Senso: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War
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Senso: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War

Letters to the Editor of "Asahi Shimbun"

Frank Gibney, Beth Cary

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eBook - ePub

Senso: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War

Letters to the Editor of "Asahi Shimbun"

Frank Gibney, Beth Cary

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About This Book

This acclaimed work is an extraordinary collection of letters written by a wide cross-section of Japanese citizens to one of Japan's leading newspapers, expressing their personal reminiscences and opinions of the Pacific war. "SENSO" provides the general reader and the specialist with moving, disturbing, startling insights on a subject deliberately swept under the rug, both by Japan's citizenry and its government. It is an invaluable index of Japanese public opinion about the war.

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Chapter 1

The Road to War

By the early twenties, the Empire of Japan—already a world power after its victories in the Russo-Japanese War and as one of the Allies in World War I—seemed to be emerging as a representative democracy. Only fifty years before, the young architects of the Meiji Restoration had cleared away the last remnants of the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate and initiated Japan’s startling and successful modernization.* Among the Meiji reformers were populists and democrats like Nakae Chōmin and Itagaki Taisuke. By and large, they wished to reshape Japan in the mold of Western democracies, into a nation with a responsible electorate and a sound legal system, whose people would be well educated and aware of their rights as citizens. Of course, the mainstream Meiji reformers were reluctant to democratize too much; some, like Yamagata Aritomo, were strong authoritarians. Itō Hirobumi’s constitution emerged as a very conservative document, and it was Itō, prime minister and a close associate of Emperor Meiji, who set Japan’s political course. Despite the authoritarian overtones of the Meiji Constitution, however, a trend toward democratic government had begun. Under Prime Minister Hara Takashi, the first commoner to attain that position following a succession of the original Meiji Founding Fathers—later ennobled as counts and princes—Japan seemed to have become a two-party parliamentary democracy on the European model. Indeed, in 1925 Premier Katō Takaaki, another liberal statesman, put through the Diet a law granting universal male suffrage, eliminating the property qualifications of the past. A small but vocal group of women’s rights advocates also emerged.
Backed by an ideological socialist movement, Japanese workers had begun to organize themselves into trade unions. Two hundred unions were active in Japan by the beginning of 1926, almost all of them less than ten years old. Through World War I, conditions in many Japanese factories had been as brutal as in the sweatshops of the early Industrial Revolution in the West. Workers and some liberal capitalists, however, had begun to change these conditions themselves. The government gradually responded by setting up labor standards and promoting legislation like the Health Insurance Law 1922.
The twenties saw an expansion of trade and industry. Japan, led by the zaibatsu—the four diversified family conglomerates of Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, and Yasuda—attempted to gain a place in the world economy. Young university graduates were increasingly anxious to become engineers or businessmen, or to work perhaps for one of the big financial houses in Kabutochō, the four-block-square cluster of new office buildings in downtown Tokyo, which promised to be the Wall Street of Asia.
Motion pictures, vaudeville and baseball now joined kabuki and sumo as staples of popular entertainment. Parts of Tokyo and Osaka took on the look of European or American urban centers. Hollywood stars like Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin became national idols, while so-called moga and mobo, “modem girls” and “modem boys,” crowded Tokyo’s few dance halls, doing the Charleston to imported jazz. A diverse and sophisticated generation of writers—men like Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Tanizaki Jun’ ichirō and women like Hayashi Fumiko—followed Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki as leaders of a vigorous popular literature. A profusion of periodicals grew up beside the big vigorous popular literature. A profusion of periodicals grew up beside the big national newspapers like Asahi, Mainichi, and Yomiuri. Almost every shade of public opinion was represented in a press that was largely free.
Japan was one of the founding members of the League of Nations and in the early days of the league played a constructive role in its proceedings. Its statesmen declared that even Japan’s China policy must be based on the “Open Door” principle. On 1 January 1926, Foreign Minister Shidehara Kijūrō told the Diet that Japan should make no attempt to take responsibility for keeping order in China’s eastern provinces. “Taking that course,” he said, “we should forfeit our national honor and pride.” A new wave of international thinking had emerged following Crown Prince Hirohito’s visit to Europe—the first time a member of the Japanese imperial family had left the shores of his country. Hirohito seemed to aspire to become a constitutional monarch, reigning over a strong parliamentary government.
Japan’s intelligentsia, which leaned to a local Marxist-influenced leftism, was highly vocal. Professors like Yoshino Sakuzō and Minobe Tatsukichi were trying to enlarge the democratic side of Meiji Constitution. By the mid twenties, it seemed to many as if the hopes of the Meiji revolution’s liberal reformers were bearing fruit.
Unfortunately there was another side to the Meiji Restoration. As they grew older, the young samurai who led this cultural revolution began to act like cautious bureaucrats. Without discarding the trappings of representative government, they stressed the principle that Itō Hirobumi had put in the Constitution—that it was a document given to the people by the emperor. Public officials thus thought of themselves as servants of the emperor, not of Japan’s citizenry. Behind the political leaders in the Diet, a still Con-fucianist bureaucracy fought quietly but determinedly against the increase of popular freedoms, on the theory that only the officials knew what was good for the public.
