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Moral absolutism on trial


ONE MAN’S JUSTICE, by Akira Yoshimura, translated by Mark Ealey. New York, San Diego and London: Harcourt, 2001, 276 pp., $23 (cloth)

In every society, even the most apparently open-minded, there are times when some questions become taboo. In the United States right now, such questions include anything that hints at American culpability in its recent dealings with other countries.

Last year’s events also brought to the surface a couple of older taboo questions left over from the Pacific War. The most obvious of these has been asked outright only by Osama bin Laden: If it was a war crime to kill innocent civilians in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, why wasn’t it a war crime to kill innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Then there’s the question posed by Akira Yoshimura’s 1978 novel, here translated into English for the first time: What kind of justice is it — other than the oxymoronic kind known as “victor’s justice” — that condones the U.S. firebombing of entire Japanese cities in World War II but condemns as a war crime the executions of U.S. prisoners of war carried out by Japanese troops?

Legally, Yoshimura suggests, the distinction may be valid, since the Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs civilians, was not adopted until 1949, whereas the Third Convention, pertaining to POWs, was already in force before the war. The Potsdam Declaration, to which Japan acceded in August 1945, also specifically provided that “stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals, including those who have visited cruelties upon our prisoners.” But morally and humanly speaking, the distinction can prove harder to sustain.

“One Man’s Justice” doesn’t, for the most part, put the question so abstractly. As a novel, it does just what its English title promises, bringing a difficult issue into focus by recounting “one man’s” story as vividly as possible. But it certainly prompts broader questions about the abstraction known as justice. That, after all, is the other nuance implicit in the title: “One man’s justice is . . . another man’s something else entirely.” In practice, Yoshimura hints, “justice” is relative and contingent, not absolute, especially in the context of a bitterly fought war.

Such views might not be especially welcome among English-language readers caught up in the current wave of U.S.-led patriotism. Then again, there is no better time than wartime to try to see one’s country’s actions through someone else’s eyes.

The “one man” of the title is a demobilized Japanese officer named Takuya. When the story opens, it is spring 1946, and Takuya is making his way by train from his hometown back to Fukuoka, where his antiaircraft unit had been stationed during the war. He has received a postcard from a former fellow-officer, now working with the Occupation forces, urgently suggesting that he “come to visit soon.”

Takuya suspects he knows why, though he is staggered to think that anyone could have found out the truth: that he and some other soldiers had, secretly but under orders, executed a group of captured American B-29 fliers at the end of the war, in fact after the Emperor’s surrender speech, by taking the prisoners out to the woods and decapitating them one by one. Takuya knows very well that this will strike even many Japanese as an open-and-shut instance of a war crime — which is why he had left Fukuoka so quickly afterward and been careful not to go back.

He is also correct in his suspicion that the authorities have gotten wind of the deed, and in a time-honored fashion: The higher-ups who had ordered the execution and are already on trial have denied all knowledge of it and implicated their juniors, including Takuya, by name. The postcard was indeed sent to warn Takuya, who is henceforward on the run.

But he also realizes more is at stake: “He wasn’t just on the run, . . . he was still at war.” Partly, he is still at war with the enemy, now occupying his country and hot on his trail. But partly, too, though he doesn’t recognize this at first, he is at war with himself over the question of his own guilt. The novel charts his long, hard journey toward a resolution of both conflicts.

Yoshimura doesn’t flinch from portraying the brutality of Takuya’s deed. What he does do is put it in context. Everywhere Takuya travels as a fugitive he moves through a wasteland, the legacy of months of Allied incendiary raids. “Charred ruins,” “scorched roofing iron and rubble,” a “huge scorched plain”: such phrases, repeated over and over, build up a cinematic impression of the near-total devastation suffered by many Japanese cities and towns.

As an antiaircraft specialist, Takuya’s job had been to track the flights of enemy aircraft on bombing runs over Kyushu. He knew the statistics and had heard the stories of what had happened in other cities. But he was still unprepared for the indiscriminate destruction he witnessed when Fukuoka was bombed: “Each time he stepped outside . . . and caught the horrific sight of a city razed to the ground, irrepressible anger and pain welled up in him.” After Hiroshima, he was convinced that “the American military had ceased to recognize the Japanese as members of the human race.” Looking back, he still feels that in helping to execute the prisoners “he had done nothing more than his duty as a military man.” They were the criminals, if anyone was, not him. At the very least, they were all equally criminals.

That, of course, is not the prevailing legal opinion, and Takuya remains a fugitive. But then something odd happens. During the two years and four months he is on the run, the war trials in Tokyo are grinding on, and he begins to notice from the newspapers that “justice” is not an immutable concept even there. After an early flurry of hangings and long prison sentences, men convicted of the same or similar crimes are being acquitted or given reduced sentences.

By 1949, when Takuya himself is in a position to benefit from the trend, he realizes that “the war crimes trials seemed to be heavily influenced by world affairs, . . . which surely threw into question their legal foundation, and suggested that judgments were made by the victors however they saw fit.”

The irony — and the big surprise of the novel — is that by this time he has changed, as well. In the isolation of his life as a fugitive, he has had plenty of opportunity to reflect, but even so he is astonished to find that he has become “someone quite different from himself.” He “came to the realization that his anger toward the American military had all but evaporated.” When his brother writes to tell him that he considers him not a criminal but “a victim of war,” he tears up the letter in disgust, then writes back to say that “having beheaded an American POW, he in no way fell into the category of victim.”

As regards justice, then, both Takuya and the tribunal end up in very different places from where they began. In a sense, they switch places, philosophically speaking, with Takuya gradually acquiescing to the idea of moral absolutes and the tribunal gradually dispensing with it.

Clearly, this is a novel that asks hard questions and offers no easy answers. Takuya figures out that for him personally, “justice” means accepting responsibility for his own actions, not excusing them by dwelling on the guilt of others. The implication is that perhaps this should work for nations, too — the victors as well as the defeated. It’s a thought that lingers uncomfortably in the mind long after one has turned the last page.