“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.
Ideology is like history, writes the Columbia Japanese scholar Carol Gluck, “less thing than process.” Gluck’s study of Japan’s modern myths is the best I have read on the subject.1 Far from trying to prove a conspiracy, she identifies the various, highly diverse strands that went into the national myths. Liberals believed in Japan’s mission to colonize Formosa and Korea, because it would enable Japan to show off its modern civilization. Gluck quotes a prominent opposition politician, Okuma Shigenobu, as saying in 1900 that the Japanese people needed “a sense of nation” so they could lead and protect their less fortunate Chinese brethren from further Western incursion. Some architects of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere still believed that, as did Hayashi Fusao. Okuma called upon national consciousness to oppose a government dominated by bureaucrats. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, favored a national ideology to stifle meddlesome politicians. Although national myths usually took a xenophobic turn, this was not always the main purpose.
National ideology, says Gluck, was a way of nationalizing metaphorical foreigners in Japan itself: “This metaphorical anti-foreignism was not the same as anti-Westernism, but rather a device to gain the day for domestic purposes, social stability in particular.” The idea that true patriotism meant obedience to the imperial will made subjects out of the Japanese instead of citizens. The constitution, which had been diligently cobbled together from mainly Prussian sources, was handed down in 1889 in a formal ceremony by the Meiji emperor dressed in a field marshal’s uniform. People celebrated this latest manifestation of that great Meiji aim, Civilization and Enlightenment, without which Japan would not be seen by others as a “first class nation.” In form, Japan became a constitutional monarchy. In substance, as Gluck observes, “it was the monarch, not the Constitution—the king, not the compact—that became the center of the emerging national myths.”
This is where culture comes in. Shinto ceremonies, ancestor worship, and reverence for the emperor became the symbols of Japanese nationhood. To be Japanese was to adopt a religious as well as a national identity, or, rather, the two came down to the same thing. There was some resistance, to be sure, but to be a heretic in a nation of believers is a lonely and dangerous course, which few Japanese cared to undertake. Such splendid, and largely fictional, virtues as social harmony, known as “wa,” and voluntary submission to the collective will, represented by the priest-king, were to be guarded against alien concepts like political strife and legal contention. The constitution was a fine and civilized thing, but it could not possibly rival in importance the sacred imperial will and the unique national polity. The state, identified with the imperial will, became the sole arbiter of culture, ethics, and national identity. This is the culture Watanabe, the English professor, hopes to revive. I asked him about the authoritarianism implicit in such ideals and he said that was “a Western way of thinking.”
The Meiji emperor, lifted from his cloistered Kyoto court, dressed in military uniform, and placed in the old shogun’s castle in Tokyo, was, however, a symbol of modernity as well as the focal point of a nativist cult—a mixture of the Dalai Lama and Wilhelm I. According to one of the national ideologues, he was more virtuous than Napoleon or Alexander the Great, for he was a man of sensitive feelings and great poetic talent. “His majesty,” wrote a Westerner who saw him in Yokohama in 1872, “was richly, and not untastefully attired; carrying himself—save a slight stiffness in his gait, as if unused to boots—well in his European habillements.” He was fond of good French wines, especially Chateau la rose.2
Held up as an icon, above the law and other mundane affairs of man, the emperor was formally invested with almost unlimited power. But this does not mean that Meiji, or his son and grandson, the present Emperor Hirohito, could freely exercise it. People acted in the emperor’s name, to show that God was on their side, but gods are most godlike when they do nothing. Montgomery, as well as such fellow conspiracy theorists as David Bergamini3 (a much-quoted source in Montgomery’s book), believes that they did a great deal. “At the mid-point of his reign he was raised to the status of an absolute and divinely ordained monarch,” writes Montgomery. So far, so good.
By its close in 1912 he had master-minded the blueprint for overseas expansion into China and beyond which had first been adumbrated to him by his barbarian-hating father Komei, and which he in turn was to pass on to his grandson Hirohito for its fulfillment.
