Based on his controversial essay that blamed Franklin D. Roosevelt for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, one would expect retired Gen. Toshio Tamogami to be a hardcore rightist unwilling to allow a counterargument in edgewise.
But in reality, the ousted Air Self-Defense Force chief of staff is a self-proclaimed “friendly gentleman” who arrived for our interview in a dark suit and tie instead of kamikaze bandanna or toothbrush mustache.
“I will head to the taping of a TV program after this, so I have to leave in exactly an hour,” Tamogami said, unable to hide his excitement. The show he will appear on is Japan’s version of the popular quiz show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
“It’s unlikely that I will soon land a new job, you know. I have to make ends meet doing these things,” he said.
“These things” — appearing on TV shows, publishing books and holding sponsored lectures — is how Tamogami has been busying himself since he was sacked Oct. 31.
The 60-year-old’s career as an ASDF general ended abruptly after he won an Apa Group-sponsored public essay contest on the theme “true modern history,” where he justified Japan’s wartime and colonial actions. The unapologetic veteran also managed to enrage both Prime Minister Taro Aso and Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada by refusing to hand in his resignation.
Three months after the hubbub — and after repeated appearances on TV programs where he called for the Constitution to be amended to unfetter the military and allow the nation to engage in collective self-defense — Tamogami told The Japan Times that life is more hectic than ever.
“My wife was furious when the essay issue came out, and she told me I should have kept quiet. Now she is much more calm and encourages me to pursue what I am doing,” the Fukushima Prefecture native said.
Following his ouster as ASDF chief and subsequent forced retirement, Tamogami has freely fired nationalist salvos straight from the hip, including the cliche revisionist view that the wartime sexual slavery enforced by the Imperial Japanese Army was actually legitimate paid prostitution, and that the Nanjing Massacre was a mere fabrication.
“History is written by the victors,” he asserted, noting his opinions are commonly shared by “rightist historians.” Being touted as a “dangerous figure” by the media has already become a way of life, he explained, adding that Aso and Hamada may both deserve a personal commendation from him for how the controversy stirred public debate and as a result helped spread his views.
But the way the Defense Ministry treated him is still a cause of irritation.
On that fateful October day, Tamogami first received a call from a journalist at around 1:30 p.m. telling him he had won the essay contest.
When he reported the accomplishment to the ministry, he received mixed reactions.
“I am not sure if they had read my essay at that point,” Tamogami said, but Defense Parliamentary Secretary Nobuo Kishi, the younger brother of hawkish former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, congratulated him for the achievement.
Vice Defense Minister Kohei Masuda was less excited.
“So I return home for the day, and my phone rings at 7 p.m. It’s from the vice minister, and he tells me things need to be taken care of. I ask him what he means by ‘take care,’ and he clarifies it for me. He asked me to write my resignation.”
As contentious as the essay may be, Tamogami, who had always been vocal on his views about history, claimed the resignation request came as a complete surprise. He had repeatedly expressed similar opinions in public, and his blunt comments were often cheered by those in the ministry, he said.
During a 2004 visit to China for a meeting with his counterparts, Tamogami let out his thoughts that Japan was not an aggressor during the war.
“I told the Chinese that if they were going to call Japan an aggressor, China should label Britain an aggressor as well. Those at the Defense Ministry later applauded me for saying that,” he said.
But the final answer over the essay came from a subordinate at 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 31, notifying him he had been sacked.
“All these years of service for the (Self-Defense Forces), and the final word came via my cell phone e-mail,” Tamogami shrugged in annoyance. Annoyed but also surprised, he said, because never before had the ministry worked so promptly to fire uniformed staff.
“I remember once when an SDF serviceman was involved in a murder, and even he wasn’t fired overnight. My case ironically proved that the Defense Ministry can act fast if it wants to,” he joked.
Tamogami disclosed that some lawmakers contacted him after the firing to express their support, but he refused to name them during the interview. But the defiant former general did not shy away from singling out certain politicians who pulled the ladder out from under him and distanced themselves after the incident.
One name Tamogami raised was Yukio Hatoyama, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan. It became known after the essay scandal broke that Hatoyama and his wife joined Tamogami at a party hosted by Toshio Motoya, head of condo and hotel developer Apa Group. Motoya organized the controversial essay contest.
The opposition party heavyweight stated to the media in December that he was present at Motoya’s September 2004 party but claimed he didn’t stay until the end because some of the topics were uncomfortable for him.
“That is not true. It appeared to me that Mr. Hatoyama was in fact having a nice time during the party,” said Tamogami, who spoke his views on Japan’s defense capabilities at the party.
Another figure Tamogami lashed out at was farm minister Shigeru Ishiba.
In the January edition of the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju, Ishiba, who when he was defense minister worked closely with Tamogami, wrote that he often told SDF personnel to freely express their views to the prime minister and defense chief.
But the minister went on to condemn Tamogami’s essay in his article, saying he misinterpreted his encouragement. “I never asked SDF personnel to speak of his views on history or the Constitution to the public,” Ishiba wrote in the magazine.
This resonated as a lame excuse for Tamogami.
“As the former commander of the Self-Defense Forces, Mr. Ishiba shouldn’t have fled from the issue with such reasoning,” he said. “I don’t think he will ever earn the trust of the SDF.”
Tamogami’s essay and its contentious denial of Japan’s wartime responsibility has drawn criticism from a number of historians, some citing his failure to provide factual data.
His essay suggests Imperial troops were in China and the Korean Peninsula under treaty, but in reality the army launched its war in China in 1937 without any accord.
Tamogami, also a former head of the Joint Staff College, said he is aware of the criticism but added, “I am not a historian, and my opinions were formed from my own research.”
He claimed most data that would mitigate Japan’s wartime role were either burned or hidden from the public after the war. But some documents, including those held by former U.S. Gen. Albert Wedemeyer, he feels suggest the U.S. was in fact eager to “trap” Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor.
Wars are never cleanly fought, but to call Japan the only aggressor is wrong, Tamogami said.
One regrettable consequence of the essay is the Defense Ministry’s overmanagement of the SDF, Tamogami admitted, claiming many in the ministry have misinterpreted the notion of “civilian control” and are going too far in trying to weaken the military.
The ministry in December said it aims to prevent future missteps like Tamogami’s by establishing regulations that require an officer to notify superiors when entering an essay contest or making a public speech, and by revamping educational courses and strengthening background checks before promoting SDF personnel.
The ministry also acknowledged the war history lectures Tamogami started at the Joint Staff College were “unbalanced” and it will review the process of picking lecturers.
“That is like a team of badminton players instructing a soccer team on how to practice for a game,” Tamogami said.
In his view, nurturing a sense of patriotism in men and women training to serve their country is essential, especially when it comes to defending Japan.
Tamogami said history lessons in Japanese schools are overly “submissive” and based on “self-denial,” and thus pose an obstacle for many to foster a sense of patriotism.
He said he never intended to join the SDF until his father recommended that he attend the National Defense Academy of Japan. There he learned the virtue of serving one’s country.
“Those who fear that civilian control is in danger are out of their minds. Not a single person in the SDF believes in changing the country by force,” Tamogami said in a raised voice.
“A coup? Give me a break. Planning such a thing would take away my free time. I’d rather go for a round of golf than plan a coup.”