Sunday, February 16, 2014

A Man Named Hirohito & His Legacy

"He is a little man, about five feet two inches in height, in a badly cut gray striped suit, with trousers a couple of inches too short. He has a pronounced facial tic and his right shoulder twitches constantly. When he walks, he throws his right leg a little sideways as if he has no control over it. He was obviously excited and ill at ease, and uncertain of what to do with his arms and hands."
--journalist Mark Gayn describing Emperor Hirohito 
on one of his postwar goodwill tours, March 26th, 1946

The American novelist, William Faulkner, famously said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” His subject matter was black-white race relations and the legacy of slavery in the American South, but his words serve the Japanese experiment in twentieth century imperialism, the scars of its militarism yet unhealed, and the descendants of the rulers and the oppressed nursing respective grievances. World War II ended nearly seventy years ago, the blood spilled long since washed away, but a new nationalism in East Asia is drawing up a stale and divisive rhetoric, taking arrogant postures, and pretending history is malleable and can be recast according to one's manufactured political persuasions.

The American historian, Herbert Bix's biography of Japan's most notorious emperor, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Harper Collins, 2000), is an 800-page tome indicting Hirohito in no uncertain terms for the war crimes for which he was never prosecuted. Like an attorney who will leave no doubt in the reader's mind, Bix carefully assembles a narrative, beginning with Hirohito's grandfather, Meiji, and how his constitution allocated tremendous authority to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Nearly a hundred pages of the book are citations of evidence reflecting Japanese militarism and a racist philosophy propagated by Japanese intellectuals and historians that led to the colonization of Manchuria, sexual bondage in the Korean peninsula, and an irrational war of conquest that nearly caused Japan's total obliteration. Every step of the way, Hirohito authorized or failed to punish the inhumane crimes of his military establishment. Moreover, Bix argues it was Hirohito's self-centered maneuvers to preserve his throne and avoid just punishment that prolonged the war unnecessarily long after Japan's cause was lost, and that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians is the emperor's burden, as much as it is that of the Americans who authorized the atomic apocalypses.

Modern Japanese militarism has its origins when policy leaders began debating the kokutai, an archaic rarely-used concept nowadays. Kokutai are the best possible principles of Japanese state and society. Alas, it was inevitable that conservative ideologues would win the interpretation to ensure a status quo of the nearly feudal hierarchy that defined the structure of Japanese society for most of its history. Kokutai was then coupled with kodo, the “imperial way,” a political theology that declared the divine right of the emperor, who embodied moral goodness. The court, the military, and conservative political operatives could then utilize their reactionary agenda via imperial decree, as the emperor could make palatable even the most ruthless policies.

Hirohito was an amateur marine biologist. Small in stature, shy, and awkward, he was not a strongman. His personality was easily overshadowed by his arrogant generals and court advisers. Nevertheless, he was intelligent, detail-oriented and had been inculcated by court tutors to take divine right seriously, and that it was his responsibility to take part in political affairs, legitimizing Japanese militarism to the poor farmer sons who would have to leave their homeland and their families for dubious acts of violence in China, Korea, and Taiwan in service of the Emperor.

Because of WWII's total destruction, it's easy to overlook the trauma of the first world war. After Versailles, the US and Britain, via the League of Nations, put together a number of international treaties outlawing wars of aggression, most famously the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928. Japanese leaders interpreted that as an Anglo-American initiative to consolidate their vast colonial holdings (a fair argument-- they also called Europe on its hypocrisy, declaring peace overtures while resorting to violence to keep its multitudes in Africa and Asia in line). The Japanese imperialist philosophy, Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, wanted to rid Asia of European colonialists (as well as their pernicious cultural influence). The war in Asia-- beginning in China, and spreading to Britain's and France's holdings in Southeast Asia, as well as the United States' colony in the Philippines-- was justified as Asia for Asians, though the new hierarchy would indubitably place Japan at the top.

Every step of the way, Hirohito rubber-stamped his generals' advances. As emperor he could have cautioned or refuted militarism, and initially he sometimes did feel outrage at aggression, but overwhelmed by other, stronger personalities, he admitted “it can't be helped,” whether it was the political assassinations, repression of radicals, the Nanking Massacre, Pearl Harbor, or allied bombing of Japanese civilians, Hirohito decided to continue an unwinnable war waged with morally dubious values.

