My new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan is available now for pre-order on Amazon. You can order it here.
Here’s how one reviewer described the book (more reviews):
In Hooper’s War, a Novel of WWII Japan, an American veteran remembers his time in Japan during a World War II that might have been.
In this alternate-history novel, author Peter Van Buren follows both present-day and historical timelines to explore what might have happened if the United States had launched a ground invasion of Japan to end the second world war instead of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In 2017, elderly Nate Hooper is in a retirement home, reflecting on a recent visit to Kyoto, during which he kept a promise to his late Japanese wife. But back in 1945, Hooper is an 18-year-old Army officer leading a group of equally young soldiers through the remnants of Kyoto, dealing with the horrors of war. The narrative jumps between the two timelines as Hooper contends with memories of battle and secrets he’s kept for decades. Readers gradually discover the truth about his wartime actions.
Van Buren presents a complex world in which no action is ideal but avoiding decisions is impossible. The dialogue captures the raw emotion of war and the soldiers’ struggles for self-preservation amid moral injury. Hooper is an engaging main character, an innocent young man dealing with the loss of his illusions and the demands of a new role.
Hooper’s War doesn’t provide simple answers, and readers are left with the understanding that decisions made in battle can be both right and wrong at the same time.
Pre-order your copy of Hooper’s War today!
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You can win an autographed, advanced reading copy of my next book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.
Here are the details:
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Luminis Books will publish my next novel, Hooper’s War, in May 2017.
Here’s the back cover kind of blurb for the new book:
There’s no prosthetic for a soul that’s dying faster than its body. You have to heal it. And to do that, you’re going to have to fight Hooper’s War.
In this anti-war novel set in WWII Japan, Lieutenant Nate Hooper isn’t sure he’ll survive. And if he does make it home, he isn’t sure he can survive the peace. He’s done a terrible thing, and struggles to resolve the mistake alongside an unrepentant Japanese soldier, and a Japanese woman trying to save both men.
War can be about a lot of things but it is always about what happens to people. The characters face a decision that will forever define them not by their war against each other, but by their war against themselves. A tale of moral complexity, of decisions that last longer than people do.
With allegorical connections to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reverse chronology telling of Hooper’s War turns a loss-of-innocence narrative into a tale of why that loss is inevitable.
Think Matterhorn and The Things They Carried, crossed with Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. Some parts funny, some deadly serious.
That’s an early mockup of the cover, above. You can read some early excerpts from Hooper’s War here.
My heart goes out to everyone in Japan and in Ecuador affected by the recent series of terrible earthquakes. I was once where you are. My story isn’t meant to trivialize or generalize anyone else’s; it’s just mine.
It is the sound I remember as much as the shaking — a train roaring under the ground, a zipper larger than a river untangling itself, a tremendous noise made by the living rock underneath us shifting. The earth/the apartment building/the room/the bed began moving up and down, all adding to the sound. My wife, seven months pregnant with our second child, began screaming. I began screaming. I was thrown from my bed. At 5:46 in the morning on January 17, 1995, in Nishinomiya, Japan, outside Kobe, my world changed, what came to be known as the Great Hanshin earthquake.
I crawled to my four year old’s bedside, the floor still moving to make the trip of two or three yards uphill. I had not heard her scream. She was motionless on her futon, a heavy lamp knocked from the dresser on to the floor and I had that moment no parent should ever have that single flash of white and heat that lasted that ten hours the one second move to her side took me forever.
She was alright, I was alright, but it took me years, and much help, to fully know that. She’s in her 20’s now and I still look at her in a different way sometimes.
Stop now, wherever you are, and listen to everything around you made by the 21st century. Refrigerator hum, traffic noise, computer fan, water running, everything around you and try to subtract each away until you find yourself in the kind of silence that must have dominated life before technology. Everything was suddenly silent. The earthquake had taken the current century away in an instant, no water, no electricity, nothing able to move outside.
My apartment was about three quarters of a mile from the collapsed highway that became something of a symbol of the quake:
Outside the silence was bigger than inside, and I saw smoke columns in the distance and a home down the street collapsed. Traditional Japanese homes are built with heavy tile roofs on top of relatively spindly wooden frames. I don’t know why. I learned later that a lack of pressure-treated wood building products in older homes meant that termites were common, and so the structure holding up that heavy roof literally crumbled to dust with the shaking. The roof sat, more or less intact, on top of a pile of rubble; in a more comical mood, you could see it as that scene from the Wizard of Oz that claims the first wicked witch. Underneath the roof was everything that had been inside. We knew them as the Tanaka family. Mr. Tanaka and I had adjacent plots in the community garden, though we never really exchanged more than a few words of greeting and weather prediction. Guy could never get his damn tomatoes right, never more than hard, red stones really.
While many things about such natural violence are universal, some are likely very much something a part of Japan.
Moving off to the shopping street in search of bottled water and batteries an hour after the quake, I saw many stores were destroyed. Some were flattened, others just had windows and doors blown out. But there was no looting, just growing lines of Japanese shuffling through the dust, many in bedclothing, to join a line forming at the convenience store. The damn 7-11 had not only survived the quake, it was open. The lone minimum wage employee stood at the cash register, everything in the store thrown on to the floor around him. He was wearing his uniform, a little trickle of blood down the side of his head.
The line had formed spontaneously, naturally, and the boy was shouting for everyone please to only buy a small amount so that there would be some for everyone. That’s what happened. When my turn came, I put two liters of water and a handful of batteries on the counter, and handed over the only cash I had on me. The clerk apologized that he could not make change, took my money, and wrote out a little note with my name and his, saying the store owed me and would pay up once things got back to order.
Neighborhood people gathered in little knots because it seemed like what we should do. We exchanged information and luckily most were OK. We waited for someone — the police, the fire department, the army — to arrive and tell us what to do. When no one showed up, people left in ones and twos to clean up apartments and homes. Knowing we had a young child, a neighbor brought over some bottled juice she claimed she did not need.
By day three or four the roads had been cleared enough and a few trains started back into service such that my wife and daughter could self-evacuate to a relative’s home far enough away. A doctor there pronounced both healthy. I stayed behind to work, the commute stretching to hours, and leading me to move into my office and sleep on the floor for a few weeks. Around me, centered in the city of Kobe, 6,434 people had died.
It took a very long time for things to get back to what even then we dubbed the new normal. No one understood how long it would take, and a sense of frustration set in, a sense of wanting it all to be over.
The water came back on, the emergency services engaged, things reopened and kids returned to school. My second child was born, and life went on. That spring I went to turn over the soil and get started back in the community garden.
There was that good feeling of renewal, the moist smell of the earth ready. There was the empty plot where Mr. Tanaka was never really able to get his tomatoes to grow right.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and fellow envoys from the G7 visited Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park on the margins of their summit meeting this week.
Kerry was the highest ranking American government official to visit the Peace Park, the memorial dedicated to the victims of the world’s first nuclear attack on August 6, 1945.
U.S. officials are considering a visit to Hiroshima by Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama during his trip to Japan for the G7 in late May. Obama, in 2011, expressed some interest in being the first sitting American president to visit the city, but never purused the plans.
Fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter did visit Hiroshima in 1984, albeit as a private citizen after leaving office. Other high-level American visits have been scattered only over recent years; then-U.S. ambassador to Japan, John Roos attended the annual August 6 commemoration in Hiroshima in 2010, the first U.S. ambassador to ever do so. In 2011, in another first, the United States sent a (lower ranking) official representative to the annual memorial service in Nagasaki. Current ambassador Caroline Kennedy attended the Hiroshima memorial service to mark the attack’s 70th anniversary last year.
Kerry, like his official predecessors to Hiroshima, expressed empathy for the dead without acknowledging culpability for the thing that killed them, almost as if it was an act of nature, or that someone else had done it.
Regarding those predecessors, note the dates; the first American ambassador to visit Hiroshima wasn’t until 2010, 65 years after the atomic bombing. Kerry’s visit, 71 years after the attack, occurred only in the company of his G7 colleagues, and not on the highly-symbolic day of August 6.
All countries get their own history wrong to some degree, and careful retrospection, absent that built into enforced penitence such as was applied to post-WWII Germany, is rare.
Yet as the only nation to use nuclear weapons, and to have used them against near-wholly civilian targets, and having used them under circumstances of arguable necessity, one might expect, 71 years later and now full-allies with Japan, some modicum of introspection by the United States. Absent some academics and “peace advocates,” that has never happened.
In the United States, sometime after with the public announcement in 1945 of the atomic bombings, the message was kneaded into public consciousness that the bombs were not dropped out of hatred, revenge or malice, but of military necessity. The attacks did not reflect American evil, but were merely an inescapable and ugly necessity of a war we didn’t start.
