shapiro’s passion for his family’s history is never lost. He writes with love about the people who affected him the most: from his complicated relationship with his father to his admiration for his talented and beautiful mother, from his devoted partnership with his older brother to finding a mentor and role model in Marine colonel Toby Munn. After spending most of the time looking so closely at Isaac’s childhood, I feel invested in his future. Although Shapiro gives us a quick overview of where his family and friends ended up years later, the ending feels rushed and I still have unanswered questions. But for those who love history or World War II, Edokko tells a unique story about a relatively unexplored aspect of Jewish history. A quick read, but one that will prompt countless additional Google searches and leave you pouring over pictures for days to come.