Harp of Burma

At the end of WWII, Corporal Mizushima, the pride of his unit, accepts an assignment to convince another Japanese unit to surrender to British forces. Mizushima’s unit goes to a POW camp and spends its days tormented by the fate of their missing comrade, who had become something of a symbol of good luck and hope for them. About this time, they also become aware of a traveling Burmese monk who often wanders through the area and bears a striking resemblance to...could it be? I don’t want to reveal too much, but what these soldiers learn will affect them deeply and give them a new understanding of what it means to be faithful to one’s countrymen—an understanding that is entirely different from the patriotic nationalism that caused them to go to war in the first place. (Amazon.com)
Year of Publication
1989 paperback
Tuttle Publishing
ISSN Number
ISBN-10: 0804802327
Average: 4.5 (4 votes)


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Great Read

Field of Interest/Specialty: Socil Studies
Posted On: 01/09/2018

I enjoyed reading this book. It showed how this company kept their spirits high during a very somber time through the use of music. One of the younger soldiers uses his harp as a signal and as a morale booster throughout their travels. This book shows much of the hardships faced by these men throughout their journeys in the war. I would use this with middle to high school grades. This provides a different perspective and can help students understand the war as a whole and not just one side of the story.

Harp of Burma, reviewed by Catherine Falknor, ESOL Teacher, McLean High School, Grades 9-11

Field of Interest/Specialty: ESOL
Posted On: 02/20/2014

For the most part, I was delighted to find and read Michio Takeyama’s Harp of Burma. It was a refreshing story that had two dominant points of view, and choosing between them was made an explicit part of the book. It had a strong ethical dimension, and its characters seemed caught up in a fight they didn’t understand, but which they felt obliged to endure and they made the best of a difficult situation. In addition, it satisfied several interests of mine. First, I was looking for an accessible (and well-translated) novel about Japan that addresses one of the few times when U.S. history texts even mention Japan; second, I wanted to discuss contemporary (though also classic) human dilemmas about choosing industrial progress over sustainable living; and third, I sought a text that explored the value of a religious life and the role of mendicant orders of monks.
The Harp of Burma, written in 1947and first published as a serialized story for children in a literary magazine, is an acclaimed post-war novel about a company of Japanese soldiers who become stationed in Burma during World War II. Unusual among most military units, this group of soldiers is musical and, under the leadership of their captain, would sing daily together to keep up morale and carry rudimentarily made instruments. One very talented soldier, a corporal named Mizushimi, learns to play the harp (and even made one and learned to play it from local harpists) and uses music to distract British forces while they are traveling through the countryside at the end of the war.
It is Mizushima about whom the book is written, since the captain had chosen him to be separated from his now-captured company in order to help persuade another Japanese unit to suspend resistance, now that the war was over. Being clever, resourceful, and hardy, he clambers up a steep mountain to find them, through their gunfire, but he is unsuccessful in convincing them to surrender. Wounded in the crossfire between the British forces and the holdout troops, he is found and cared for (sometimes for ulterior ends) by native Burmese. It is his ability to blend in with the Burmese that enables Mizushima to find his way back to the city, Mudon, where his comrades are held, but also to disguise himself as a Burmese monk, giving him protection and ultimately sanctuary and conversion in his post-war persona, having decided to remain in Burma and not return home with his comrades to Japan.
His harrowing return to Mudon and his growing awareness of the staggering numbers of unclaimed Japanese corpses enlighten him to pursue higher, more religious goals, so his religious “disguise” becomes his badge of honor.
The story, mostly told through the point of view of the Japanese soldiers, reveals their strong national identity and also their attachment to their missing comrade. Questions about his disappearance and ongoing absence gnaw at them, and occasional visits from a distance by a monk who resembles him provoke them to wonder about and discuss his whereabouts.
It is in these inquiries that the debate about the “proper way of life” is presented and debated, and the mere possibility that Mizushima has chosen to become a Burmese Buddhist monk gets the company thinking about their and their country’s choices. Having invaded Burma, Japan becomes the colonizer, holding superior beliefs about the relative merits of their civilization and culture. Though the soldiers have had first-hand (and therefore less culturally dismissive) experience there in the war, they long to return home to familiar ways of life and a promising postwar identity, pledging to do their part to rebuild their homeland.
Finally, just before their departure, Mizushima reveals himself to them and informs them of his decision. He sends them another companion (a parrot) and a letter, presented at the end of the story, to explain what he experienced and his reasons for staying behind.
In 1956, Kon Ichikawa made the story into the Japanese language film, The Burmese Harp, which popularized the story internationally. In 1966, the book was translated into English. It was awarded the Mainichi Shuppan Bunkasho Prize, and the film was also award-winning and internationally recognized.
Educational applications
Many themes in the Harp of Burma impressed me. First, the use of music in wartime for positive or humane ends connects it to an anti-war literary tradition. Second, the occupation forces who are (at least partially) “won over” by their more intimate interaction with a conquered people gives it an anthropological dimension. Finally, the explicit comparison (by Japanese) of the official policy to modernize and give up traditional values, emphasizing industry and capitalism over religious practices and concerns, with an alternative, less militaristic societal direction is a refreshing perspective on a commonly perceived homogenous, ambitious, and populous society.
In my classes, I intend to explore these themes with my ESOL students, as they are international and many come from war-torn nations, some of which are in Asia. My unit will include a Socratic seminar and a follow-up essay. Studying The Harp of Burma satisfies several aforementioned goals that I’ve had in my ESOL teaching.
This novel pairs well with the (untranslated) film, which is almost entirely faithful to the story, except for part of the story of the monk’s return to Mudon after his failed attempt at saving the rebellious Japanese unit. In fact, I enjoyed watching the film in segments after reading each of the four chapters in the book, and so I intend to include segments of the film to reinforce some of the episodes in the novel with the students.
If I decided to study this novel aside from teaching much about the history of World War II and instead teaching it as a modern war novel with the above-mentioned themes, I would concentrate on teaching students its geography and topography, colonization, major players (countries), and predictions of post-war reconstruction.
For my part, knowing very little about Burmese history, I initially enjoyed reading the Harp of Burma immensely, and was surprised that it could question the official Japanese rationale for their expansion into the Asian mainland. Yet, after having read more about the Japanese invasion of Burma, I saw that it as a sanitized portrayal of the Japanese campaign there. The perspective of the main character turned Buddhist monk who sees his duty to care for the overwhelming numbers of Japanese corpses that were left actually seems to overlook the numerous corpses of the many villagers who were themselves massacred by the Japanese forces. At least, it begs the question, what kind of suffering was imposed on the Burmese people during the war?
For more advanced students, I would include this dimension of the story, perhaps with primary source documents or interviews with Burmese (now Myanmar) refugees. In addition, students would learn about Burma’s political transformation from British colony to Japanese subject to independent government to totalitarian state and now to its slow transformation into a less repressive, perhaps more democratic system of government.
A companion text/film to use as a comparison is the documentary Singing to Survive (later made into a film, Paradise Road) about the internment of the women (and families) of Dutch (and English-speaking) workers (ie, colonists) who formed a choir during their imprisonment by the Japanese for nearly 4 years.

