Ecstatic About Pearl Harbor

The short-story writer Nagai Kafu at his house, which was destroyed in 1945 during a bombing raid on Tokyo

Yamada Futaro (1922–2001) was a novelist, known in Japan chiefly for his mystery stories. He studied medicine before the war and was a voracious reader of European, mainly French, literature. Donald Keene, the éminence grise of Japanese scholarship in the US, was born in the same year as Yamada and shared his taste in French literature, though “Yamada probably read more of Balzac than I did.” Even as Tokyo was being obliterated around him by B-29 bombers in early 1945, Yamada was reading Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Keene was in Okinawa then, and carried Phèdre in his knapsack.

And so, “in some ways,” Keene observes, “we were alike.” Which makes the diary entries of this bookish Japanese intellectual with cosmopolitan tastes all the more surprising. March 10, 1945:

It won’t be enough to drag down into hell an American for each Japanese who dies. We will kill three of them for each one of us. We will kill seven for two, thirteen for three. We can survive this war if every Japanese becomes a demon of vengeance.

Keene, who never hated the Japanese, even though he certainly looked forward to their wartime defeat, tries to find a charitable explanation for Yamada’s bloodlust, and his own lack of it:

Probably my lack of hatred was due, in part at least, to the fact that the Japanese had not destroyed the city where I lived, nor did I fear that they might occupy my country.

He adds that “the dropping of the atomic bombs profoundly shocked me.”

Fair enough. Like more than 70 million other Japanese, Yamada, in March 1945, was facing the almost total destruction of his country. But there was more to it: Yamada was convinced, long before the catastrophic end of the war, that without a passionate belief in Yamato damashii, “the spirit of Japan,” his country was doomed. He had an exulted, heroic, quasi-religious view of national destiny, shared by many Japanese writers at the time (not only Japanese writers, of course, but they are the subject at hand). Keene, in his superb little book, tries to figure out why.

Why were so many writers and intellectuals in Japan ecstatic about the news of Japan’s successful raid on Pearl Harbor? And they were not all right-wing fanatics either. Keene mentions a distinguished scholar of English and French literature, Yoshida Ken’ichi, son of the postwar prime minister Yoshida Shigeru. Ken’ichi (1912–1977) had studied at King’s College, Cambridge, before the war, lived in Paris and London, and translated Poe, Baudelaire, and Shakespeare. Here he is, just after Pearl Harbor:

But even as we bask in this glory, what can we do apart from revitalizing our resolve? It is a vital resolve whose meaning we…

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