The bombs, we were told, saved millions of lives that would have been lost in a land invasion. Both American and Japanese souls would have perished in that invasion, which seemed to characterize the atomic attacks as almost to the benefit of Japan, in that we killed fewer people that way. The bombs were just the lesser of two evils, it was war, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were far from the first places civilians were targeted. An undercurrent is more disturbing — they deserved it, life is cheaper over there for Orientals. One way or another, there is a consensus woven into the American narrative that there was simply no choice.
The deeper cause of a lack of introspection seems to lie in a national meme that no moral wrong was committed, and thus no internal soul-searching is necessary. The U.S. is obviously not alone in this way of thinking, and Japan itself is quite guilty of failing to look deep into itself over the atrocities committed in China, Korea and elsewhere during WWII.
But “everybody does it” is obviously the kind of excuse five-year-olds use, and unworthy of the United States. And while other nations committed terrible actions in the Second World War, it is only the United States that has gone on to continue making war on a grand scale; over a million killed in Vietnam (no one knows for sure), an estimated million in Iraq (no one knows for sure), and somewhere between a quarter of a million and half a million in Syria (still accruing.)
Never mind Korea, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Haiti, Grenada, Central America, Afghanistan and the others, plus the new twist, global drone wars. Along the way were documented American threats to use nuclear weapons to break the Berlin Blockade, to defend South Korea, to smite the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis, to “win” in Vietnam and to save Israel during the Yom Kippur war, as well as other situations use was considered. The U.S. continues to maintain a deployed nuclear arsenal well-beyond any defense needs and in grand excess of that possessed by other nuclear powers.
Perhaps some of those atomic threats are historically arguable, and some may have been more bark than intended bite, but in toto it is hard to dismiss America’s willingness to again use nuclear weapons; indeed, talk of “tactical nukes” comes up in many discussions of what to do if Iran were to develop its own atomic capability. In each threatened use of nuclear weapons, however accurate the delivery and however intended for a military target, the vast power of the bombs ensures civilians deaths and mass, indiscriminate, destruction. Those factors have not been a deterrent to nuclear threats and plans, and have certainly not deterred conventional warfare.
Such thinking is a product of lack of introspection, a sweeping, national generalization that if we do it, it is right. John Kerry is an intelligent man, an educated man who has been to war. Perhaps, as he mumbled platitudinous talking points on his visit to Hiroshima, an additional thought or two about the real meaning of his very late presence there crept in?
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and the governor of Okinawa Takeshi Onaga agreed in early March to take a dispute over the future of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma (seen above) out of the courts and back offline to the negotiating table.
Abe “accepted” a freeze on construction work at a contentious new location planned for the base as part of the agreement, though work had already been put on hold while Tokyo and Okinawa fought a legal battle over the site.
The deal is only the latest step in a more than two decade long tussle by Japanese and American officials to move the base. National officials want to move the base to a less crowded part of the island, but Onaga and a majority of Okinawans oppose the plan because they want the Marines moved off Okinawa altogether, to Guam. Currently, about half of all American military personnel assigned to Japan are on Okinawa.
Also, a group of 70 prominent Americans, including filmmaker Oliver Stone, have signed a petition criticizing U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy for her backing of the plan to relocate the Marine Corps base.
Adding to the complexity, the proposed relocation site on Okinawa, Henoko, would see a pair of runways built on landfill in what is now a pristine coral-filled bay.
Okinawa, Tokyo and the Americans
Memories on Okinawa are long, and anger over the relationship among the island, the central Japanese government and the Americans runs deep.
For centuries the Okinawan people have seen themselves as separate from mainland Japanese. The islanders have their own native language, a long, unique, cultural tradition and, many believe, even a completely different genetic makeup than “the Japanese.” Natives refer to the archipelago as the Ryukyu Islands, not Okinawa. Feelings that the island is ruled by mainland, but is not a part of it, are widely-held.
Tangled in all that is a belief that Okinawa was the scene of some of the WWII’s bloodiest land fighting, with massive civilian casualties, because Tokyo was prepared to sacrifice the island to slow down the overall American advance towards the home islands. It was Imperial Japanese Army soldiers who spread rumors among the local people that the Americans would slaughter them, forcing mothers to watch their children die. Whole grades from a girls’ school leapt off a cliff together into the sea.
In 1951, America formally annexed the island of Okinawa, running it under the control of an American governor until the place was “returned” to the Tokyo government in 1972. During this period of time, massive American bases were established, ultimately to consume a significant percentage of the useable land area of Okinawa. In the 1950s when they were established, a fair number of the facilities were on the outskirts of urban areas, but growth over the years has seen the cities envelope the bases such that transport planes land at rooftop level over homes, and fighter jets crack the skies at night. Add to that the steady beat of crimes American military personnel commit on Okinawa, to include several high-profile rape cases. It is not a pretty picture.
Art of the (Non-) Deal
There is no end in sight to the conflict among Tokyo, the U.S., and Okinawa.
Abe and Onaga have not budged from their fundamental positions. “Relocating to Henoko is still the only option,” Abe said. Onaga insists he will not “allow a new base to be built at Henoko.”
This month’s deal only requires Tokyo and Okinawa to drop their competing lawsuits and return to negotiations; there is no timetable for the talks. Japanese and American officials had hoped to move Futenma to its new location on Henoko Bay by 2023. Admiral Harry Harris, head of the United States Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that the move would be delayed to 2025 or later.
Some media outlets have played this story as a victory for one side or another. That is a false narrative; instead, following a long-used Japanese negotiating strategy, both sides chose to withdraw, waiting for an opening to allow them to reengage the attack under more favorable circumstances.
With that in mind, 2025 is probably a very optimistic estimate.
A society’s prison system mirrors the society. What does America’s say about America?
Some numbers: With only five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has more than 20 percent of the world’s prison population. America has the largest actual prison head count in the world and the second-highest per-capita incarceration rate (first place is held via a statistical oddity by the tiny Seychelles island nation.) In the U.S., from 1978 to 2014, the prison population rose 408 percent, to the point where the nation is closing in on a full one percent of the entire population being in prison proper. If you include all forms of correctional control –prison, jail, parole and probation — about three percent of Americans are included. The numbers are currently as high as they have ever been in history.
The world’s self-proclaimed freest society is anything but.
It actually gets worse when one looks at the statistics broken down by race. Black men are six times more likely than white men to be in prison. Hispanic men are 2.4 times more likely than whites to be locked up.
And all this comes at a cost: the American prison system runs an estimated $74 billion a year, more than the GDP of 133 nations. A report by the organization The Price of Prisons states that the average cost of incarcerating one inmate $31,307 per year, though in states like Connecticut, Washington state, New York, it’s anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000. That’s a teacher’s salary, or a nurse’s.
Those are the costs. But what does America get for its money?
Not much. Despite locking up more people than any other place on earth, American society remains one of the most violent; there is almost no comparison outside of actual war zones. About the same number of people are killed by guns alone in Miami as in Colombia. L.A. has more gun deaths than the Philippines, Phoenix more than Mexico.
If America’s prison population, 2.2 million people, was a city, it would be the nation’s fourth largest, behind only New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. But it would clearly be America’s most violent city, a place where residents suffer routine cruelty at rates unlike anywhere else in the country, where they are raped and beaten by both their neighbors and by the officials paid to keep them safe. Some four percent of inmates report sexual assault, while 16 percent say they are physically assaulted. It is plausible to assume unreported incidents keep the numbers low. Like our society, our prisons are terribly violent places.
The U.S. remains also the only Western nation to impose the death penalty. World leaders in sentencing people to death alongside the United States include China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and many African nations. Awkward company given the image Americans otherwise hold of themselves.
Yet at the same time, sending people to prison in America does not stop them from committing new crimes once released. Again, the statistics are appalling. One study found that within three years of release, about two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested. Within five years of release, about three-quarters of released prisoners were rearrested.
America has clearly chosen to use its prisons for punishment, not rehabilitation, despite the former most obviously not working. What about elsewhere?
Norway is one of many examples of simply the opposite of the United States. Its incarceration rate is just 75 per 100,000 people, compared to 707 people for every 100,000 people in the U.S. It has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20 percent. Its prisons are clean, more like dorms than medieval facilities, and seek to prepare inmates for life on the outside with vocational programs. Inmates enter as criminals and emerge as people.
In Japan, the prison population is relatively small, as crime throughout the nation is low. Conditions in prison are harsh, in a military-style way, but there is no danger to prisoners and near-zero inmate-on-inmate violence. The system is clear on its goals: in almost mimicry of Buddhist tradition, prisoners are subjected to austere conditions. The goal is for them to see they have, through crime, been selfish, placing their needs above society’s. They must repent, and then serve their term as penance. Recidivism is around 40 percent, mostly among hard-core yakuza gang members. Most other inmates enter as criminals and emerge as people.
We know — by statistics, by the fear we have inside our urban neighborhoods — that in America inmates enter as criminals and emerge as criminals, often beaten and raped in between. Our society remains the most violent among industrialized nations. Our prison populations reflect the sad racism that still plagues our nation. America must face itself and know that our prisons are us, and cannot be made like Norway’s or Japan’s.