Never mind that throughout the book Hirohito is continuously quoted as the voice of caution, restraint, and anger at the indiscipline of his armies. That, we are told, was simply to ensure that the final mission to conquer would be done properly. As evidence of his long-term military plans we are told that Hirohito, on his way to Europe in 1921 as crown prince, asked to inspect the water reservoir in Hong Kong and to sail around Singapore in a yacht, and, in France, to visit World War One battlefields.
I find the image used by Masao Maruyama, one of the most brilliant postwar Japanese scholars, more persuasive. He called Japanese fascist rule “a system of irresponsibilities,” which he broke down into three political actors: the Portable Shrine, of which the emperor is the prime example, the Official, and the Outlaw.
The Shrine represents authority; the Official, power; the Outlaw, violence. From the point of view of their position in the national hierarchy and of their legal power, the Shrine ranks highest and the Outlaw lowest. The system, however, is so constituted that movement starts from the Outlaw and gradually works upwards. The Shrine is often a mere robot who affects other people by “doing nothing.”4
These roles can shift according to circumstances. The emperor alone can never become an Official or an Outlaw; he is the permanent Shrine, the sacred symbol of political nonresponsibility. The system was already visible in the 1860s. To use Mongomery’s own example, Emperor Komei was the Shrine, the shogun’s government was the Officials, and the chauvinist rebels from the Choshu clan the Outlaws. And to carry the image to its logical conclusion, during the 1930s and early 1940s Hirohito was the Shrine, the bureaucrats and generals the Officials, and the romantic rogues and military fanatics roaming around Manchuria and China the Outlaws. Politics, in the sense of institutional contention of interests, had disappeared behind the mythical veil of collective harmony and, to use one of the popular slogans of the day, “unity of rites and politics.” And when politics goes, intimidation takes over.
None of this can have been very apparent to General MacArthur and his occupation officials, who saw Japan as an Oriental version of Nazi Germany, with Tojo Hideki as Adolf Hitler. That the Americans got it all wrong is a point John Toland’s fictional chronicle of the period bangs home, and home, and home. The main character, meant, I assume, to be wise and sympathetic, comes across to me as a pompous bore. His name is Professor McGlynn, an old Japan hand, who shakes his head in disbelief at the ignorance of his countrymen. Many of his opinions are expressed in the form of lectures on Japanese culture to Chaucy Snow, a young lawyer defending Tojo at the Tokyo Trial. Toland’s book should be a big seller in Japan, for, sure enough, all the national myths are faithfully trotted out:
“What every Japanese seeks is what they call wa, harmony,” he continued. “Unlike the Koreans, what they need above all is no conflict. Japan is the land of wa…. This could never happen in the United States but Japan is monoracial, and therefore monocultural. Wa is only for people who conform to the same standards. That’s why, Chaucy, there are ten times more lawyers in the United States than over here. Japanese rarely sue each other…. Their whole system of justice is based on wa.”
Carol Gluck, in her book, describes a case that might interest Toland—I’m sorry, McGlynn. During the last decades of the nineteenth century private land was often confiscated to be converted into imperial forest lands. This was resisted in 1881 by a group of farmers in Nagano prefecture, who fought their case for more than twenty years. A member of the local gentry tried to “restore harmony” between the “officials and the people.” He pointed out that litigation involving the emperor showed disrespect toward the imperial house. The farmers argued that their case had nothing to do with disrespect. The officials were simply confusing private property with imperial land. What makes the case interesting is that a group of simple farmers defended the case on the basis of constitutional law, which guarantees every Japanese the right to be tried by judges determined by law. The farmers were less interested in wa than in their property. They chose to take the fruits of Civilization and Enlightenment seriously, before such notions were buried forever under harmonious gush.
