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Monday, Oct. 30, 2000

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

U.S. reporter misses the mark on Japan


"Given America's willingness to avert its eyes from the most troubling chapters of its history and to resist critical self-evaluation and discussion of the country's atrocities against native Americans and African Americans . . ."

Suppose I were the New York bureau chief of a major Japanese daily and sent a dispatch containing these words. My editor would surely, and hastily, strike them out in order to forestall any protest from readers. And if I continued to file similar dispatches, he would realize he had grievously misjudged my competence and recall or dismiss me.

Yet filing such reports is exactly what Howard French, the Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times, does, with obvious impunity. For the record, French has actually said:

"Given Japan's willingness to avert its eyes from the most troubling chapters of its history and to resist critical self-evaluation and discussion of the country's atrocities in China and Korea and the militarism that led to the Pacific War," etc.

French has made this observation in his Sept. 12 article on Herbert P. Bix's book, "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan" (HarperCollins, 2000). He tells us that Bix, a Harvard professor now teaching at Hitotsubashi University, demonstrates, in colossal detail that requires 800 pages, that Hirohito was "a militarily aggressive leader" and that his book will change, once and for all, "the widely accepted view of Hirohito . . . as a virtual hostage of a clique of militarists during the war in the Pacific."

Was Hirohito a "militarily aggressive leader?" I haven't read Bix's book and I am no historian. But the answer to the question will depend on what the characterization is meant to imply. If it is to suggest that Hirohito spearheaded Japan into war, that's hardly likely. Overall historical developments were plainly more complicated than that.

Yes, Hirohito was the supreme commander of Japan's armed forces. The Meiji Constitution, under which he operated, said so, in Article 11. Accordingly, he was kept abreast of military developments and made certain decisions. But he evidently did not think it was his constitutional role to issue orders. Hirohito's "Soliloquy," written down from March to April 1946 but not uncovered and published until 1990, makes this amply clear.

What about French's "widely accepted view?" It will, again, depend on what French means. The view, in any case, is not entirely erroneous, as some American students of modern Japanese history, such as David Titus, of Wesleyan, would argue. After all, the commander of the Imperial Guards Division was shot on the spot when he tried to stop an insurrection against Hirohito's decision to surrender.

(When Hirohito's "Soliloquy" came out, it was noted that if Hirohito's recollection was correct, the insurrection was hatched not by a few die-hard army captains and majors, as had been previously believed, but by the core of the army.)

The inevitable question is: Can Hirohito "escape responsibility for the war?" In French's interview, Bix, after a good deal of hemming and hawing, ends up observing that, partly as a consequence of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's maneuver, "Japanese people are never given a chance to reflect on the issue of war responsibility" -- an improbable statement coming from a scholar who professes to have studied modern Japanese history for decades. What has he been reading?

Was Hirohito culpable? Of course he was -- by the terms of the victorious Allied Powers that held the head of state and his commanders responsible for a lost war. But anyone who wants to raise this question should contemplate some of the statements of MacArthur's generals on the Military Tribunal, which Bix's colleague, John Dower, quotes in his history of the Occupation, "Embracing Defeat" (The New Press, 1999). As French notes, the book won a Pulitzer Prize.

Gen. Willoughby: "This trial was the worst hypocrisy in recorded history." Brig. Gen. Thorpe: "It was an ex post facto law. They made up the rules after the game was over." Maj. Gen. Chase: "It was wrong to try a man for doing his duty for his country and government in time of war."

Or, to take a different tack, here's what the Quaker whom MacArthur selected to teach English to the Crown Prince, now the Emperor, had to say:

"Could a court be impartial and justice be served, when the judges were also the prosecution and the outcome of the trial was known from the beginning? Under ordinary circumstance would we consider a trial fair in which the judge and jury were friends and relatives of the murdered man?"

These words appear in Elizabeth Vining's "Windows for the Crown Prince," first published in 1952. But I digress.

My wonderment has to do with how foreign correspondents like Howard French -- he is by no means alone -- can make the sort of observation quoted at the outset and get away with it. I can come up with a couple of reasons why, but the obvious one is ignorance -- ignorance, above all, of the language.

In the latest issue of "Correspondence," published by the Council on Foreign Relations, Masayuki Tadokoro comments on the linguistic ability of most foreign reporters in Japan and gently asks: "Think how strange it would be [for Japan] to send a reporter to cover Washington without English fluency."

If French read Japanese, he might have visited a couple of local bookstores before writing his piece. He then would have found that Japan neither averts its eyes from its past nor resists critical self-evaluation of it.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.


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