We can’t fix our prison system until we fix us.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing through legislation to give his country’s military the power to strike offensively for the first time since the war.
It is hard to understate the potential impact of this development.
Domestically, Abe is putting his own job on the line. Voters oppose the new legislation roughly two to one, opposition parties walked out of the vote in protest and the government’s support ratings fell to around 40 percent. The lower house of parliament’s decision to approve the legislation set off the largest demonstrations in Japan since the Fukushima nuclear accident; a crowd of 100,000 people gathered with signs reading “Abe, Quit.”
Abe took this action knowing that 55 years ago similar protests forced his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, out of the prime minister’s job after he rammed a revised U.S.-Japan security pact, seen as too militaristic, through parliament.
Abe’s move is also darkly symbolic both in and outside Japan.
Most Japanese remain proud of Article 9 in their postwar constitution, through which they became the only nation in modern times to renounce the use of offensive force. Abe’s walking his country away from this achievement represents the end of the last great ideal to emerge from World War Two, and an almost contemptuous disregard for his citizens’ view of themselves.
In addition, as China contests islands in the seas south of Japan, North Korea rattles its nuclear saber and Japan’s Southeast Asian neighbors remember their own World War Two experiences, the new legislation throws additional fuel onto the coals of East Asian tensions. China’s foreign ministry said the move called into question Japan’s postwar commitment to “the path of peaceful development” and urged Abe to learn the lessons of history.
Chief among the practical concerns in Japan is that Abe’s legislative end-run around the constitution will block case-by-case debate on the use of the nation’s military.
For example, Japan’s only post-World War Two deployment of troops abroad, a single battalion to Iraq in 2004 in support of U.S. reconstruction efforts, met intense scrutiny to the point where the government published images of the small arms the soldiers carried, which were to be used only for self-protection, to assure the public of its non-martial intent. A separate, one-time-only law, passed in the wake of 9/11 to allow Japan to refuel American ships in the Indian Ocean, restricted Japanese vessels to “areas where no combat is taking place.”
The new legislation does not immediately become law. The measure moves to the upper house, where no vote is expected to be taken. After 60 days, the measure will automatically return to the lower chamber, where Abe’s coalition holds a comfortable majority. In theory, the decision could then be challenged in the supreme court as being in violation of Article 9, though the court historically rules in favor of the government.
That addresses the “what.” The “why” remains much harder to discern.
Abe says the legislation is in response to threats facing Japan, including from China. He also cites the murder of two Japanese hostages by Islamic State, suggesting his military could have rescued them. While these views play well to the ultranationalists who help fund the prime minister’s party, Abe’s critics see them as blather; American security guarantees protect Japan without a (Japanese, at least) thumb in the eye of its neighbors. And even if Japan had the special-forces capability to pull off a hostage rescue, such an action seems well within the intent of Article 9.
Abe also says that the new legislation would allow Japan to help defend the United States, something his critics feel could lead to entanglements in U.S. aggression against China, or even in the Middle East. Abe’s own arguments about defending Japan aside, one real factor is the United States pushing the leader into a more aggressive stance under the banner of “collective defense.”
However, the real “why” likely rests deep inside Abe. He has long held a hyper-conservative view of World War Two. He stated, for example, that Japanese leaders charged with war crimes were “not war criminals under the laws of Japan.” American occupiers arrested Abe’s grandfather, Kishi, as a war criminal for his role in the war. Some say Kishi, who helped raise Abe, pressed into his grandson his own dream of remaking Japan as a military power and throwing off the postwar constitution.
Abe is a politician who found himself powerful enough to act on his own ideas, apart from what many feel are his nation’s legitimate security needs. Abe is apparently willing to pick a fight, risk his job and anger his country, all in service to his own ideology.
As part of the events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in the Pacific, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke in a nationally-televised event about the deep remorse his nation felt over the events of the war.
While many in Japan seem satisfied that Abe appropriately helped put the past in its place, most outside Japan expressed disappointment in his well-chosen words.
Did Abe accidentally miss the mark in his speech, or did he purposefully hit his target dead on?
Abe’s speech emphasized remorse. “I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.” He acknowledged Japan had inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering” when it “took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.”
But in the same text, Abe also said “we must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” emphasizing that 80% of Japan’s population was born after 1945. He blamed the western colonial powers for entering Asia in the 19th century, and mentioned Japan’s civilian casualties in the specific — Hiroshima, Tokyo, Okinawa — without touching on events such as the infamous Nanjing Massacre, which took 300,000 Chinese lives, the importation of Koreans into Japan for forced labor and the sexual enslavement of 200,000 so-called “comfort women” throughout Asia.
Criticism of Abe’s speech from abroad was sharp. China’s Xinhua news agency said the speech was insincere, and his “adulterated apology is far from being enough for Japan’s neighbors and the broader international community to lower their guard.” Abe, Xinhua said, sought to “close the page of history.” In South Korea, which calls August 15, the day of Japan agreed to surrender to the U.S., Liberation Day, President Park Geun-hye said Abe’s statement “left much to be desired.”
The duality of Abe’s words was not by any accident, and he took great pains to ensure any explanations or condolences would not be confused for an apology. Why?
Whenever a senior Japanese leader speaks of the war, he must parse out where he will create offense, because in the pattern that has evolved in East Asia, no Japanese leader can satisfy both his domestic and international audiences. He must decide where to spend his points.
Abe’s choice fell solidly on the domestic side, not unexpected given his drive to remilitarize Japan. The word “apology” in the context of the war is seen by conservatives in Japan, which include many of the wealthy donors who support Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party party, as near-profanity. The same for specific mentions of events such as Nanjing or Japan’s system of sexual slavery; many in the far right-wing in Tokyo still deny those events took place. Abe referring to Japan’s own losses as he mentioned Japan’s victims, was a sop to his supporters and, by Asian sensibilities, a slap in the face to those who died under Japan’s hand.
Some in Japan will respond by asking how many times must they apologize for events that most young people in Japan barely know about. The answer lies in comparing Japan’s post-war actions to Germany’s.
Abe appointed unapologetic revisionists to high-profile posts, and has made visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japanese leaders convicted of war crimes are enshrined along with millions of fallen soldiers and sailors. The Shrine also hosts a museum of World War II artifacts, including a locomotive from occupied Manchuria seen as an endorsement of Japanese colonial ambitions. Though with no connection to Abe, many in Asia are also acutely aware that World War II Emperor Hirohito’s son sits on the throne in Japan.
Unlike in Germany, what happened was never kneaded into Japan’s national consciousness, something that underlies Abe’s recent speech, and actions as Prime Minister.
Understanding Abe’s speech, and Japan’s actions, through Chinese or Korean eyes can be difficult. But imagine a German government beholden to Holocaust deniers, one that deletes its Nazi legacy from textbooks, one that never apologized and compensated its victims, and one where the Prime Minister made a yearly pilgrimage to a site holy to the National Socialists, perhaps with an attached museum featuring rail cars from Dachau. All with Hitler’s son as the symbolic head of state.
So when a Japanese Prime Minister stands to speak of the Pacific War, he speaks in a type of code, including certain words he knows will please his domestic audience, and knowingly leaving out many others whose omissions offend and inflame much of his international listeners. Shinzo Abe choose his words with great care, and hit his target this time dead solid perfect.
There is a lot to say about this day, when 70 years ago, the United States became the first and only nation to use nuclear weapons.
So much is said every day about Iran and nuclear weapons, and terrorists and nuclear weapons, Putin with nuclear weapons and so forth, but that one fact remains among all the blather. For all the talk, only America has dropped the bomb.
We did it twice (the Nagasaki bomb was on August 9) and we did it on two civilian targets. There is no use arguing that the two cities had significant military value; if there had been, they would have already been firebombed to tinder the way Tokyo and other cities in Japan had been. Nagasaki was a port, but not far away was the major naval base at Sasebo, which some say was not bombed because the U.S. planned to take possession of it after the war for our own navy (we did.) Both cities had some defense industry, but pretty much any place in Japan larger than a village also did.
Civilians were not, in today’s language, collateral damage. They were the targets. The image above shows what one child victim then looked like as an adult.
Please think of him when you hear some American say the Japs deserved it.
So we’ll leave it at this. As part of my research for my next book, Hooper’s War, I found this, below, an accounting by the United States of the exact, precise number of school children it killed on that hot August morning in 1945.
(This piece is written by a good friend of the blog, Chris Appy, and is reprinted with the kind permission of Chris and TomDispatch, where it originally appeared.)
Here we are, 70 years after the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I’m wondering if we’ve come even one step closer to a moral reckoning with our status as the world’s only country to use atomic weapons to slaughter human beings.
Will an American president ever offer a formal apology? Will our country ever regret the dropping of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man,” those two bombs that burned hotter than the sun? Will it absorb the way they instantly vaporized thousands of victims, incinerated tens of thousands more, and created unimaginably powerful shockwaves and firestorms that ravaged everything for miles beyond ground zero? Will it finally come to grips with the “black rain” that spread radiation and killed even more people — slowly and painfully — leading in the end to a death toll for the two cities conservatively estimated at more than 250,000?