Toland/McGlynn (that the two are one is borne out by McGlynn’s tedious hobby-horse that Pearl Harbor was an American trick, Toland’s own theory) is opposed to the Tokyo Trial. This is a defensible position. If wartime cabinet ministers were hanged for their formal responsibility, even though some of them were clearly Shrines, the chief Shrine, Emperor Hirohito, surely should have been held accountable as well. And the fact that all the judges were from victorious nations did not exactly enhance the trial’s credibility. If the aim was to teach the Japanese, brainwashed by years of Shinto mumbo jumbo and militarism, a civics lesson, then the judges need not have bothered. As Shunsuke Tsurumi puts it in his rather thin collection of lectures, A Cultural History of Postwar Japan:
The War Crimes Trials, even in the most unfair cases, have seldom met with tenacious resentment from the Japanese people, even from the victims themselves. This seems to reveal an aspect of Japanese tradition and mentality. The trials were accepted like some unavoidable physical calamity. This does not mean, however, that the criterion of justice asserted in the trials was fully accepted.
Tradition and mentality? Well, perhaps. It would have been interesting to see how the Japanese people would have reacted if their former leaders had been tried in Japanese military or civil courts, the retrospective suggestion of the maverick historian Hata Ikuhiko. Hata believes that Tojo, for one, would have been found guilty on many counts. Among others: massacring civilians in Manchuria, inhuman treatment of his own troops, political blackmail of various wartime cabinets, and issuing orders to torture people he regarded as disloyal to himself.
Toland/McGlynn’s assessment of Tojo and his fellow militarists is somewhat different. “The Japanese militarists,” he concluded, “had been caught up in a medieval system and were primarily driven by dedication to their country. They wanted power for Nippon, not for themselves. And if that was true, why should Tojo be hanged?” Patriotism, even if that were Tojo’s only motivation, is a peculiar defense. But, then, Toland/McGlynn thinks Tojo was rather a good egg, a man who really wanted peace but was driven to war by Roosevelt’s trickery. “There were no heroes or villains on either side,” said McGlynn, which was “why he found the Tokyo trial so distasteful.” Separating heroes and villains, though, was not quite the point. The point was establishing responsibility.
Which takes us back to Maruyama’s “systems of irresponsibility.” Writing about the “forest of self-vindication planted by the defendants” in Tokyo, Maruyama saw “two clearly marked trials: submission to faits accomplis and refuge in one’s competence and jurisdiction.” At the trial, cabinet ministers and generals, with the notable exception of Tojo, behaved like timid bureaucrats. These were not swaggering thugs with a sneering contempt for bourgeois morality like the Nazi leaders, but highly educated men who cloaked their pusillanimity in fine moral terms. These were the Officials and Shrines who had allowed Outlaws to push them, and the rest of the world, into deeper and deeper trouble. Far from grabbing for their guns at the mention of culture, they talked incessantly about culture and let others grab the guns.
Maruyama quotes some marvelously telling transcripts from the trial. One concerns Marquis Kido Koichi, the man closest to the emperor in his capacity as Lord Privy Seal. Professor McGlynn knew him well as an honorable man. The exchange is between him and Joseph B. Keenan, the chief prosecutor:
Keenan: I would like to know, first, whether you continued to oppose the military alliance with Germany while you were a member of the Hiranuma Cabinet. It seems to me that could be answered generally, “yes” or “no.” If it cannot be, why, please tell me.
Kido: I myself was…continued to oppose this alliance, but the matter was investigated thoroughly in the Five Ministers Conference. It was in March that I first heard from the Foreign Minister regarding the progress of these investigations, and I felt that as an actual…that practically speaking, it was difficult to oppose this proposed measure since it had now entered the realm of actuality.
The realm of actuality. “I wanted the China Incident to be settled as quickly as possible,” said another defendant, “and as to whether I was for or against it, since the incident had already begun, I don’t think I can appropriately use either expression.” It was, as Maruyama points out, as if the Japanese leaders were constantly led by blind forces, things you can do nothing about, forces of nature as it were.
