Does democracy still count if it’s conditional?


NEW YORK — With Barack Obama’s military policy in the Middle East getting murkier by the day, his predecessor George W. Bush’s stated goal of democratizing the region through violence has to be judged to have failed. The thought prompts the reflection that forced democratization could entail considerable duplicity even after the violence.

Tokuzo Kimura (1911-2005), the literary editor who dealt with many of the distinguished writers two generations ago — Yasunari Kawabata and Mishima Yukio among them — experienced two forms of censorship firsthand in a span of 10 years, as he recounts in his memoir, “Bungei Henshusha: Sono Kyo’on” (1982). The first was Japanese, for outright suppression; and the other was American, for democracy, so called.

Censorship in Japan, which became law in the early 20th century, reached its brutal peak with warmongers’ takeover of governance. By the time Kimura was employed by Kaizosha, in 1937, the days when editors could use fuseji were over. Fuseji is the replacement of the characters of an offending word or phrase with an equal number of blank squares. With this practice, the reader so inclined could sometimes guess the original word or phrase.

Mishima recalled getting excited, in his early teens, at the prospect of a precociously sexy poem he had submitted to the school magazine appearing with some words so “turned.”

But “thought and beliefs cannot die,” Kimura wrote. The government had succeeded in trampling down the leftist movement, but a writer, trying hard to avoid telltale words indicating any “leftist, socialist, or liberal” inclinations, could still betray his ideas in other ways. The editor’s role was to catch such deviancies before the authorities did. Post-publication deletions and sales bans created trouble not just for the writer but for the publisher.

Technically, the most delicate — to Kimura, “the deranged” — demand had to do with the treatment of the word tenno, “emperor.” When it appeared in a sentence, it had to be preceded by a blank space. Worse, it could not appear at the bottom of a line. Japanese is normally written and printed vertically, despite the impression Internet writings might give.

Though Kimura failed to grasp its extent at the time, what would later be called the Yokohama Incident would lead to the demise of his employer Kaizosha, a publisher with reformist ideals that had, during its heyday, invited foreign luminaries such as the birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger for speaking tours in Japan.

It started with the sales ban, in early 1942, of two issues of the monthly “Kaizo” for carrying an essay on “trends in world history” and the arrest of its author, Karoku Hosokawa. Hosokawa’s sin was to mention the Russian Revolution in terms not negative enough. A total of about 60 people were arrested, imprisoned and tortured over a period of two years. Hosokawa survived his three-year ordeal and was released from prison following Japan’s surrender. Some of the others were not that lucky. Four died in prison.

One form of torture routinely employed was to beat up the victim with a bamboo sword and, when the victim fainted, pour a bucket of water on him. The CIA torturers today are said to take care not to leave any physical marks on the victim. The Japanese thought police and the kempeitai had no such scruples.

Japan surrendered in August 1945. The Occupation declared its primary purpose was to implant democracy in Japan. Freedom of speech was essential. But anything undemocratic must be eradicated. For that purpose, every substantive tool of communication, be it film, theater or print, had to be approved in advance. In other words, this freedom was conditional.

Tokuzo Kimura, now the editor of a new magazine Ningen (Human Being) — which had been created at the behest of Kawabata — filed, as required, the proofread galley of its inaugural issue with the Occupations’ Civil Information and Education Section (CIE). It included a translation of Thomas Mann’s 1938 lectures in the U.S., “The Coming Victory of Democracy.”

A few days later, he was summoned. The two Nisei officers who met him told him he could not publish two articles in the issue. Why?

One article, by Hidemi Kon, had the word tekigun, “enemy military,” as applied to the U.S. forces. The article concerned Kon’s friend who, assigned to the Philippines by the military as a reporter, was killed in battle just before Japan’s surrender. The U.S. military could not be referred to as “enemy.”

The reasons for the rejection of the other essay not only were indicative of the military mindset, Japanese or American, but also, as Kimura would find out, adumbrated the International Military Tribunals for the Far East that the Occupation would convene in half a year.

The writer of the essay, Toyotaka Komiya, was a feisty scholar of German literature and Japan’s traditional arts, including haiku. He had written several essays on the carpet bombing of Tokyo, mentioning the prospect of U.S. forces landing in Japan. His focus was on the Japanese military’s letting such a thing happen. The Asahi Shimbun had rejected his essays; it knew that printing such criticism of the military would be suicidal.

The U.S. military, now occupying Japan, did not want it revealed that there had been conjecture on its expected landing in Japan, Kimura was told. It was a “top military secret.” More important, the Occupation wanted no reference to the air raids. That, as would turn out, was no caprice on the part of individual censors.

In planning military tribunals, for both Germany and Japan, the prosecuting nations, Britain and the U.S. in particular, had decided to pre-exonerate themselves of any war crimes, let alone the new categories of “crime against peace” and “crime against humanity.” The two nations have continued to do the same ever since, with impunity.

When the first issue of Ningen was ready and filed with the CIE, Kimura was summoned again. This time a middle- aged female officer with two Nisei aids met him. What was wrong? Kimura the editor had left as blanks the several places in Kon’s article where the word tekigun had appeared.

As for Komiya’s article, he had simply blacked it out. The female officer’s stern “guidance”: No “traces of censorship” are allowed to show. In American-led democracy, nothing is censored.

Hiroaki Sato is at work on a biography of Yukio Mishima.