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Irony of being in the company of ’12-year-olds’

by Hiroaki Sato

In going over my manuscript of the Yukio Mishima biography, my copy editor protested at one point, citing her “liberal Berkeley-influenced sensibilities.” That was where I described Japan as a “backward nation.” Let me explain.

In 1958, Mishima dictated an entire book in the somewhat pedagogic genre of bunshō tokuhon, in which an established writer tells the reader, with ample examples, what proper writing should be. Books in this genre may be comparable to H.W. Fowler’s “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage” and William Strunk Jr.’s, “The Elements of Style,” except that Japanese writers seldom get into grammatical or usage particulars.

Mishima resorted to dictation when a highbrow ladies magazine asked him to pen such a book because, at the time, he was in the midst of writing what he thought would be his magnum opus, “Kyoko’s House.”

One theme he dealt with in his bunshō tokuhon was how foreign languages — first, Chinese, followed by English, French and others — greatly affected Japanese. He suggested, for example, that no Japanese reader would doubt when told that Kenzaburo Oe’s prose was in truth a straight translation of the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

A decade later, when he missed out to Yasunari Kawabata on the Nobel Prize, Mishima predicted that Oe would be the next Japanese writer to get it. His prediction came true a quarter-century later.

In discussing “translatese,” Mishima, who studied law at the University of Tokyo, inevitably brought up “the MacArthur Constitution” — the pejorative term for the constitution created during the Occupation.

“It was composed, yes, with something resembling prose in spoken language in Japanese,” Mishima said, “but it was a truly monstrous, hideous prose, and not a few people must have felt the sorrow of the Occupied over the fact that it became the Japanese Constitution.”

In the biography, I explained what was behind Mishima’s judgment. The team assembled to write the new constitution, led by the Harvard-trained lawyer Lt. Col. Charles L. Kades, took care to have the resulting document translated faithfully into Japanese. But as they were mainly New Dealers, they seized the opportunity to “lay down ideal legal principles for a backward nation,” I wrote.

That’s where my copy editor protested. “It feels to me,” she said, “that ‘backward nation’ should be qualified, either by placing quotation marks around it, or by a word such as ‘supposedly.’”

A conscientious editor’s sensible comment when you think of it, but it surprised me. After all, Japan’s strenuous effort to “catch up with the West” in the preceding 100 years was based on the very realization that it was backward or “semi-civilized,” as Yukichi Fukuzawa put it in his “Outline of Theories of Civilization” (1875).

The Occupiers themselves would not have bothered to write a new constitution for a country that already had one, unless they regarded Japan as such or worse.

So, I told my copy editor the famous judgment on the Japanese by none other than Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Japan’s overlord until President Harry Truman fired him in the spring of 1951.

“Measured by the standards of modern civilization, [Japan] would be like a boy of twelve as compared with [the Anglo-Saxon] development of 45 years,” the former Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers averred during the Senate hearings following his dismissal.

As John Dower details in “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II” (The New Press, 1999), this putdown plunged the Japanese from the height of improbable adulation of MacArthur as demigod to an abysmal sense of shame.

But MacArthur also reminded me of Mishima’s reaction that I had not described in the biography: “I had thought that Japan was an old country that now needed a cane to walk, so I was happy that some famous American kindly pointed out that it’s only twelve years old. Among the words Americans have bestowed upon Japan, this one has delighted me the most.”

“I’m told that by criminal law no one under the age of fourteen has the ability to take on criminal responsibilities,” Mishima went on. That would mean that “the so-called war criminals had no responsibility” for what they had done.

“The Class-A war criminals were akin to the boys who accidentally killed their friends while playing war,” so throwing them into jail was like “putting such boys into a reformatory for the time being.”

Mishima made these remarks for NHK Radio in mid-1952. By then, seven of those indicted by the Military Tribunal for the Far East for “crimes against peace” — initiating a war with or without a declaration — had been hanged, though 16 others sentenced to life remained in prison.

For 12-year olds who love playing war, “the peace-loving honors students who behave like Confucius are all scabs, so no matter how often they get scolded, they’ll continue to throw their weight around, happily bullying good kids.”

The catch is that a 12-year-old prankster, “however lusty,” can’t play war alone, Mishima said. “He needs a number of like-minded chums willing to play with him or provoke another group like them.” That’s why boyish pranks never stop. In that sense, “the countries of the world are all more or less twelve year olds, I respectfully submit,” Mishima concluded.

Mishima was right. Even as the victorious nations of World War II were preparing for the military tribunal in Tokyo to hand down premeditated verdicts, The Netherlands, for example, moved to take back its colonies in Southeast Asia that had been lost temporarily to Japan, and Great Britain, for one, was eager to help.

During one operation, the joint forces killed 6,000 Indonesian nationalists who wanted independence, as Laurens van der Post recounts in “The Admiral’s Baby” (William Morrow, 1996).

The “admiral” in the book title is Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten of Burma, who is reputed to have held the Japanese in utter contempt all his life.

One need not bring in the miserable Dutch attempt to regain its imperialist status. The Cold War that had already seen its onset itself was, in Mishima’s analogy, nothing more than a scheme to split war-loving 12-year-olds into two camps.

When Mishima commented on MacArthur’s putdown, the U.S. was trying to extricate itself from the Korean War. But later that year, NATO, which the U.S. had created in 1949, announced its support for France in its war to regain Vietnam. The rest is history — as far as Southeast Asia is concerned.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.