Given the last seven decades of perpetual militarization and nuclear “modernization” in this country, the answer may seem like an obvious no. Still, as a historian, I’ve been trying to dig a little deeper into our lack of national contrition. As I have, an odd fragment of Americana kept coming to mind, a line from the popular 1970 tearjerker Love Story: “Love,” says the female lead when her boyfriend begins to apologize, “means never having to say you’re sorry.” It has to be one of the dumbest definitions ever to lodge in American memory, since real love often requires the strength to apologize and make amends.
It does, however, apply remarkably well to the way many Americans think about that broader form of love we call patriotism. With rare exceptions, like the 1988 congressional act that apologized to and compensated the Japanese-American victims of World War II internment, when it comes to the brute exercise of power, true patriotism has above all meant never having to say you’re sorry. The very politicians who criticize other countries for not owning up to their wrong-doing regularly insist that we should never apologize for anything. In 1988, for example, after the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf killing all 290 passengers (including 66 children), Vice President George H.W. Bush, then running for president, proclaimed, “I will never apologize for the United States. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are.”
It turns out, however, that Bush’s version of American remorselessness isn’t quite enough. After all, Americans prefer to view their country as peace-loving, despite having been at war constantly since 1941. This means they need more than denials and non-apologies. They need persuasive stories and explanations (however full of distortions and omissions). The tale developed to justify the bombings that led to a world in which the threat of human extinction has been a daily reality may be the most successful legitimizing narrative in our history. Seventy years later, it’s still deeply embedded in public memory and school textbooks, despite an ever-growing pile of evidence that contradicts it. Perhaps it’s time, so many decades into the age of apocalyptic peril, to review the American apologia for nuclear weapons — the argument in their defense — that ensured we would never have to say we’re sorry.
The Hiroshima Apologia
On August 9, 1945, President Harry Truman delivered a radio address from the White House. “The world will note,” he said, “that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” He did not mention that a second atomic bomb had already been dropped on Nagasaki.
Truman understood, of course, that if Hiroshima was a “military base,” then so was Seattle; that the vast majority of its residents were civilians; and that perhaps 100,000 of them had already been killed. Indeed, he knew that Hiroshima was chosen not for its military significance but because it was one of only a handful of Japanese cities that had not already been firebombed and largely obliterated by American air power. U.S. officials, in fact, were intent on using the first atomic bombs to create maximum terror and destruction. They also wanted to measure their new weapon’s power and so selected the “virgin targets” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In July 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson informed Truman of his fear that, given all the firebombing of Japanese cities, there might not be a target left on which the atomic bomb could “show its strength” to the fullest. According to Stimson’s diary, Truman “laughed and said he understood.”
The president soon dropped the “military base” justification. After all, despite Washington’s effort to censor the most graphic images of atomic annihilation coming out of Hiroshima, the world quickly grasped that the U.S. had destroyed an entire city in a single blow with massive loss of life. So the president focused instead on an apologia that would work for at least the next seven decades. Its core arguments appeared in that same August 9th speech. “We have used [the atomic bomb] against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor,” he said, “against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”
By 1945, most Americans didn’t care that the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not committed Japan’s war crimes. American wartime culture had for years drawn on a long history of “yellow peril” racism to paint the Japanese not just as inhuman, but as subhuman. As Truman put it in his diary, it was a country full of “savages” — “ruthless, merciless, and fanatic” people so loyal to the emperor that every man, woman, and child would fight to the bitter end. In these years, magazines routinely depicted Japanese as monkeys, apes, insects, and vermin. Given such a foe, so went the prevailing view, there were no true “civilians” and nothing short of near extermination, or at least a powerful demonstration of America’s willingness to proceed down that path, could ever force their surrender. As Admiral William “Bull” Halsey said in a 1944 press conference, “The only good Jap is a Jap who’s been dead six months.”
In the years after World War II, the most virulent expressions of race hatred diminished, but not the widespread idea that the atomic bombs had been required to end the war, eliminating the need to invade the Japanese home islands where, it was confidently claimed, tooth-and-nail combat would cause enormous losses on both sides. The deadliest weapon in history, the one that opened the path to future Armageddon, had therefore saved lives. That was the stripped down mantra that provided the broadest and most enduring support for the introduction of nuclear warfare. By the time Truman, in retirement, published his memoir in 1955, he was ready to claim with some specificity that an invasion of Japan would have killed half-a-million Americans and at least as many Japanese.
Over the years, the ever-increasing number of lives those two A-bombs “saved” became a kind of sacred numerology. By 1991, for instance, President George H.W. Bush, praising Truman for his “tough, calculating decision,” claimed that those bombs had “spared millions of American lives.” By then, an atomic massacre had long been transformed into a mercy killing that prevented far greater suffering and slaughter.
Truman went to his grave insisting that he never had a single regret or a moment’s doubt about his decision. Certainly, in the key weeks leading up to August 6, 1945, the record offers no evidence that he gave serious consideration to any alternative.
“Revisionists” Were Present at the Creation
Twenty years ago, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum planned an ambitious exhibit to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. At its center was to be an extraordinary artifact — the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress used to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. But the curators and historical consultants wanted something more than yet another triumphal celebration of American military science and technology. Instead, they sought to assemble a thought-provoking portrayal of the bomb’s development, the debates about its use, and its long-term consequences. The museum sought to include some evidence challenging the persistent claim that it was dropped simply to end the war and “save lives.”
For starters, visitors would have learned that some of America’s best-known World War II military commanders opposed using atomic weaponry. In fact, six of the seven five-star generals and admirals of that time believed that there was no reason to use them, that the Japanese were already defeated, knew it, and were likely to surrender before any American invasion could be launched. Several, like Admiral William Leahy and General Dwight Eisenhower, also had moral objections to the weapon. Leahy considered the atomic bombing of Japan “barbarous” and a violation of “every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and all of the known laws of war.”
Truman did not seriously consult with military commanders who had objections to using the bomb. He did, however, ask a panel of military experts to offer an estimate of how many Americans might be killed if the United States launched the two major invasions of the Japanese home islands scheduled for November 1, 1945 and March 1, 1946. Their figure: 40,000 — far below the half-million he would cite after the war. Even this estimate was based on the dubious assumption that Japan could continue to feed, fuel, and arm its troops with the U.S. in almost complete control of the seas and skies.
The Smithsonian also planned to inform its visitors that some key presidential advisers had urged Truman to drop his demand for “unconditional surrender” and allow Japan to keep the emperor on his throne, an alteration in peace terms that might have led to an almost immediate surrender. Truman rejected that advice, only to grant the same concession after the nuclear attacks.
Keep in mind, however, that part of Truman’s motivation for dropping those bombs involved not the defeated Japanese, but the ascending Soviet Union. With the U.S.S.R. pledged to enter the war against Japan on August 8, 1945 (which it did), Truman worried that even briefly prolonging hostilities might allow the Soviets to claim a greater stake in East Asia. He and Secretary of State James Byrnes believed that a graphic demonstration of the power of the new bomb, then only in the possession of the United States, might also make that Communist power more “manageable” in Europe. The Smithsonian exhibit would have suggested that Cold War planning and posturing began in the concluding moments of World War II and that one legacy of Hiroshima would be the massive nuclear arms race of the decades to come.
In addition to displaying American artifacts like the Enola Gay, Smithsonian curators wanted to show some heartrending objects from the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima, including a schoolgirl’s burnt lunchbox, a watch dial frozen at the instant of the bomb’s explosion, a fused rosary, and photographs of the dead and dying. It would have been hard to look at these items beside that plane’s giant fuselage without feeling some sympathy for the victims of the blast.
None of this happened. The exhibit was canceled after a storm of protest. When the Air Force Association leaked a copy of the initial script to the media, critics denounced the Smithsonian for its “politically correct” and “anti-American” “revision” of history. The exhibit, they claimed, would be an insult to American veterans and fundamentally unpatriotic. Though conservatives led the charge, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Smithsonian for being “revisionist and offensive” that included a tidy rehearsal of the official apologia: “The role of the Enola Gay… was momentous in helping to bring World War II to a merciful end, which resulted in saving the lives of Americans and Japanese.”
Merciful? Consider just this: the number of civilians killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki alone was more than twice the number of American troops killed during the entire Pacific war.
In the end, the Smithsonian displayed little but the Enola Gay itself, a gleaming relic of American victory in the “Good War.”
Our Unbroken Faith in the Greatest Generation
In the two decades since, we haven’t come closer to a genuine public examination of history’s only nuclear attack or to finding any major fault with how we waged what Studs Terkel famously dubbed “the Good War.” He used that term as the title for his classic 1984 oral history of World War II and included those quotation marks quite purposely to highlight the irony of such thinking about a war in which an estimated 60 million people died. In the years since, the term has become an American cliché, but the quotation marks have disappeared along with any hint of skepticism about our motives and conduct in those years.
