Japan from the inside out

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Japan’s next prime minister?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 12, 2007

WANT TO TAKE BETS on who’s going to be Japan’s next prime minister? I just might put my money on Foreign Minister Aso Taro.

That’s not because of my political acumen or any inside information. I simply picked up the newspaper this morning and saw the advertisement at the bottom of page two. Aso has just released a book, titled Totetsumonai Nihon. (Translation off the top of my head: Japan the Tremendous, though there are several other possibilities.)

Aso has at least one thing in common with current office-holder Abe Shinzo: they’re the grandsons of former prime ministers. Aso’s forebear was Yoshida Shigeru, the head of government from 1946 to 1954 (except for a 17-month period), which encompassed most of the Allied occupation. His father-in-law was the late Suzuki Zenko, prime minister from 1980 to 1982

Naturally, the ad leads with a reference to Yoshida: “When I was a boy, my grandfather Shigeru Yoshida often said to me, ‘The Japanese people have tremendous energy. Japan will most certainly recover in the future. Japan is a tremendous country.’”

Following is my quick and dirty translation of six bulleted points from the book cited in the ad:

  • Japan is the time-tested champion of the universal value of peace.
  • Japan is a ‘wellspring of moral lessons‘ for Asia.
  • The otaku culture is the focus of global attention.
  • “Captain Tsubasa” gave rise to (Zinedine) Zidane and (Francesco) Totti.
  • The NEETs are not castoffs.
  • Japan’s aged population is the healthiest and wealthiest in the world.
  • China’s rise is a good thing.

(Quick explanations: Aso uses the word shinise, meaning a long-established shop or enterprise, which I rendered here as ‘time-tested champion’. Captain Tsubasa was a comic about soccer. Tsubasa means wing. NEET is an acronym coined in the UK that refers to people “not currently engaged in employment, education or training”. The expression has caught on in East Asia.)

Finally, printed as if it were a slogan accompanying his photo on the far left is the phrase, “Shouldn’t we try believing in the underlying strength of this country?”

Publishing a book is no guarantee that Aso will take the reins of government—opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro published at least three, and he’s never going to be prime minister (though he did pull the strings behind the scenes for a few years in the mid-90s).

But Abe Shinzo came out with his first book a year before assuming office. The title, Toward a Beautiful Country, became the slogan of his administration. Now one has to wonder if the Liberal Democratic Party is using Aso to hedge its own bets with Abe in case the Upper House election next month goes poorly. (The Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition party, is unlikely to take power during the intermediate term absent an LDP catastrophe and the Wizard of Oz returning to offer them a three-for-one deal on a brain, a heart, and courage.)

Considering some of his statements during his political career—not to mention some of the assertions made in the advertisement—an Aso administration would be entertaining, to say the least.

It also, alas, would provide column fodder for the usual torpedoes of the Western media and an outlet for the proliferation of weedpatch bloggers offering uninformed political commentary.

Posted in Books, Politics | Tagged: , | 16 Comments »

David Frum on Pei’s “China’s Trapped Transition”

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 5, 2007

AUTHOR AND COMMENTATOR David Frum provides a concise overview of Minxin Pei’s China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy. Frum writes:

Pei argues that almost all the current thinking about China’s development is wrong. China is not an overwhelming success story rapidly racing to economic parity with the United States. It is, he argues a society, on the verge of crisis.

While most policymakers are concerned with China’s growing economic and military prowess, Pei thinks China may instead be headed for stagnation. Frum continues:

A vicious cycle has been unleashed. The richer China grows, the more reluctant the ruling elite becomes to surrender power, because power has become so much more valuable. But the refusal to loosen the grip on power undermines China’s wealth, by creating unchecked incentives to the state’s agents to prey upon wealth creation…Pei suggests that China’s neoauthoritarian regime will soon exhaust its economic vitality.

Frum considers the book to be essential reading, but also warns that it is demanding of the reader.

If you’re unfamiliar with David Frum, by the way, you owe it to yourself to make his acquaintance. Judge Richard Posner says that he has one of the 100 most influential minds in the United States. His website is here.

