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 should ponder moment by moment…. We need not fear even air attacks. The sky of our thought has been cleared of England and America.

This image of clearing skies, of clouds being lifted, is common in poems and diaries written at the time of Pearl Harbor. One reason is that the skies had been far from clear in the low decade of bloody campaigns in China that preceded it. The feeling was common that on December 8, 1941, Japan was at last fighting the real enemy. Whereas the war in China, officially designated in 1937 as the “China Incident,” felt ignoble and deeply hypocritical, with all the propaganda of liberating Asia barely concealing mass murder, taking on the “Anglo-American beasts” felt like a noble, even glorious enterprise.

There was a racial element in this, born of a sense of cultural humiliation, experienced more strongly, perhaps, by intellectuals, especially Westernized intellectuals, than by most other Japanese. The greatest Japanese writer of the early twentieth century, Natsume Soseki (1867–1916), had warned his countrymen in 1914 that the speed and intensity of modernization along Western lines would lead to a collective nervous breakdown. In 1941, the breakdown appears to have been complete. Ito Sei (1905–1969), a poet and novelist who translated Lady Chatterley’s Lover after the war, wrote on December 9, 1941:

This war is not an extension of politics or another face of politics. It is a war we had to fight at some stage in order for us to believe firmly, from the depths of our hearts, that the Yamato race is the most superior on the globe…. We are the so-called “yellow race.” We are fighting to determine the superiority of a race that has been discriminated against. Our war is not the same as Germany’s. Their war is a struggle among similar countries for advantage. Our war is a struggle for a predestined confidence.

And Ito, as Keene remarks, did not consider himself to be a fanatic (nor, clearly, was he very well informed about Nazi Germany). What his words reveal, of course, is a crippling lack of confidence, a feeling of humiliation that had turned lethal. In most cases, this wasn’t lasting—at least not the lethal aspect. Yamada’s overwrought cries for revenge, as late as 1946, were rare. Ito, as well as Yoshida, became a friend of Donald Keene, and spent a year at Columbia University on Keene’s recommendation.


Keene first came across wartime diaries, by Japanese soldiers, as a US Navy translator. These were often far from fanatical, or even particularly ideological. In Keene’s words:

Reading the moving descriptions of the hardships suffered by men who probably died on some atoll in the South Pacific soon after writing the last entry made me feel a closeness to the Japanese greater than any book I had read, whether scholarly or popular.

Why, then, did he decide to concentrate on the accounts left behind by well-known literary figures? Keene’s main reason is that they were simply better written than most. “The surviving diaries by ‘unknown’ Japanese,” he writes, “tend to be repetitious because the writers usually lacked the literary skill to make their experiences distinctive.” Besides, as he also explains, one can’t read all the diaries of the time. So one might as well stick to real writers.

This raises a question upon which Keene does not choose to dwell: How representative were writers and intellectuals? Did they simply express popular feeling with greater skill? Or were their views and emotions perhaps too distinctive to illuminate what was in the thoughts and feelings of most “unknown” Japanese? There is no watertight answer to this question, of course. For it is impossible to know what most people really thought at a time when expressing the unorthodox, even in diaries, could have dire consequences. The Thought Police, as well as one’s neighbors and other busybodies, were constantly prowling around for subversive or defeatist elements.

Keene makes the important point that ultranationalism was not necessarily the result of provincialism or ignorance about the outside world. On the contrary, it was often precisely the people who had been most exposed to foreign experience who became the most rabid promoters of bellicose propaganda. In some cases this might be ascribed to disillusion: the idealistic worshiper of Western literature being offended in Europe or the US by social slights or mere indifference. The same phenomenon sometimes occurs in reverse, as it were: the ardent Japanophile who blames Japan for not fulfilling unrealistic expectations.

