Yasuhiro Nakasone
Yasuhiro Nakasone; drawing by David Levine

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.”

That becoming modern meant westernization was widely believed outside Japan, too. Thorne offers several examples: Karl Marx defined Britain’s task in India as being “the annihilation of Asiatic society and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia” (Marx would have been fascinated to know that anti-Western nationalist struggles in many Asian countries were to be fought in his name). Phan Boi Chau, leader of the anticolonial movement in Vietnam at the beginning of this century, hoped for a “modern, prosperous state built on the Western model.” In India, Subhas Chandra Bose, later to become an active collaborator with the Japanese, wanted a political culture in India, based on a blend “of what modern Europe calls socialism and fascism.”

Becoming a Western nation, naturally, was not possible, for Japan or any other Asian state. For one thing the Western powers before the war did not regard Japan, let alone the colonies, as equals—a slight the Japanese were never to forget. The Japanese are still insecure about this, not for nothing as the recent, sometimes overtly racist bout of American Japan-bashing has shown. Moreover—and this is reason for hope or despair, depending on one’s point of view—no matter how modern Japan became, it kept its distinct identity.

This was by no means obvious to many Japanese, who, like people the world over, were terrified that the machine age would rob them of their souls. There have been basically two methods, which are remarkably similar, of saving national souls: the flight into an idealized past to bolster a unique and superior national spirit; or a complete break with the past and the creation of a New Man. Communists belong to the latter category; fascists—but not only fascists—to the former. In both cases, in Hitler’s Germany as well as in Mao’s China, one sees a paradoxical obsession with large-scale industrialization combined with a spiritual revolt of the countryside with its völkisch values against the decadent cosmopolitan cities. General Tojo was equally worried about the sapping of national fiber if too many people renounced the honest village life.

There are other similarities between “left” and “right,” which might surprise people inclined to hold up Marxist nationalism as a more acceptable, because idealistic, alternative to fascism. The Nazis killed cosmopolitan Jews, the Japanese persecuted the citified Chinese in Southeast Asia (often to the applause of the rural Malays), and so did the Vietnamese and Cambodian communists thirty years later. It is still easy to find people who will say that the victims in all these cases “had it coming to them”; just as it is easy to find people, in East and West, who get sentimental over simple country ways and indignant about “Western” influence on modern cities. And let us also not forget those misguided romantics who still seek salvation in a mythical Oriental spirit.

For it was always largely mythical. Whatever the particular qualities of Hindu, Buddhist, or Confucian philosophy, literature, and paintings, the political ideology of the superior Asian spirit, vaunted by such disparate figures as Mahatma Gandhi and General Tojo as the antidote to soulless Western materialism, was as spurious as the racially pure Aryan or the communist New Man. “A superior order of culture has existed in Great East Asia from its very beginning,” said Tojo at the Great East Asia Conference in Tokyo in 1943. “By its further cultivation and refinement lies the salvation of mankind from the curse of materialistic civilization and our contribution to the welfare of all humanity.”

This jihad against materialistic civilization and thus, by implication, against the Western world, so like the Moslem upheavals today, may have been based on self-serving and hypocritical motives, but it was not unpopular in many parts of Asia; albeit often for equally self-serving reasons. Some of the most interesting insights in Thorne’s book concern the collaboration of Indonesian, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean, and Chinese nationalists in the cause of Great East Asia. The Japanese forces were welcomed by many Asians as liberators from their arrogant white masters. (This was especially true in the European colonies of Southeast Asia; in China, there was more traditional animosity toward the Japanese and there were fewer white masters to be liberated from). Indeed, the Japanese New Order got off to such a flying start that one wonders why it went so terribly wrong, so fast. In less than a year after “liberation” the Japanese were hated more by their fellow Asians than the European sahibs ever were.

Thorne goes into some detail to explain this turnabout. Some of the reasons are familiar: in China and Southeast Asia the Japanese were not so much colonizers as conquistadors. Military objectives took precedence over the development of local economies. Simple Japanese soldiers were not the ideal representatives of their country. The Japanese spirit all too often meant torture, rape, and plunder. The worst victims were the Chinese, both in their own country and in Southeast Asia. Chinese civilians were massacred in Nanking, to mention just the most infamous example, and also in Singapore. Thorne rightly mentions another important obstacle to Asian fraternity, the Japanese claim to uniqueness. I think perhaps more could be said on this vital topic than he has done, for it explains both why the Japanese felt the need to “save” Asia and why they had to fail in this enterprise.

It has often been pointed out that Japan, lying on the edge of a great continental civilization, has traditionally been the recipient rather than the dispenser of cultural influences. Its idea of uniqueness, of having a core that outsiders can neither understand nor touch, is the last defense against being buried by stronger civilizations. But uniqueness implies isolation, and the Japanese, though often seeming to enjoy their splendid isolation as much as the British do, at times felt the need to break out of it, whether to get at natural resources, to have more Lebensraum, or simply to be able to identify with something beyond the national borders. As with modern Californians who have trouble knowing who or where they are, the word “share” crops up regularly in Japanese rhetoric of the time (of course the decisive word for Japanese behavior turned out to be “take”).

