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Repercussions of war gone bad

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — A young friend of mine, Rie Nakano, who did some archival research for a university professor, has given me a small batch of documents prepared by the Special Higher Police, known by the Japanese acronym Tokko. (I had told Rie that my father was an officer of the dreaded “thought police.”)

The documents she passed to me consist of three parts, two of them related to the early phase of Japan’s improbable war with the United States. Reading them, I thought of the just-departed U.S. president, George W. Bush, and his Iraq war. There was initial enthusiasm, followed by disappointments not long afterward.

In the standard narrative, most Japanese reacted to Japan’s going to war against the U.S with jubilation. Pent-up resentment was building over the one-sided demands the U.S. had made on Japan with regard to China (Bush’s peremptory demands on Saddam Hussein had ample precedent). So the news of Japan’s successful assault on Pearl Harbor was cathartic.

Yes, there was some jubilation, according to Tokko reports from 11 prefectures on day one, Dec. 8, 1941 (Dec. 7, U.S. time). After all, the first victory was “shock and awe” enough. But the Tokko’s concern in assessing popular sentiments seems to have been elsewhere. Its reports mainly talked about “tension,” people “not disturbed or agitated.” Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s government was worried that the sudden escalation of the war might distress the already war-wearied citizens.

More jubilation was reported in the next two days, but the Tokko’s focus remained the same. An agent in Nara was even a little sarcastic in summarizing his observation. People there, “suddenly liberated from the depressing mood till now are now exhibiting a somewhat lightheaded triumphalism,” he reported.

Support for the war was not uniform, the Tokko noted. “Some in the business sector tended to be critical of national policy,” said a summary from Chiba, “but they appear to have firmed up their resolve.” To wit, they resigned themselves to the wrong turn their country had taken.

A year later, the Imperial Household Agency announced that a week earlier, on Dec. 11, 1942, the Emperor had visited the Ise Shrine to pray for victory. None of the books of Japanese history I have seem to refer to that particular event, and it is not clear why an Imperial action undertaken in secrecy was later made public. What seems clear is that the government was concerned enough about the state of affairs to instruct the Tokko to report on popular reaction to the revelation. The reaction was strong.

It was an “unprecedented” move, a guest editorialist for the Yomiuri Shimbun observed. “Prime Minister Tojo must take responsibility for troubling His Majesty’s mind to such an extent.” One wonders if Tojo forced the man out or sent him to the front.

Criticism also came from someone who was expected to voice pro-military sentiments. “Had the Imperial visit been announced in advance so the 100 million people might pray” with His Majesty, “it would have had an extraordinary effect in enabling them to recognize the grave crisis” Japan faced, fretted the director of the Army Arts Society. The announcement after the fact had “halved the effect.”

By then the tides were turning against Japan. In June the Japanese Navy had been smashed at Midway, and in August U.S. forces had landed on Guadalcanal. The General Staff kept these and other negative developments secret, but they were unable to hide the overall trends.

“The planned strategy of attacking Australia was canceled, I hear,” the director of a rightwing organization said, “because we couldn’t produce enough.” He ascribed his country’s failure to increase production to the influence of “U.S. and U.K. thought.”

Obviously, though, the news about His Majesty’s secret prayer at his ancestral shrine confirmed his suspicion that Tojo’s war had run into trouble. Indeed, some who were willing to comment on the matter made the point of noting that had the people been asked to pray together with His Majesty, it would have helped sweep away their “discontent.”

Despite the presumed united home front, people had begun to grumble. Initial victories had not brought any relief to daily life. Shortages of mundane necessities were worsening. If the Japanese had been polled the way people are today, their reactions to their country’s war with the U.S. would have shown a trajectory similar to those of Americans to the Iraq war, these Tokko reports indicate.

Nearly 80 percent of Americans approved of Bush when he invaded Iraq in March 2003. But a year later, with his war getting nowhere even as it created ever greater carnage, the percentage fell below 50 percent. It never really recovered after that.

There are, of course, a number of differences between Japan then and America now. Among the Japanese who cheered the news of Pearl Harbor were those who might be labeled liberals today — just as a great many American liberals cheered for Bush’s attack on Iraq, albeit without causa belli.

But whereas it is not clear whether Japanese “liberals” had a change of heart before their country’s defeat, I know that many American liberals had second thoughts and recanted when the war soured. They did so with impunity, something Japanese liberals wouldn’t have been able to do, with the deadly Tokko hovering over them.

The greatest difference is the fate of the two war leaders. One and a half years after the Emperor’s secret visit to the Ise Shrine, Hideki Tojo was driven from office and, after his country was defeated, tried and hanged.

After half of his people stopped supporting him, Bush went on to be re-elected and fecklessly served four more years as president. Now ensconced in a leafy, comfortable mansion in Dallas, Texas, he is expected to maintain his untroubled self for the rest of his life.

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato is at work on a biography of Yukio Mishima.