On the night of June 18, 1942, the Gripsholm of the Swedish American Line set sail from New York with a group of Japanese nationals aboard who had been detained in various makeshift camps, including one on Ellis Island. The Japanese government, in return, had dispatched the Asama Maru from the port of Yokohama, and later the Italian ship Conte Verde from Shanghai, carrying North and South American nationals home.
Some of the notable faces among the Japanese group were Nomura and Kurusu. On the day of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, the two men endured the most unnerving public humiliation imaginable for any diplomat. To ensure the success of the military operations in Hawaii and Malaya, the Japanese government kept the two ambassadors completely in the dark about its decision to go to war. They were notified of Tokyo’s intention to terminate diplomatic relations only hours before the attack.
The Japanese embassy’s inability to cope with the last-minute nature of Tokyo’s instructions did not help Nomura and Kurusu in their final mission of communicating to the White House the end of diplomacy, either. Tokyo had ordered Nomura and Kurusu to see Hull at 1:00 p.m., shortly before the first bomb was to be dropped on Pearl Harbor. Because the diplomatic communication, consisting of fourteen parts, was late in being typed up for delivery, the two Japanese diplomats were shown into Hull’s office at 2:20 p.m., utterly unaware that their country had already attacked the United States.
Hull was only a few pages into reading the official Japanese document when his hands began to shake. The two Japanese envoys could not understand Hull’s apparent fury. After he had finished reading the entire document (not for the first time; the decoded telegrams had reached Roosevelt by 10:00 a.m.), he turned to Nomura and said:
I must say that in all my conversations with you … I have never uttered one word of untruth. This is borne out absolutely by the record. In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions—infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any Government on this planet was capable of uttering them.
The two Japanese emissaries took their leave in speechless confusion, still ignorant of the enormous diplomatic duplicity in which they themselves had unknowingly been engaging.
Since it was a Sunday, there were very few staff members or journalists around when Nomura and Kurusu arrived at the State Department. But by the time they left the meeting, the two had to dodge reporters. They were driven back to their embassy. The heavy iron gates shut behind the diplomatic vehicle, and policemen had to restrain the angry mob congregating in front of the embassy building. It was only then that the two ambassadors were notified of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and they realized that Hull had already been informed of the news when they met.
Before his departure for Washington, Nomura was forewarned by his old navy friend Admiral Yonai: “Be careful … the gang around today are the kind who won’t hesitate to pull the ladder out from under you once they’ve got you to climb up it.” Yonai was right.
IN THE MONTHS that followed the opening of the war in the Pacific, Nomura, Kurusu, and other Japanese nationals awaited deportation in cramped resort hotels that had been turned into temporary detention camps (luxurious lodgings compared with the internment camps that many Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese descent were forced to live in). In Hot Springs, Virginia, and then in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Kurusu had ample time to reflect on what had gone wrong in his last-minute quest to secure peace between the two countries.
Although well aware of the urgency of their task, the two ambassadors had no idea—and Tokyo made sure they didn’t—exactly how small their window of opportunity was. On November 30, Yamamoto Kumaichi of the Foreign Ministry’s American Affairs Bureau telephoned them in Washington. They talked in a hastily constructed coded language. Tokyo wanted the diplomats to continue making every effort to avoid war, they were told. That’s why Nomura and Kurusu feverishly worked past Tokyo’s deadline of November 29, proposing on December 1 that the government ask the Roosevelt administration for an emergency meeting of representatives from the two countries, preferably in Honolulu. Nomura recommended that heavyweights be sent from Japan and hoped that Vice President Henry Wallace would attend from the U.S. side.
It was not until the summer of 1942 that Kurusu learned what had really been going on during those last ten days before Japan’s attack. In Japanese-occupied Singapore, where the Gripsholm made a brief stop, Kurusu heard army officers recount how difficult it was for them to prepare for attacks in the run-up to the war since the military leaders in Tokyo had not decided to go to war until November 26.