Admittedly, when it comes to the launching of nuclear war (if not the firebombings that destroyed 67 Japanese cities and continued for five days after “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki), there is some evidence of a more critical cast of mind in this country. Recent polls, for instance, show that “only” 56% of Americans now think we were right to use nuclear weapons against Japan, down a few points since the 1990s, while support among Americans under the age of 30 has finally fallen below 50%. You might also note that just after World War II, 85% of Americans supported the bombings.
Of course, such pro-bomb attitudes were hardly surprising in 1945, especially given the relief and joy at the war’s victorious ending and the anti-Japanese sentiment of that moment. Far more surprising: by 1946, millions of Americans were immersed in John Hersey’s best-selling book Hiroshima, a moving report from ground zero that explored the atomic bomb’s impact through the experiences of six Japanese survivors. It began with these gripping lines:
“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”
Hiroshima remains a remarkable document for its unflinching depictions of the bomb’s destructiveness and for treating America’s former enemy with such dignity and humanity. “The crux of the matter,” Hersey concluded, “is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good might result?”
The ABC Radio Network thought Hersey’s book so important that it hired four actors to read it in full on the air, reaching an even wider audience. Can you imagine a large American media company today devoting any significant air time to a work that engendered empathy for the victims of our twenty-first century wars? Or can you think of a recent popular book that prods us to consider the “material and spiritual evil” that came from our own participation in World War II? I can’t.
In fact, in the first years after that war, as Paul Boyer showed in his superb book By the Bomb’s Early Light, some of America’s triumphalism faded as fears grew that the very existence of nuclear weapons might leave the country newly vulnerable. After all, someday another power, possibly the Soviet Union, might use the new form of warfare against its creators, producing an American apocalypse that could never be seen as redemptive or merciful.
In the post-Cold War decades, however, those fears have again faded (unreasonably so since even a South Asian nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India could throw the whole planet into a version of nuclear winter). Instead, the “Good War” has once again been embraced as unambiguously righteous. Consider, for example, the most recent book about World War II to hit it big, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Published in 2010, it remained on the New York Times best-seller list in hardcover for almost four years and has sold millions of copies. In its reach, it may even surpass Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book, The Greatest Generation. A Hollywood adaptation of Unbroken appeared last Christmas.
Hillenbrand’s book does not pretend to be a comprehensive history of World War II or even of the war in the Pacific. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a child delinquent turned Olympic runner turned B-24 bombardier. In 1943, his plane was shot down in the Pacific. He and the pilot survived 47 days in a life raft despite near starvation, shark attacks, and strafing by Japanese planes. Finally captured by the Japanese, he endured a series of brutal POW camps where he was the victim of relentless sadistic beatings.
The book is decidedly a page-turner, but its focus on a single American’s punishing ordeal and amazing recovery inhibits almost any impulse to move beyond the platitudes of nationalistic triumphalism and self-absorption or consider (among other things) the racism that so dramatically shaped American combat in the Pacific. That, at least, is the impression you get combing through some of the astonishing 25,000 customer reviews Unbroken has received on Amazon. “My respect for WWII veterans has soared,” a typical reviewer writes. “Thank you Laura Hillenbrand for loving our men at war,” writes another. It is “difficult to read of the inhumanity of the treatment of the courageous men serving our country.” And so on.
Unbroken devotes a page and a half to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, all of it from the vantage point of the American crew of the Enola Gay. Hillenbrand raises concerns about the crew’s safety: “No one knew for sure if… the bomber could get far enough away to survive what was coming.” She describes the impact of the shockwaves, not on the ground, but at 30,000 feet when they slammed into the Enola Gay, “pitching the men into the air.”
The film version of Unbroken evokes even less empathy for the Japanese experience of nuclear war, which brings to mind something a student told my graduate seminar last spring. He teaches high school social studies and when he talked with colleagues about the readings we were doing on Hiroshima, three of them responded with some version of the following: “You know, I used to think we were wrong to use nukes on Japan, but since I saw Unbroken I’ve started to think it was necessary.” We are, that is, still in the territory first plowed by Truman in that speech seven decades ago.
At the end of the film, this note appears on the screen: “Motivated by his faith, Louie came to see that the way forward was not revenge, but forgiveness. He returned to Japan, where he found and made peace with his former captors.”
That is indeed moving. Many of the prison camp guards apologized, as well they should have, and — perhaps more surprisingly — Zamperini forgave them. There is, however, no hint that there might be a need for apologies on the American side, too; no suggestion that our indiscriminate destruction of Japan, capped off by the atomic obliteration of two cities, might be, as Admiral Leahy put it, a violation of “all of the known laws of war.”
So here we are, 70 years later, and we seem, if anything, farther than ever from a rejection of the idea that launching atomic warfare on Japanese civilian populations was an act of mercy. Perhaps some future American president will finally apologize for our nuclear attacks, but one thing seems certain: no Japanese survivor of the bombs will be alive to hear it.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament in January 2015 he was “stunned” at the content of an American high school history textbook. Japan’s Foreign Ministry complained to the book’sauthor. A group of 19 Japanese historians, lead by a professor from Ivy League-equivalent Nihon University is sending “corrections” to the publisher.
The topic of contention: Japan’s World War II system of sex slavery, the so-called “comfort women,” (慰安婦; ianfu in Japanese) women and girls kidnapped from conquered Asia to serve as sex slaves to the Japanese Imperial Army. Japanese historians downplay or deny their existence. Japan’s Asian neighbors know the truth, and struggle against the revisionist history.
Germany, Japan and the Legacy of WWII
Unlike Germany, which has reconciled with its World War II past, paid reparations to its victims and worked to achieve modern relationships with its neighbors, Japan has more than passively chosen to not acknowledge its past. Japan seeks to actively deny the existence of well-documented historical events it committed, even to the detriment of current relations with important neighboring nations. Yet while Holocaust deniers in Germany are seen as little more than crackpots, comfort women deniers occupy positions at the most senior levels of government.
The majority of Japan’s victims were kidnapped from occupied Korea. Known in Japanese as ianfu, and in Korean as wianbu, the number of women enslaved varies considerably, from unrealistic lows in the tens of thousands to high-end estimates close to half a million. While the numbers themselves are a source of ongoing friction between Japan and the victimized countries, in some ways they matter little; atrocity is atrocity, and tragedy tragedy. Pain does not scale, it simply remains. Nonetheless, differences over the number of women involved are representative of the larger issue: Japan simply will not come to terms with what it did.
Japan’s official attitudes toward the issue are especially troubling given the preponderance of evidence even within their own archives. Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, stationed during WWII on Borneo, organized a “comfort station.” The young officer’s success in procuring Indonesian women went so well that he was officially commended. The source of this information? Nakasone’s own 1978 autobiography. Imagine a U.S. presidential candidate making similar claims.
Limited but key testimony from Japanese responsible for the system also exists. The former president of the Sankei newspaper, a major Japanese daily, worked in the accounting division of the Imperial Japanese Army during the war. He was in charge of staffing and opening “comfort stations.” The now-elderly former bureaucrat described his work as “When we procured the girls, we had to look at their endurance, how used up they were, whether they were good or not. We had to calculate the allotted time for commissioned officers, commanding officers, grunts, how many minutes. There was even a prospectus we learned in military accounting school. The term used for the procurement of women was choben, an old military word that referred to gathering food for the horses.”
But nothing from the Japanese side comes close to comparing to the memories of the surviving women themselves. Here is just one example; as with the Holocaust, there are too many more:
Soldiers came to my room. The first soldier wasn’t drunk and when he tried to rip my clothes off, I shouted “No!” and he left. The second soldier was drunk. He waved a knife at me and threatened to kill me if I didn’t do what he said. But I didn’t care if I died, and in the end he stabbed me… My clothes were soaked with blood. I was treated in the infirmary for twenty days. I was sent back to my room. A soldier who had just returned from the fighting came in… I had a bandage on my chest. Despite that, the soldier attacked me, and when I wouldn’t do what he said, he seized my wrists and threw me out of the room. My wrists were broken, and they are still very weak. I was kicked by a soldier. It took the skin right off… you could see the bone. When the soldiers came back from the battlefields, as many as 20 men would come to my room from early morning… There was no bedding… underneath was earth. We cried in the dark “Mummy, it hurts!
Approximately three quarters of comfort women died, and most survivors were left infertile due to sexual trauma or sexually transmitted diseases. Beatings and physical torture, beyond the daily gang rapes, were common.
Current Efforts in Japan to Deny the Issue
Current Prime Minister Abe’s administration denies Japan ran a system of human trafficking and sex slavery, implying that comfort women were simply camp-following prostitutes. His latest move came at the end of October 2014 when his party appointed Nakasone’s son to chair a commission to “consider concrete measures to restore Japan’s honor with regard to the comfort women issue.”
