My Shanghai, 1942-46

Written by Keiko Itoh
Review by Edward James

I still find it difficult to believe this book is fiction, even though I’ve checked twice with the Author’s Note.

Itoh has imagined herself into the life of her mother by writing an imaginary diary of her mother’s wartime years in Shanghai, from 1942 to 1946. The book is written entirely in diary form, with entries every two or three days, recording in Pepysian detail the everyday life of a Japanese housewife in occupied Shanghai: the practicalities of daily life, relations with family and friends, world events (so far as the diarist could know of them) and the diarist’s inner life.

Being a wife and mother, the diarist, Eiko Kishimoto, British-born of Japanese parents, British-educated and married to a Japanese Christian banker, is an observer rather than an actor in events. However, she has a wide circle of friends and acquaintances – Japanese military and civilians, Chinese collaborators, Nationalists and Communists, German Nazis and Jewish refugees and English Quakers – and a gift for inspiring confidences. As a national of the occupying power (she keeps her British passport secret), Eiko has a relatively privileged existence, although what starts as a life of luxury gradually sinks into shortages, blackouts and air-raids.

Such an authentic slice of life has no real story. Shanghai is never ‘liberated’ by the Allies; the Japanese simply withdraw with the end of the war, and Eiko returns to Japan.  However, this is the next best thing to a firsthand account of life in occupied Shanghai and the final days of the fabled International Concession.