Is this cultural? Maybe Tsurumi has a point after all: the Tokyo Trial was accepted as an unavoidable physical calamity. Can this be explained by Buddhist fatalism, that famous Oriental shrug that some Westerners interpret as proof of great wisdom? Donald Richie, film critic, man of letters, and wit, has lived in Japan more or less permanently since the war. His latest book, Different People, consists of thumbnail sketches of Japanese he has known, some very famous, some not at all. A quality many of them share is precisely that Oriental shrug, a slightly more spiritual version of “another day, another dollar.”
My favorite scene in the book is of Richie, fresh off the boat in 1947, meeting the novelist Kawabata Yasunari in a raffish part of Tokyo called Asakusa, the setting of one of Kawabata’s most experimental novels.5 Neither man spoke the other’s language and they spent their time tossing the titles of favorite books back and forth. But what fascinated Richie most was Kawabata’s attitude to the devastation of his old stamping ground, literally reduced to ashes by B-52s. Kawabata was returning to it for the first time since the war. “He did not look sad. He looked interested, alert. Occasionally, however, he would point at something and sigh, and I would guess that a remembered landmark was missing.” Years later Richie reminded the great writer of this scene. Kawabata did not remember his impressions of the ruined city, but he could name the favorite authors they “discussed.” The last chapter concerns Richie’s neighbor, a Mrs. Watanabé. He sees her rushing to get to a subway train, only to miss it by seconds. She smiles. “I knew that what her smile represented had contributed to and been exploited by centuries of feudal rule; at the same time, I saw in it a token of another scale of values, an affirmation that went far beyond the ordinary concern with positive and negative.” So there we have it, the cultural meets the political.
It must have been quite a scene, indeed the stuff of better novels than Toland’s, this confrontation between a nation of bomb-shocked fatalists and the optimistic can-doers in MacArthur’s occupation headquarters, commonly known as SCAP. One of the latter was Theodore Cohen, a lifelong devotee of the New Deal. The title of his book, edited after the author’s death in 1983 by Herbert Passin, is as telling as Montgomery’s: Remaking Japan: The American Occupation as New Deal. Was Japan really remade as much as Cohen thought? How much of a new deal was the postwar occupation?
It promised a great deal. Political prisoners were released. Communists were given the chance to organize trade unions. The zaibatsu—the great family-controlled banking and industrial combines—were dismantled and a brand new constitution was handed down to the Japanese people, from a ruler almost as lofty as the Meiji emperor. “You’re the best in Japan!” shouted an appreciative fan to his favorite Kabuki actor striking a particularly effective pose in 1945. “You’re the best in the world!” bellowed another. “You’re MacArthur!” rang the ultimate praise from a third.6
Cohen’s sober descriptions of bureaucratic politics, in particular the continuous tug of war between SCAP’s New Dealers and the hard-line anti-Communists, are interesting, useful, and biased. Like many a good American story, Cohen’s has clearcut heroes and villains. The man wearing the blackest hat is MacArthur’s intelligence chief General Charles Willoughby, “Charles the Terrible.” Willoughby hated Communists. Cohen, in his eyes, was a kind of Commie, hanging out with labor activists and the like. The general tended to favor reactionary politicians and military types, the sort of people Cohen wanted to purge. Moreover, Willoughby spoke with a German accent.
But Charles the Terrible alone could not have effected what came to be known as The Great Reversal. The can-do New Deal promise to turn bad, feudal, militarist, imperialist, fascist Japan into an American democracy ran into the ground by 1947. Cohen describes the general strike of that year led by the Communists and thwarted by the American occupiers, as a watershed in the occupation:
Being hustled helplessly to the precipice in the name of the workers and the dramatic last-minute rescue by General MacArthur completely transformed the national mood. Suddenly, the Japanese people again became conscious of the need for limits.
The Japanese people and, more to the point, the Americans. “Democratization” became less important than a stable Japan in a region rocked by Communist revolution. China was “lost” in 1949 and a purge of Communists, fellow travelers, and other leftists was held in Japan in 1950. Japanese conservatives, most of them members of the ancien régime, were firmly back in power.
