Set in Japan during World War II, “The Enemy” follows renowned surgeon Dr. Sadao Hoki and his wife, Hana, as they struggle to decide what to do with an American prisoner of war who has washed up on the beach alongside their house. The prisoner, a white teenager named Tom, is badly injured due to a fresh gunshot wound—evidence of his recent (and narrow) escape from Japanese authorities—and Sadao feels compelled as a surgeon to save the boy’s life. However, Tom’s presence in the household is largely unwelcome, on account of his whiteness and Americanness, two things that squarely mark him as an enemy. As the story unfolds, Tom challenges, but doesn’t overturn, Sadao’s deeply engrained prejudice toward Americans and his conviction of his own superiority as a Japanese man.
Throughout the story, Sadao and other characters make claims of Japanese ethnocentrism and authority, depicting the Japanese as the pinnacle of humankind. Initially, this appears as benign or even positive patriotism. In a flashback from Sadao’s childhood at the beginning of the story, Sadao’s father gazes at the islands in the distance while on vacation in the South Seas and tells his son, “Those islands yonder, they are the stepping stones to the future for Japan.” Young Sadao asks his father, “Where shall we step from them?” to which his father replies, “Who knows? […] Who can limit our future?” This seemingly healthy optimism and belief in greatness for the future of Japan soon shifts into poisonous territory. At the very end of the story, thinking back to his time in college at an American university, Sadao thinks about how “Americans were full of prejudice and it had been bitter to live in it, knowing himself their superior.” In this way, the story begins and ends with a statement of Japanese greatness and superiority, revealing nationalism as one of the story’s principal concerns.
The story’s intervening moments also reveal the characters’ dangerously narrow and arrogant mindsets, steeped in nationalistic ideology. As Sadao and Hana carry Tom into the guest bedroom—which used to belong to Sadao’s father and has not been used since his death—the narrative provides further insight into Sadao’s father’s attitude toward Japan versus the rest of the world: “Everything here [in the bedroom] had been Japanese to please the old man, who would never in his own home sit on a chair or sleep in a foreign bed.” Although Sadao’s father has since died, his memory—and his staunch nationalism—lives on in his aging, loyal servants, the cook and the gardener. They, too, espouse racist and nationalistic sentiments, refusing to call Tom by his name and instead only calling him “the white man.” They also declare that because Hana and Sadao attended college in America, they have been defiled and are no longer capable of putting their own country first. To add insult to injury, just before they quit, the servants accuse Sadao and Hana of actually liking Americans, which comes as a severe emotional blow for the couple.
Despite these frequent, loud declarations of nationalism and racism, there a few moments throughout the story that quietly, albeit significantly, challenge Sadao and Hana’s belief in their own superiority. One of the most crucial images in the story is that of Hana reluctantly tending to Tom’s injuries even though she’s reticent to even touch a white person. As she brings the anesthetic up to Tom’s nose, she crouches close to Tom’s sleeping face, which is “piteously thin.” She can tell by his “twisted” lips that the unconscious man is “suffering whether he knew it or not.” This observation leads her to think about the rumors she’s heard about the horrifyingly inhumane way that Japanese authorities treat their prisoners of war. For some inexplicable reason (he’s the enemy, after all), Hana “hope[s] anxiously that this man had not been tortured.” Just then, she notices ugly, crimson scars laced on the American’s neck, just under his ears, and knows that the rumors must be true. In this moment, Hana elevates her wish for Tom’s safety over her belief in her country and its methods, which is a brief but powerful rejection of the racism and nationalism she’s clung to thus far.
Likewise, Sadao helps Tom several times throughout the course of the story—first by bringing him into the house, then by performing emergency surgery on him, and finally by helping him escape to a nearby island—though he never understands why he’s helping the American. At the end of the story, Sadao looks out at the island he’s helped Tom escape to (where Tom would then hitch a ride with a Korean fishing boat and be brought to safety). When he sees that the island is completely dark—there’s no sign of Tom or the flashlight Sadao had begrudgingly gifted him—Sadao is relieved to realize that Tom is finally safe. Although this reflection seems like Sadao has finally changed his racist ways, his thoughts immediately turn to hostile recollections of the all the Americans he’s ever known. As he thinks bitterly of their “white faces” one by one, his mind’s eye then rests on the face of his white prisoner, “white and repulsive.” Sadao simply thinks to himself, “Strange, […] I wonder why I could not kill him?” In the story’s anti-epiphanic ending, Sadao is perhaps as prejudiced as ever, but his inability to kill Tom—and his confusion as to why he couldn’t manage to do so—reveals a small but significant hope for a world unmarred by racism and nationalism.
Racism and Nationalism ThemeTracker
Racism and Nationalism Quotes in The Enemy
He had met Hana in America, but he had waited to fall in love with her until he was sure she was Japanese. His father would never have received her unless she had been pure in her race […] they had not married heedlessly in America. They had finished their work at school and had come home to Japan, and when his father had seen her the marriage had been arranged in the old Japanese way, although Sadao and Hana had talked everything over beforehand.
“What shall we do with this man?” Sadao muttered. But his trained hands seemed of their own will to be doing what they could to stanch the fearful bleeding. He packed the wound with the sea moss that strewed the beach. […]
“The best thing that we could do would be to put him back in the sea,” Sadao said, answering himself. Now that the bleeding was stopped for a moment he stood up and dusted the sand from his hands.
“Yes, undoubtedly that would be best,” Hana said steadily. But she continued to stare down at the motionless man.
Sadao hesitated again. “The strange thing is,” he said, “that if the man were whole I could turn him over to the police without difficulty. I care nothing for him. He is my enemy. All Americans are my enemy. And he is only a common fellow. You see how foolish his face is. But since he is wounded…”
“You cannot throw him back to the sea,” Hana said.
“This man,” he thought, “there is no reason under heaven why he should live.”
Unconsciously this thought made him ruthless and he proceeded swiftly. In his dream, the man moaned but Sadao paid no heed except to mutter at him.
“Groan,” he muttered, “groan if you like. I am not doing this for my own pleasure. In fact, I do not know why I am doing it.”
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?
“That prisoner,” he said with some energy, “did I not promise you I would kill him for you?”
“You did, Excellency,” Sadao said.
“Well, well!” the old man said in a tone of amazement, “so I did! But you see, I was suffering a good deal. The truth is, I thought of nothing but myself. In short, I forgot my promise to you.”
“I wondered, Your Excellency,” Sadao murmured.
“It was certainly very careless of me,” the General said. “But you understand it was not lack of patriotism or dereliction of duty.” He looked anxiously at his doctor. “If the matter should come out you would understand that, wouldn’t you?”
The Americans were full of prejudice and it had been bitter to live in it, knowing himself their superior. How he had despised the ignorant and dirty old woman who had at last consented to house him in her miserable home! He had once tried to be grateful to her because she had in his last year nursed him through influenza, but it was difficult, for she was no less repulsive to him in her kindness. Now he remembered the youthful, haggard face of his prisoner—white and repulsive.
“Strange,” he thought. “I wonder why I could not kill him?”