Posted in Books, China | 2 Comments »

Crusading for rights without understanding them

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Naturalized citizen/gaijin activist Debito Arudou writes a self-congratulatory article in Japan Focus about how he led a movement to remove the magazine Gaijin Hanzai (Foreigner Crime) from store shelves.

The magazine, which I’ve never seen on a store shelf, seems more stupid than repellent. A detailed summary of its content is at the Japan Focus link.

DA states this magazine constitutes “hate speech” and violates the “rights” of foreigners. He also cites some UN treaties about hate speech to which Japan is a signatory. But he also notes:

Japan still has no laws or official guidelines regarding “hate speech”, particularly towards Japan’s ethnic minorities and international residents.

And I hope they never do. The very idea of any laws prohibiting “hate speech” is based on a grave misunderstanding of rights–in this case, the right to free speech.

Rights by definition are absolute, so it isn’t possible to for them to be in conflict. Therefore, the right to be free from people saying nasty things about someone and bruising their tender feelings is not a right at all, but a figment of the imagination.

Why the statutes of the UN, a nearly useless organization, should be cited as an authority on rights and hate speech is beyond comprehension. After all, they elected Libya as the chair of their human rights commission by secret ballot.

The activitists dealt with the magazine the right way, by threatening boycotts. There’s nothing wrong with that, assuming they think it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with, and it worked.

But if they really have deluded themselves into thinking a magazine violates some phantom rights, why don’t they just buy a bunch, stack them up in a vacant lot, and burn them in a public ceremony? That’s in keeping with the tradition they inherit.

Are we supposed to ban books just because someone somewhere might be offended? And what would be the standards for determining “hate speech”? They would inevitably be subjective and necessitate the use of Orwellian thought police.

It’s a tragedy that by descending to the use of the hate speech concept, antithetical to classical liberalism, these activitists have turned themselves into petit authoritarians. For that matter, in other similar causes, the idea of fighting for rights is really just boilerplate covering a secondary objective. The primary goal is to play Little Jack Horner: “He stuck in his thumb, pulled out a plum, and said ‘What a good boy am I’.” The idea is to feed their vanity and congratulate themselves on their moral superiority.

When it comes to the concept of rights, this group needs some serious self-reflection rather than the self-congratulation of the Japan Focus article. Forget about that muyo no chobutsu, the UN. They should go to a better source and read the American Bill of Rights.

Several times.

Posted in Books, Foreigners in Japan, Mass media | Tagged: | 96 Comments »

Britain’s “Operation Nipoff”

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 17, 2007

JAPAN IS repeatedly reminded by the Western media of its sins and brutal behavior during the Second World War. The comfort women story is just the latest of these; the stories of the Nanking Massacre in China and the Bataan Death March in the Philippines have been told for decades.

These were the stories told by the victors. We know some of the stories that have gotten glossed over in the West, such as the one about the Japanese prisoners held in equally brutal conditions in the Soviet Union for 11 years after the war. But what stories have the victors neglected to tell?

Some of the tales are starting to come out now. Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper have just published a book in Britain called Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire. The book is 674 pages long; they must have forgotten a lot of them. For example:

Two years after Japan surrendered in 1945, there were still some 80,000 Japanese prisoners of war in the hands of British South East Asia. General Douglas MacArthur wanted to repatriate them and dissolve Japan’s broken army, but Britain refused. It preferred cheap conscript labour and seemed to enjoy humiliating these legions of the lost. They existed on only half a normal PoW diet; men were routinely forced to kneel and beg their captors for food. Nearly 9,000 of them died of malnutrition or disease. The last remnants of ‘Operation Nipoff’, as it was malignly known, didn’t get home until as late as 1948.

One might try to excuse British behavior by arguing that they were just getting back at the Japanese for the earlier cruelties they suffered. But that is, after all, just an excuse; Japan had been literally flattened and burnt out in defeat and unconditionally surrendered. Revenge and the pound of flesh had already been taken.