Faced, from the middle of the nineteenth century, with the overwhelming influence of the West, many Japanese, understandably, saw the Occident as a monolithic block. Writing in 1943, the extreme nationalist Okawa Shumei—who later went mad during the Tokyo Trial—had this to say:

There is nothing strange about Japan thinking she will really lead Asia…as a national mission. The various nations of Europe, in spite of many differences among them, in their basic ideas and approach are one nation…. Japan cannot be isolated. Japan alone competing with the combined strength of the European powers would invite untoward disaster. It would be difficult for Japan to seek true allies in Europe. But it is natural that Japan seek those allies in Asia.*

This, incidentally, is an argument which, since the war, was taken up by the Japanese left in their support of Asian socialism.

To prove Japan’s natural kinship with other Asians, Okawa acknowledged the Japanese debt to India’s religious heritage and to China’s philosophy and ethics, and then there was of course the elusive spirit that all Asians were supposed to have in common. But an integral part of the Great East Asian mission was that the Japanese were the superior race, the Big Brother among brothers. Here the Japanese superiority complex seemed a determined effort to suppress the sense of inferiority of the odd man out on the edge of Asia. This racial idea stuck in many Asian throats. What made Japanese arrogance worse was that most Japanese could not overcome their idea of uniqueness. They were the descendants of gods, which alone made them unique. To most Japanese the superior Asian spirit was the Japanese spirit. They could not feel they had anything in common with other Asians, and when they were forced to see certain affinities it proved to be deeply disturbing, as with a Japanese soldier fighting in China, who wrote in his diary: “Whenever I see Chinese soldiers and civilians, their close resemblance to the Japanese gives me a strange feeling…. I find it unpleasant that the enemy with whom we are locked in mortal combat should so resemble us as to feel like a neighbor.” It is as if the Japanese took out their injured pride about being rejected by the “civilized” West on the white POWs they brutalized, while punishing Chinese for reminding them of where they historically belonged.

To be a successful colonial power one has to convince the colonized subjects that one has a natural right to rule them, that one belongs to a separate and superior caste, as it were. The British understood this perfectly, although, as Thorne points out, modern education, technology, and commerce narrowed the gap between the rising native middle class and the colonizers, so that the latter had to put greater emphasis on their racial superiority. To make this convincing it helps if one is clearly of a different race. Here the Japanese were at a disadvantage. Furthermore, the Japanese, so late and inexperienced in the imperial game, got their signals wrong.

Thorne makes a convincing case that most Japanese civilian officials “were cynical regarding the notion of a mission on behalf of fellow Asians equal in standing to themselves,” and that the few truly idealistic Japanese officials were soon shunted aside as obstacles to Japan’s real aims; but even if this had not been the case, it is difficult to see how Japanese propaganda could have seemed convincing in the long run. It was too evidently contradictory: while Southeast Asians were encouraged to develop their own culture and literatures (it was the Japanese who got Filipinos to write in Tagalog, instead of Spanish or English), they were forced to learn Japanese and bow to the Japanese emperor. One cannot be a liberating brother claiming racial and spiritual kinship at the same time as belonging to a superior caste. After all, if the Japanese are brothers why should they be superior? And if they are anti-imperialist liberators, what right do they have to rule fellow Asians? Southeast Asians ended up feeling betrayed and their distrust of the Japanese has lasted to this day.

It is also true, however, that the Japanese “liberation” speeded up the demise of white rule in Asia, although an important point in Thorne’s book is the switch in Asia from European to American power. Twice he quotes an American official who told a British visitor to Washington, “It is now our turn at bat in Asia.” In his assessment of the American innings Thorne tends to adopt the tone of the European sophisticate who has seen it all before, shaking his head over the new boy’s mistakes. He is doubtless right in saying that the US, brimming with confidence after winning the war, did not, as did the losers and even many of the Allies, have much time for national introspection. Washington, Thorne says, wanted to preserve the status quo at home and abroad and thought everyone would benefit if, to put it simply, the world would be just like the good old USA. This kind of naiveté prevented the Americans from understanding and thus coping with the nationalist forces unleashed by the war in Asia. Thorne ends his book by saying that “the United States, so manifestly ‘the winner’ of the Far Eastern war in 1945, could by the 1970s be seen as having been in certain senses the greatest of its long-term ‘losers.”‘

Well, perhaps. But in another sense the people “liberated” from America’s embrace are even bigger losers. The type of nationalism that emerged from the Far Eastern conflict can be very unpleasant to live under, and despite the anti-American position of some students and intellectuals, most South Koreans, say, are quite glad to be spared the particularly awful variety suffered by their northern kin. Recent visitors to Vietnam, too, have noted a strange nostalgia in the south for those naive American imperialists. It raises the question whether it is not better to live under the domination of a relatively benign foreign power than to suffer the tyranny of one’s own people. The question is probably academic, though, for the age of successful colonialism is over. As the very different cases of both Japan and the US have proven, colonialism under an anticolonialist guise did not really work.

This does not mean that the original issue of war has been solved. People in many parts of the world are still struggling with the processes of “modernization,” including many Japanese who, albeit thoroughly modernized, are still searching for their national soul. Perhaps industrial civilization is deeply flawed. Perhaps, as Gandhi said, we are like the moth, which, approaching its doom, whirls around faster and faster till it is burned up. It would be truer to say, though, that industrialism is in itself a neutral force, which can bring to a crisis cultural and political tensions already there in the first place. Thorne’s book, which should be obligatory reading for all admirers of violent liberation movements, is an eloquent warning of what happens when nations resist it by turning to atavistic fantasies. Nuclear bombs are nothing but tools; it is the fantasies that could burn us all.

This Issue

March 13, 1986