Offense taken could explain the case, mentioned by Keene, of the poet and sculptor Takamura Kotaro (1883–1956). He adored the works of Rodin and studied in Paris, New York, and London, where he made friends with the potter Bernard Leach. He wrote disparaging poems about his fellow Japanese, which can only be described as racist: “Small-minded, self-satisfied/Monkey-like, foxlike, squirrel-like, gudgeon-like, minnow-like, potsherd-like, gargoyle-faced Japanese!” This was published in 1911. Here are some lines from another poem, written in 1914, inspired by Leach: “My friend of the Anglo-Saxon race I respect and love!/My friend of the race/That produced Shakespeare and Blake….” And this: “I became an adult in Paris./In Paris too I first touched the opposite sex,/And in Paris first found a liberation of my soul….”1

And yet, even then, the exultation was mixed with darker feelings. Takamura wrote in a letter (unsent) that “even amid the shouts of joy of Paris,” he suffered every day “an anguish that is bone-deep.” He couldn’t understand “the white race.” And the racial, as is so often the case, became sexual:

Even while I am embracing a white woman I cannot help wondering if I am not embracing a stone, hugging a corpse. I have often longed to drive a knife deep into a pure-white, waxen breast.[^ ]:

So Takamura’s reaction to Pearl Harbor does not come as a complete surprise:

Remember December eighth!
On this day the history of the world was changed.
The Anglo-Saxon powers
On this day were driven back on East Asian land and sea,
It was their Japan that drove them back,
A tiny country in the Eastern Sea,
Nippon, the Land of the Gods
Ruled over by a living god.

The point here is not the particular quasi-religious mania that is being espoused in this poem. What is interesting—and not limited to Japan—is the deep longing among certain writers and intellectuals to identify with a people, a cause, or a faith. This longing was especially acute among Japanese writers who came back to Japan from Western sojourns in the early twentieth century terrified of being marginalized, or even cast out, for being deracinated, for having lost the purity of their Japaneseness. They needed to rid themselves of the taint of cosmopolitanism. This lends an edge of hysteria to the writings of such figures as Takamura or Noguchi Yone (father of the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi), which might not have been quite so prevalent among more ordinary Japanese.


One should always be wary of comparisons that sweep too broadly across different cultures and times, but it might not be too far-fetched to detect a comparable psychology at work in highly educated American intellectuals who express a deep admiration for Sarah Palin. Posing as the voice of the “real” people (as Palin might put it) is comforting, and often a bid for power. Thinking for oneself can be a lonely business. In wartime Japan it was also quite dangerous.

For Japanese, born in a relatively isolated country at a time when the cultural inferiority of Asians was widely assumed, even among many Asians themselves, the hunger for identification with the nation, or “race,” and for proof of their superiority was especially sharp. Such feelings are not unique or even hard to understand. What is more difficult to fathom is how intelligent, educated people could justify intellectually their sudden switches from worldly cosmopolitanism to chauvinistic mania, and then, just as suddenly, back to liberalism after Japan’s defeat in 1945.

Some writers never joined this roller-coaster ride, to be sure. Keene quotes extensively from the justly celebrated diaries of the great short-story writer Nagai Kafu (1879–1959). Kafu (Japanese commonly refer to him by his first name, as a sobriquet) despised the militarists in the 1930s and had nothing good to say about nationalist propaganda during the war: “This is a case of inept sentiments in inept language.” Kafu, like Noguchi and Takamura, had lived abroad, in the US and France,2 and was an expert in French literature and a lover of French wines and Scotch whisky, the supplies of which, to his great annoyance, ran out during the war. He lost his house and all its contents in a bombing raid. But he never blamed the foreign enemies for the destruction of his country. December 31, 1944: “It’s entirely the doing of the [Japanese] military. Their crimes must be recorded for all time to come.”

