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Japanese intellectual crosscurrents

by Florian Coulmas

The Scars of War: Tokyo during World War II: Writings of Takeyama Michio, edited and translated by Richard H. Minear. Lanham, M.D.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 207 pp., 2007, $24.95. (cloth)

Michio Takeyama (1903-1984) was one of many 20th-century intellectuals who in the course of their life wandered from the left to the right, but he is surely among the most interesting. With the book under review here Richard Minear makes available for the first time in English 10 essays Takeyama wrote between 1940 and 1953, augmented by an insightful and sensitive biographical sketch of a man who lived through World War II at home and was deeply influenced by this experience.

Takeyama was educated at Ichiko, one of Japan’s foremost high schools that prepared its graduates for public service, and then returned to the same school as a teacher. There he taught German language and literature for 25 years until the dissolution of the school in 1950.

As an adult he studied in Germany and visited many European and Asian countries, giving him an informed perspective on the world and Japan’s position in it. Because of his academic specialization in German letters, Takeyama was a keen and interested observer of what happened in Germany in the waning years of the Weimar Republic and after the Nazis came to power.

Neither his admiration for a great tradition of philosophy and belles-lettres nor the fact that Germany was much appreciated politically in Japan at the time made him blind to the unfolding reality of a nation in decline, which in 1940 he described as “a new Middle Ages.”

Rather, it is the tension between high regard and disdain that gives this essay its acumen. Takeyama is genuinely puzzled and tries to come to grips with the fact that a country that in the past had produced the most sublime statements of European humanism and enlightenment was sinking into barbarity.

In his analysis, which anticipates ideas German philosophers Max Horkheimer und Theodor W. Adorno put forth after the war in “The Dialectics of Enlightenment,” Germany epitomized the problems of modern man. Alluding to a poem by Goethe, Takeyama writes that “like the sorcerer’s apprentice, modern man seems unable now to control the spirit he himself called up and set to work; instead, controlled by it, he is being destroyed.”

Similarly, nationalism, in his diagnosis, once played a positive role in Europe, but turned into “state absolutism” in Germany — and Japan, one might add. For developments in Germany were of interest to Takeyama in their own right and because of its role as a model and political ally of Japan.

The essays Minear has selected and masterfully translated for this volume testify to the workings of a splendid mind in search of understanding a world in turmoil. In them Takeyama addresses a range of issues: war, politics, technology, progress, existence, fate, death, among others. Many of his observations were farsighted at the time and seem still relevant today, as when he remarks that “with modern organization and weapons, rulers have godlike power. Try though they may, the ruled can’t resist the rulers.”

Perceptive and skillfully analytic though he was as a political observer, Takeyama was not uncontroversial. The work that made him famous was the novel “Harp of Burma,” first published in serialized form in a journal for children shortly after the war. It is the fictitious story of a Japanese military detachment in Burma at the end of the war. Highly acclaimed for depicting the hardships and the futility of war while sharply criticized for portraying the war as a calamity that knows only victims, “Harp of Burma” quickly established Takeyama as a major intellectual in postwar Japan.

By that time he had already begun his metamorphosis from an outspoken leftwinger to a fierce anticommunist who put the defense of freedom above all. In a hotheaded condemnation of a student boycott in 1951, which such prominent intellectuals as Saburo Ienaga and Masao Maruyama hailed as a catalyst of Japan’s democratization, Takeyama intoned a theme that present-day neocon thinkers would happily embrace, stating that intolerance (against the boycotting students) is one property of tolerance: “The intolerant steps we take . . . are legitimate exercises on behalf of freedom.”

In many ways, the two Takeyamas embody the complexity of Japanese intellectual crosscurrents in mid-20th century. Minear, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, makes it quite clear that he prefers the young Takeyama who spoke out against nationalism when it was in vogue to the older Cold War warrior Takeyama who, with the backing of U.S. Japanologists Edward Seidensticker and Ivan Hall, became the driving force of the CIA-funded journal Jiyu (Freedom). But with his selection of essays he presents both sides of this intriguing figure.