Even more remarkable is the book’s tacit admission that despite its utter defeat, Japan managed to attain one of its war objectives:

The core of the Empire that seemed to make Britain great began at the end of the Suez Canal and ran as a gigantic arc through Asia. Japan’s aggression fractured that arc. But in 1945, London wanted to put the old world back together again….It thought we could go back to colonial business as usual. Even Attlee’s sainted government took time to realise that there could be no going back, that years in the shadow or grip of Tokyo control had changed hearts, minds and ambitions forever.

The Japanese started out with the intention of ending the European colonization of Asia (albeit replacing it with their own). Bayly and Harper seem to think they ultimately succeeded in ending European rule. The tragedy for everyone is the means by which that success was achieved.

NOTE: I read this review in the print edition of the Japan Times. It is not online at that site, because it originally appeared in The Observer. The review is available on the website of The Guardian, Britain’s premier newspaper of the Left. Unfortunately, however, the complete text is not on line. The link to The Guardian’s review is here. Please note that the book is about Britain’s involvement with Asia as a whole; there is not much more in the review about Japan specifically.

Add to: Facebook | Digg | | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Yahoo Buzz | Newsvine

Posted in Books, History, World War II | Tagged: | 81 Comments »

Mao’s Cultural Revolution: Fact is stranger than fiction

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 4, 2007

It’s a cliché that truth is stranger than fiction, but the book Mao’s Last Revolution, by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, and reviewed here by Andrew J. Nathan for the New Republic, turns that cliché back into a reality so strange that it renders fiction itself nearly pointless.


The Chinese themselves consider the Cultural Revolution to have been a “ten-year catastrophe” during which one official later said one hundred million people were killed, driven to suicide, beaten, convicted in “unjust, false, and erroneous cases,” “sent down,” or otherwise affected. To ensure that the reader treats that number as more than just a statistic, the authors include individual stories of the sort that only Orwell could attempt as fiction:

They quote from a series of three handwritten confessions by an interrogation victim who had to keep changing her story until she could satisfy her questioners that she had participated in a particular plot, even though she knew nothing about it. (In fact, the plot never existed.)

The authors describe the first four years of the ten-year period as:

a coup by Mao against the party: he calls up the masses to purge the leadership, then uses the army to demobilize the masses and puts his most loyal follower in the number two position.

This involved:

Party “work teams” (being) sent to “rectify” college campuses, Red Guards “smashing the four olds” (old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits of the exploiting classes), worker “rebels” “seizing power” in factories, Mao’s mobilization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to suppress factional fighting, his “sending down” of the Red Guards to labor with the peasants, his purge of second-in-command and head of state Liu Shaoqi and other leaders, the paralysis of the party apparatus and government bureaucracies, the establishment of army-dominated “revolutionary committees” to take over the running of the country, and society-wide persecutions against imaginary enemies.

But then in the second half of the ten-year period:

Mao undoes the involvement of the military in politics, gets rid of his newly designated successor, unravels his purges of some party leaders to reinstate civilian rule, and pushes his personality cult and ideology over the edge of self-parody into destruction.

The question, why did Mao do it? naturally arises. The authors present idealism and a power struggle as two reasons and suggest a third possibility: insanity.

To explain his ideals, the authors say Mao was disappointed with the Soviets:

…which he believed had created a privileged bureaucratic class that abandoned revolutionary ideals…Elsewhere the authors say that “the Cultural Revolution had always been about the rearing of revolutionary successors,” and that Mao sought to “temper” his successors in the “surging waves” of the mass movement because he believed that human nature could be remolded through struggle. The masses, he believed, “had to liberate themselves.”

While this captivated the imagination of many student radicals in the West, few had any inkling of how the perpetual revolutionary conducted his personal life:

Li Zhisui, in his memoir of his life as Mao’s personal physician, exposed the self-indulgent way Mao lived: his multiple villas, private trains, and serial mistresses; his personal cruelty to everyone around him; and his lack of interest in the suffering of the masses.

If anyone wondered whom Kim Jong-il used as a personal model, perhaps that question has now been answered.

