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What Keeps the Japanese Going?

Imperialist Japan: The Yen to Dominate

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


by John Toland
Doubleday, 453 pp., $19.95

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 simply political propaganda? Is today’s trade conflict, at least partly, cultural? If so, we have a serious problem now that Japan has the financial power to affect, and possibly lead, the non-Communist world.

Japanese trade negotiators often want to have it both ways. When Japan is treated according to the same rules as Western nations, culture and even biology are sometimes invoked as a defense, i.e., Japanese harmony would be threatened by too much foreign competition, or, as a former agricultural minister said in Washington recently, Japanese have no stomach for American beef, because they are Buddhists and their intestines are different. But if Japan is singled out by foreigners for special criticism, the international rules are invoked by the Japanese. Westerners are often told that Japan is unique, precisely because it cannot be understood by foreigners. Yet frustrated foreign businessmen are admonished that their lack of success on the Japanese market is owing to sloth and misunderstanding of Japan. Japan is a normal country, yet it is also uniquely unique. One way out of this hall of mirrors is to critically examine some Japanese myths. At the very least, it might clear up a few misunderstandings.

In the heated atmosphere of Japanese-American relations even a mildly critical approach is quickly discredited by the phrase “Japan bashing.” The title alone of Michael Montgomery’s book should set off a few alarms, in this case, alas, with good reason. Imperialist Japan: The Yen to Dominate is the hysterical title of a rather hysterical book.

Montgomery has taken Japanese myths at face value. Nineteenth-century National Learning ideologues said that “the fact is obvious that the Mikado is the true Son of Heaven who is entitled to reign over the four seas and the ten thousand countries.” Emperor Komei, in 1864, issued an order to the shogun stating that “the subjugation of the ugly barbarian is our nation’s first priority, and we must raise an army to chastise and overawe them.” Strong sentiments indeed, but understandable ones at a time when Japan, not entirely without reason, felt threatened by Western powers who had already gobbled up most of Asia. But to use this rhetoric as proof of a Japanese imperialist conspiracy to conquer the world, beginning in the 1840s when panicking samurai took pot shots at British men-of-war and carried on today by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, is surely a little much.

Montgomery clearly believes that the Japan problem is cultural. In his view the ideological underpinnings for imperial conquest began at least as far back as the eighth century, when the authors of a chronicle called Nihongi attributed the following bit of propaganda to the mythical first Japanese emperor: “We hope to establish a capital from which to unite the whole realm, placing the whole world under one roof.” This was used during the 1930s as one of the slogans for the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Great Barbarian-Suppressing General Hideyoshi, who invaded Korea in 1592, is also dragged into the conspiracy. He is quoted on the cover as saying: “It is Japan’s destiny to be the sole ruler of the world.” And so on through Emperor Hirohito to former Prime Minister Nakasone.

The idea of all this is that the Japanese have consistently forged their history—“a twelve-hundred-year campaign of imposture and fabrication”—to promote imperialist fervor. They did this out of a deep sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the outside world, beginning with seventh-century China, whose culture was adopted almost wholesale by the Japanese elite, just as Western culture was imported during the last hundred-odd years. The “textbook revisions” in 1982, changing “invasion” (in 1937) of China to “advance,” are but the most recent example of deceit, and Montgomery’s book is meant to set the record straight. Unfortunately, the credibility of Montgomery’s claims is undermined by his shaky grasp of the facts. There were no textbook revisions in 1982 (which is not to say that they did not occur in other years). Names are misspelled (the “Ryuku” islands) and it is news to me that Shinto “was made up of three Chinese characters meaning ‘following the will of the Gods without question,’ ” instead of two, meaning, much more simply, Way of the Gods.

These are details, but together with the consistently snide tone of Montgomery’s prose they suggest not a solid, dispassionate historian but an overwrought polemicist. The polemics detract from what is otherwise a thoroughly researched book, albeit only from English-language sources. This is, as I said, unfortunate, for the connection between national myths and Japan’s foreign relations is an important subject.

Of course, as with any conspiracy theory, once you believe the plot, proof is easy to find. Montgomery’s villains undoubtedly said the things they did. And Japan did embark on a disastrous war. But the idea of a grand conspiracy, especially one masterminded by the emperors, suggests a singlemindedness and a monolithic sense of purpose that Japanese governments consistently seem to have lacked, indeed to this day.

Montgomery’s description of the chaotic Japanese response to the West in the 1860s tells us far more about the true state of affairs in Japan than sweeping indictments of “Japan’s Imperial mission of world hegemony.” Hotheaded jingoists from the Choshu clan attacked the shogun’s government for being too soft on foreigners. The foreign powers wanted these men punished and the Straits of Shimonoseki opened for traffic. The government did not know what to do and played for time. Two Choshu leaders rushed back from Paris to stop their people from starting a war they could not possibly win. The jingoists would not listen and tried to persuade the emperor to take action. They were fobbed off by imperial troops and proceeded to burn the capital to the ground. Foreign patience ran out and European troops easily defeated the samurai rebels, who then blamed the whole thing on the government, which in turn blamed advisers at the imperial court. None of the Japanese involved cared much about foreigners and all of them believed in their own ways in emperor and country. But what caused the conflict with foreigners was not that; rather, it was the lack of clear leadership. Who was really in charge? The clans, the imperial court, the shogun’s government? The British did not know, so they threatened to deal directly with the emperor in Kyoto, who was still a ceremonial figure.

Montgomery has some peculiar allies in his thesis that the Pacific War really began in the middle of the nineteenth century. This is precisely what Hayashi Fusao, the novelist and revisionist historian, thought. However, he argued in his 1960s best seller, In Affirmation of the Greater East Asian War, that the xenophobia was justified. Japan fought for Asia. By resisting the foreign imperialists Japan preserved its identity: “The 100-year East Asia War was a hopeless struggle from the outset. Yet the war had to be fought and Japan fought it.”

Both Montgomery and Hayashi miss one vital point about Japanese imperialist saber-rattling. All the talk about harmony, the imperial will, the world under one roof, etc., was not so much a demonstration of monolithic national purpose as an ideological mask for internal conflict, indeed a way to stop politics from upsetting a tenuous social order. Hayashi’s stated motive for writing his book is an example of the same psychology. First he tells us that scientific truth is his only aim. After all, he is a modern thinker. But later, discussing how sad it is that Japanese intellectuals should be divided along political lines, something he blames on “the international world of today,” he concludes that even his worst critics are, thank goodness, still Japanese. “And I believe that we can arrive at ‘one Japanese ideology.’… I believe in unification. That is why I wrote In Affirmation of the Greater East Asian War.” Once the modern Japanese state had been established, the fear of pluralism suppressed domestic conflict and helped deflect it to the outside world.

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