Thursday, March 22, 2012

Books I'm Reading: The Pacific War: 1931-1945 (March 22, 2012)

There are quite a few boxes of books sitting in my living room at the moment. Despite the clutter, a path through them remains that allows a connection between the kitchen and the front door. These are books that belonged to my father, who died in February.

I picked up Ienaga's The Pacific War: 1931-1945 (published in 1968 in Japanese, this translation published in 1978, by Pantheon) yesterday from the top of a pile close to the front door--not really intending to read the book. As I didn't know my father as well I would have liked, I want to go through these books before they are dispersed, as they seem in some sense to preserve something of his mind, a mind he opened to few people and then only rather clumsily. I have been leafing through a few books here and there, tentatively, not knowing where to begin. This particular volume was absorbing enough from the first few pages, however, that I read it virtually in one sitting. So, I have made a start, even if it's a random one. If I had picked up a book from a few feet away, it would have been about something else--although most likely about motor racing, the craft of writing, sailing, the film industry, the history of the Napoleonic Wars or the Civil War or some other war, fine food, travel--or it would have been a murder mystery. A man's library is a kind of biography.

In retrospect, I was vaguely aware of Ienaga. Following the end of the Pacific War, he began a long battle to oppose the system in Japan of government textbook approval, a form of censorship that continues to this day, that is annually in the news in Japan as the process is repeated--opposed by some, supported by others. This is the first time I've read anything by Ienaga, either in English or Japanese, but this modest-looking volume (256 pages), written more than 40 years ago, seems still fresh and worthwhile. It has a simplicity and clarity that few writers achieve on any subject (I was particularly impressed by the translation; being a translator by trade, I can say that it is excellent, although, unfortunately, the writer of the English gets no credit). The book is startling in its objectivity and forthrightness. There are no detailed descriptions of campaigns or battles. It is more a psychological probe that lays bare the stupidity, ignorance, and pig-headedness of Japan's military by seeking to answer questions like: What allowed the Pacific War to happen? and Why were the people of Japan unable to prevent it from escalating? Ienaga looks at a broad range of material--including everything from contemporary diaries and soldiers' accounts to transcriptions of reference materials used in conferences with Emperor Hirohito during the war. He traces the effects in Japan and Japan-occupied territories of the thinking that was both seed and sustaining force behind one of the most destructive, wasteful, and irresponsible sets of actions any elite has perpetrated in recent history. Ienaga has harsh words also for the United States and those in Japan that allowed the country to re-arm as soon as a stronger Japan became part of Cold War-era US military strategy in Asia.

Ienaga's fear that post-war sugarcoating of the history of Japan's Pacific War might allow a new generation to repeat the mistakes of the past is palpable. I first landed in Japan in August 1977. I spent a year in high school in rural Japan (Shikoku, near Matsuyama). I spoke no Japanese at the outset. I was mostly put into English classes and classes like art and music on the assumption that my lack of language skills would be a relatively small handicap in such subjects. I did take a world history class, however, and I remember being startled to find that about half of one period on one day of the school year was the entirety of the Pacific War discussion my classmates and I got (in US history classes at home, we had spent the better part of two weeks on World War II). Emperor Hirohito was still alive, the Ministry of Education controlled the textbooks and the curriculum. It is chilling to remember, particularly as Ienaga lays much of the blame for early Japanese enthusiasm for the Pacific War on government control of education and the ignorant, brain-washed population produced by that control. Despite the availability today of much more information about what happened in Japan before and during the Pacific War, and despite vastly greater openness in Japan now, this book still seems necessary and highly worthwhile.  I'm not surprised to see that it's still in print. Absorbing. A classic argument against militarism. Highly recommended.

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