The deep crimson scars on Tom’s neck, evidence of his torture at the hands of Japanese authorities, contain two levels of symbolic significance: they testify to the cruelty of prejudice and war, while also underscoring the human capacity for kindness in the face of violence. On the surface, the scars represent the broader issues of nationalism and racism that run throughout the story. When Hana reluctantly tends to Tom’s injuries, thinking him an “enemy” and a “menace,” she thinks about the rumors she’s heard about how brutally the Japanese treat their prisoners of war. Even though the media loudly proclaims “that wherever the Japanese armies went the people received them gladly, with cries of joy at their liberation,” when Hana sees the strange scars just below Tom’s ears, she knows that the rumors of Japan’s inhumane treatment of its enemies must be true. The story doesn’t detail the way in which Tom received his scars—or what, exactly, Hana has heard through the rumor mill—but Buck makes it clear that Tom’s scars are symptomatic of some kind of brutal torture. During World War II, the Japanese were known for their unthinkably cruel methods of torture (used as a way to glean valuable information from their prisoners), which were classified as war crimes. They would subject live prisoners of war to deeply inhumane science “experiments,” wrap the prisoners in quick-growing bamboo that would gradually asphyxiate them, or hang them with enough slack that the prisoners would slowly suffocate. The red scars just below Tom’s ears are perhaps evidence of one of these latter methods of torture.
Significantly, the symbolic meaning of Tom’s scars—as reflections of poisonous, dehumanizing nationalism and racism—reverse when Hana privately and “anxiously” hopes that Tom hasn’t been tortured. This may point to her desire to believe in her country as ethical and unstained by something as horrendous as torture. However, from that point on in the story, the scars are always mentioned at times in which Hana and Sadao are selflessly helping the American (such as when Hana tenderly washes Tom, when Sadao helps Tom walk a few minutes per day to regain his strength, and when Sadao arranges for Tom to escape to a nearby island by boat). In this way, Tom’s scars transform from a symbol of inhumanity and toxic nationalism to a symbol of the inherent human impulse to be good and compassionate to fellow humans, regardless of race, nationality, social class, or religion. Even though she’s made it very clear that she sees Tom as an enemy—or perhaps that she knows she should see him as an enemy—Hana desperately wants to believe that Tom hasn’t been subjected to such unthinkable pain, revealing her underlying compassion for him.
Tom’s Scars Quotes in The Enemy
Watching him, she wondered if the stories they heard sometimes of the sufferings of prisoners were true. They came like flickers of rumour, told by word of mouth and always contradicted. In the newspapers the reports were always that wherever the Japanese armies went the people received them gladly, with cries of joy at their liberation. But sometimes she remembered such men as General Takima, who at home beat his wife cruelly, though no one mentioned it now that he had fought so victorious a battle in Manchuria. If a man like that could be so cruel to a woman in his power, would he not be cruel to one like this for instance?