This was a chilling and disheartening revelation for Kurusu. That the military leaders had, in fact, decided for war by November 26 confirmed that he and Nomura were told to continue diplomacy in a deliberate attempt to deceive and mislead the other side. To be sure, there were moments in the ambassadors’ mission that tipped them off to Tokyo’s impending decision to give up the diplomatic route, especially after the delivery of the Hull Note. In a communication from Tokyo on November 28, Togo expressed his “regret and surprise” at the content of the note and hinted to the Washington team that he would have to terminate the negotiations sometime soon. But Togo had then told the ambassadors to wait for official directives, to arrive within three days. That document, “Views of the Imperial Government,” was to be delivered to the White House upon the termination of their talks. Until then, they were to carry on as normal.
That official document never arrived. On December 3, Togo directed the envoys to keep pressing the United States. Togo’s exact words read: “[Plan B] constitutes, in my mind, the very best way forward to overcome this difficult situation, and so you must really explain that to the American side.” Even the knotty problem of China, Togo claimed, could be settled by peaceful means: Tokyo was merely asking the United States to stop aiding Chiang Kai-shek only after the peace talks, “introduced” by President Roosevelt, had materialized. This had given Nomura and Kurusu a renewed hope for a diplomatic reconciliation. As late as December 5, Nomura and Kurusu were requesting that Hull reconsider Plan B, which the Roosevelt administration had not formally rejected, despite its issuing of the Hull Note. And on the same day, Roosevelt dispatched a peace telegram to Hirohito. All for naught.
THAT KURUSU AND NOMURA delivered the message breaking off diplomatic relations after the Pearl Harbor attack has been a source of impassioned debate for decades in postwar Japan. There are some compelling, if contestable, reasons for the persistence of this debate. For one, the late delivery enabled Roosevelt to put forward a powerful indictment of Japan’s duplicity, most famously memorialized in his “Day of Infamy” speech. The Japanese conduct legitimized the president’s call for war, not only against Japan but also Japan’s fascist allies in Europe. The proposition that Roosevelt and Churchill had known about the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but let it occur to serve their larger aim of getting the United States to enter the war in Europe continues to excite the imagination of some.
There are those who believe that certain bakuryo officers had arranged for the late delivery of the final message to ensure that the attack would commence with no forewarning. The fact that those embassy staff members who failed to prepare the documents in time were never punished—in some cases, their careers flourished after the war—fueled this view.
In fact, the delay in delivering the message was caused by a combination of the embassy’s unpreparedness and Togo’s compliance with the military demand to ensure the success of its offensive plans. Admiral Yamamoto had insisted that Tokyo notify the United States of Japan’s belligerent intent in advance. So did Hirohito, who remained consistent in his desire for Japan to abide by the general principles of international law. On December 3, the Foreign Ministry drafted a final memorandum to be delivered to Hull that included a specific sentence indicating Japan’s possible declaration of war in accordance with the Hague Convention. But Togo allowed that part of the document to be dropped. The dispatch of his sensitive communication to Washington was deliberately left until the very last minute for the sake of watertight confidentiality of military strategies.
Even if the document had been handed to Hull before the commencement of the Pearl Harbor attack, it would not have eliminated the element of surprise—as well as illegality—from Japan’s offensive. The late delivery in Washington did strengthen Roosevelt’s case, helping him rally the country around the flag, but he himself made clear that the stealth of the Pearl Harbor strategy and the accompanying use of diplomacy as its cloak were the most abominable part of Japan’s conduct. And he got that message through to the nation forcefully and brilliantly when he addressed a joint session of Congress on December 8.
One hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to the Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.
Three days after the Pearl Harbor attack, four of the largest and most beautiful Japanese cherry trees along the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park were chopped down in an act of vandalism. The trees, once a symbol of friendship between the United States and Japan, between whom there should have been “no last word,” now became the target of intense U.S. hatred. United under the national call to “remember Pearl Harbor,” the United States went to war against Japan, the war that Tokyo’s warmongers were keen to wage so as not to, in the words of the army chief of staff, “dampen [the soldiers’] morale.”
ON JULY 20, 1942, the Gripsholm, having picked up and crammed aboard even more detained Japanese in Rio de Janeiro, entered the port of Lourenço Marques (Maputo) in Portuguese Mozambique. Two days later, the Asama Maru and the Conte Verde, flying Japan’s Rising Sun flag, anchored at the same port in the Indian Ocean. It was there that the actual citizen exchange between the warring parties took place. The Japanese from North and South America quietly organized themselves and resettled on the two ships coming from Japan. There was no direct contact between the people from the Allied and Axis camps. But while waiting at the port, Nomura and Kurusu both spotted the tall figure of Ambassador Grew in the other group. He recognized them, too. Kurusu immediately recalled his interview with Grew the night before his departure for Washington in early November of the previous year. The uneasy physical distance between them was ample proof of the peace that had eluded them. The three men took their hats off in silent acknowledgment of one another.