There is no question that Hirohito had absolute power. There is also no doubt that by summer of 1944, Japan would lose the war. Their ally, Nazi Germany, had been invaded at Normandy, and it was certain that the Soviets would turn their attention to Japan once Berlin fell. Moreover, after a spectacular blitzkrieg in late 1941, early 1942, Japan lost every single battle against the United States beginning with Midway, sustaining heavy casualties (to surrender to the enemy was seen as an act of ultimate shame-- better to die for the emperor). The US had closed Japanese sea lanes, in the process removing access to vital natural resources, as they slowly moved the Pacific war towards the home islands. In fact, the army and navy were in such dire shape, the only major losses the Americans were incurring by 1945 were kamikaze attacks and suicide charges. Thus, thousands of young men were being asked to die needlessly in the emperor's name. Why did Hirohito permit this? Why didn't he stop the war after Tokyo was firebombed on the night of March 9th, 1945 (in which 100,000 civilians were killed)? Instead they passed out bamboo spears to women, children, and old men in the event of an amphibious American invasion. They sent thousands of balloons charged with explosive across the Pacific (almost none of them reaching the U.S. and none detonating over population centers) Meanwhile, dozens of Japanese urban industrialized areas would be bombed in the five months between Tokyo's firestorming and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why did Hirohito persist, causing so much unnecessary death?

Self-preservation, of course. The Americans wanted unconditional surrender, like they'd had with Germany. The atomic bombs and the Soviet declaration of war (happening the same week, a very bad one for Japan) spelled the futility in no uncertain terms. On August 15th, 1945, Hirohito gave his famous radio address announcing Japan's surrender. But the emperor needn't have worried. Though he had to give up his divinity status, US leadership (under the guidance of General Douglas MacArthur) was more concerned with total destabilization brought on by his abdication (they were quite concerned about communism and radicalism). During the Tokyo Trials, Hirohito was not brought up as a war criminal and the infamous, Hideki Tojo, became the fall guy, the villain, taking the rap for the emperor (supposedly the emperor wept the morning Tojo was executed). Hirohito received all the credit for surrendering and none of the blame for the catastrophe. He kept his throne, collaborated with the Americans for the reconstruction of Japan, and approved of the famous peace constitution written by the Americans “forever” renouncing war. Hirohito would reign for another 44 years, in what would be one of the greatest economic booms of any society on earth, creating a middle class, a strong safety net, and progressive values, where once there had been almost none.

The famous photograph of MacArthur and Hirohito

Bix has presented irrefutable evidence from various court sources and testimony regarding Hirohito's war guilt. American leadership made a calculated choice not to prosecute him for these crimes. Bix's immense and laboriously composed book is not necessarily a judgment on either the emperor nor Truman and MacArthur. It is not saying that Hirohito was a "bad" man. History is too complex for such trite conclusions. But it is conclusive that the emperor was complicit in giving his imperial seal on some of the worst excesses of Japanese war crimes. And moreover, his failure to act decisively in the certainty of defeat inexorably led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. This is not up for debate or revision. This is what happened. But how to imagine a Japan had Hirohito been tried and punished like his beloved general and prime minister, Tojo, is one of those pathways history turned away from. 

So we return to Faulkner and the presence of the past, our contemporary time and a new nationalism ascendant in Japan's far right government. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is playing a risky game of brinksmanship with South Korea and especially China, quarreling territorially over a few rocks near Taiwan and revising history, absolving Japan of its criminal past. It is terrifying to consider how clumsy Abe is diplomatically, moreover, how poorly he is mistaking his agenda as that of a populist's. Japan's far-right is a vocal community, but they are a distinct minority, and the vast population of Japan does not seem very politically inclined, and would certainly be outraged by any sacrifice induced by (yet another unwinnable) war with China. Perhaps he is thinking his security treaty with the United States means U.S. armed forces would do his dirty work? I don't think any US president would commit American boys to China for a few uninhabitable rocks and Japan's reactionary misguided historical viewpoint. And certainly, almost no Japanese today will be willing to die for their emperor. That ideological cult is in the dustbin of history. He is no longer a god, he is just a man, a flawed one, like all of us.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Two Thousand Eleanor Rigbys in Small Town Ohio

It seemed to her that between herself and all the other people in the world, a wall had been built up and that she was living just on the edge of some warm inner circle of life that must be quite open and understandable to others.”
--Sherwood Anderson

In Sherwood Anderson's novel, Winesburg, Ohio, Alice Hindman, an unmarried 27-year-old living with her widowed mother and working at a dry goods store, is leading a lonely life. It has been ten years since she “gave” herself to Ned Currie, who'd gone to the “city” for work, promising to return for her one day. He never came back and his letters had tapered off a long time before. She knows he's not returning for her, but does not know how to move on, to get along with others: “If I am not careful I will grow unaccustomed to being with people.” She dwells on her alienation until one night she can't take it anymore and rushes into the yard during a thunderstorm. She is naked and in a “wild, desperate mood,” she yells to a passing farmhand. When he stops she hides in the bushes and then flees into her room. Weeping at her careless mistaking of foolhardiness for courage, she begins to “force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.”