Review: Harp of Burma

Field of Interest/Specialty: Information Technology
Posted On: 08/05/2013

The story of a group of Japanese soldiers in Burma during the closing stages of WWII and afterwards as POWs of the British/Indian Army. Their particular company is unique in that they find their own way of coping with their various predicaments by singing accompanied by one of their number who has crafted a harp to play. Their singing very much dictates the fortune and morale of their company as is evidenced when they lose their beloved harpist, a loss they struggle with but eventually overcome once again by returning to their singing. As POWs with time on their hands they often reflect on the recent war, their country’s involvement, the role of themselves as soldiers and what the future may hold for them as members of a defeated nation. One interesting thought that they ponder that could provide a basis for an interesting discussion is “would it have been better if Japan had focused on training them as scholars rather than soldiers”. This contrasts the different paths taken by the two East Asian neighbors, China with an Imperial Examination System that produced a scholar class and Japan with a Samurai System that produced a soldier class. However none of their conclusions can compare with that made by their missing harpist when they finally find him again just before repatriation to Japan. The task he has set himself and what it will cost him could also make for an interesting discussion.
This book has been compared with “All quiet on the Western Front”, and like it is a very sober assessment of war. It would be suitable for Secondary grades Social Studies focusing on the history of WWII and also would provide some useful ideas for a Philosophy class.
I would highly recommend this book.

Harp of Burma Review

Field of Interest/Specialty: Family & Consumer Science
Posted On: 05/31/2011

Harp of Burma
Kathy Yamatani
10th - 12th Family and Consumer Science
Chartiers Valley High School
Harp of Burma by Michio Takeyama is a story of humanity overcoming struggles and a priceless lesson of loyalty and patriotism.
The novel follows the experiences of a company of Japanese soldiers as the war is ending and the men are getting ready to surrender to the British. The soldiers have learned to use music (sing, make and play instruments) to get out of predicaments and to keep up their morale. Private Mizushima becomes a harp player who is asked to talk down a group of Japanese soldiers. He is unable to convince the group to surrender in the thirty minutes the British has given him and he decides to ask for more time. The group of Japanese soldiers mistakes this as surrender and they beat Mizushima and leave him in the cave. Upon awakening, he is sickened when he sees all of the corpses left on the ground and he decides to help bury the bodies and pray for them. He continues this mission and finally tells his company of fellow soldiers that he must continue to bury the dead while studying as a monk and promote peace among mankind thus not returning to Japan with them.
The atrocities of war especially by the Japanese are well documented. This novel gives an insight to the Japanese soldiers as human who have feelings and a desire for peace rather than the typical villain - a lesson that shows the complexities of war.
The novel also incorporates Buddhism with the introduction to Buddhist monks and temples. Mizushisma actually dresses like a monk as he scouts for danger with his harp. It is mentioned in the third chapter how the Japanese soldiers were impressed with how the country of Burma respect the priesthood and give alms.
This is a moving novel that students in the 8th and above will enjoy. It is a short read and has many talking points for the student about the complexities of war, Buddhism religion and loyalty to a group before themselves. I highly recommend this novel. (The movie is also highly recommended and may be shown after reading the novel.)