The ships carrying the Japanese nationals reached Yokohama, Kurusu’s hometown, on August 20, 1942. By then, Japan’s preponderance at sea was declining precipitously. The balance of power had been tipped. From June 4 to 7, the Imperial Japanese Navy fought one of the most devastating naval battles in modern history, the Battle of Midway. The same men who planned the Pearl Harbor attack conceived of the Midway strategy, hoping to eliminate the United States from the Pacific once and for all. The operation ended in disaster for Japan. By this time, the Japanese military code had been broken by the United States (whereas at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, only the diplomatic code had been broken). The Japanese navy was dragged down from its glorious pinnacle only six months after it had reached it.
All this was unknown to most Japanese. The euphoric afterglow of Pearl Harbor was still lingering when the ships bearing the returnees from the West arrived. Nomura and Kurusu were greeted with a series of celebratory homecoming events, including an imperial banquet and a prime ministerial luncheon. It was as though the government were eager to compensate for its gross maltreatment of Japan’s top representatives at the height of its diplomatic crisis, which had turned them into public enemies in America. They were the targets of hatred in the detention camps: “Which one’s Kurusu? I’ll break his neck!” one graffitist wrote. Now back in Japan, they were suddenly elevated to the status of national heroes who had stood up to the bullies in Washington until the very end.
Kurusu likened the practice of diplomacy to drawing pictures in the sand on the beach. No matter how many treaties and alliances a diplomat might achieve, a single shift in government policy could wash them all away. “I want to leave something more tangible to posterity, something that lasts longer, even if that means leaving only one bridge,” said his son, Ryo, who decided to study engineering rather than follow in his father’s footsteps. Ryo never got to build a single bridge. The Chicago-born, half-American engineer pilot of the Imperial Japanese Army would lose his young life in February 1945 in the war his father was powerless to prevent.
Those two dashing airmen of the Kamikaze, whom Kurusu had the joy of welcoming to Brussels in April 1937, also lost their lives in the war. The younger, Iinuma, died in Phnom Penh shortly after Pearl Harbor. (He was killed by a propeller of a moving aircraft as he walked down a runway, leading some to speculate that his death was a suicide.) Less than two years later, his best friend and flying partner, Tsukagoshi, disappeared on a mission. In October 1944, the Japanese army’s kamikaze pilot unit would launch its first attack on Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, under the command of Rear Admiral Onishi Takijiro, one of the chief architects of the Pearl Harbor attack. The notoriety of that deathly mission would quickly overshadow the accomplishments of the two original Kamikaze aviators.
The violinist Suwa Nejiko, a close friend of the Kurusus, with a blind dedication to her music and a political naïveté to which even the greatest artists are not immune, decided to continue her studies in occupied Paris with her Russian mentor, Boris Kamensky. The former child prodigy often traveled to Germany, where she played with Hans Knappertsbusch and the Berlin Philharmonic. Joseph Goebbels presented her with a Stradivarius in February 1943. She would be captured by the advancing U.S. troops and detained in the United States. She finally returned to Japan, after nearly a decade in Europe, in December 1945. It was by then a country in utter ruins.
When Kurusu and Nomura returned in the summer of 1942, however, Tokyo was poor but still standing. The two diplomats sat through the various homecoming events forced upon them. At one, Hirohito expressed no special feelings about Japan’s situation and had no words other than to commend them for their professional efforts. Prince Takamatsu, more straightforward, told Kurusu he regretted that diplomacy did not prevail and that the war had had to begin.
