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Japanese Lib

The Issue of War: States, Societies, and the Far Eastern Conflict of 1941–1945

by Christopher Thorne
Oxford University Press, 364 pp., $22.95

Last August, only a month after Ronald Reagan’s visit to Bitburg, the Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro also decided to pay tribute to the war dead. This sparked off anti-Japanese riots in several parts of China. It does not take much to provoke Chinese into making anti-Japanese gestures—these are, as it were, part of the national ethos. But this time, it seemed, Nakasone had really gone too far. He visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto sanctuary in Tokyo, where more than two million “heroic souls,” including those of General Tojo Hideki and thirteen other Class-A war criminals, are enshrined. He paid his respects to these souls in his official capacity as prime minister and thereby broke a major postwar taboo. Previous prime ministers had been there too, to console the Japanese war dead by offering them sprigs from a sacred tree, but they had gone as private citizens.

The Yasukuni shrine is not just a Japanese version of Arlington or the Cenotaph in London. It is also rather more sinister than Bitburg. Tucked away behind the cherry trees, their branches festooned with paper tags bearing the names of battleships and Imperial Army regiments, there is a handsome memorial dedicated to the Kempeitai, the dreaded military police, known for their highly developed torturing skills. Also on display is part of a steam train that opened the infamous Burma railroad. Like so many other symbols from Japan’s recent past, Yasukuni sets off a dangerous complex of emotions—bitter, nostalgic, embarrassing, sad, painful, but above all, like the whole history of Japan’s war, undigested—memories to be circumvented or defused like landmines rather than faced. The war is remembered, if at all, as a cataclysmic natural event, somewhat like an earthquake, of which the primary victims were the innocent Japanese people, first led astray by bad militarists and then nuclear bombed by bad Americans.

The Yasukuni shrine was established in 1869 on orders of the Meiji emperor, to console the spirits of those who had sacrificed themselves to return political power from the Tokugawa shoguns to the emperor. In our century, when notions of racial superiority and glorious militarism rapidly reached a hysterical pitch, Yasukuni became a war shrine to the master race. It symbolized, in other words, all the bad things postwar Japanese were supposed to forget as quickly as possible and keep away from their children, lest nasty things happen all over again.

Today’s young Japanese, pampered by postwar parental indulgence and coddled in soft high-tech affluence, have, it appears, indeed forgotten about traditional Japanese “ethics” (like Yasukuni, another code word relating to the wicked past). Emperor worship, the Yamato spirit, the way of the samurai, all these are, many say, just empty phrases to the modern Japanese. This lack of moral fiber, of Japanese spirit, is precisely what worries Prime Minister Nakasone. Modernization has made the Japanese rich, but spiritually empty. (This was, of course, Mishima’s line too.) And so the prime minister wants to reintroduce “ethics” in Japanese education and promote what some call a “new nationalism.” This includes a reevaluation of the past. It has become respectable in the Nakasone era to question the so-called “Tokyo war trial slant” on history, imposed, revisionists say, by the victorious Allies to emasculate the Japanese nation forever. A growing number of essays praising the ideals—if not always the results—of the Great East Asia Coprosperity Sphere, the official name for Japan’s New Order in Asia, have been appearing in serious journals over the last year or so.

The arguments defending Japan’s wartime role often take on a strongly anti-American tone; just as anti-American, in fact, as the postwar left-wing orthodoxy according to which the peace-loving Japanese with their peace constitution are being dragged into violent conflict with the peace-loving Soviet Union by the war-loving US. The irony is that right-wing Japanese revisionism is, unwittingly, encouraged by American pressure on Japan to pull its weight in defense matters. Nakasone’s new nationalism is part of a larger strategy to restore national confidence, so that the Japanese can build up their military power without fear of being consumed by the ghosts of the past.

The Chinese reaction to Nakasone’s new nationalism seems quite straight-forward, too, on the surface. It is understandable, after all, that a country which lost millions of lives thanks to old Japanese ethics should be wary of the Yasukuni spirits being let loose. But here, as well, reality under the surface is more complex.

Modernization is not proceeding smoothly in China. A small degree of capitalism has meant in many cases that some get rich very fast while most get left behind. A little free enterprise has led to much corruption. And through China’s newly opened door have entered such goodies of modern civilization as porno videotapes and pop music, as well as many consumer products most people are still too poor to buy. The main exporter of such products is Japan; indeed, the target of the general resentment felt in China about the rough edges of modernization is Japan. Some feel that once again China’s spirit is being sapped by foreign modernity.

