What Keeps the Japanese Going?

Imperialist Japan: The Yen to Dominate

by Michael Montgomery
St. Martin's Press, 567 pp., $35.00

Different People: Pictures of Some Japanese

by Donald Richie
Kodansha International, 204 pp., $16.95

Remaking Japan: The American Occupation As New Deal

by Theodore Cohen, edited by Herbert Passin
The Free Press, 533 pp., $27.50

The Japanese Educational Challenge: A Commitment to Children

by Merry White
The Free Press, 210 pp., $18.95

“You must realize,” said Watanabe Shoichi, a prominent Christian professor of English literature, who had just told me that racial purity was something to cherish, “that until 1941 Japan was an entirely normal country.” Yes, well, I thought, as I digested this remarkable statement, that depends on what you consider normal.

Take 1937, for example, the year of the “China Incident,” when Japanese troops surged into China, fighting their way to the grand orgy in Nanking. In Japan, it was the year when “The Cardinal Principles of the National Entity” was published by the Department of Education, and propagated at schools. According to this document, “Loyalty means to revere the Emperor as our pivot and to follow Him implicitly. By implicit obedience is meant casting aside of the self and serving the Emperor intently.” Another directive from education bureaucrats held that “our imperial way must be preached and spread all over the world.” A Bureau of Thought Control, set up earlier, made sure all Japanese stuck to these “correct thoughts.”

So why does Watanabe think Japan was an entirely normal country? The answer would be simple if he were a fascist who heartily approved of thought control and military adventurism. That, however, as far as I know, is not the case. Rather, he opposes the view that there was anything intrinsically wrong with Japanese society before the Pacific War. After Pearl Harbor, he readily admits, when the very survival of Japan was at stake, hitherto healthy nationalism became extreme. As a fellow revisionist, the late Hayashi Fusao, put it in a discussion about the Japanese emperor: “When a crisis threatens our people, the priest girds on his armor. If war breaks out, he becomes our commander-in-chief. After it’s over, he becomes a peaceful priest again.”

Watanabe believes that the national myths and symbols must be revived to preserve the national identity. Like a considerable number of romantic Japanese professors he yearns to return the national soul to a state of pure innocence. To achieve this aim, the myths must be dissociated from the war. Their tarnish must be removed by historical revisionism, ergo until the Pacific War Japan was a normal country; foreign judges at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial dispensed Victor’s Justice and gave Japanese a false view of their history. Hence Watanabe’s last words to me: “Without the Tokyo Trial there would be no neo-nationalism.”

The American occupation authorities believed that the myths, indeed Japanese culture itself, contributed to the war and so tried to do away with them. Samurai movies, regarded as “feudal,” were banned for a time. The emperor had to declare himself a human being, like the rest of us. General MacArthur even had fantasies about turning the Japanese into Christians.

But the absurdity of some occupation myths and Watanabe’s revisionism should not obscure a vital question, indeed several questions: To what extent are Japan’s uneasy relations with the outside world determined by culture? Were the prewar national myths inherent in Japanese culture or…

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