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Monday, Oct. 25, 2004


Manchuria as a whipping post

NEW YORK -- The New York Times has an intriguing take on Japan. The latest example is an article with the heading "Atrocity Amnesia: Japan Rewrites Its Manchuria Story" (Sept. 19).

Earlier, it ran a century-old photograph of a group of Japanese military officers in heavy overcoats lined up for a camera, with a naked, apparently tortured man lying face down on a makeshift cot or stretcher on the floor. The Times dug that out when news of Abu Ghraib prison abuse became headlines. Before then -- well, similar instances are too many to count.

Actually, the article about Manchuria, by Howard French, is a typical case of an eye-grabbing headline followed by a report containing less than advertised. Indeed, the discrepancy in this instance -- which comes with a large, grainy 73-year-old photograph of the Japanese Army marching down a narrow street in Manchuria -- is great enough to make me wonder if the editor, in choosing the headline, merely wanted to perpetuate the Times' view of Japan and its history.

Is the editor's purpose, as with the century-old photograph of torture, to suggest that the United States is not the only country that commits atrocities? Or is it to intimate that Japan is the only country that continues to rewrite its history? Either is possible, given the Times editors' indelible, insistent view that whatever Japan did before 1945 was out of line and that what Japan has been doing ever since is to rewrite its history.

Still, the Times reporting, as news, some Japanese rewriting of what Japan did in Manchuria caught me off guard. I had assumed that it was old news. Well, rewrite is not the right word; more like, give different views. Though French took care not to mention "Manchukuo," probably to avoid eliciting Chinese ire, what Japan was trying to do in Manchuria -- this word itself doesn't exist in Chinese nomenclature, I gather -- was to create a nation in a foreign land, and doing that had to have some element of idealism. It was also a large-scale undertaking. It meant transplanting tens of thousands of Japanese across the ocean.

Once the enterprise collapsed with Japan's defeat, most of the Japanese settlers, by then numbering 320,000, became refugees. An estimated 80,000 of them perished before reaching their homeland. As a result, Manchukuo has left a range of emotions and assessments.

Nobusuke Kishi (1896-1987), who was indicted for war crimes following Japan's defeat but later became prime minister and a hawkish supporter of U.S. conduct in Asia, was a top administrator of Manchukuo as one of the prewar "reform bureaucrats." He was unabashed in extolling it: "Shining with the ideals of racial harmony and righteous paradise, scientifically, conscientiously, bold practices were implemented."

The races to be included in the "racial harmony" (minzoku kyowa) or "harmony among five races" (gozoku kyowa) were Koreans, Manchurians, Mongolians, Chinese and Japanese. "Righteous paradise" (odo rakudo) was the slogan engraved in a giant monument built to proclaim one of the goals.

For Shunjiro Aoe (1904-83), Kishi was a villain, a carpetbagger, who helped to ruin whatever ideals an independent Manchuria was supposed to pursue. A playwright who spent eight years in China, from 1938 to 1946, as a civilian and a military officer, Aoe witnessed corrupted Japanese officials and the dashed ideals of five races coming together. But he remained a man awe-struck by the vastness of the land and its peoples, and the equally vast enterprise of creating a nation. Japan acted like a mafia and may have to carry the stigma forever, he wrote, but creating a nation was a great deed. He says these things in his 1973 biography of Kanji Ishihara (1889-1949).

Ishihara, incidentally, is often described as the mastermind of the Manchurian Incident in September 1931, which led to the concoction of Manchukuo the following March. He worked closely with fellow officer Seishiro Itagaki (1885-1948), and both had fans among Chinese and Japanese civilians who believed in building a land of racial harmony and peace.

One such fan was Kaisaku Ozawa, father of the conductor Seiji Ozawa. He made the name for his son by combining parts of the first names of Itagaki and Ishihara. After the war, Itagaki was hanged as a Class-A war criminal.

Ishihara himself had become disenchanted with what he had done by the time the League of Nations condemned "the incident," prompting Japan to withdraw from the organization in 1933. His government had quickly undone the plans for an independent Manchuria that he had envisioned, he thought. The poet Toriko Takarabe was born in that fateful year.

Takarabe's father, Yoshiro Yamada, was an officer of the newly created Manchukuo Army. As soon as Toriko was born, he uprooted his family in Niigata and moved them to Manchukuo. His main task was "to subjugate the bandits (hizoku) " -- to search and destroy those who weren't happy with the people who had broken into their homes and seized their possessions.

Today those "bandits" would be called -- what? First, criminal elements perhaps, then terrorists, rebels, insurgents, militants.

Yoshiro resigned his army commission when Toriko entered grammar school. He said at the time, she recalls, that he should no longer be killing people with his child that old.

In August 1945, the world collapsed around the Yamada family and all other Japanese settlers. On their long way back to Japan, first Toriko's little sister, three years old, died of measles. Toriko contracted typhus and survived, but her father contracted the same disease and died. It took more than a year for Toriko and her mother to make it back to Japan.

Toriko Takarabe titled her first book of poems, published in 1965, "When I Was a Child." Many of the poems deal with death and forebodings, as do her subsequent poems. In 1981 she was able to visit the city where she grew up, but she seems not to have been flooded with happy memories.

A thought occurs: Can it be that the New York Times is using Japan as what the Chinese Communists call banmian jiaoshi -- "a teacher who imparts a lesson by being a bad example"? Perhaps. When it comes to Japan and its past, the daily paper simplifies things -- a typical pedagogic procedure.

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

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