Alice is not the protagonist of Winesburg, Ohio-- she is just one of its lonely citizens. The book is and is not a novel, closer to a collection of short stories, each “concerning” a different character, all more or less unified around the poignancy of distinct alienation. Nearly all these troubled persons are tangentially connected to George Willard, whose parents run the town's inn. George is a nineteen year old reporter for the Winesburg Eagle, the local gazette. The townsfolk confide in him, though some loathe George, since he has some get-up-and-go, that he does not seem so disconnected as they are, and might even emigrate from Winesburg to the city.

George dreams of being a writer. A schoolteacher, Kate Swift, more moll than marm and the object of local gossip, a woman who once lived in New York and had even traveled to Europe, tells George not to dwell on “mere words,” that if he is to write well, “the thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.” In Winesburg, almost no one says exactly what they mean. They live quiet lives, punctured by a significant, usually detrimental outburst catalyzed by a breaking point when loneliness has become too unbearable. Alice, the character mentioned earlier, is physically unremarkable, her “shoulders were a little stooped and her hair and eyes brown,” but this belies her swarming emotions: “She was very quiet but beneath a placid exterior a continual ferment went on.”

“Death,” George mutters, out for a walk, “night, the sea, fear, loveliness.” George is finally grasping Kate Swift's admonition-- that these aren't mere words, but poignant feelings everyone endures, the words themselves just sounds signifying a much bigger picture. He has this epiphany on a clear night in a destitute neighborhood of ramshackle claptraps. George needs to share this euphoria with a woman, Belle Carpenter, but his sense of glorious inevitability is ruined when he is humiliated by her beau. Passing the same neighborhood on his way home the laborers' houses now appeared “utterly squalid and commonplace.”

Sherwood Anderson

In spite of the unpretentious, utterly Midwestern prose style, Winesburg, Ohio is not light reading. It's a sad book about sad souls and though it concerns a rural small town published nearly a hundred years ago (in 1919), the book feels extraordinarily relevant; it seems then that the old folks are right, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The reader is reminded of his own coming of age experiences, how it seemed no one understood him, how he never imagined he would be able to break through his adolescent rut into something more profound and occasionally meaningful. In George, I saw a bit of myself, as I was, compensating for an inarticulate nature, when George tells Helen White, the best girl in town, “I'm going to be a big man, the biggest that ever lived here in Winesburg.”

George's cocky disclosure comes in the penultimate story, “Sophistication.” His “big man” speech is remembered by George on the evening of the town fair. Helen is visiting from college and is being escorted by a pompous university instructor whom she finds exasperating. At this point, George has decided to leave Winesburg, and wants a moment with Helen. His mother has recently died, partially from an unfulfilled life, and he no longer feels so entitled with destiny; he has become “sophisticated,” learning that “he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun.” Helen does manage to escape her date and when she and George find each other they share a nearly wordless, magically compatible night at the top of the fairgrounds after the blithe villagers have gone home to their farms, the hum of parties on Main Street drifting to them from town. Going downhill, they have a childish moment where breaking into a trot, George slips and Helen laughs at his fall. Their comfort in each other's presence fortifies the both of them for the divergent roads they will both take upon leaving Winesburg: “Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible.”

Such a sentiment richly deserving to all of us, so obvious and yet so elusive, has rarely been so gorgeously put down in words. Here is literature in its truest, most fundamental form, an indispensable reminder that we are not alone. And George does leave Winesburg. In the last story, “Departure,” he is off to a big city, worrying about being taken for a greenhorn by cityslickers. He imagines he should be contemplating big ideas on such a momentous occasion. Instead he ruminates over little things, everyday moments in Winesburg life, "Butch Wheeler the lamp lighter, hurrying through the streets on a summer evening... Helen White standing by a window in the Winesburg post office and putting a stamp on an envelop." George drifts into sleep running through these sundry details. When he stirs, his hometown “had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.” Such is the journey that so many of us have to make. Hopefully, we can make something out of the adventure, or at the very least, find a storytelling language that gilts our best efforts.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Story of a Captain Called Cook

