Wartime confessions


Donald Keene, the foremost scholar of Japanese literature, mines the wartime diaries kept by some of the most prominent writers and intellectuals of the day in a book brimming with insights. Readers discover a gold mine of personal observations that deepen our understanding of what life was like when the militarists were running the show.

SO LOVELY A COUNTRY WILL NEVER PERISH: Wartime Diaries of Japanese Writers, by Donald Keene. Columbia University, 2010, 192 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)

The author’s deft commentary provides a context that illuminates and enhances the importance of the diaries. He notes that after Japan’s surrender in 1945, some writers had the difficult task of reinventing themselves and coming to terms with their wartime collaboration and enthusiastic cheerleading. For anyone interested in Japan’s wartime patriotism and how leading intellectuals responded, this superb book is essential reading.

Knowing some of the diarists, Keene shares his mixed feelings about discovering someone quite different in the diary from the person he thought he knew. Interested in much of the same literature as the writer Futaro Yamada, and believing that people are what they read, Keene is at a loss to explain Yamada’s patriotic fulminations, unwavering faith in victory and subsequent thirst for revenge.

As the tide of war turned against Japan and the B-29s dropped their incendiaries on urban centers, Yamada wrote that “We can survive this war if every Japanese becomes a demon of vengeance.” Keene finds this visceral hatred of the enemy an alien emotion, one he never felt while serving in the military interrogating prisoners of war. He writes: “Instead of wishing that even one more Japanese would be killed in the fighting, I wished that even one more would be saved as a prisoner.”

Kafu Nagai, a curmudgeonly bon vivant and successful writer, expresses disdain for all manifestations of patriotism. His diary is sprinkled with acerbic criticisms of the militarists, and their ill-fated search for glory and empire. He also complains about the personal inconveniences of war; imported whiskey and cigarettes had become shockingly expensive, while favorite bars and brothels were destroyed in the ever more frequent bombing raids. He also was firebombed out of his Tokyo home, losing his extensive library collection. Nagai complained: “Ever since the streets of Tokyo were turned into scorched earth, anyone who dares to discuss the future course of the war is dragged off by the military police.” On the final day of 1944, expressing a common theme in his diary, he wrote: “It’s entirely the doing of the military. Their crimes must be recorded for all time to come.” Keene writes that on the day of surrender, Nagai and friends celebrated the end of the fighting “with incredible equanimity.”

But only a few days before, Jun Takami, prize-winning author and half-brother of Nagai, reacted with patriotic fatalism to Minister of the Army Korechika Anami’s declaration that Japan would fight to the finish, writing: “In that case, everybody will be mobilized, and everybody will get killed. The country and the people will all perish.”

Princess Itsuko Nishimoto, one of the two women diarists Keene surveys, reacted to the surrender with pride in the Emperor Showa and seething anger directed against the victors, writing: “Unless the people of America and England suffer this pain, administered with all the powerful strength of the gods, my bitterness will not be eased.”

Keene wonders why most of the writers never seemed to wonder about the disjuncture between the glowing media reports of victory and staggering American losses, and the intensification of the war in the home islands. Many of the diarists also bought into the myth that Japan was fighting to liberate Asians from colonization at a time, Keene notes, when many Japanese “had an unfavorable opinion of every non- Japanese Asian they had ever met.” The noble cause of Asian liberation confronted pervasive contempt for the ostensible beneficiaries.

Japan also had its share of chicken hawks. Sei Ito, who was later deeply embarrassed by his wartime writing, was jubilant about the outbreak of war. He “never doubted the goals of the war or the certainty of a Japanese victory.” However, when he read that he might be drafted, this true believer in the invincibility of the Yamato race took a job teaching in a secondary school to evade military service. Apparently “the moment to use our full- strength, carrying our lives to their ultimate objective of ensuring the honor and destiny of the land of our ancestors” was an exhortation meant only for others.

Yamada was especially annoyed that the United States had not destroyed Kyoto, because if it had done so, more Japanese would have resolved to avenge defeat. He was also anxious about the U.S. occupation, writing: “I fear nothing more than that the enemy may treat Japan with generosity, corrupting us peacefully.”

Jeff Kingston is director of Asia Studies, Temple University, Japan Donald Keene will give a talk about his book at Good Day Books in Ebisu on Aug. 1. For more information call (03) 5421-0957, or contact by e-mail: gooday@gol.com.