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Monday, Jan. 28, 2002


The plastic nature of historical judgment

NEW YORK -- There is something mesmerizing about America's fascination with its own people of prominence, especially presidents. There is an endless stream of biographies, and some become immensely popular.

Among those published last year, two are on The New York Times best-seller list: "John Adams," by David McCullough, and "Theodore Rex," by Edmund Morris. "Reaching for Glory," by Michael R. Beschloss, just published, is the second in a series that attempts to portray President Lyndon B. Johnson through secret tapes uncovered not long ago. There is also a new biography of Chief Supreme Court Justice John Marshall.

Coming from Japan, where large, detailed biographies (including autobiographies) are seldom written, I often wonder if this phenomenon is not comparable to "Nihonjinron" -- that amorphous genre of woolgathering on the true nature of the Japanese that foreign observers love to condemn. On the face of it, of course, biography as it is written in the U.S. is unlike Nihonjinron; it is supposed to be based on fact, rather than on speculation. But insofar as biography is "an approximate genre, subject to selective memory (and) the hidden agenda," as Julian Barnes has recently put it, its difference from Nihonjinron may not be that great.

I was, in any case, surprised by the appearance of two biographies of Jefferson Davis that evidently show the president of the Confederacy to have been a "wholly honorable" man.

According to Eric. L. McKitrick, who covered the two books for The New York Review of Books (Nov. 29), historians in the past have dealt with Davis only as "an abstraction," obviously because his "cause," be it the states' right to secede or the preservation of slavery, was "wrong." But now William J. Cooper, Jr., in "Jefferson Davis, American," and Felicity Allen, in "Jefferson Davis: Unconquerable Heart," have examined Davis's "character" head-on and demonstrated, at least to historian McKitrick, that "no other man could have managed the affairs of the Confederacy nearly as well."

This prompted me to acquire and watch "Pride: The Fateful Moment," Shunya Ito's movie about wartime leader Gen. Hideki Tojo and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. When it appeared in 1998, the film was practically laughed out of existence. I even remember one reviewer sneering at the depiction of Tojo as a doting grandfather. Was that because Tojo was on the wrong side of history? The short answer is probably yes.

I saw "Pride" in tandem with "Tokyo Trial," Masaki Kobayashi's 1983 documentary, and it was a good thing I did. If you do the same, you will know, for example, that Tojo's portrayal reflects much of what actually went on during the trial. You will also know that, as the narrator of the documentary notes at one point, Tojo was "consistent" (and, one might add, by no means wrong) in his view of the world he had to contend with. Tojo, at any rate, maintained his dignity.

But in its eagerness to show Tojo was wronged, "Pride" brings in a dubious argument and almost ruins itself. It suggests there was some kind of linkage between India's independence movement and the opinion of Radhabinod Pal, the Indian justice who famously declared all defendants not guilty. Didn't Ito, who both wrote the movie's script and directed it, realize that doing so was to cast Pal's judicial integrity into doubt? As Richard Minear points out in "Victor's Justice," at least one of Pal's detractors has done just that by asserting that Pal was a member of the Indian National Army. He was not.

Where Ito's movie fails, Kobayashi's documentary succeeds. To Kobayashi, the Tokyo Trial was a political contortion that was barely coherent. It was too overlaid with different political motives to work as proper legal proceedings. Its legality itself was in question. And ordinary observers instinctively knew this. In "Windows for the Crown Prince," Elizabeth Gray Vining, English teacher for then-Crown Prince Akihito (today's Emperor), conveys a starkly common-sensical American consensus of the day on the whole affair: "I hope we win the next war!"

Kobayashi, who has made movies such as "Harakiri" and "Samurai Rebellion," adds another dimension by citing the defendants' view. When asked to plead "not guilty" at the arraignment, they were discomfitted. Many of them had already felt deeply "responsible" for the war that led to the ruination of their country. Then the victor nations proclaimed that prosecuting a war was a crime and those in responsible positions were "war criminals." Why then put them through the charade of declaring "not guilty"?

More important, Kobayashi has the narrator say that even though Pal argued for the acquittal of all defendants on legal grounds, he did not condone Japan's deeds. Kobayashi is right to make the point, for Pal is a demigod for Japan's right wing.

Ito's movie, of course, is not a study of Tojo's character. Instead, it deals with the man as "an abstraction" in McKitrick's sense: prime minister-cum-army minister when the war in the Pacific started. So one can ask: Is it possible to expect that what has happened to Davis may happen to Tojo some day -- "when time shall have softened passion and prejudice," as Ito has Pal quote himself from the final paragraph of his "dissentient judgment"?

Yes. And Tojo may even be found to have been an honorable man in his way. Vining tells us what Justice Bert V. A. Roling, representing the Netherlands, told her. He had come to his task "with the Dutch hatred of the Japanese," he confided, but after facing the defendants day after day for nearly two years, his view changed. In the end he found the Japanese to be "idealists and sensitive," with "something to offer to us Westerners, with our emphasis on material things."

On Dec. 12, 1948, the tribunal handed down its verdicts. That night, Tojo wrote in his diary: "From the start I had expected to be sentenced to death by hanging, so there was no mystery about the sentence. But I was shocked that Hirota, Doihara, Itagaki, Matsui (and) especially Kimura and Muto were also sentenced to death by hanging. I feel extremely sorry for them."

As he wrote in his testament, Tojo regretted that he was not the only one held responsible. He went to the gallows knowing that his "death as a criminal" could not make up for his country's "defeat and devastation."

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

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