Abe’s goal is to dilute the 1993 Kono Statement, named for Japan’s chief cabinet secretary at the time, Yohei Kono. Though perhaps unnecessarily vague in the original language text, the statement was understood in Asia as about the closest that was ever going to emerge from the Japanese government to an apology for the sex slave system.
The current efforts by Abe to deny sex slavery are not his first. During Abe’s first administration, in 2007, his cabinet began undermining the Kono Statement by stating there was no documentary evidence of coercion in the acquisition of women, and that the Statement was not binding government policy.
Sex Slaves and Foreign Relations
The Japanese government seems unconcerned in the extreme with how its views on WWII sex slavery affect its Asian neighbors. The issue remains a block to better relations with Korea and China especially; some of Japan’s other neighbors who do not occupy such strong economic positions have had to ameliorate their criticism for practical reasons, though the underlying anger remains.
The role of the United States remains troubling to many. Unlike in Germany, where the U.S.-led Nuremberg Trials pressed Nazi war crimes into the world’s media and served as a starting point for Germany’s own healing, war crime trials in post-war Japan were brief, focused in large part on responsibility for the decision to go to war in the first place, and purposefully excluded the Emperor. Imagine if Hitler had lived and if the U.S. chose not to bring him to trial.
More recent support in the United States is spotty. The House of Representatives, in 2007, passed a non-binding resolution asking the Japanese government to redress the situation and to teach the actual historical facts in its schools. In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced the use of the euphemism “comfort women” and stated the victims should be referred to as “enforced sex slaves.”
However, the United States otherwise has remained largely silent on the issue, preferring to say the disagreements over the history of the sex slaves, like those over the facts of the Rape of Nanjing and the ownership of several small islands in the region that continue to roil East Asian relations, need to be sorted out by the parties involved. Many see this as a weak way out, and, given America’s influence over Japan, almost a tacit acceptance of Japan’s history as unimportant.
How many Japanese citizens agree with their government’s version of WWII history is difficult to pin down. However, given the election successes of those politicians pandering to the extreme revisionist views of events, one can sadly surmise the percentage is not small. Willful ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence remains the most recent wounds committed against the “comfort women” by Japan.
Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks At Japan is a fine addition to a long list of books that attempt to explain Japan, what one observer has called the “most foreign of foreign countries.” Berman succeeds in his explanation mostly by avoiding the polarized industry of such explainers. To put Neurotic Beauty in context, let me explain.
The Explainer Industry
Almost all books “about Japan” (I’m leaving out the 600 page volumes on the geisha or the photo essays on whatever new trend is coming out of Harajuku) fall into one of two categories.
The predominant narrative declares Japan a near-perfect place, an epicenter of pure Zen that has whatever the author thinks his home country lacks. The minority opinion is that Japan has come over the hill and because of its poor treatment of women workers, warlike past or economic hollowness or whatever, is doomed to be a footnote when the history of modern civilization is written. Perhaps some sort of Switzerland with much better food.
Berman asks: Why can’t both be true? Why can’t Japan be a place with a once beautiful, encompassing culture of craftsmanship, that lost its way in the modern world and, if it can find again what it really is about at its core, become the first post-capitalist country?
A Cultural History of Japan, with an Angle
The book’s argument begins with a look at what Berman sees as Japan’s cultural soul, craftsmanship. He details the relationship early potters, sword makers and others had with their work, a desire to do more than simply make something — a desire to create themselves as human beings through a quest for perfection in their work.
Inklings of this tradition still exist in modern Japan, as anyone who has seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi can attest to. The sushi master requires his apprentices to practice for years before they can prepare food for customers, and the very few who stay on through the process get great joy from the process, more so than the results.
Japan Went Insane
As the Tokugawa (for simplicity’s sake, the samurai) era was coming to a close, Japan went insane, and abandoned all that, according to Berman. Fearful of being turned into a colony of the west, as was happening in China, the Japanese embarked on the Meiji Restoration. Science and engineering became the sole point of education, aimed in large part at building up a powerful military. Those forces, in imitation of the colonial west, would be turned on Japan’s Asian neighbors. Japan made itself almost literally overnight into as rapacious an imperialist nation as it possibly could.
And at that point, Berman draws a straight line through Nanjing, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading right to the surrender that ended WWII. But instead of finding its way back to something of itself, Japan simply dropped capitalism in its imperial guise and picked it up in its hyper-consumerism guise. The so-called economic miracle of the 1960’s put appliances into homes and money into the hands of a booming middle class, but did nothing to fill the soul. The lost decades, and the current spiritual malaise in Japan as exemplified by the hikikomori and otaku cultures, were as inevitable as the spring rains which tear the cherry blossoms from the trees.
A Post-Capitalist Society
If you are at this point seeing some parallels to modern America, that is clearly intentional on Berman’s part (one of his earlier works is titled Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire). Japan has been trying to “fill the hole” in its spiritual center for nearly a thousand years, first with Chinese learning (including Chinese Buddhism), then with a martial culture, then with imperialism, and, most lately, with consumerism. None stick; they are all too unfulfilling and incomplete.
The key difference between Japan and the U.S., however, is that because it has a legitimate soul to potentially return to (from the day the first Native American was murdered, America has been all about appetite), Japan holds on to a chance that it may become the first post-capitalist society, one where living becomes more important than owning. This is a theme which will be not unfamiliar to readers of Berman’s last book, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times. In Japan, there is something to fall back on.
It is a tall order, and Berman remains unsure what path Japan will take. Should it make the correct choice, however, the trope “only in Japan” could come to represent something more than Hello Kitty junk, bullet trains and cosplay.
Agree or disagree, Neurotic Beauty is a compelling, scholarly, narrative well-worth the time of readers seeking a better understanding of Japan.
I make no secret of my respect for Morris Berman’s body of work; read more here.
Japan absorbed WWII. The collective memory was tidied up. Little is taught about the war in modern Japanese schools, and even less of what is taught is true. There seems no reason to bring up all those bad deeds and rotten memories. For the most part, the Japanese created their own alternate history of the war.
So it is all the more shocking that a Japanese university opened a museum acknowledging that its staff performed vivisections on a handful of downed American airmen (above) during World War II. The incident has been previously documented by both sides of the war, but the very public and ongoing acknowledgement of the atrocity at the site where it was committed is quite unusual for Japan.
The newly-opened museum at Kyushu University explains how eight U.S. POWs were taken to the center’s medical school in Fukuoka after their plane was shot down in May 1945. The flyers were subjected to horrific medical experiments. Doctors dissected one soldier’s brain to see if epilepsy could be controlled by surgery, and removed parts of the livers of other prisoners as part of tests to see if they would survive. Another soldier was injected with seawater, in an experiment to see if it could be used instead of sterile saline solution to help dehydration.
The airmen so tortured were aboard a B-29 on a bombing raid over Fukuoka. They all bailed out when their aircraft was rammed by a Japanese fighter.
The ethics of hell come into play when we think a bit on what those flyers were doing in the skies over Fukuoka: dropping bombs in hopes of burning, shredding or maiming as many Japanese as possible.
The U.S. at this late stage of the war was as a strategy not discriminating between “military” and “civilian” targets, and often conducted mass firebombing raids over cities. Thousands of incendiaries were dropped simultaneously in hopes of creating a firestorm, a conflagration that burned hot and long enough to literally suck the oxygen out of the air and kill everything beneath it.
I have a history of the war on my bookshelf that makes quite a point of being horrified, with no obvious irony, that when the Japanese captured another group of shot-down B-29 crewman from firebombing missions, the flyers were burned alive in an impromptu fire; some others were killed with boiling water. It says elsewhere a negotiated peace was impossible when one side was fighting for civilization and the other represented barbarism.
Same kind of thing in an actual description from another book of one of the terrible things that happened in the Pacific War: “As the bodies started to sizzle, their arms and legs twitched, and they sat up as if they were alive. Smoke came out of their eye sockets, their mouths opened, and licks of flames came out. Their lungs were full of steam, and hissing noises came out.”
Did that description come from the firebombing of a Japanese city, or from the burning alive of American prisoners? It was one of the two, though it describes both, but how does that matter?
A few weeks ago, did the majority of the world know the Japanese prime minister pledged $200 million in “humanitarian aid” in the war against ISIS? Or that two Japanese citizens had been held as hostages for months? Or that ISIS also held a Jordanian pilot? Or, since 2005, Jordan had been holding a failed al Qaeda female suicide bomber on death row?
The world knows now. With three killings, the Islamic State sent its messages viral, and watched them pay off in strategic gains.
What ISIS Accomplished
Last month in Iraq, 2,287 people were killed. No one knows how many died in the same time span in Syria and other “war on terror” hot spots. Little seems to have changed for it all. Yet, via skillful manipulation of the global media, here is some of what Islamic State accomplished via taking three lives in such a gruesome manner:
— Islamic State humiliated two U.S. allies. Both sought to negotiate with the militants and both were shown to be weak and ineffectual.