The Japanese left, understandably, never forgave America for what they saw as a gross betrayal of an earlier promise. Washington’s volte-face was (still is) blamed on cold-war politics. This doubtless played a role, though, like Japanese imperialism, Washington’s policies were not as monolithic or consistent as is popularly assumed. The rise of the Japanese conservatives was as much the result of American business interests, bureaucratic infighting, and sheer ignorance among the occupation officials as of hawkish ideology. Of enormous and lasting influence was the fact that the zaibatsu (minus their banks) were purged, while Japan’s wartime bureaucrats still remained very much in control. What the Americans evidently did not realize was that the zaibatsu, like the civilian politicians, were distrusted by the militarists; private enterprise is not considered a virtue in a warrior state.
In the epilogue of his book Montgomery points out the interesting fact that the Ministry of Munitions, which became the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in 1943, “emerged from the war with its position as economic overlord considerably strengthened.” It later became the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, or MITI, one of the most powerful institutions in postwar Japan, particularly in its ability to coordinate research and investment by the major companies.
Kishi Nobusuke, the man who helped to set up the colonial economy of Manchukuo, served in Tojo’s cabinet during the war, and organized Korean and Chinese slave labor for the Japanese coal mines, became prime minister in 1957, after serving a jail sentence as a class-A war criminal. He was a guiding hand behind the scenes until his death last summer. Other old hands to make a come-back included Fukuda Takeo, a former Manchukuo bureaucrat, who became prime minister in the 1970s, and Hatoyama Ichiro, education minister during the 1930s (“We don’t mind closing the universities altogether”), who served two terms as prime minister after the war. These men, aided by a brilliant bureaucracy, did what they knew best; they conceived and carried out an industrial policy aimed at indefinite expansion. This, probably more than the occupation labor policies of Cohen and his New Deal friends, was the engine of the Japanese Miracle.7 As for the forms of democracy handed down to the Japanese people by the can-do Americans, they were soon turned into something very Japanese: a de facto one-party state. And with Japanese security safely or unsafely in American hands, this meant, as the journalist K.G. van Wolferen argued persuasively in Foreign Affairs, that “the politicians abdicated their responsibilities that in the Western democracies are crucial for major policy adjustments.”8
If the left feels betrayed, so does the right. The Tokyo Trial, the handed-down Peace Constitution, and the enforced collapse of State Shinto, not to mention the secularization of the emperor, resulted in deep resentment. There exists a strong feeling among rightists that America deliberately made Japan a weak nation. It has even been argued, notably by a professor of comparative literature, that the Peace Constitution was framed by Jews, who had an antipathy to the state. A combination of Marxism and painful war memories helped keep the more extreme views under intellectual wraps for several decades, but it has become respectable again to speak of blood and soil mythology and to defend the record of the 1930s. Such thinkers as Professor Watanabe express their ideas in the best intellectual journals. What is worrying is the absence of criticism. No doubt the virtual collapse of Marxism has something to do with it. Many of the neo-nationalists are young. One of Hayashi Fusao’s most fervent admirers, a woman academic called Hasegawa Michiko, was born after the war. It was she who made the extraordinary statement that Japan’s wartime aggression was the influence of
the characteristically Western world view of dividing nations into friends and foes, and of behaving antagonistically toward enemies…. The Japanese determined never again to take up residence in the violent Western-style international community…. This “peaceful world view” adopted by each individual Japanese is the heart of a characteristically Japanese way of thought.
Well, I’m sure Toland’s novel will be required reading in her class.
But the noisiest postwar ideological battles are fought in education. The leftist Teachers’ Union has been the most consistent, though often rigidly dogmatic, watchdog against attempts to revive prewar mythology in schools. Consequently, the reactionary bureaucrats of the Ministry of Education believe that the Teachers’ Union has robbed the Japanese of their souls. From the conflict between the union and the ministry arose the controversy during the 1980s over textbook revisions and much talk of strengthening Japanese ethics in schools. Sound trucks with right-wing thugs demonstrate daily against the union. Two years ago Nakasone’s education minister, Fujio Masayuki, had to resign after his views on Japanese imperialism provoked Koreans into a frenzy.
