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Japan’s Critical Decade

ISSUE:  Autumn 1944

Ten Years in Japan. By Joseph C. Grew. Simon and Schuster. $3.75. Traveler from Tokyo. By John Morris. Sheridan, House. $2.75. Nippon: The Crime and Punishment of Japan. By Willis Lamott. The John Day Company. $2.50.

As the title indicates, Mr. Grew’s “Ten Years in Japan” is a first-person narrative of men and events that have shaped history in the Pacific for the last decade. In covering this important period, Mr. Grew draws on his own personal diary, his official letters, and dispatches to the Department of State, presenting many facts which are practically unknown to the American public, yet which have a vital bearing upon the complex and difficult problem that is Japan.

When Mr. Grew left the United States for Tokyo, the dust raised by the Manchurian incident had settled sufficiently for him to wonder if Japan would be satisfied with her ill-gotten gains, “or did she covet the empire of Asia?” Before he reached Japan, young officers of its armed forces had murdered the prime minister and staged an abortive revolution, presaging what the final answer to his query was to be.

As Ambassador, his mission was twofold: to protect American rights in the Far East by seeing to it that Japan kept her international agreements, and to pull steadily against the rising tide of militarism. On both fronts he had the full support of the upper-class liberals and saner bureaucrats, but although some of them met death heroically at the hands of army “superpatriots,” as a group they lacked cohesion and a concrete plan of action. Their liberalism was based upon expediency rather than on principle; it would condone a war with China to avoid conflict with the United States; and it was no match for the organized campaign of intense nationalism launched by the army.

There were tranquil intervals during the ten years, ofcourse, usually after the army had overreached itself by some outrageous demonstration; intervals when moderates like Viscount Saito or Admiral Yonai were in key positions, understood the situation, and cheeked, temporarily at least, the military’s program for expansion. As late as August, 1941, Admiral Toyoda, the foreign minister, told the American Ambassador that he was losing sleep over the strained relations between their respective countries, adding vehemently, “a breakdown of peace between Japan and America would be the blackest spot in human history.” But even as he spoke he must have realized that peace on the Pacific was a lost cause, though Mr. Grew fought for it to the end with skill and unflagging determination.

Primarily, the diary is a record of momentous political events, but it is well salted with human interest. Amusing episodes and humorous descriptions of diplomatic life in Tokyo, with some of the characters involved, lend light and color to what might otherwise have been a sombre chronicle. The book reaches its dramatic climax in Prince Konoye’s last desperate attempt to prevent war with the United States by arranging a meeting with President Roosevelt in Alaska. Aware that he could not command the army to carry out whatever commitments he might enter into, his one alternative was to install someone as premier who could. An imperial conference was hurriedly convened at the palace, and the Emperor faced representatives of the armed forces with a point-blank question. Would they agree to follow a policy guaranteed to prevent war with the United States? But they refused to answer. “Thereupon the Emperor, ‘in an unprecedented action, ordered the armed forces to obey his wishes.’ “

This passage in the diary should settle, for all time, the oft-debated question as to whether the Japanese Emperor wanted war. But how General Tojo reconciles his pledge to fulfill the Emperor’s expressed wish with his subsequent course of action, should offer an intriguing substitute for conjecture.

From there on, the story moves swiftly to its tragic denouement at Pearl Harbor. And should there be any die-hard pacifist who still wonders if war could have been avoided honorably, the American Ambassador’s dignified, straightforward testimony provides the final answer.

To the “Traveler from Tokyo,” unlike the subject of his last essay written in Japan, life was “a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged,” but there is little of the “luminous halo” about this comprehensive, factual account of John Morris’s four years as adviser to the Foreign Office and lecturer in one of the universities.

Mr. Morris describes his arrival at Yokohama and the complicated ritual of setting up a household in Tokyo with quiet humor which will make diverting reading for those unfamiliar with the country, and strike a reminiscent chord with “old Japan hands” who have not forgotten their own early struggles. From there, he ranges over the main institutions and activities which make up the intricate pattern of Japanese life, as he observed them: the elaborate ritual of marriage; the educational and judicial systems; the ubiquitous police. And as no book on Japan would be complete without it, the difficult, impractical language forms the subject of another chapter. Mr. Morris shared the lighter moments of his Japanese friends also, went to their geisha parties and to the theatre, and climbed mountains with them. He remarks on their love for Western music, baseball, the American movies, and on their hearty, unconcealed dislike for their German allies. His only harsh words are for the military, and his sympathy goes out to his bemused pupils whose minds, developed on liberal, occidental lines, were forced into the narrow, twisted grooves of the new national ideology, until the outstanding characteristic of Japanese youth today is “mental confusion.”