— The United States, which remained silent, absent the usual tropes about evil, was shown as ineffectual in being able to help its allies.
— A key U.S. partner, the United Arab Emirates, announced — based on the Jordanian pilot’s capture alone — that it was suspending airstrikes unless the U.S. stationed search and rescue teams inside Iraq. The U.S. quickly announced it was doing just that, raising its on-the-ground footprint. Keeping partners in the game is crucial to maintaining the dubious claim that efforts against Islamic State are anything but an American campaign. Even with the UAE, estimates are that the U.S. conducts some 80 percent of the airstrikes itself.
— The Japanese and Jordanian governments have vowed revenge, drawing them deeper into the conflict while bringing their domestic debates over the propriety of supporting what many see as America’s war into the open. Conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seizing this moment to try and push through a controversial change to Japan’s pacifist constitution. Blood always runs hot at first; it remains to be seen how many additional deaths of its own citizens a society will tolerate in the name of revenge. Will the hyper-macho images of Jordan’s king wearing a flight suit come to be seen in the same way that George W. Bush’s images of himself in a flight suit now are?
— The Jordanians executed a Sunni Muslim woman, martyring her and giving new voice to her cause.
— ISIS successfully kicked off another cycle of revenge in an area of the world where such cycles can become perpetual motion engines. America cannot help but be drawn deeper into this quagmire as it struggles to hold its limited coalition together. President Barack Obama has already announced an increase in annual aid to Jordan from $660 million to $1 billion.
— To its core recruitment audience, who believes in violent jihad, Islamic State saw one of its most barbaric videos broadcast globally. Islamic State is far less concerned about those shocked by the video than it is about those who will join its struggle because of the video.
War of ideas
— Islamic State understands that it is waging a war of ideas, and that ideas cannot be bombed away. There is no victory or defeat per se in such a war, just struggle in epic terms.
The Charlie Hebdo killers appeared to have been inspired by American citizen cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, whom the U.S. assassinated in 2011. And for all that al Qaeda has been degraded, Islamic State has arisen as its spawn. That dead men inspire living acts of horror shows that unless the fundamental ideas driving Islamic militants are addressed, there will be no end.
The Heisenberg Effect
Absent Jordan, the bulk of the Arab world reacted to the Islamic State video with firm statements, and no action. Somehow, that remains primarily in the hands of an America that cannot seem to understand how its very presence in the Middle East exacerbates conflict.
Robert Pape and James Feldman, in Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It reviewed 2,100 suicide bombings in the Middle East from 1980 to 2009. They conclude most were fueled by U.S. intervention.
And there has been plenty of fuel for those who fan the flames. Syria became the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces invaded, occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have publicly killed or been killed, since 1980. This history suggests what one Marine officer called in the Small Wars Journal the Heisenberg Effect, after the physics theorem that states the presence of an observer affects the event being observed.
America’s track record in the “war on terror” is a poor one, the ISIS video only the latest bit of evidence. You can’t shoot an idea. You defeat a bad idea with a better one. Islamic State has proven terribly effective with its bad ideas; on the American side, more than 13 years after 9/11, we need to ask, so what do you have to offer?
While we wait on more news of now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t Kim Jong Un, let’s peek into his country. What kind of world is it when North Korean propaganda about the United States is more correct than crazy? Let’s fact-check and see how the Northerners did.
The Korean Central News Agency Schools You
North Korea isn’t known as a big internet kind of place, but they do have a propaganda/news agency in Japan that stays busy. The funny ties between North Korea and Japan are always worth a look; Japan imported vast numbers of Koreans during World War II as slave labor. Many ended up staying as the Korean War broke out, and divided themselves into groups supporting the North and South. There are now some 600,000 Koreans in Japan, many of whom are second- and third-generationals born in Japan.
So, the Korean Central News Agency, run by sympathtic Koreans working out of Japan, had some issues with the U.S., excerpted here. Let’s see what they have to say using their original English, with the fact-checking part in [brackets]:
Model for Human Rights
As the world’s worst human rights abuser, it [the U.S.] pretended to be a “model” in human rights performance. [Note: See “a shining city on a hill” claims by presidents from Obama back]
Racialism is getting more severe in the U.S. The gaps between the minorities and the whites are very wide in the exercise of such rights to work and elect. The U.S. true colors as a kingdom of racial discrimination was fully revealed by last year’s case that the Florida Court gave a verdict of not guilty to a white policeman [sic] who shot to death an innocent black boy. [Note: See Michael Brown, Donald Sterling, Trayvon Martin or this.]
At present, an average of 300,000 people a week are registered as unemployed, but any proper measure has not been taken. [Here the North Koreans are wrong; the Labor Department reported 377,000 people filed for initial unemployment benefits in the week ended January 21, up 21,000 from a revised reading of 356,000 claims the week before.]
The housing price soared 11.5 percent last year than 2012 and 13.2 percent in January this year than 2013, leaving many people homeless. [Close; prices in 20 cities rose 12.9 percent year over year.]
The number of impoverished people increased to 46.5 millions last year, and one sixth of the citizens and 20-odd percent of the children are in the grip of famine in New York City. [North Korea nailed it! In 2012, 46.2 million people in the United States lived in poverty. The nation’s official poverty rate was 15.0%. By the way according to the U.S. government, if you as a single person earn more than $11,344 you are officially not impoverished. The bar seems pretty low– the average one-bedroom apartment rent in Tulsa, Oklahoma is about $7500 a year, leaving you as a non-poverty person with a sweet, sweet $3800 to eat, pay utilities, car, clothes, etc. Most places in America have higher costs of living than Tulsa.]
All sorts of crimes rampant in the U.S. pose a serious threat to the people’s rights to existence and their inviolable rights. [North Korea again! Here’s a map showing crime in the U.S. outstrips most of its peers in Europe and elsewhere.]
The U.S. government has monitored every movement of its citizens and foreigners, with many cameras and tapping devices and even drones involved, under the pretext of “national security”. [Don’t make me Google Snowden and NSA for you on this one please.]
Meanwhile, bills on easing arms control were adopted in various states of the country, boosting murderous crimes. As a result, the U.S. has witnessed an increasing number of gun-related crimes in all parts of the country and even its military bases this year. In this regard, the United Nations on April 10 put the U.S. on the top of the world list of homicide rates. [OK, the North Koreans are a little fuzzy on this one, depending on how you define homicide. For large swaths of the MidEast and the developing world, people get killed all the time, in great numbers. Here’s the data. I was unable to tease out any broad statistics that separate a criminal kind of murder like on TV from war and suicide bombs kind of murder. But here’s one stat that supports the North Korean assertion: in 2006 in the US, there are roughly 17,000 murders, of which about 15,000 were committed with firearms. By contrast, Britain, Australia and Canada combined saw fewer than 350 gun-related murders each year. In the year that the U.S. saw 17,000 murders overall, there were only 794 in Germany.]
The U.S. also has 2.2 millions of prisoners at present, the highest number in the world. For lack of prisons on the part of the government, individuals are providing detention facilities to make money. [Wrong! The U.S. has 2.4 million people behind bars, about one percent of our entire population. The most serious charge against 51 percent of those inmates is a drug offense. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent are in for homicide. Racism? Black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.]
Hail to the Chief
Its chief executive, Obama, indulges himself in luxury almost every day, squandering hundred millions of dollars on his foreign trip in disregard of his people’s wretched life. [Gotta call this one for the North Koreans. While the White Houses never discloses costs for trips because “so much of the money is for security,” Air Force One, the president’s personal 747, costs $228,000 an hour to operate. A typical overseas trip involves eleven or more aircraft, including C-5 transports, aerial refuelers and small passenger jets that fly along with Air Force One. The president also likely enjoys fighter air cover and AWACs support, costs unknown.
About a decade ago, the General Accounting Office released two fairly detailed reports on President Bill Clinton’s foreign travels (here and here). Secret Service costs were omitted as classified, but other government expenses were tallied up. A Clinton trip to six countries in Africa in 1998 rang up at $42.8 million, most of that for military aircraft costs. A trip to Chile came in at $10.5 million. A trip to China that year cost $18.8 million.
Details are hard to find online, but my own experience with presidential visits from 24 years in the State Department is that typically entire floors of hotels or more are booked “for security,” hundreds of local cell phones are purchased and usually the president’s food is flown in, sometimes the water he’ll drink as well. One unsubstantiated report said Obama’s party booked over 500 hotel rooms on a trip to India.
(Former Foreign Service Officer John Brown has a detailed, funny, from-the-ground account of a presidential visit)
(North Korea is an awful place with horrendous human rights abuses. This article is about the U.S., not North Korea.)
I could not find a single reference to the bombings, or to the end of the war itself, anywhere in the American media. Even the Yazidis in Iraq, a big story a week ago, had yielded to the death of Robin Williams, who gave up his place at the top of the news to the shooting of a young African-American man in Missouri. There may be something else dominating the national agenda by the time you read this.