The poet and novelist Ito Sei, who translated Lady Chatterley’s Lover after the war, with his son in Tokyo, 1936

One reason Kafu retained his cool was his utter disinterest in being a joiner. Although he came from a well-off family, had early literary success, and taught French literature at a first-rate university, Kafu had already turned his back on the academic and literary worlds before the 1920s. He was happiest in the company of strippers, prostitutes, and geisha. His reputation as a distinguished eccentric settled, Kafu could afford an attitude of sardonic detachment.

There were a few others, quoted by Keene, who shared Kafu’s disdain for militarist posturing from the beginning. Watanabe Kazuo (1901–1975), professor of French at Tokyo Imperial University, was one. He cursed “those who have swelled our people’s pride. This is the source of all our unhappiness.” Kiyosawa Kiyoshi, a journalist, who had been partly educated and had worked in the US, was another.3 The most interesting diaries, however, are by writers who expressed doubts, while still going along with the prevailing mood. Their risky introspection exposes the tension between the natural skepticism of a thinking person and the desire to escape from isolation and join the crowd.

Takami Jun (1907–1965) was such a man. Like Kafu, Takami found inspiration for his pre-war writings in the raffish milieu of Tokyo’s plebeian pleasure districts. If Kafu’s lyrical descriptions expressed a nostalgia for fading or already long-faded brothel areas, Takami’s stories celebrated the lives of common people in contemporary Tokyo. It is as though, in his imagination at least, he wished to be one of them. In 1933, he had been tortured by the police as a suspected Communist. During the war, Takami traveled to China and Southeast Asia as an army correspondent. Not a fanatical nationalist like Ito or Noguchi, he identified with the suffering and fortitude of ordinary people, though not so much, it must be said, of ordinary Chinese or Southeast Asians.

When the war ended, an event that Kafu celebrated by drinking into the night with friends, Takami wrote:

I was not one who wished for the defeat of Japan. I am not happy about the defeat. I wanted Japan to win somehow, and to this end exerted my meager strength in my own way. Now my heart is filled with great sorrow. It is filled with love of Japan and the Japanese.

At the same time, Takami was happy that writers could express themselves more freely again. Despite his patriotism, he had always loathed the censorship and other restrictions of militarist authoritarianism. As soon as the war was over, he analyzed the reasons why he had failed to resist it. It is one of the clearest and most honest testimonies to the anguish of being a thinking person living under dictatorship that I have read:

I would not say now that my work up to the present has been a total lie, but I can say that under the restrictions, which grew worse by the day, I wrote nothing that was not a product of self-deception, a soothing of my conscience, a forcing of myself to go forward in a direction not in my heart, an endurance with clenched teeth.

And yet his very sense of relief, even joy, about freedom regained made him feel ashamed, as though he were betraying his long-suffering compatriots. “During the war,” he wrote,

things were so terrible, what with the indiscriminate pressure against freedom of speech, the despotism of some Japanese…that I often thought that if we won the war it would be terrible…. But now that I am confronted with the reality of defeat, I cannot but be ashamed of those feelings of mine.

The reality of defeat, especially among male Japanese, provoked all the old feelings of humiliation that blended the sexual with the racial: the sight of Japanese women, by no means all prostitutes, flinging themselves at tall, well-fed, smartly dressed American soldiers for a pack of Lucky Strikes or a pair of silk stockings; the swaggering GIs taking up all the seats on overcrowded trains; and so on. Kafu, as usual, took all this in his stride, and expressed his characteristic interest in the going rates for sex in the new pleasure districts catering to foreign troops. Observing some American officers trying to speak a little Japanese to a bar girl at a Tokyo hotel, he contrasted their courtesy to the thuggish behavior of Japanese officers in China.

Takami, too, wrote about the way local women took to the alien occupiers. Less detached (or indeed prurient) than Kafu, he was shocked at first when he saw a Japanese woman carrying on with her American lover at a railway station, publicly, loudly, without any embarrassment. A seemingly ordinary woman, she looked “proud to behave shockingly with an American soldier even when surrounded by watching eyes. Such sights might, unexpectedly soon, cease to seem unusual.” But then Takami thinks again: “It would actually be a good thing if that happened very soon. Best of all would be a deluge of such sights. It would be good training for the Japanese!”

