Wednesday, December 14, 2005

November 23, 1942 archives: a book review

If the Japanophiles of yesteryear had their way, my Japanese language skills would be like my Korean skills, and my Korean language skills would be like my Japanese skills.

It's interesting to note that Yasukuni Shrine and finger-chopping were in the news way back in the 1930s and the 1940s. Plus large books were only three bucks.

Japan's Collective Führer


With the possible exception of Joseph Clark Grew, there is no one as well qualified to explain the Japanese to Americans as Hugh Byas. Ambassador Grew spent ten years in Japan, Hugh Byas spent 36. Both loved the Japanese and were apparently loved by them. Both prefer facts to hysteria.

As Tokyo correspondent of the two most formidably restrained newspapers in the world, the London Times and the New York Times, Hugh Byas could afford not to be a hawker of sensations. In late years it was a rare sight to see the red-faced Scot walk with his heavy cane into the lobby of the Imperial Hotel and sit down with the rumor factors there. He never rushed down to Yokohama to find a friend in the saloon of a luxury liner and ask him to smuggle out an item that would burn up the mails. He always quoted sources, never "informed circles." The only ruse of which he was guilty while he was in Japan was the one by which he got his voluminous files out of Japan.

Those files and his Scots honesty make this book the best on Japan since his own The Japanese Enemy (TIME, May 25).

Thesis on Guilt.
The book, paradoxically, is sensational. There are passages about political thuggery which should give American readers the sort of creeps provided by the crazy chapter in Mein Kampf entitled Development of the N.S.G.W.P. (about the first mass meetings of the early Nazis). But Hugh Byas puts sensationalism to work. He makes it document a thesis: guilt for the Pacific war lies not with the Emperor Myth, not with the destiny-drugged Japanese people, not even with murderous fanatics like the members of the Black Dragon, but almost entirely with the Japanese Army & Navy. From that thesis, Byas reasons his way to the clearest and fairest proposals yet advanced for peace in the Pacific.

Persuasion by Thuggery.
Late one Sunday afternoon in May, 1932, nine naval and military officers between 24 and 28 years old got out of two taxis at the side entrance of Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to Japan's war dead. They were typical "young officers," men with masklike faces. In the shrine they doffed their caps, clasped hands, bowed stiffly. Then they piled back into their cabs and drove to the official residence of the Premier of Japan.

They went about their business as ineptly as a gang of urchins playing cops & robbers. They asked a police sergeant to show them the Premier's private apartments. He refused. The young men got lost in the echoing hallways. A group of three or four other men appeared; the young officers fired in their general direction; the men fled. Some one heard a key turning in a keyhole. Part of the group stormed the door, broke it down, and came on the Prime Minister, a tiny, alert man of 75, and his daughter-in-law, holding a baby. The Prime Minister calmly invited them into the room, lit a cigaret and started a polite conversation.

Another group, led by a Lieutenant Masayoshi Yamagishi, a man of action, burst in. "No use talking," said Yamagishi. "Fire!" One assassin shot Inukai in the neck, another in the stomach. They all ran out and hurried to police headquarters, armed with pistols and grenades, expecting a fight. The place was empty. They drove to the Bank of Japan, threw a grenade at the door. Then they went to the military gendarmerie and surrendered.

Persuasion in Court.
Their trial brought out the young officers' reasons for the assassination. They hoped to strike terror in capitalist and governing classes and bring about martial law, which they believed would be equivalent to military dictatorship. For a while they had considered mass slaughter of the House of Representatives. They thought about murdering Ambassador Grew and U.S. Consul General Arthur Garrels. They even considered shooting Charlie Chaplin who was then visiting Japan.

JUDGE: "What was the significance of killing Chaplin?"

KOGA: "Chaplin is a popular figure in the United States and the darling of the capitalist class. We believed that killing him would cause a war with America, and thus we could kill two birds with a single stone."

The young officers became national heroes. The defense counsel presented 111,000 letters appealing for clemency. "Nine young men of Niigata chopped off nine little fingers in evidence of sincerity and sent them to the War Minister pickled in a jar of alcohol." With the fingers came an appeal for the murderers: "They broke the law but their motives were pure." Schoolboys wrote letters in blood. A German sausage maker contributed ten yen ($3) toward a fund for a monument which would show Inukai shaking hands with his assassins.

During the trial, the young officers and their associates were permitted to sound off for days about militant nationalism. At one point a defendant arose, accused the presiding judge of inattention and indifference to the prisoners' speeches. Far from disciplining the man for contempt, the judge called a recess, tried to talk things over with one of the prisoners, came down with judicial neuralgia, and retired in shame from the bench.

The Romantic Tradition.
"What seems fantastic when written in English," says Byas, "was as normal as the weather in Japan." After the Inukai murder, the first Japanese assassination in which officers did the actual killing, the Army and Navy took more & more to murder in order to get their way. Byas describes in wonderful detail the killing of Major General Tetsuzan Nagata in the War Office in 1935, and the brutal February Revolt in 1936 which grew out of the Nagata trial. This program of crime was rewarding. The threat of assassination could be as effective as assassination. In the end, the military became Japan's collective Führer.

