“Created in response to deep popular needs, the legendary hero survives long after his death. . . . While the positive aspects of the hero’s life and character come to be emphasized (or even created out of whole cloth), less attractive features are passed over in silence and remain forgotten until they are eventually exhumed by debunking historians of later generations.”
Thus wrote British scholar Ivan Morris (1925-1976) in his magnum opus, “The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan.” Specifically, Morris was referring to Takamori Saigo, leader of the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion. But the above paragraph could as easily apply to Sakamoto Ryoma, the current protagonist of NHK’s yearlong “Taiga Drama” serial. A visionary who embraced democratic ideals, Ryoma was assassinated in 1867, at age 31, by reactionary rivals.
The national fascination with brilliant strategists from the 16th-century Sengoku Jidai, a period of prolonged civil war, may be diminishing, as the desire to lionize heroic historical figures is increasingly offset by a contemporary wave of cynicism — or realism if you prefer — that recognizes such men as mere humans beset by the same character flaws and weaknesses as everyone else.
At the time when the entire nation begins an annual midsummer period of reflection over the futility of war, author Masayasu Hosaka has been running a series in Shukan Shincho. His Aug. 5 installment, titled “Ano senso ni ikura kane wo tsukatta ka” (“How much money was used in that war?”), focuses on the damaged suffered by Japan in the June 1942 Battle of Midway.
Hosaka engages in a very detailed exercise in tallying up Japanese war losses in monetary terms. For instance, he notes that the families of naval officers killed in battle received a condolence payment from the government of ¥13,000 (1942 figures), while families of rank-and-file enlisted men received ¥5,000.
Hosaka singles out for criticism four senior naval commanders at Midway who opted to die when they could have lived. Rear Adm. Tamon Yamaguchi and Capt. Tomeo Kaku aboard the carrier Hiryu and Capt. Ryusaku Yanagimoto of the carrier Soryu chose to go down with their mortally wounded ships. Capt. Jisaku Okada, one of 811 casualties aboard the Kaga, might have survived if he had heeded a subordinate’s request to evacuate the bridge while the carrier was under attack.
Sadatoshi Tomioka, a former rear admiral and postwar naval scholar, once calculated the value of his own elite military education, training and career as being equivalent to ¥300 million (at prewar monetary rates). While moved to tears by the four commanders’ stoic courage in the face of death, Hosaka dispassionately considers the the incalculable amount the nation had invested in them. Rather than such suicidal acts, he asks rhetorically, would it not have been better for them to have continued exerting their leadership and carrying on the fight — and waiting until after the war’s conclusion to “take responsibility”?
So then, where does that leave us? With a country where no one dares aspire to heroism, for fear of failing to meet expectations of present and future generations? In what might be the zenith of iconoclastic journalism, Shukan Jitsuwa (Aug. 12) pokes ridicule at what had been up to now the nation’s most sanctified idols of all: the past stars of the National High School Baseball Tournaments. One, Shiro Teramoto of Meitoku Gijuku H.S. in Kochi Prefecture, made front-page headlines in 1992. Youthful pitcher Teramoto was so intimidated by opposing batter Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui (currently with the Los Angeles Angels) that he refused to throw the ball near the plate, intentionally putting Matsui on base in five consecutive plate appearances. Now aged 30 and a company president, Teramoto has moved on and can finally enjoy a chuckle over his former notoriety.
Ailing entertainer: On July 28, 54-year-old popular vocalist Keisuke Kuwata made public that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and would undergo surgery in August. His announcement set off a storm of articles. Shukan Asahi (Aug. 13) reviewed the various treatments and possibility of metastasizing. Sunday Mainichi (Aug. 15) also included a self-diagnosis chart: A score of 11 points or higher is regarded as being in the high-risk group. Asahi Geino (Aug. 12) noted that orders for Kuwata’s recordings on Amazon Japan jumped 50-fold the day following his announcement. I n this week’s headlines:
In Weekly Playbo (Aug. 16), a reporter puts a dent in the burgeoning population of mizukurage (common jellyfish) by eating them in various dishes.
Shukan Gendai (Aug. 14) offers an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the tragic crash of a JAL 747 in Gunma 25 years ago.
Spa! (Aug. 10) samples 42 ludicrous stories from lowbrow tabloids around the world.
Aera (Aug. 9) introduces the growing number of women enrolled in university faculties of agriculture, who are determined to help save the planet.
Frida (Aug. 13) asks if the ¥12.7 billion budgeted for digitalization at the National Diet Library will spell the end of books.
Takarajima (Sept.) launches a debate on whether funerals are really necessary.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.