One cold morning in December 1941, I was running through the frozen streets of Tokyo during the predawn hours, delivering newspapers. I saw this as my way to contribute to the family finances. I was 13 at the time, my father was bedridden with rheumatism, and my four elder brothers had been sent off to war.
Four years had passed since the start of Japan’s invasion of China. Many people with family members on the front anxiously awaited the arrival of the morning newspaper and information it might bring about the war.
Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was that day’s top story, reported in banner headlines designed to convey the “glory” of the event. I will never forget the mood of eerie agitation that enveloped the city as I distributed the newspapers that morning.
It may seem that historical events like this that swallow everything — people, whole societies — in their path are propelled by forces that are immense and unstoppable. Today, with new tensions mounting around the world and old ones resurfacing, this sense of powerlessness may be intensifying. But human life has within it the potential, I am convinced, to resist even the raging currents of history.
We are not merely passive pawns of historical forces; nor are we victims of the past. We can shape and direct history. Renewing faith in the capacity of people — individually and collectively — to create the future is the most pressing task facing us today.
Members of my generation saw our families, friends, homes, our opportunities to study and learn, disrupted and destroyed by war. We share a deep revulsion for the cruelty and stupidity of war as well as an intense urge to break its cycles of violence.
In our youth we had pounded into us the twisted injunctions of militarism — the notion that the highest virtue is found in offering one’s entire being selflessly to the state. I watched many of my young friends and classmates volunteer for the army or become members of the “pioneer brigades” in China. At one point I also attempted to volunteer for the air force, until I was stopped short by my father, who was fiercely determined never to let me go to war.
Leadership that exploits and sacrifices young people on the altar of its goals is nothing more than raw, demonic power. Genuine leadership is found in ceaseless efforts to foster young people, to pave the way forward for them.
Likewise, education can direct people toward good or evil ends. When education is based on a fundamentally distorted worldview, the results are horrific. It is precisely because my generation was driven toward violence and war by erroneous education that I feel a deep commitment to education that guides the new generation toward peace and coexistence.
The words of my brother, back from China after having been temporarily discharged from the army, will always remain with me: “What Japan is doing is horrible. Such arrogance and highhandedness! The Chinese are people just like us. What is going on over there is absolutely a mistake.”
He was later killed in battle, but the bitter disgust he expressed was inspiration for the public call I made, in 1968, for the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations and my subsequent initiatives to engage with the people of Korea and the rest of Asia.
If Japan is to move forward, we must confront the realities of history, learning and applying those dearly paid for lessons to the future, working earnestly to build peace. Yet, even today, more than 60 years after the end of World War II, there are political figures who continue to inflict unimaginable hurt on our Asian neighbors with arrogant words and insulting attitudes. Japan will be a genuine nation of peace only when we are fully trusted by the people of China, Korea and the rest of Asia.
“War is the price paid for failed diplomacy.” These are the words of Arnold Toynbee, the British historian with whom I once conducted and published a dialogue, in a rebuttal to Clausewitz’s famous assertion that war is simply diplomacy conducted by other means.
History is filled with tragic examples of wars that result from diplomatic impasse. Whether in our local communities or in international relations, the skillful use of our communicative capacities to negotiate and resolve differences is the first evidence of human wisdom. We cannot allow Japan to repeat the destructive folly of its diplomatic missteps leading up to World War II.
International relations should therefore not be limited to the political or economic planes. It is absolutely vital that there be educational and cultural exchanges that enhance mutual understanding between ordinary citizens of different countries. This is why I have worked to open a path for young people through dialogue that brings people together in the dimension of their shared humanity.
In 1980, on my fifth visit to China, I had the opportunity to visit Guilin, a region of magnificent natural beauty. While we were waiting for our boat, two young girls selling medicine approached us. I asked them, jokingly, “Do you have any medicine to make me smarter?” They shot back, “Sorry, we just sold out!” sparking a burst of laughter.
In any country, nothing is more rewarding than such encounters with young people. Few things offer a better window on the culture of a land and its future. When people of different cultures respectfully learn from each other, experiencing the rich diversity of humanity’s spiritual heritage, this lays the foundations for a far-reaching solidarity of friendship and mutual appreciation. Eventually, the warm light of humanity shining in the hearts of those who persist in such “people’s diplomacy” can start to melt even the icy walls of national prestige and competing interests.
As a member of the generation that endured on a global scale the absolute evil of war, I feel a personal sense of responsibility to do all I can, working with my contemporaries and with the members of the rising generations to eliminate the scourge of violence and war.
Making ever-greater efforts to promote dialogue and exchange, we must continuously work to inspire in each young person solid faith in the power of the individual to transform history and create the future.