Byas knocks down the myths about Japan's civilian secret societies and blood brotherhoods. There have been hundreds of these, growing, dividing and growing again like amoebae. Their names alone are almost enough to dismiss them: Great Japan Spirit (or Essence) Society, Foundation of the Country Society, League for the Improvement of Administration & Diplomacy, Illustrious Virtue Society, All-Japan Patriotic Conference for a United Front, Patriotic Love-Country Blood & Iron Band.

The exaggeratedly notorious Black Dragon Society (really Amur River Society, romantically translated Black Dragon because the Chinese ideographs for the river mean that) is practically defunct, and its leader, Mitsuru Toyama, is an amiable, doddering, living legend 87 years old. All these societies are reflections of military thuggery rather than causes of it.

Out of War, Peace.
Hugh Byas' program for post-war Japan really boils down to a serious admonition: there must be no thought of peace with Japan without complete defeat of Japan; we must defeat Japan's Army & Navy utterly and finally in war. If we do, he is confident that the peace will almost take care of itself. He thinks the Emperor Myth harmless and indigenous, and believes that forcing revolution would be as disastrous as it proved in Germany after World War I. The Emperor might well emerge himself as a wise and statesmanlike ruler. The Japanese have natural, subjective mechanisms for fixing responsibility, and he believes that they themselves would probably make the militarists pay.

As to specific peace-table proposals, Mr. Byas is modest, as always, and says that his ideas are "simply a contribution to a common pool of ideas that still needs to be enriched by much study." But they are concrete and based on an understanding of the Japanese mind. His formula: Japan should lose all that she has used or could in future use as instruments of violence, but she should be confirmed in all that she has gained by and could only use for peace.

He proposes to deprive Japan summarily of all the mandated Pacific islands, which they have used as anchored aircraft carriers and not for any peaceful end. Manchuria should be restored definitely and entirely to China, but Japan should not be excluded economically. Formosa, he believes, will always be someone's colony; geographically it belongs to China, though the transfer would probably cause Formosa some temporary anguish. Korea, a distinct racial entity, ought, he believes, to be left as a Japanese mandate, under strict neutral surveillance. As to armaments, he believes that there will have to be inspection and careful control. "Inspection of their arsenals will be a bitter pill to the spy-mad Japanese, but it ... cannot be construed as an invidious national humiliation if Japanese officers exercise the same duties elsewhere."

Details, though, he considers relatively unimportant. The text of his book—it could be a text for Pacific planners, military and liplomatic alike—is an admonition not the delay. Tomorrow is being made today. "The completeness of our victory will be the measure of the Japanese war lords' failure and it will be more important than anything we write into a peace treaty."


  1. That is very interesting, including his belief that Japan should have been allowed to keep Korea. Imagine all the problems that could have been avoided if the US had taken his advice.

  2. I have encountered quite recommendations here and there that Korea should remain as part of Japan. Rhee is largely derided by most South Koreans, but without him making a lot of noise in Washington prior to 1943, Korea might be just a big Okinawa.

  3. I forgot to add that Japanese government officials in 1945, both before and after their defeat, made several appeals that Korea remain part of Japan.

  4. Your historical posts are really show us how people living in that time viewed the world and current events of the day. The bit about Rhee possibly saving Korea from continued colonization is intriquing; however, the Russians were already marching down the peninsula, so leaving Korea as a Japanese colony wouldn't have been a post-war option.

  5. Sonagi wrote:
    Your historical posts are really show us how people living in that time viewed the world and current events of the day.

    In some cases they reveal to us that our modern prejudices or assumptions were wrong.

    The bit about Rhee possibly saving Korea from continued colonization is intriquing; however, the Russians were already marching down the peninsula, so leaving Korea as a Japanese colony wouldn't have been a post-war option.

    Ah, but the Russians were already marching down the peninsula because of an agreement between the Three Powers. Had that agreement not existed, they might have focused their sites more on China, especially Manchuria and Mongolia.

    The fact that Korea was specifically included as an area to be liberated was likely due in part to Rhee's lobbying on behalf of the KPG (Korea Provisional Government).

    One of my favorite professors in grad school was a man who, as a college student, participated in demonstrations aimed at toppling Rhee in 1960, but who says if he had known then what he knows now (as a Harvard-educated scholar) he might have reconsidered. He does see Rhee as the savior of the ROK, even if he was flawed as a leader in other ways.

    But that's another post.

  6. In other words, the efforts by Rhee prior to 1943, not 1945, were what was key.

    Japanese requests to retain Korea "as a natural part of the Japanese empire" (I forgot where this is from, but it is an actual quote) might have fallen on more sympathetic ears had a decision not been made, had the Allies not realized that continued Japanese administration was not what most Koreans wanted.

    And for Allies whose efforts were aimed at the sharks, not the fish, to know all these ins-and-outs may have been expecting too much. After all, Korea and Taiwan and Okinawa had been part of Japan long before World War II (1895 and 1876? respectively). Taiwan, of course, had major Ally China demanding it back, but Korea had no such backing, so if no one in/from Korea were speaking on its behalf, why not believe that Korea, like Okinawa, should remain as part of "Outer Japan"?

    Had the decision not been made in Cairo and Yalta, maybe China would have spoken up, because Korea could yet again be used as a launchpad for a Japanese invasion of China in the future (no one then knew how well the pacifist constitution in Japan would succeed). But since China was also trying to get back Manchuria and claim all of Mongolia, that might have seemed like an opportunistic land grab by the Chinese that would be just as bad for the Koreans -- if not worse -- as leaving them with Japan.


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