There were other ominous forces gathering on the far right: a vast police organization, high-handed conservative capitalists, and above all, the officer corps of the Japanese army and navy. A countermovement toward authoritarianism, which a docile and largely agricultural population was only too prone to follow, gained ground. In 1925, the same year that Japan achieved universal male suffrage, the Peace Preservation Law was enacted. This law gave wide powers to the police to deal with cases—real or fancied—of sedition or civil disobedience. It drew widespread support from the “moral majority” of that time. Conservative people were shocked by the “immorality” of the new urban generation and disturbed by the talk of freethinking intellectuals. Many recalled the High Treason Trial of 1910, at which the prominent socialist (later turned anarchist) Kōtoku Shūsui had been sentenced to death with eleven others for attempting to assassinate Emperor Meiji, part of a disorganized but zealous attempt to destroy the established political system. Union activity brought reaction and ultimately repression as the economy sagged.
The recession of 1927 was followed by further economic troubles in 1929 and 1930, a reflection of faltering economies in Europe and the United States. A nation that lived on trade, Japan was tragically vulnerable to the coughs and sputterings of the world’s economic system. The beginning of the thirties saw the country mired in a full-fledged depression. Rural poverty worsened. New and cautious leaders succeeded liberals like Hara and Katō. The so-called “Taishō Democracy,” named after Emperor Taishō, Hirohito’s father, who reigned between 1912 and 1926, began to splinter at the edges.
One element of the new conservative reaction was the formation of cliques of angry young officers, most of them sons of impoverished farm families, who resented the widening prosperity of the city people and hated the attempts of party politicians to keep Japan on the road to democracy. Like some of their contemporaries in Germany, they were nationalist socialists—anticapitalist and antidemocratic. Simplistically, they hoped to solve Japan’s economic problems by military expansion. At home they began a campaign of propaganda and terror characterized by sporadic assassinations. Hara himself was stabbed to death by a right-wing fanatic in 1921. A series of military plots followed.
Now the dark side of the Meiji Restoration showed itself. Itō and his colleagues had consciously put the emperor at the center of Japan’s polity. In a sense they had tried to replicate the limited democracy of Otto von Bismarck’s Germany, where the Kaiser could replace prime ministers. But an appeal to popular reverence for imperial rule and Japanese tradition offered an easy cloak for the young officers’ zealotry. A poor and restless countryside followed them.
On the night of 18 September 1931, a bomb exploded on the tracks of the South Manchuria Railway near Mukden in an area of China occupied by Japanese troops by long-standing agreement. Within two years, Japanese troops took over all of China’s northern province of Manchuria, renamed by the Japanese “Manchukuo.” The militarist thirties had begun. Cowed by political assassinations of the 1932 and 1936 “incidents,”* civilian politicians moved even further to the right.
The intellectuals who protested represented a wide political spectrum—from doctrinaire Marxists to liberals like Yanaihara Tadao. They were repressed by the swiftly growing police power. By contrast, the big Japanese capitalists quickly perceived in the Manchurian conquest a golden opportunity to acquire raw materials. In their view, the conquered territories were as essential to Japan as Britain’s colonies, taken in similar fashion less than seventy-five years before, were to its own empire. The sound of drums and bugles took the minds of Japan’s rank and file off their troubles.
As the thirties unfolded, a key flaw in the Meiji Constitution became apparent: The chiefs of the army and the navy were required to report only to the Emperor and not to any civilian authority. Yet in practice no cabinet could be formed without active-service generals and admirals as ministers of the army and navy. With this leverage, the military high command, in sympathy with the angry young officers, set out to turn back the side of democracy.
Militarists of the Shōwa Restoration—so called after the official name of Hirohito’s reign—strengthened their hold on the country with relative ease for the simple reason that they were bringing nothing alien to Japan. Democracy and parliamentary government were, after all, “alien” things based on principles understood only with effort by the average citizen. But the latent loyalties of Japan’s web society—its cohesiveness and clan spirit—were readily exploited by the generals. What better model to inspire citizens than the advancing Imperial Army’s soldiers who soon began to “banzai” their way across the China plains. Senior bureaucrats could only nod their agreement.
By the mid thirties, the rightists had almost totally infiltrated the Japanese school system. Boys and girls now learned the “samurai spirit” as thoroughly as Russian contemporaries were learning sacrifice in the name of Lenin and Stalin. Under the influence of the army, new school textbooks expounded on “The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” Rightist spokesmen revived the old Shinto religious theories of Japan’s divine nationhood. The primary schools were not neglected. Seven year olds wearing their first dark school uniforms sat obediently in classrooms throughout the country learning the words of the popular children’s song:
Shoulder to shoulder with elder brother, I go to school today,
Thanks to the soldiers, thanks to the soldiers
Who fought for our country, for our country.
Primary school students were supposed to bow to the Emperor’s photograph, the centerpiece of a shrine installed at the entrance to every Japanese school. Courses in history and ethics, based on the Imperial Rescript on Education, duly stressed loyalty to the Emperor as the highest good for a Japanese. School holidays—the Emperor’s birthday, the anniversary of the first Emperor Jimmu, Army Anniversary Day, Navy Anniversary Day—were introduced by songs and lectures stressing the subjects’ loyalty to the throne. After 1937, when Japanese troops swarmed into North China, aggressive militarism was ironically reinforced by international disapproval. The public was treated to a carefully crafted official version of heroic Japan fighting against enemies around the world. One of the first casualties of the now ascendant right was Japan’s free press. A rightist mob had attacked the Asahi offices in 1936. Outspoken journalists faced harassment or arrest for criticizing the government. The military, exploiting the hewfound war fever, cemented its hold on the entire country.
The letters about this period describe how Japan went down the road to war. There is an extraordinary quality of reflection in them. It is the note of people waking up from a terribly bad dream. Unfortunately for Japan and others in Asia, it wasn’t a dream at all.

Reasons We Couldn’t Oppose the War

There have been demands for explanations about why we didn’t oppose the War, and I have been thinking of reasons why we didn’t.
The people didn’t doubt government policies. The people had been educated not to have any doubts about what governmental authorities did.
The people were not given accurate information. Using such tools as the Peace Preservation Law, information that was embarrassing to...

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