NEW YORK — Yet another round of Chinese and Korean protests against Japan for allegedly downplaying its past deeds in historical reconstruction came and went (or almost). This time, though, I was reminded of one thing I should have remembered from four decades ago: China used to turn a completely different face to Japan.
The memory refresher came about in a roundabout way. I was looking at the detailed chronology of Yukio Mishima (1925-70) when I came upon an entry saying that a play based on “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” (Kinkakuji) began production. The date was May 5, 1957. The novel had come out only in October of the previous year, but the brief time the novel evidently took to be transformed into a play wasn’t what surprised me. Mishima was a celebrity author for some years by then, and many things were done to ride that celebrity crest. What surprised me was the identity of the playwright: Tomoyoshi Murayama (1901-77).
When I was studying English and American literature in Kyoto in the 1960s, I knew of Murayama only as one of the writers of “period fiction” (jidai shosetsu) — comparable to stories about cowboys and gunslingers of the American West. Being an English major, I naturally looked down upon them as unworthy, though I read, surreptitiously, some of the weekly installments of a writer particularly known for his “nihilistic” depictions of a preternatural swordsman prone to sex and savagery. So when I learned 40 years later that one of these writers was also a “serious” playwright, I decided to check, and found that he was as much a man of theater as Mishima, and more.
Murayama dropped out of Tokyo University as a student of philosophy in 1921 and went to Germany where, fascinated by Constructivism, he once exhibited his artworks with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. His painterly skills were not incidental to the vagaries of artistic fads. His illustrations for children’s stories and his calendar paintings continue to be printed to this day.
Murayama returned to Japan and became a force in the modernist-proletarian movement, writing, directing and designing plays. Such activities were deemed a risk to national security, as one might say today, and he was jailed a couple of times. He recanted. When he started writing a series of ninja stories after the war, though, he explained that the ninja he described were not really figments of fantasy; he had observed that the plainclothes detectives who were his tormentors used similar techniques. As he saw it, ninja were anonymous but accomplished technicians fated to be ground down by the larger forces.
Yet this man of obvious sophistication proved to be a willing believer in the transformative powers of “scientific socialism.” In 1957 — yes, the year he turned Mishima’s complex psychological novel into a play and only 12 years after the official end of the war — he was invited to the People’s Republic of China and met a number of “ordinary folks.” And he was “taken aback,” he wrote. “The people have utterly changed from what they were before the revolution. They are mildly disposed, full of smiles, kind, self-sacrificial, abounding with love, brimming with joy, full of hope, plain-spoken and artless.”
As I translate these words that Murayama chose, I can’t help conjuring the angry, contorted faces of demonstrators shown all over the world during the protests in April. Could Murayama’s consternation be explained by some cliche, say, “once a leftist, always a leftist”? After all, it wasn’t as though the people Murayama met and talked to were selected from among those who hadn’t suffered the brunt of the Japanese military’s willful use of force. On the contrary, care was taken to choose people who had, and they talked about their experiences. Still, they were always “full of smiles” and forgiving. Japan’s militarist government was the victimizer; the Japanese people were the victims.
So I remembered: The almost exclusive purpose of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s foreign policy at the time was promotion of “friendship” with other nations, with other peoples. Even in my hazy recollections from the 1950s well into the 1960s, “friendship,” accompanied by broad smiles, was always on the lips of the Chinese making their appearances in newspapers and such. And their government went to great lengths to demonstrate what they meant by specific actions.
Murayama describes one incident in 1965. That year a member of the “20th Japanese-Chinese friendship tour” of China, arranged by China’s travel bureau, fell into a coma on a train from Nanjing to Wuxi. At once the “train chief” found two doctors among the passengers and brought them. By the time the train reached Zhenjiang Station, an ambulance was waiting. In Zhenjiang the mayor himself organized a rescue team that included the city’s director of health. Four doctors and five nurses were assigned to the stricken Japanese. A cardiologist from the “Nanjing Battalion Hospital” came; so did a radiologist from Shanghai First Medical School. When the X-ray machine proved to be too large to take to the patient’s ward, it was taken apart and brought to it. Nurses who “worked for several days almost without sleep or rest” offered their own blood for transfusion.
One attraction of Murayama’s narrative is the way he inserted his modern-day experiences and observations into a yarn about what might have happened around 1600. He told the coma story in Volume III of his five large ninja volumes to contrast Communist China, where “human lives are highly valued,” with the Japan of the period he was describing, where they weren’t.
He did this despite the fact that, by then, Mao Zedong had carried out the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Great Leap Forward. A year after so much attention was given to a Japanese visitor struck down by a coma whose cause the Chinese doctors diagnosed correctly and treated accordingly, Mao would launch another murderous campaign known as the Cultural Revolution.
So when did China’s policy toward Japan’s past make an about-face, and why? Answering that would require some investigation, though I’m sure the reasons include Japan’s voluntary move for mea culpa in the early 1970s and China’s increasing confidence as a world player since the 1980s. Until the early 1970s, the Chinese government’s attitude was passive, more or less.
Mishima’s father, Hiraoka Azusa, for one, noted in “My Son: Yukio Mishima” (1972) that Japanese delegations to China were eagerly assuring Zhou that his son’s manner of death did not mean a resurgence of militarism in Japan. China at the time was looking forward, not backward.
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