NEW YORK — What were the Japanese saying when their country plunged into a war in 1937 that would last eight years and end in utter defeat?

The question came to mind when I stumbled on “Showa 12 Nen no ‘Shukan Bunshun’ “ (Bungei Shunju, 2007), an anthology of excerpts from a popular periodical from that turning point that includes opinions of its readers. There was little surprise in what I found: the Japanese reacted just as Americans did when, say, President George W. Bush took his country to war with Iraq in 2003.

To refresh our memory, in early July 1937 the Japanese and Chinese armies clashed near the Marco Polo (Lugou) Bridge southwest of Beijing. Toward the end of the month the Japanese Army started a general attack in North China — territory immediately south of Manchukuo, the country Japan had established just a few years earlier. In mid-August Japan opened a front in Shanghai, landing its forces in the international city. The year ended with the Japanese Army rampaging in the Chinese capital, Nanjing.

“In order to punish the Chinese Army for its immoral violence and thereby encourage the Nanjing government to mend its ways,” the Japanese government announced Aug. 15, “we now cannot help taking resolute measures.” Fumimaro Konoe, the blue-blood aristocrat who had become prime minister in June, was regarded as a man of culture, and expectations had run high that he might curb the military. But he turned out to be spineless; he allowed the military to do its own thing.

One irony about such official statements is that they were studded with classical Chinese expressions. The word translated here as “punish” is yocho (yingcheng in Chinese), and it derives from China’s oldest anthology of poetry, “Shijing,” while the word for “immoral violence” is borei (baoli), and it comes from the ancient Chinese history “Shiji.” The mass media adopted these words and the populace followed. When the two were combined, borei yocho made a nifty slogan. Boshi yocho, “punishing violent China,” was a variation.

So, in a survey for the column “People Vote” of the October 1937 issue of the monthly “Hanashi,” Kotaro Komatsu, government employee and veteran, wrote: “We should not stop at simply protecting our interests (in China) but we need to thoroughly punish the Chinese military.”

Nihito Maruko, a sailor, took the occasion to upbraid the Ministry for Foreign Affairs: “Now that our nation as a whole is about to punish China for its immoral violence, I hope the foreign minister will decisively renew the personnel at his ministry,” for “exposing dissension within the ministry (is) ugly.” Maruko was referring to Japanese Ambassador Shigeru Kawagoshi’s repeated efforts in China to work with the Chinese Foreign Ministry to prevent expansion of the war, often going against his ministry’s instructions.

Masataro Watanabe, a schoolteacher, revealed what lay behind the ready use of words like yocho: “First of all, China is a girl, a child. It is hard to bring up a girl or a child. If you show anger, she cries; if you smile, she puffs up with pride. Now China is at its puffed-up peak; we should punish it resolutely.”

It does not seem to have occurred to most Japanese that Japan was the one puffed up. Whatever it was doing in China was for the benefit of the wretched country. China suffered from “infantilism” — another favored word and another irony because those who used it borrowed it from Lenin when communism of any kind was an absolute no-no. The country rejects Japan’s “economic cooperation” as “economic invasion,” Japanese “cultural projects” as “cultural invasion.” It was stubbornly “anti-Japanese,” intent on expressing “contempt for Japan.” Or so the Japanese professed.

The Japanese “contempt for China” was “astonishing,” historian Shigeru Hayashi observed four decades ago. But most Japanese thought the reverse was the case. Michiko Shibata wrote from Manchukuo: “Peace in the Orient cannot be hoped for without unhesitatingly shattering and rectifying Chiang Kaishek’s anti-Japanism and his insistence on contempt for Japan.”

All this reminds us of — need I say it — the U.S. contempt for Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

Shibata, an emigrant, added: “As I look at the rapid turn of events in North China, I keenly feel the happiness of living in Paradise Manchukuo.” By “Paradise” (Rakudo), she was simply repeating what the creators of Manchukuo touted it to be. By “the rapid turn of events,” she surely meant “the Tongzhou Massacre.”

On July 28, the Japanese Army in North China declared a general attack and occupied Beijing and Tianjin in a single day. That night its plane “mistakenly” dropped a bomb on the Chinese Army’s security unit stationed in Tongzhou, east of Beijing. The unit, upset and angered, searched and killed Japanese residents there, 260 in all. The Japanese government wasted no time calling it “a savage incident that neither deities nor humans would tolerate.” The Chinese, if left alone, would continue to commit similar atrocities.

In the anthology mentioned at the outset, an account of this “great tragedy” incorporating interviews with a couple of survivors follows the column “People Vote.” The next article is a graphic report on the Japanese residents huddled in one section of Shanghai, terrified by Chinese bombings. Shanghai at the time was divided into “concessions” for the “great powers” of the day: France, England, the United States and Japan.

It was on the same day, Aug. 15, 1937, however, that Japan sent bombers over the ocean to Nanjing and its vicinity. The Japanese took pride in the trans-oceanic technological feat but, naturally, did not think of the terrors the bombings created.

American journalist and famed chronicler of presidential elections Theodore White was in Nanjing at the time. Eight years after the bombings, on Sept. 2, 1945, he took pure satisfaction aboard the U.S. Battleship Missouri on Tokyo Bay as he witnessed the battered Japanese signing an instrument of surrender.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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.