This brings us to the central theme of Christopher Thorne’s excellent and timely new book: the destabilizing social, cultural, political, and economic effects of modern industrial civilization, which, Thorne argues, helped to bring about the worldwide conflicts of the 1940s. This was partly a matter of technology: neither the Final Solution implemented with such extraordinary bureaucratic, and indeed industrial, efficiency nor, for that matter, the machine-gun slaughter in the trenches of France and Belgium during the First World War would have been possible without the scientific, orderly, and essentially amoral machines of modern industrial society. The perversion of modern “progress” was most devastating in countries where technological modernity was combined with a deeply irrational, even antirational streak—namely Germany and Japan. In both countries, their respective “spirits” became hysterical expressions of pure will which were supposed to transcend logic and surmount all technical obstacles.

Thorne’s thesis is related to the disillusion with Western progress that resulted from the First World War, but he goes further to describe with scholarly finesse the effects of modernization in every country involved in the Far Eastern conflict. There are some universal trends. One was the disruption of rural life by mass migration to the industrial cities, leading to the breakdown of family life and consequently of the values of which the family is the traditional custodian. This, so Thorne’s argument goes, leads to amorphous mass societies filled with anonymous individuals, like Chaplin in Modern Times, prone to follow strong leaders in nationalist crusades. No longer able to identify with family or even village, the millions of cogs in the modern machine seek to identify with nation or, more to the point in the context of this book, race.

Japan was not only the moving force in the Far Eastern conflict, but also in many ways the most interesting case of modernization gone wrong (though many have since the war made a good living hailing Japan as the prime example of modernization gone right). Shocked by seeing China, the source of so much Japanese culture, humiliated by Western powers, and further shocked by the display of American guns pointed at the Japanese coast in the 1850s, the Japanese became the most enthusiastic and economically most successful modernizers in Asia. By 1905 they had beaten the Russians in a war; in the 1910s they had established a kind of parliamentary democracy; by the late 1930s Japan had become a major industrial power.

Thorne claims, I think rightly, that “though Japan was the most ‘modernized’ Asian state in economic terms, it remained a socially brittle society, whose citizens were unable to bear the burden of political responsibility in a modern nation-state.” He cites the “feudalism of the family unit,” which carried over into modern urban life and inhibited (and here he quotes the Japanese scholar T. Fukutake) “the capacity to act according to one’s own judgement and carry through principles one personally believed in.” This is by no means universal. In some modern industrial societies—Britain, for example—people are still to some extent individualists with their own opinions. In pre-modern Japan it was positively dangerous for a person to make up his own mind and act upon it. Even today it would be hard to find many Japanese who put their personal principles above the social demands of Japanese life. Personal principles are an impediment to functioning properly in Japanese society, both before and after industrialization.

Thorne makes the central point, however, that in Japan “there was a lack of natural, resilient bonds of a nation-wide, horizontal kind that could complement these family-like vertical ties.” Japan, in other words, was not a cohesive state, but more a collection of large pressure groups, a little like the semiautonomous fiefdoms of premodern Japan, each struggling for its own interests and loyal to its own lords, with a hole in the middle for the divine but powerless emperor. This made it relatively easy for one pressure group, if it became stronger than the others, to usurp the central power of the state without bothering to dismantle its institutions. In the case of Japan in the 1930s, this is precisely what happened when the military began to take over.

The military benefited from other ambiguities which had plagued Japan’s modernization from the beginning. One Japanese revisionist historian, Hayashi Fusao, argued in his book, In Affirmation of the Great East Asia War, that the 1941–1945 conflict was in fact only the climactic stage of a “100-Year East Asia War” which began with the 1863 bombardment of Kagoshima by British naval ships. (Kagoshima Bay was later to be the practicing ground for the attack on Pearl Harbor.) According to Hayashi, Japan took up the heroic though ultimately useless cudgel for the entire Asian civilization against the racist Western empires. Though this view smacks of self-serving romanticism, he has a point when he says that Japan’s modernization, involving wholesale imitation of Western institutions, technology, even fashion, summed up in the slogan “Enlightenment and Civilization,” went hand in hand with the xenophobia expressed in the other nineteenth-century slogan, “Worship the Emperor and Throw Out the Barbarians.” As Thorne rightly says,

Japan after the Meiji restoration had pursued industrialisation as indispensable to the fulfilment of the slogan, fukoku kyohei: “enrich the nation, strengthen its arms.” The military victories of 1895 [against China] and 1905 [against Russia], together with the boom enjoyed during the First World War, appeared fully to vindicate such a course.

But the Japanese realized that they first had to join the barbarians to beat them.

The question is whether this is possible without becoming a barbarian oneself. Both the Chinese and the Japanese tried to separate Western techniques from what they considered to be Oriental spirit—however they defined it. The Japanese were rather successful, having had many centuries of experience in borrowing techniques from stronger countries. The Chinese, with their Middle Kingdom complex, have still not found a satisfactory answer to being both modern and Chinese at the same time. Many Japanese consciously wished—some still wish—to dissociate themselves from Asia and be accepted as part of the West. Thorne quotes Mutsu Munemitsu, Japanese foreign minister during the war with China in the 1890s, as saying that the conflict represented “a collision between the new civilization of the West and the old civilization of East Asia.”

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