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Monday, Nov. 29, 2004


Remains of the Occupation mentality

NEW YORK -- Sometimes a perception formed during an era, however unthinking, never seems to leave you. When I read, in a detailed chronology of Yukio Mishima (1925-70), that Meredith Weatherby visited Mishima at a New York hotel for an all-day discussion about his translation of Mishima's "Confessions of a Mask," the timing threw me. Then I knew I still harbored "the Occupation mentality" -- the reverse side of it.

The Weatherby-Mishima meeting took place in January 1952, during Mishima's first trip overseas. At the time Japan was still under the U.S. Occupation. As my late friend, Herbert Passin (1916-2003), reminded the reader in his introduction to Theodore Cohen's "Remaking Japan" (Free Press, 1987), the Occupation lasted for nearly seven years or, to be exact, "six years, seven months, and twenty-eight days."

The Occupation meant, among other things, that a Japanese needed a permit to go overseas, and the permit required the signature of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). Naturally, only a few permits were issued. Mishima managed to get one because a top editor at the Asahi Shimbun was a classmate of his father, a former bureaucrat, and the editor was able to designate the young author as his paper's "special overseas correspondent."

What caught me off guard was this background superimposed on the image of an American visiting a young visitor to New York from the occupied land and talking about his translation of the young man's work. Yes, I had long known some of the illustrious students of Japanese literature and society since the war, including Passin, who studied the language in the special military language schools set up in preparation for an impending war with Japan. But I had somehow felt that Weatherby, who established the publishing house John Weatherhill, was of a different breed.

Yes, I knew Weatherby had translated "Confessions of a Mask." But I did not know that he had done it so early.

The Weatherby-Mishima meeting confounded me also because Mishima, less than two months after Japan's defeat, had described his impressions of the famous Japanese about-face -- as the conquered facing the conqueror.

"The Occupation force popularity, shall we call it, it's simply a bizarre popularity," Mishima wrote to a friend, in early October 1945, after visiting his haunt, the Ginza. "Shabby dirty Japanese in khaki and mompe attire mill around. . . . Enchanted by shopping Occupation soldiers and women reporters, there are, I tell you, crowd upon crowd of people, mouths agape, listening gratefully to (though can't hope to understand) the responses in English."

Where was the die-hard enmity of yesterday?

Not that I was old enough to experience it. The month Mishima visited New York, I was still a fourth grader on a small island in Nagasaki. I doubt I knew that Japan had waged a war seven years earlier. If someone had told me that an atomic bomb had destroyed a city nearby, it made no impression on me. A few months afterward, my family, till then split in two, reunited in a big city, Fukuoka. In April, the San Francisco Peace Treaty was formally implemented, and the Occupation ended.

In fact, it was after the Occupation came to an end that I was exposed to America for the first time and began to form a view of the country as powerful, glamorous, and, above all, superior.

In Fukuoka, U.S. jet fighters roared back and forth low above us, shaking our ramshackle, rented house, which was close to an American air base. The Korean War was still being fought. My oldest sister, Nobuko, worked at a new movie theater in the center of Hakata and occasionally allowed me to slip in to see American films. "Tarzan," the handsome man born to flaunt his body, made a special impression on me. Outside the theater, I gawked at American soldiers: tall, good-looking, in uniform, with fancily dressed Japanese women on their arms.

Then I began to learn English. That was glamorous enough, but one day the teacher brought a gramophone to class and played a record in which Americans said exactly what the textbook said: "I am a boy. My name is Jack. I am a girl. My name is Betty. . . ." How exotic and unreal it all was! In time I formed the amorphous thought that the Japanese may study English, but no Americans will study Japanese.

My sense of the Occupier-Occupied relationship was lopsided, of course. As I soon learned regarding Mishima's trip, once the permit was given, the Occupation, via a Mrs. Williams -- the name Mishima cites in his letter to his mentor, the novelist Yasunari Kawabata -- asked the Department of State to arrange appointments for him, not just in the U.S. but in other countries as well.

Indeed, it may well have been Passin who played a decisive role in obtaining an overseas travel permit for Mishima. Chief of the Public Opinion and Sociological Research Division under SCAP at the time, he introduced the proper way of conducting opinion polls to Japan and he most likely knew the Asahi editor. I regret that I was unable to ascertain this with him.

Only after Passin's death did I spot his name in Mishima's report on his trip, "Apollo's Cup," as someone who asked a New York organization -- the American Committee for Cultural Freedom -- to look after him in this city. Furthermore, because of the death of his baby, Passin happened to be back in New York at the same time as Mishima and interpreted for him.

So I asked Donald Richie about Meredith Weatherby. It had been at his recommendation that Weatherby published a book for me. Richie responded promptly: Weatherby studied Japanese before the war and was working at a consulate when the war broke out. While interred in Kobe, he translated a noh play and other things. When Mishima came to New York, he was at Harvard.

When Richie told me these things, his journals spanning nearly 60 years were being readied for publication. Now they are out: "The Japan Journals: 1947-2004" (Stone Bridge Press, 2004). To learn what Weatherby did after discussing "Confessions" with Mishima, you must read the book.

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

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