In the year 2014 we take geography for granted. For the right amount of money, Mt. Everest can be attempted, kayaking around the collapsing icebergs of Anartctica is a possibility, and any place in the world, no matter how remote, is a few hundred miles away from the nearest airport. Hard to appreciate then the courage of explorers who risked their lives to map out the unknown reaches of our planet. When you left port on a ship, farewelling land, you were truly saying goodbye to life as you knew it, conveniences, friends, your loved ones, for perhaps years on end. The world was put together in piecemeal-- kingdoms hoarding resources and knowledge of shoals and beneficial winds often published false maps to deter foreign explorers from safely accessing these “discovered” lands. Thus proper understanding of the earth's dimensions was a slipshod process that took centuries. For context, it wasn't another 250 years after Magellan's crew first circumnavigated the globe that Australia's existence was confirmed.

A by-his-bootstraps lad from rural Yorkshire didn't discover the Australian continent (that was a Dutchman named Abel Tasman), but he was the first one to visit and map its eastern coast, one of many achievements in a legendary career. Before reading Richard Hough's biography Captain James Cook, I long imagined the famed explorer as an intrepid British pirate in the vein of Sir Walter Raleigh. But his life story is one of sobriety, competence, steadfastness, loyalty, ingenuity, leadership and, most especially, level-headedness.

Born into a family of impoverished laborers, Cook did not even see the ocean until he was seventeen years old (a bit of a late bloomer). By sheer hard work, good sense, and careful ambition, Cook rose from a sailor on local shipping lanes to working with the Royal Navy surveying the St. Lawrence River, distinguishing himself as a cartographer in the Seven Years War. He knew the right contacts in the government and they trusted him enough on a major voyage to the southern seas.

Cook sailed more nautical miles than any man in history-- visiting nearly every far-off fairy tale tropical port you've ever heard of and many you haen't, spending considerable time in Tahiti, New Zealand, as well as being the first explorer in the Antarctic Sea. His greatest contribution to cartography was proving conclusively what did not exist, that is a great southern landmass (beyond Australia in tropical or sub-tropical latitudes) and a Northwest Passage between the Bering Sea and the Atlantic Ocean (which entailed much fruitless sailing in bad weather in very cold climates).

These were long trips where it was unlikely to replenish food and water resources. The greatest threat to sailors in the explorations prior to Cook was scurvy, a lack of Vitamin C caused by a restricted diet. Cook was the first explorer to discover corollaries between nutritional habits and good health. As much as his surveying added to human knowledge, it was his advocation of sensible dieting for sailors that was just as strong as a legacy to the annals of exploration (but it wasn't easy getting sailors to put down their daily dose of saurkraut).

Unlike so many explorers who had an us-and-them attitude to indigenous tribes, Cook did not refer to the native peoples he encountered as savages but as human beings. From the Inuits in Alaska to the Polynesians of Tahiti to the naked Fuegians in the Magellan Strait, Cook showed restraint, when so many in his line of work slaughtered, captured, and indentured natives under some ludicrous proselytizing aegis.

In spite of all his years at sea, beyond a few minor islands in the remote Pacific, his only famous discovery was the Hawaiian Islands, which is where Cook met his end. This was his third voyage and he was evidently exhausted and possibly ailing with some stomach virus that affected his judgment, as well as his temper. Like the Aztec mythology predicting the arrival of a white-skinned god, so did a legend in Hawaii's Kealakekua Bay predict a deity coming in a great ship to the shores of the local tribe. Cook's visit was propitious at first, but evolved into chaos, leading to violent skirmishes between Cook's men and the islanders. Cook himself was torn to pieces and it was only through careful negotiations with the local priests were they able to recover most of his bodily remnants.

The last moments of Captain Cook

The catastrophe and Cook's demise in Hawaii is gripping narrative, especially as I was coming into the story for the first time knowing little of Cook's heroics. The writing comes to life, whereas in most of the biography, Hough's prose is as sober as his subject. (Cook mostly abstained from excess, and while his men took native paramours, Cook took on a moralizing posture to these dalliances-- sailors going AWOL to lead a Gaughinian existence in Tropical Paradise were flogged ten times for their improprieties.) Nevertheless one likes and cares about Cook and sees the tragedy in his premature passing in ways the vicarious explorer could never sympathize with Columbus and Magellan, who are more famous, when they should be just infamous. But this is hardly an exception; the prism through which popular history reflects deeds done doesn't have a sensible filtering system.