None of this, alas, is adequately addressed in Merry White’s book on Japanese education.
What is most distinctively Japanese, aside from the evident culture of the school itself, is the consistency of concern for children: from daily care given by mothers, to the way the principal’s office is run, to the planners at the ministry of education.
This is, of course, the standard official line. When the Japanese distributors of Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor tried to cut the newsreel scenes of Japanese wartime atrocities in China, their stated reason was also “concern for the Japanese public.”
But then White’s book is not meant as an exercise of objective scholarship, and still less is it a work of serious criticism. She belongs firmly in the Harvard School of Learning From Japan as Number One. Which explains her views on the almost natural obedience of Japanese children. They are obedient to authority, we are told, because authority is soft and maternal. This is indeed the way power in Japan is usually exercised, but that does not make it less coercive, just less harsh. Children submit their individual needs to those of the group, argues White, because they like it that way. I wonder. “When the high schooler Yukio helps to organize the school’s sports day, he does not expect to benefit personally, but he does expect he will contribute to the glory of the class.” I have met quite a few Japanese schoolchildren. None of them was quite like Yukio. Indeed, Yukio reminds one of the Meiji-period woodblock prints of brave young soldiers sacrificing their lives for the emperor, or of group photos of smiling kamikaze pilots, who also supposedly did what they did because they wanted to, not because of peer pressure or coercion. Indeed, Japanese officials often expressed concern for them. Death was an honor.
This is not to say that Japanese school-kids should be seen as potential kamikaze fighters, but a little more skepticism toward official ideals would have been in order. The chief weakness of White’s book is that she leaves politics out of it. More is the pity, for education is precisely the sphere in which the connection between politics, national myths, and cultural tradition can be identified. Not that they can be completely separated, but an attempt must be made, for the alternative is simply to accept official dogma as “natural” or “cultural.”
White makes an important point, however, at the end of her book:
The Japanese have another advantage, which they have used well in past borrowings from the West. They are alert to the need to maintain their own cultural values and practices at the core of any new system adopted. They regard culture as an integral, dynamic part of their society and economy. For Americans bred on Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, culture is what’s left only after the market economy and attendant social mobility have worked their will.
The implications of this conclusion are interesting. For the problems between Japan and the outside world have so much to do with the market economy. As far as Washington is concerned, Japan is a free-market economy. Then why does it often refuse to behave like one? Culture? Politics? Both?
It has been suggested by Japanese officials as well as foreigners perplexed by the Japanese Miracle that Japanese consumers have a cultural aversion to buying foreign products. This, as anybody who has seen Japanese tour groups descend en masse upon Burberry’s, Louis Vuitton, and other foreign luxury stores can plainly see, is nonsense. The Japanese like foreign goods all right, but are forced to go abroad to buy them for reasonable prices. Trade barriers are obviously not in the Japanese consumer’s interests. But that is just the point. The personal inclinations of the Japanese public are less important than the harmonious myths that serve the interests of those who rule Japan. That most Japanese smile, shrug, and sacrifice their wants at the Shrine of Wa is one thing; to imagine that the rest of the world will do the same is quite another. For that we would all have to become Japanese, a prospect that probably would strike most real Japanese with horror.
March 17, 1988
Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period (Princeton University Press, 1985). ↩
These facts are from a wonderful book entitled The World of the Meiji Print: Impressions of a New Civilization, by Julia Meech-Pekarik (Weatherhill, 1986). ↩
David Bergamini, Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy (London: Heinemann, 1971). ↩
Masao Maruyama, Thought and Behaviour in Modern Japanese Politics, edited by Ivan Morris (Oxford University Press, 1963). ↩
Kawabata Yasunari, Asakusa Kurenaidan. ↩
Earle Ernst, The Kabuki Theatre (reprinted by The University Press of Hawaii, 1974). ↩
The best book on this subject remains MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925–1975, by Chalmers Johnson (Stanford University Press, 1982). ↩
Foreign Affairs, Winter 1986/7. ↩