The authors reveal the little-known information that Mao was by 1965 largely a convenient symbol in his own country, and suggest he launched the Cultural Revolution to regain his power:

Mao had been forced to cede most of the levers of power in the Chinese party-state after the failure of the Great Leap Forward. As of 1965, he did not control career promotions in the party, the government, or the economic units. He did not control the propaganda apparatus…(n)or did Mao control the making or implementing of policy in economics, education, or other key areas — with the significant exception of foreign policy. By all appearances, Mao in 1965 was a safely stowed figurehead who could be brought out on occasion as a symbol by other leaders advancing their own agendas. But he was not satisfied with that role…

While these two explanations are certainly plausible, one must also admit the possibility that Mao was a lunatic who did it because he could get away with it, and because he enjoyed it. Consider:

  • “Mao purges Lin Biao, rehabilitates and then re-purges Deng Xiaoping, denies Zhou Enlai treatment for a fatal cancer, empowers his wife Jiang Qing and three radical colleagues to launch a series of oblique political campaigns against other leaders, and designates an ill-qualified new successor, Hua Guofeng, whose rule was to last only a couple of years past Mao’s death.
  • “Mao was given to…remarks such as that China would do fine even if two-thirds of its population died in a nuclear war, and that the universe would survive even if the Earth were destroyed…(t)hey report him as saying: “This man Hitler was even more ferocious. The more ferocious the better, don’t you think?”…At one happy private occasion, Mao offered this toast: “To the unfolding of nationwide all-round civil war!””
  • “First he ordered local military units to “support the left,” then he ordered officers to undertake self-criticism for doing so. First he encouraged the leftist acolytes Wang Li, Guan Feng, and Qi Benyu to promote “dragging out a small handful in the military,” then he ordered their arrest for being too radical. Over and over MacFarquhar and Schoenhals show that no one understood what Mao wanted. “After the session, the minister of education … said to his colleagues, ‘Now I am very confused.'”

The Cultural Revolution may have died more than a quarter of a century ago, but troubling aspects still survive in contemporary China, despite the wishes of some who think otherwise. The authors point out:

At home, people are not allowed to commemorate Mao’s horrors, because the current leaders sustain their regime through the same internal secrecy and arbitrary repression that made the Cultural Revolution possible…. The dominant voices among independent intellectuals in China today belong not to liberal democrats and human rights activists, but to so-called neo-conservatives and neo-leftists who believe that even though Mao’s revolution failed (through a combination of his mistakes and Western cultural and economic subversion), the search for a distinctive Chinese model should continue.

Another contemporary cliché is that the 21st century will be the Chinese century. While there are many reasons to suspect that won’t happen, we should all hope that idea is a transient fiction rather than a fact on the cusp of realization.

Posted in Books, China, History | 2 Comments »

Kamikazes: How many were really volunteers?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 30, 2007

MORE THAN 60 YEARS after the sudden appearance and even more abrupt departure of the so-called kamikaze pilots of World War II, misconceptions about the pilots themselves still prevail overseas. Some still assume the pilots were fanatical volunteers eager to sacrifice their lives for the Emperor and save the nation by flying their aircraft into American ships–hence the use in English of the word kamikaze to mean someone conducting an enterprise so recklessly they are unconcerned about death.

The Japanese, of course, know how little of this corresponds to the truth. They’re well aware of how much fiction exists in the idea of soldiers willing to die for the emperor and selfless pilots so dedicated to their country that they enthusiastically stepped forward to join the tokkotai.

A recently published book, Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers, by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, might help rectify these misconceptions.

Then again, perhaps not…

The confusion starts with this review of the book by Donald Richie in the Japan Times (registration required), titled “Involuntary Students of Death”. Richie covers the main points adequately enough. But he also seems to believe that a book review is a chance to flog his own ideas in a public forum. Unfortunately, his ideas are detrimental to an adequate presentation of the book. Here’s the first sentence:

“War flourishes through caricature and some of these wartime creations live on long after their political usefulness is over.”