At the prime minister’s luncheon, Tojo spoke of the reservations the government—and he himself—had felt on the verge of finally deciding to go to war in late November 1941. Not surprisingly, he said his government was forced to choose that route because of incessant persecution by Washington. As far as Japan was concerned, he said, war was never the preferred option. He also said that had Roosevelt’s message to the emperor arrived three days sooner, a war might have been avoided. (Roosevelt’s peace message reached Ambassador Grew late on December 7 in Japan, after having been held up in Tokyo for ten hours by the Army General Staff’s order, intended to sabotage any last-minute peace; Hirohito received it only half an hour before the Pearl Harbor attack. Kurusu had, in fact, proposed the exchange of peace messages between Roosevelt and Hirohito well in time, on November 26, but failed at that point to convince Togo and Kido it was worthwhile.)
Regardless of Tojo’s self-serving reading of U.S. inflexibility, the root problem in the Japanese government remained consistent throughout 1941: None of the top leaders, their occasional protestations notwithstanding, had sufficient will, desire, or courage to stop the momentum for war.
Particularly for the chiefs and vice chiefs of the general staffs, it proved much easier to go along with the call for war preparedness initiated by the bakuryo planners than to try to restrain them. Talking tough gave these leaders an illusory sense of power and bravery when the rest of the leaders openly dithered and vacillated between war and peace, unable to articulate an emphatic no. The liaison conferences and imperial conferences helped every leader feel that he held no individual responsibility.
From April to December 1941, the Japanese leadership made a series of decisions that many at first failed to recognize as constituting a doomed path toward war. But with each step, room for maneuver was lost. The unwinnable war with the West was never an absolute inevitability, however. Despite the risk of losing all that had been achieved since Meiji, the leaders ultimately succumbed to a destructive—and self-destructive—course in the name of maximizing Japan’s chance of survival and self-preservation in the short term and, more ambitiously, building an Asia for Asians under Japan’s leadership in the long term. Neither the short-term nor the long-term goals were ever realizable because the planning for them was not realistic. Japan approached the war as a gambler would, taking comfort in the likelihood of initial advantages while deluding itself that it would be able to take the money and run, though running was never an option in this game.
True, Pearl Harbor was extolled by the generally uninformed nation as a dazzling victory, at least in the beginning. Many opted to see it as an honorable and heroic choice made by Japan for the brighter future of Asia. Even the emperor was said to have been delighted at the report of the Pearl Harbor victory. Most of those newly placed under Japanese control in Southeast Asia, however, despised Japan’s gratuitous and self-serving leadership. If anything, they saw the occupation as more hypocritical than Western colonialism because of the gap between Japan’s professed high ideals and the ill-orchestrated, haphazard nature of its rule, which frequently led to poverty and brutality. That is why it is often said that Pearl Harbor was a brilliant tactical triumph but an awful strategic blunder. But was it even a tactical triumph? On the morning of December 7, 1941, Vice Admiral Nagumo curtailed his task force’s attack, against the wishes of Fuchida Mitsuo, chief coordinator and the bomber pilot who led the first wave of attacks. Of the first group of 183 planes, only 9 were lost, having suffered minimal retaliatory attacks. But 20 planes out of 167 were lost in the second wave. Nagumo was discouraged by this increase and opted to turn back.
Consequently, as noted earlier, oil tanks, machine shops, and other U.S. facilities were mostly left untouched. Japan was also unable to inflict damage on any of the U.S. submarines and aircraft carriers, which were not present in the harbor at the time. This, along with the fact that the harbor’s shallow waters made the repair of damaged crafts easier, enabled a speedy recovery of U.S. naval might in the Pacific.
As for Yamamoto’s submariners who ventured to become human torpedoes immediately preceding the aerial attacks, their deaths served little purpose other than as Japanese propaganda. Major newspapers (not military headquarters) declared them “Nine Military Gods.” (Ten were dispatched; one survived and was taken captive by the United States, unbeknownst to ordinary Japanese.) When the first anniversary of the opening of the war was celebrated, they became the centerpiece of the nation’s hero worship.
Another highlight of the first anniversary was a film produced by the Navy Ministry, The Naval Battle from Hawaii to Malaya (Hawai Mare Oki Kaisen), which was released to the general public on December 3, 1942. The main character is a cadet pilot, a country boy who, through absolute persistence and hard work, transforms himself into an elite pilot of the Imperial Navy. The film, with a swelling sound track of military marches and Wagnerian themes, climaxes in the Japanese attacks on Hawaii and the naval battle off Malaya, ending with the empire’s declaration of war on the United States and its allies. But Tokyo’s leaders could only ride the coattails of victories in Hawaii and Malaya for so long.