This, as Keene points out, was not a common reaction. As he says:

For most Japanese men (including Takami a short while earlier), the sight of a Japanese woman behaving immodestly with an American soldier was the least welcome feature of the Occupation.

This was no doubt true, but most Japanese took to the freedoms installed by the unexpectedly benign Allied occupation with gusto: suffrage for women, the relatively free press (relative because criticism of the Allied occupiers, or even the US itself, was banned), democratic education, scenes of kissing in the movies, jazz music, independent labor unions, land reform, and much more. In fact, the speed with which Japanese turned from emperor-worshiping chauvinism to Yankee-style demokurashii shocked some intellectuals and was another source of shame. Why did it take a horrendous military defeat and a foreign occupation to liberate the Japanese? Why couldn’t they have done it themselves? Was the very alacrity of change not a sign that freedom in Japan was just skin-deep?

Here is Takami:

When I think back to the fact that freedom, which naturally should have been given by the people’s own government, could not be given, and instead has been bestowed for the first time by the military forces of a foreign country occupying their own, I cannot escape feelings of shame.

Yamada Futaro, the same man who called for vengeance after the defeat, watched the transformation of his country with a degree of skepticism, precisely because he himself had allowed irrational passions to cloud his better judgment during the war:

I suppose that the new tone in the newspapers will soon completely change the Japanese view of the war and their view of the world. The more fervently a man embraced supralogical thought up to now, the more he will be engulfed in the new wave, and he will lose himself in it because it stems from emotionally the same temperament.—The same human being who thought of enemy soldiers as demons and who ran about frantically killing them, before a year has passed will look on himself as a world criminal and begin to feel blind faith in “peace” or “culture.”

One sees what he means. And Yamada was not entirely wrong. But this cannot be entirely right either. The “temperament” that embraces personal and political freedoms is not quite the same as the collective hysteria of a people at war, who would be cruelly punished for any sign of nonconformism. The comforts, such as they are, of conformity in a dictatorship don’t stem from quite the same source as the sometimes more testing challenges of freedom.

It is also a little too flattering to the American occupiers to view the transformation of postwar Japan as a kind of religious conversion. Many Japanese had been fighting for almost a century for more democratic institutions, freedom of expression, and social equality. For much of the 1920s, the Japanese government, though far from being perfectly democratic, was more liberal than any other government in Asia, almost all of which was ruled by colonial regimes. What embarrassed Takami, Yamada, and other writers was probably not just that intellectuals had been unable, or unwilling, to stop their country from sliding into militarism (and indeed quite willing to promote it), but the added humiliation that they played a less important part in the democratic restoration than they might have wished.

For it was not just “the military forces of a foreign country” that liberated the Japanese. Much of the credit for this must also go to Japanese politicians, activists, bureaucrats, schoolteachers, and labor union leaders. One of the lessons of the postwar changes in Japan, and West Germany, is that “democratization” cannot work without the active participation of able local elites and the consent of the majority of “unknown” people. Writers, artists, scholars, and journalists can contribute something, to be sure. Watanabe Kazuo, the professor of French, was not wrong to castigate his fellow intellectuals in 1945 for their lack of moral backbone under militarism. Of course he was right to say that “intellectuals should be strong and courageous in order to protect the freedom to think and the integrity of thought.”

But it is a common feature of intellectuals everywhere to overrate their own political importance. More depressing, however, is the fact that writers and scholars, regardless of their superior literary skill or knowledge, are no less prone to following fashions and promoting their rulers’ vain and destructive campaigns for national or military glory than other people. As Keene has demonstrated in his admirable book, this was certainly true of Japanese intellectuals in the dark years of the last century. But it is a lesson from which intellectuals in other countries, often operating under far less difficult circumstances, can derive equal profit.

This Issue

October 14, 2010