We get Japanese TV at my house, NHK, their version of public television, and the news shows from Japan on August 15 were dominated by stories about the war. Maybe it was because Japan hadn’t gone to war again since 1945, or maybe because the country was so devastated by the war, it wasn’t clear, but there was only the briefest of news recaps about global events other than the end of World War II. It mattered a lot to them.
In addition to all the expected black and white footage, there was a live talk show, featuring a well-known entertainer talking about her childhood experiences during the war. The entertainer, born male, identifies as female and was on the talk show in women’s clothing and a feminine hairstyle, the hair dyed honey bee yellow. Her looks were purposefully garish, at first distracting, and it is doubtful that the next Ken Burns documentary on PBS would feature a trans person in such a serious setting, but Japan is a different place as they say.
Here are two stories she related.
She remembers going with her mother to the train station to see her older brother off to war. He was a reluctant soldier, a draftee near the end of the conflict. His mom was waving goodbye as the train pulled away, and suddenly shouted “Come back, come back to me.” Such sentiments were to be unspoken in wartime Japan; a soldier was to expect to die in battle, sacrificing himself for the nation, the Emperor, something. It was late enough in the war then that no one expected the soldiers to come home victorious, the only other acceptable outcome, though that was not spoken of out loud either.
They were expected to die, and the mother’s spontaneous cry was an affront. Her son, ashamed? embarrassed? afraid? ducked his head inside the train and was blended into the mass of other soldiers. He would indeed die in battle, maybe fighting on Guam, maybe Saipan, maybe somewhere else, it was unclear in the chaos of things. At the train station was the last time he would see his mother, and she him.
The day was not over. The entertainer on modern TV explained that almost simultaneously with his mother’s outcry to her son to come home, a police officer grabbed her and slammed her into a telephone pole, opening a gash on her head that bled into her eyes. You’re lucky I don’t arrest you for sedition, old woman, he said. You are a disgrace, go home.
The entertainer lost her mother in the Nagasaki atomic bombing. She claims her mother died hunched over an even younger sibling, shielding him from the firestorm. The entertainer claims she saw her mother’s flesh in ribbons. That was the last time she would see her mother, and perhaps the mother had a last glance at another of her children before she was consumed, again, by the war.
Entertainers are of course in the business of being, well, entertaining, so one must always reserve a bit of skepticism about the fullness of any story so neatly told.
But we’ll be generous to the entertainer in her recollections.
Many terrible things happen in wars, and whether every detail the entertainer shared was true, or embellished, or just made up, matters little. There are real horrors in war, some so terrible that no one could believe they were true, or that they were not embellished, or that some horrible mind did not make them up.
Traditions are fun, and we all certainly enjoy dressing up at Halloween as Sexy Soccer Mom or Sexy Soccer Dad with Kids in Tow. Good times. When my kids were younger I had great fun dressing up as Santa Claus, sometimes even at Christmas.
However, in the age of social media, images have assumed a greater significance. So, let’s ask ourselves what these images of State’s ambassadors presenting their credentials in Japan and the UK convey:
Tradition holds that a newly-appointed ambassador must present his/her “credentials” to the foreign government. I’m not sure what credentials actually are, maybe some sort of leather scroll or parchment thing calligraphed by virgin dwarfs. The process does seem to involve elaborate 19th century doo-dads, and in the case of imperial countries like Japan and the UK, bypassing the elected government and going right to the Emperor and the Queen, respectively.
The same credential process occurs in the U.S., but as best I can tell does not involve Cinderella carriages and Downton Abbey leftover costumes. Now I know that our intrepid diplomats abroad are mostly following local tradition in these photos, but one wonders if U.S.-Japan relations would indeed descend into Pearl Harbor-like animosity if we said “Hey, this carriage is kinda outside the 21st century e-Diplomacy Pivot thing we’re doing nowadays, plus the whole 19th century imperialist vibe, so maybe this year we’ll take a taxi. Cool?” After all, by tradition, our ambassador does not bow to the Queen because of the American Revolution (this is true), and that has worked out OK with the Brits.
NEXT: State to consider requirement that all cables must be written in cursive longhand.
With the exception of a few left over pieces of the old British Empire (Diego Garcia the island, not your pool boy), the U.S. is pretty much the last imperial power. Certainly no other nation maintains so extensive a necklace of military bases around the world. In almost every case, those bases were “acquired” by the U.S. simply by taking land it needed after conquering some formerly sovereign nation. Hell, we took Guantanamo from the freaking Spanish when they still counted as an empire of their own. The U.S. holds bases all across Europe appropriated after WWII and, quite significantly, bases taken from occupied Japan.
The cornerstone of U.S. military presence in East Asia is ever-compliant Japan, the Koreans and Filipinos having semi-quietly pushed some U.S. troops out, the Vietnamese more forcefully. Of all the U.S. military in Japan, about half the forces are piled on to the small island of Okinawa. The tight confines and relative safety of Okinawa also means that the military and the civilian population come into frequent contact. This is not always good.
The latest not good side of the ongoing U.S. presence in Okinawa took place October 16, when two U.S. sailors were arrested over accusations that they raped a woman on the island of Okinawa. One of the assailants has supposedly admitted to the crime. Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima said it went “beyond madness” that the alleged attack took place only two months after a U.S. Marine was arrested over accusations he assaulted and molested a woman in Naha, the capital of Okinawa. Many Okinawan residents recall too easily the rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl in 1995 by three U.S. military personnel, as well as allegations that a Marine raped a 14-year-old girl in 2008. These signature incidents took place alongside a steady litany of vehicular homicide and drunk driving cases.
For the U.S. side, America’s ambassador to Japan has promised another full investigation. As with Hillary in Libya, when caught like this, the default State Department position is to promise full cooperation and an investigation and hope the press moves on (they will).
A Thought Experiment
The usual response from most Americans to news like this is something along the line of “Tragic, but it is only news because it involved the military” and “Sadly, Japanese-on-Japanese rapes happen all the time and this is blown out of proportion because of the military angle.” The same logic is often applied to American-committed atrocities in Afghanistan.
So let’s try a simple thought experiment.
Imagine that a foreign power, oh, say India, had 50,000 troops stationed in bases in Florida. Do you think anyone in America would notice if two Indian sailors raped an American woman?
I was planning on a self-induced coma this 9/11 Weekend, hoping to be revived after all the mad coverage. As predictable as the reviews of the Cheney book (torture good, torture bad), a terror alert was issued on Friday, just before 9/11 Weekend, whipping idiots in New York and Washington into a happy, familiar frenzy. Three men may have entered the US; they may be planning a vehicle bomb; it may be in New York, it may be in DC. Be watchful. It was implied– still gotta watch our step– that the three men are “brown,” as they reportedly came from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Security theater was whipped into shape here in our nation’s capital. Even at my dull, suburban Virginia subway station, two local cops wearing body armor, one with a shotgun, stood guard over my commute. Should al Qaeda decide this sleepy stop on the Orange Line is the new Ground Zero, they’ll have a fight on their hands. The point is clear: Keep Fear Alive. Ten Years Means Nothing. We Can Never Be Safe Again.
My own 9/11 memory is actually something more like a 10/25 memory. I was working at our Embassy in Japan, and charged with administering the Federal fund to the 9/11 victims’ families. To prevent everyone from suing everyone for all eternity and bankrupting the airlines, there was some US Government program whipped together to give money to the families of those who died on 9/11, American and foreign alike. New York City had not then sorted out the whole business of issuing death certificates without bodies and so documentation was lacking. The Japanese families whose husbands were trading bonds in the World Trade Center on the Day had to troop into the Embassy to fill out some forms and apply for their victim’s compensation money. The key item was “What evidence do you have that your loved one was killed in the terror acts of 9/11?”
I’d have to interview these women about that last question, to guard against fraud I guess. The women were typically in their mid-thirties, and usually brought their one or two infant children in with them. Hubby had gone off to New York to work, and they stayed in Japan. “He called home every day. Then, no calls.” “The man he lived with missed work that day. He mailed me my husband’s neckties.” “My son cries every night because he has no father.” “A co-worker called me to say he last saw my husband on the 77th floor. I don’t feel he lied.” My Japanese is decent enough, but most of the women felt the need to speak slowly and repeat themselves to politely make sure I understood. Some felt the need to assist by using the limited English they knew, so I could not hide behind the niceties of words like “deceased” or “missing” and had to confront words like “dead” in their place. The interviews were brief, and no one seemed happy– relieved perhaps– when I signed the form and gave instructions on how to get the money sent to their bank accounts. Grief was overcome by awkwardness, but only for a moment. It returned like a draft, unwelcome but surely felt. There were strange echoes from the future, when in Iraq I’d hear from widows whose husbands were lost in the American invasion there.
It will soon enough be Monday, and by then Anderson and Wolf will return us to our regularly scheduled diet of Perry and Obama, now already in progress.