From behind a wooden lectern in Princeton University’s Department of East Asian Studies last month, 85-year-old Tokio Tobita, a Japanese World War II veteran and convicted war criminal who served 10 years in Sugamo Prison, surveyed the intently focused faces of scholars, artists, students, American war veterans and their families.
Then, speaking calmly through his English-language interpreter, East Asian Studies Director Martin Collcutt, Tobita began his startling confession:
“I was a farmer’s boy with an elementary school education,” he explained. “So for me, the experience [of imprisonment] at Sugamo actually proved nourishing. I learned poetry and art. I wrote in a diary and made friends from another culture. Those 10 years actually gave me my education.
“And now it’s like a dream,” he continued, “to be given the chance to stand on this stage at Princeton University today.”
Tobita paused, glanced down at his hands and the pages of his text. “I have nothing to regret, now,” he declared.
Tobita had flown to Princeton from Mito City in Ibaraki Prefecture to speak at an unprecedented symposium: a gathering of Japanese, Americans and others devoted to the poorly understood era of the Allied (primarily U.S.) Occupation of Japan, from 1945 to 1952.
The symposium accompanied an exhibition titled “Encounters at Sugamo Prison, 1945-52: The American Occupation of Japan and Memories of the Asia-Pacific War,” currently showing at Princeton University Library after being hosted by venues in New York (in 2000) and Philadelphia (in 2002).
The exhibition displays for the first time a striking and eclectic array of artifacts associated with the military prison. These range from vivid, manga-like images of Japanese prisoners and their hulking American guards, to handmade objects crafted using traditional Japanese techniques, personal photographs, poems and letters — many given as gifts to the GIs posted as guards at Sugamo.
Over the course of four years, the materials have been collected by New York artist Bill Barrette, translated and interpreted by Midori Sato, and have served as the subject of video documentaries by filmmakers Lindsey Powell and Narumi Toyota — all of whom traveled to Japan in 2001 to conduct interviews and expand the collection.
The cartoons and woodblock prints produced by the prisoners are wildly suggestive, rich with tension, animosity and an almost bizarre intimacy. And a good many of them were created by Tobita.
Built by the Japanese in the 1920s to house “political” internees, Sugamo was enlarged and revamped by the Occupation authorities in 1946 and used to house Japanese war criminals until the Occupation ended in 1952. Up to 2,000 inmates were incarcerated within its walls, including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo (the head of the military government before the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, until Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945), treasonous Japanese-American broadcaster “Tokyo Rose” (Iva Toguri d’Aquino) and yakuza uber-godfather Yoshio Kodama.
America-as-victor and Japan-as-vanquished came into direct contact with one another in Sugamo Prison’s corridors and cells, and seven prisoners, including Tojo, were executed there.
But as Tobita’s affable presence last month in Princeton made clear, all assumptions about good and evil and war’s winners and losers are just that, assumptions that can be questioned — not least thanks to the insight afforded by the objects in this collection.
“The objects and documents demonstrate a spirit of mutual curiosity that is sometimes tinged with a humor and affection,” Barrette points out. “Nothing similar was produced at Nuremberg.”
The Tokyo trials, which would ultimately decide the fate of Sugamo’s inmates, were a dodgy affair, beset by charges of conspiracy and corruption. John Dower, author of the Pulitzer-winning 1999 study “Embracing Defeat” notes that “despite the grievous crimes of which they were accused, the [Tokyo] defendants failed to exude the aura of evil personified that choked the courtroom where the Nazi counterparts were tried.”
Quite why this was true — why the Japanese inmates and their American jailers formed such intense and often enduring relationships; why in the prison, for example, there were lessons in poetry and art — lies at the heart of the Sugamo mystery.
That mystery extends, too, eerily into the present. The bizarre pas de deux between the two most powerful economies in the world continues into the 21st century, its character and origins largely misconstrued or ignored.
“I learned little of substance about the relations between the United States and Japan before, during or after the war,” Barrette says. “Considering how central the Nuremberg trials are to our image of the Allied victory, I found it curious that their Pacific counterpart had been lost in obscurity.”
Current U.S. military activities in Afghanistan, Iraq and potentially Iran, North Korea and Cuba, as well as the hundreds of alleged but mostly unnamed “terrorist” detainees held without trial by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, make the narratives of Sugamo even more relevant than they may have seemed four years ago, when Barrette first stumbled across his cousin George Picard’s two boxes of World War II memorabilia.
Soon after the Americans arrived in Japan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, head of the Occupation forces, decided to delegate guard duty at Sugamo to younger soldiers who hadn’t fought the Japanese face to face, and therefore harbored no deep ill will.
Picard was one such. As was Bill Robbins, whose speech at the symposium succeeded in clarifying the mutual ignorance that made friendships possible: “We jailers never had access to the reasons for the prisoners’ incarceration,” Robbins explained. “We were 18-year-old kids. Someone like Tojo was a celebrity. We were there to focus exclusively on the behavior of individuals. The greatest risk was suicide — but we were not conquerors, we were friends.”
The United States as liberator, not conqueror, is a favorite mantra of the current U.S. administration. But what’s so remarkable about the Sugamo stories is that much of it appears true.
Sugamo Prison, and the exhibitions and symposia it has now inspired, manifest the prerogative of art: to raise questions that prompt both catharsis and unease, but never easy answers.
As the English scholar R. John Pritchard reminded the Princeton audience: Tobita was once a war criminal accused of abusing Allied prisoners at a hospital in Shinagawa. At trial, his 10-year sentence was one of the longest handed down by the judges. Inside Sugamo, he had been handpicked to care for the infamous Tojo. Was this charming, elegant and clearly gifted 85-year-old man once responsible for inexcusable war crimes? Was his younger self an inhumane torturer?
Together, the sequence of speeches, discussions and films last month in Princeton, and the ever-evolving exhibition of objects and narratives in the “Encounters” collection, remind us of the danger of accepting easy answers at a critical juncture in global history.
Richard Minear, a professor at Amherst College, invoked American novelist William Faulkner to sum up the tenacity of time and its ability to haunt the present: “The past is never dead,” Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.”