When a nation is living through a crisis, whether its citizens like it or not, it becomes a crisis of conscience for every individual.

What do you yourself do, faced with the choice of engaging or disengaging, when your country is walking a warlike path?

The little shopkeeper and his wife, placidly standing in front of their shop, a faint smile on their lips as they watch the men in brown shirts marching down the street, have definitely made a choice. So have the people who remain silently in their homes, choosing to do nothing.

In other words, choosing to be passive as your country goes to war — in the many forms that passivity takes — may appear to be a neutral stance. But it is far from that. There is no getting away from personal choice at such a time. All people are activists, whether they see themselves as such or not.

This was brought home to me last week, keenly, plaintively, and most of all dramatically when I saw Junji Kinoshita’s postwar masterpiece, “A Japanese Named Otto,” at the New National Theatre. I have been involved in a very modest way in this production, having translated some of the dialogue into English. (This is the first staging of the play that uses non-Japanese in the cast.) So, this Counterpoint will not be a theater review of the production.

The themes that this play brings out with force are as relevant to us today as they were when Kinoshita wrote it nearly 50 years ago, though the action takes place in the Shanghai and Tokyo of the 1930s and ’40s.

The Japanese person in the title, with the code name “Otto,” is Hotsumi Ozaki, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper’s correspondent in China and a confidant of high-ranking members of the Japanese government, particularly Fumimaro Konoe, three-time prime minister between 1937 and ’41.

Ozaki saw it as his mission in life to prevent the bloodshed of a world war and to keep Japan from entering into hostilities with the United States. He was a committed liberal and a man of peace. Having spent the first 18 years of his life in Taiwan, he was intimate with all things Chinese and deplored what the imperialists of his country were doing there.

Ozaki made the decision to provide intelligence on his government’s policies and plans to communist spy Richard Sorge. (For background on Sorge and Ozaki, I highly recommend Robert Whymant’s study of the life of Sorge, “Stalin’s Spy.” Tragically, Whymant died in the 2004 tsunami while swimming in Sri Lanka.)

From the mid-’30s until they were both arrested in October 1941, Ozaki fed Sorge crucially valuable information about Japan’s seemingly ineluctable drift toward all-out war in Asia. Where would be the next big thrust of the Japanese military? Would it be north from Manchuria into the Soviet Union — or south through Southeast Asia? Even the highest ranks of the military, and the monopoly capitalists who funded them, were divided on the most effective strategy.

Eventually, as we know, the latter choice was made; and Sorge secretly sent telegrams to Moscow from Tokyo informing Stalin of this. Those telegrams did, in fact, reach Stalin. But the “Man of Steel” was also a man of implacable paranoia, and he dismissed Sorge as a counter-spy.

As for Ozaki, he knew that the only way to prevent Japan from attacking the United States was for the prime minister, who was Konoe at the time, to meet directly with President Roosevelt and fashion a diplomatic solution to the situation confronting them.

Now, in the drama production at the New National Theatre, this comes out clearly. Ozaki tells Sorge that his single goal is to get the two leaders together. Sorge sees Ozaki as an idealist and, ironically, a Japanese nationalist more concerned with saving his country than with spreading communism all over the world. He reasons that any prime minister who would negotiate with such a potential enemy (here, the U.S.) would surely be assassinated, and the military would take over, precipitating disaster.

Sorge was probably right. Japan’s invasion of China and its brutal exploitation of that country’s resources had cast the die. There was no going back. And this is where this play speaks loudly about our present era.

Those who brandish swords and readily wield them are hailed as “patriots,” while those who would sit at the table of peace are shunned as “traitors.”

“A Japanese Named Otto” shows us that once the doors are shut to that negotiating room, however, the only thing we are all left with is millions of corpses to bury and, in the long run, to forget.

The time that this play was written and first performed (1962) is critical to its understanding. Kinoshita had been a sympathizer with leftist causes ever since his prewar days at the University of Tokyo (then called Tokyo Imperial University). But it was the anti-American riots of 1960, motivated by popular opposition to the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the U.S., that catalyzed Kinoshita’s ire toward Japanese official acquiescence over the gradual remilitarization of his country at the behest of the United States.

In a number of plays written in the early ’60s, including “Otto,” Kinoshita examined the essential dilemma facing the citizens of any nation at war: What do you do when faced with the passive choice of watching in silence or committing yourself personally to a course of action?

As for Hotsumi Ozaki and Richard Sorge, they were both arrested, tortured under interrogation and, in 1944 — less than a year before the war’s end — hanged.

During wartime in any country, many who call themselves patriots are, in actuality, thugs in starched uniforms and primary-colored neckties. Many who are denounced as cowards are the rightful heroes of a future era.

Good theater is aftermath. It is historical events played out and re-created before the eyes of those of us who live in their jagged shadow. It is the drama re-enacted that illuminates the true nature of the historical figures.

We get an enactment of this in “A Japanese Named Otto.” There really were heroes in Japan during World War II — even if it has taken half a century for them to be seen by us in the plain light of day.

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