We understand the point he’s trying to make—that the reality of the kamikaze pilots was very different from their image among the Allied forces and the public—but in regard to the Second World War, this sentence is just meaningless.

Does he really think caricatures of the enemy were “politically useful” because the soldiers and general public from which they were drawn in the United States and Europe would have been ambivalent about or hostile to the war had they not existed? Does he really think that the people creating those caricatures didn’t believe them to be factual at the time? Does he really think that Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Bugs and Daffy kicking the heinies of Hitler, Himmler, and a buck-toothed, bespectacled Hirohito kept the fighting going long after it should have ended?

In the middle of the review, he says:

“The grinning caricature that for a time symbolized (the pilots) was perhaps as welcome to the Japanese military as it was to the Allied propagandists.”

The more I read this sentence, the more insulting Richie’s presumption masquerading as erudition becomes. When Richie asserts that this caricature was welcome to “Allied propagandists”, he is clearly trying to state that the Allies required propaganda in the form of caricature to continue an unnecessary war. I share Richie’s detestation for the ugly caricatures of the Japanese that did exist during the war, but caricatures were not the motivating force, neither for the American military seeking to avenge Pearl Harbor, nor for the Japanese soldiers seeking to drive European colonialists out of Asia.

Richie probably thinks he saved his best for last:

“Now, as nations plainly prepare for the commercial advantages of World War III, it is salutary to listen to this moved and outraged voice as she…”

I’m sorry, but I refuse to finish typing in a sentence this sophomoric in every sense of the word.

Fortunately, however, a website exists that presents Ohnuki-Tierney in her own words, and the information she wishes to convey about the student pilots of the tokkotai. Even more fortunately, another website put together by Bill Gordon reveals Ohnuki-Tierney’s historical errors, general sloppiness, and falsehoods. Gordon’s site about the kamikaze is so good, in fact, that people interested in the subject should take the time to view all of it. I’ve added it to the list of Japan-related sites at the left.

Here’s an overview of both.


  • The modernization of the Japanese military that began in the second half of the 19th century included rules that made surrender or escape punishable by death.
  • Disobedience was punishable by immediate execution. The objective was to encourage servicemen to die for the emperor.
  • Disciplinary beatings of Japanese soldiers were commonplace; sometimes this was in fact the maltreatment of lower-ranking personnel whom higher-ranking personnel disliked.
  • The tokkotai pilots were forced to volunteer, and none “wholeheartedly espoused the emperor-centered military ideology”.
  • “Not a single officer who had been trained at the military academies volunteered to sortie as a pilot.”
  • “Of the approximately four thousand tokkotai pilots, about three thousand were so-called boy pilots, (and) roughly one thousand were “student soldiers,” university students whom the government graduated early in order to include them in the draft.”
  • “None of these manned weapon systems (submarines as well as aircraft) was equipped with any means of returning to base”
  • Most of the pilots volunteered due to such factors as peer pressure or feelings of solidarity for other pilots who had already died. Some pilots who did not volunteer found that their superior officers had volunteered them to ensure a 100% rate. Other pilots were “volunteered” by superior officers who disliked them.