Most of the subject matter of Mr. Morris’s book is well-trodden ground, covered by a host of other travelers from Tokyo. But his sojourn ended with the unique experience of being the only Englishman at large from the outbreak of war until he was evacuated in August, 1942. As an employee of the Japanese government in good standing, he was neither imprisoned nor interned, but allowed to live at home and move about freely, observing the town and its people under intensive war conditions. He made good use of his opportunity and reported what he saw with detachment and urbanity, drawing no invidious conclusions, preferring to regard the Japanese as individuals—happy or unfortunate; dull or astute; pleasant or detestable.

Yet through it all, one is conscious of something missing in the book: a lack which becomes obvious in the postscript, where Mr. Morris drops his congenial role of impartial witness for that of political analyst. His nebulous plan for post-war reconstruction in Japan proves that no satisfactory conclusion can be drawn from an array of facts, however authentic, numerous, and precise, until they have had time to lie fallow and ripen slowly in the mind. Either four years in Japan were not enough, or Mr. Morris has not lived long enough with his material.

Although his pupils were earnest and industrious, the sixteen years Willis Lamott spent as a teacher in Japan was a period of frustration, he tells us in “Nippon: The Crime and Punishment of Japan.” Determined to discover why this should be so, he collected and translated the books and pamphlets issued by the Japanese government as required reading for teachers and students in the schools. The process became as intricate and involved as the series of carved ivory balls one picks up in Canton—a cause within a cause within a cause, until the tiny core was reached at last.

He summed up his findings in an article, remarking that to the “critical Westerner” the religious basis for Japanese nationalism was “an anachronism.” This article produced immediate results. The magazine was suppressed; its Japanese editors and the author spent many hours “explaining” to the police; patriotic societies sent gangsters to his school breathing threats; and vernacular papers spread lurid accusations, charging the foreign teacher with Use majeste, This was the crime the police finally charged him with, and the procurator hinted that an extended furlough in the United States would be advisable. Acting upon the suggestion, Mr. Lamott returned to this country in 1938 to “ponder upon what he had learned.”

The result is an excellent, informed book on Japan, giving us sound, documented reasons for its people being as they are; and for his causes, he stresses the critical ten years between the Mukden incident in 1931 and the attack on Pearl Harbor. Without becoming involved or tedious, Mr. Lamott selects the smallest ivory ball to demonstrate how the Emperor cult was conceived and developed with diabolic skill to pervert the educational system of Japan; and then describes the methods by which the government controls each detail of the people’s daily lives—down to the kind of vegetables in their o-miso soup—through tonari gumi, or neighborhood associations. He thinks the emotional reaction of the Japanese people to defeat should not be difficult to predict, because the average citizen, although deeply loyal to the state, is lacking in public spirit. In spite of the fantastic claims of the ideologists, he is motivated fundamentally by family interest, and though meekly subservient to authority, there is a line beyond which that authority may not pass.

Rased on his extensive study and his shrewd understanding of the Japanese people and of political realities, Mr. Lamott’s suggestions for postwar treatment for a vanquished Japan are both practical and concrete. The first step towards reconstruction, he insists, must be the total elimination of the Emperor myth, to be accomplished preferably by the Emperor himself, who then might remain as head of the state and a rallying point for a demoralized, defeated people. Mr. Lamott mistrusts the old-line liberals, Konoyc, Hiranuma, Ugaki, or Yonai, who, given their chance in the 1930’s, were overwhelmed by the upsurge of fanatical nationalism. Rut he assumes they will be placed in power at the beginning, because they will be the only known leaders Japan will have to offer. When the curtain goes down on the war in the Pacific, they will be awaiting their cue in the wings, ready to set up a new national structure which will he acceptable to the victors.

Closer inspection, however, will reveal that their brave new stage set will be composed of the same timeworn pieces of scenery which have always been used, but arranged now in a new combination. . . . The West has been deceived before by this type of political scene-shifting in Japan, and unless the utmost care is exercised, it will be deceived again. . . .

This warning has recently been echoed by Susumu Okano, Communist and leader of the Japanese Emancipation League in China. And apropos of this, Mr. Lamott goes on to say:

The new proletarians have east their lots with the fascist groups to such an extent as to render their leadership highly suspect, yet from their ranks alone, and from the unreconstructed Marxists, who are in hiding, can creative leadership of a new type be expected.

After planning to reintegrate Japan among the nations, the author urges them to face their responsibility for Japan’s present paranoia, reminding them that “the patterns set before that newly-awakened nation by the West were deplorably bad . . . dangerous, because they were the kind Japan was temperamentally inclined to follow. . . .”

To place Japan once more in the midst of competing powers, eying one another with suspicion, will give her diplomats a shining opportunity to apply their judo tactics upon the unheeding West, while her militarists make preparations for another attempt at world conquest.


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