Gordon’s website, Kamikaze Images

  • The book is largely a remake of Ohnuki-Tierney’s previous book, Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms, published in 2002. Her new book includes several paragraphs from the first book that have been edited and rearranged. The publisher of both books, the University of Chicago Press, does not tell readers in advance of the duplicated material.
  • “The title of Kamikaze Diaries does not accurately describe the contents.” The book covers the writings of seven student soldiers, but only three were kamikaze pilots. Most of the writings of two of these pilots date from either before they became kamikaze pilots, or before they joined the military. Half of the writings of the third are not diary entries, but letters to family and friends.
  • “The third endorsement quotation (on the book cover) states that ‘during World War II, not a single graduate of their military academies volunteered for one-way bombing missions’ (also implied on pp. 1-2), but in actuality about 160 Naval Academy and about 180 Army Air Corps Academy graduates died in special attack missions.”
  • “The inside front cover starts with a quotation from Irokawa Daikichi, who is introduced as one of the many kamikaze pilots, or tokkotai. However, the book’s text does not include this quotation, and Irokawa did not serve as a kamikaze pilot.”
  • “Chapter 4 introduces two brothers, Matsunaga Shigeo and Matsunaga Tatsuki, who fought with the Japanese Army in China and who died in November 1938 and 1944 (no month given), respectively. Both may have died even before Vice Admiral Ohnishi organized the first kamikaze squadron in October 1944.”
  • “Chapter 1’s 31 pages on Sasaki Hachiro include only about seven pages of his actual writings.”
  • “Several of the author’s claims related to Japan’s tokkotai are incorrect. She states, ‘None of these manned weapon systems was equipped with any means of returning to base’ (p. 1)…. (but) planes and explosive motorboats not only could but frequently did return to base for various reasons such as bad weather, mechanical problems, or not being able to locate the enemy.” (Ampontan note: The author herself mentions in the introduction the Waseda graduate who was shot after returning nine times when he couldn’t find the enemy.)
  • “The author incorrectly uses “Demizu” as the name for “Izumi” Naval Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture.”
  • “She introduces a long quotation as a description of “the night before their final flights” of tokkotai pilots from Tsuchiura Naval Air Base (p. 9), but no tokkotai pilots made a final sortie from this air base.”
  • “She states, ‘A single cherry blossom was painted in pink on a white background on both sides of the tokkotai airplane…’ (p. 29). In reality, tokkotai airplanes did not have a cherry blossom painted on each side…”
  • While Ohnuki-Tierney suggests that none of the kamikaze pilots were very willing to go on their missions, one pilot, Hayashi Ichizo, a devout Christian (!) wrote to his mother: “… I am happy to go as a tokkotai pilot….I will do a splendid job sinking an enemy aircraft carrier…I read the Bible every day…I will sing a hymn as I dive on an enemy vessel…”
  • “Most chapters do not provide any idea about how young Japanese men felt after they joined the tokkotai dedicated to suicide attacks, since more than half of the pilots introduced in the book were not tokkotai members. Even in the three chapters that discuss tokkotai pilots, the focus is their intellectual development prior to joining the military rather than a depiction of life in the military and in a tokkotai squadron.”

Ampontan sez:

  • The author claims that no one willingly volunteered, which doesn’t seem plausible. All the pilots were raised in an era of heavy propaganda—and someone always buys into propaganda. Richie would have us believe that the era was saturated by propaganda on both sides, but the student pilots of Japan weren’t having any of it. See Gordon’s website for a good discussion of both the Japanese motivations for volunteering and Allied misconceptions of the kamikaze pilots.
  • The author says: “In Japan, the military government left no room for political or guerrilla resistance movements like those in Germany, France, and other countries ruled or occupied by fascists.” I’m not sure which is more astonishing: that she would lump Germany and France into the same category, or her implication that the Third Reich “left room” for political resistance movements.
  • “The determination to combat the egotism brought forth by capitalism and modernity was a major element of the students’ idealism.” In a book whose premise is the coercion used to get pilots to volunteer for kamikaze missions, it’s odd that the author would claim one reason the student pilots volunteered was an antipathy toward capitalism. Considering the intellectual leanings of American university professors in general, however, perhaps it’s not so odd after all.
  • “Any soldier who refused would become persona non grata or be sent to the southern battlefield, where death was guaranteed.” That’s no explanation for volunteering for kamikaze duty. If I had to calculate the odds of my survival based on a choice between (a) climbing into an airplane and flying it into an American warship, and (b) being issued a rifle and sent into combat, I’d pick (b) without hesitation every time. Is that really so hard to figure out—even for a woman with no military experience?
  • I understand that Ohnuki-Tierney’s objective is to examine how educated college students came to put into practice an ideology most did not share by being coerced to volunteer for suicide. Yet one cannot help but wonder how interested the author would have been in the virulence of Japanese militarism and its ramifications had the kamikaze pilots consisted solely of people who were garbage men, barbers, and udon/soba shop proprietors in civilian life.
  • The author fails to consider that because Japanese university students majoring in the liberal arts received draft deferments until late 1943, many of those in school who were subsequently drafted and became kamikaze pilots likely enrolled in school to save their own necks rather than to ponder the intricacies of Kant and Nietzsche. Indeed, as is shown in the movie Wings of a Man, some professional baseball players took advantage of draft deferments for college enrollment by playing baseball during the day and studying at night. A severe case of resentment might well explain the military veterans’ brutal treatment of those who had college deferments. It certainly wouldn’t be unique to Japan.
  • No discussion of kamikaze pilots is complete without reference to the traditional Japanese attitude toward suicide in general and their attitude toward the self-sacrifice of soldiers taking action in wartime against a superior enemy. Gordon notes that these actions are not really considered suicidal by the Japanese.
  • Death for disobeying orders was nothing new in Japan. Failure to disobey the order of a samurai had been punishable by immediate execution for centuries among the civilian population. This background, both in an earlier era and during the war, might bring some perspective to the Japanese attitude toward and treatment of enemy soldiers who were captured or surrendered.
  • Some people think that bullying in Japanese schools is caused by the examination system. What this book may show indirectly is that bullying has long been a part of the vertically-structured Japanese society. Women have been guilty of this, too: the expression yome-ibiri refers to the mistreatment meted out by women toward their daughters-in-law, particularly when the young married couple lives with the husband’s parents. Indeed, from a long-range perspective, Ohnuki-Tierney’s book may also indirectly demonstrate that this aspect of Japanese society is actually improving.
  • A comparison of Donald Richie’s review with the excerpt of the book reveals that a large chunk of his article—for which I’m sure he was paid—was lifted in toto from Ohnuki-Tierney’s introduction without attribution. Elsewhere in the article, however, he specifically cites the author and properly quotes passages. Is this not plagiarism?
  • Do not misunderstand: The book does have an important theme. Emperor worship was not as extensive as some people believe, and not all kamikaze pilots were willing volunteers. It also sheds some perhaps unintended light on non-military issues that Japan still faces today. But in view of Ohnuki-Tierney’s surprising disregard for accuracy, the material would have been better served had it been handled by a competent historian with a deeper understanding of Japanese culture. And considering that Richie seems to have gone over the falls of reality in a barrel, the Japan Times review could have been better presented by someone with a more relevant academic background and whose reputation has not gone to his head.

    I’ve spent the better part of my adult life trying to convince both Westerners and Japanese that they aren’t all that different from each other. Also, translating is my profession. Therefore, I can honestly say I was moved by Ohnuki-Tierney’s translation of an account by a man who saw the parties of the kamikaze pilots on the night before their missions. It is instantly understandable on a human level. Speaking personally, it is one of the most valuable translated documents I have ever seen. If for nothing else, Ohnuki-Tierney is to be commended for presenting it in English:

    “At the hall where their farewell parties were held, the young student officers drank cold sake the night before their flight. Some gulped the sake in one swallow; others kept gulping down [a large amount]. The whole place turned to mayhem. Some broke hanging light bulbs with their swords. Some lifted chairs to break the windows and tore white tablecloths. A mixture of military songs and curses filled the air. While some shouted in rage, others cried aloud.

    “It was their last night of life. They thought of their parents, their faces and images, lovers’ faces and their smiles, a sad farewell to their fiancées—all went through their minds like a running-horse lantern [a rapidly revolving lantern with many pictures on it]. Although they were supposedly ready to sacrifice their precious youth the next morning for imperial Japan and for the emperor, they were torn beyond what words can express—some putting their heads on the table, some writing their wills, some folding their hands in meditation, some leaving the hall, and some dancing in a frenzy while breaking flower vases. They all took off wearing the rising sun headband the next morning.

    “But this scene of utter desperation has hardly been reported. I observed it with my own eyes, as I took care of their daily life, which consisted of incredibly strenuous training, coupled with cruel and torturous corporal punishment as a daily routine.”

    Posted in Books, History, World War II | Tagged: | 2 Comments »