SOLDIER U KNEW too well that a life of combat was quite different from what was depicted in propaganda movies. The drifter’s fate continued. On December 8, 1941, aboard the ship whose destination was still unannounced, his unit was informed of Japan’s declaration of war. Sailing through Cam Ranh Bay in southeastern Indochina, entering the Mekong and refueling at Saigon, his ship finally deposited the soldiers in southern Thailand. They were to take part in the historic battle against the British over Malaya. He survived the battle.
After the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Soldier U was shifted to policing duties in Kota Medan, in northern Sumatra, where life was relatively calm and the Japanese occupiers, he believed, got along well with the locals. He was never hungry there, but he missed home, and so he was overjoyed when he was told in December 1942 that he was being discharged for being too old. His journey home proved to be another risky venture. His ship constantly had to dodge torpedo attacks, and when he and the other returning soldiers, full of anticipation, prepared to land in Hiroshima in small boats at night, pitch-darkness surrounded them because of the wartime blackout. Their boats collided with one another. Some men were thrown into the icy water and perished. Some were rescued. Soldier U was among them.
BY THE MIDDLE OF 1944, the anticipation of worse things to come on the home front led to a new policy. The government, still under Tojo’s leadership, announced an evacuation program for primary schoolers from thirteen metropolitan cities. The children, ranging in age from eight to twelve, were moved to the countryside, where they lived in large groups; for many, it was the first time away from their parents. They were usually put up in extremely rudimentary and overcrowded rooms of Buddhist temples or traditional inns. In all, about eight hundred thousand city children experienced this collective evacuation, characterized by perpetual hunger, homesickness, and spartan living. It would form a major part of their generational memory.
Newspapers and magazines saw the evacuation program through rose-colored glasses; they reported that the children were enjoying fresh country air and featured photos of their smiling—though clearly undernourished—faces. One photo showed a group of small boys squatting on the bathroom floor in a big circle, each scrubbing the back of the boy in front of him. They look to be having fun, but their astonishingly skinny naked bodies make one wonder how they had any energy left for smiling, let alone back scrubbing.
Without access to food other than whatever little was given them, the evacuated children suffered from hunger first and foremost. The greatest pastime for them was to draw food. “Sponge cakes, dumplings, pastries, shortcakes, caramels, rice crackers … we drew them all—absolutely every snack in this world one could remember,” one woman recalled. “Then we showed them to one another and enjoyed discussing how wonderful they would taste if we really were to eat them.” Complaining, unhappy letters home were systematically discouraged, and their teachers checked all mail before it was sent out. State censorship and confiscation of correspondence, legalized in October 1941, were exercised even at this level voluntarily.
This haphazard evacuation program was a direct response to the threat of a U.S. landing on the Japanese mainland, which seemed especially likely after the United States captured Saipan, fifteen hundred miles south. The island fell on July 7, 1944, and more than 55,000 Japanese, including civilians, died there. (Made a Japanese mandate by the League of Nations in 1920, Saipan had a Japanese population, including colonial Taiwanese and Koreans classified as Japanese, of 29,348 in 1943.) Vice Admiral Nagumo and other navy commanders ordered their soldiers to “die a hero’s death” and to become the “Pacific seawall” against the United States. Nagumo set a precedent by committing suicide on July 6, before the island’s conquest. The same “ultimate sacrifice” was also expected of civilians in the absence of any protection offered by the military. Too many chose death over surrender, sometimes coaxed by the remaining Japanese soldiers, who made sure that nobody was to suffer the shame of being taken captive.
The haunting proof of patriotic allegiance was captured on film by the U.S. Marines. Civilians, many of them women and some with babies and children, stumbled toward the edge of volcanic cliffs to make their final leaps. One can feel their slight hesitation and momentary fear as they looked down into the abyss of black seawater. But by sheer force of determination, they overcame their fear and jumped. “Banzai!” (“Live forever!”—or, more accurately in this case, “Long live the emperor!”) was often the last word of those loyal subjects of the empire. More civilians would commit suicide on the islands of Tinian, Guam, and Okinawa in the face of the U.S. advance.
Japanese losses in the Pacific were so great that they could not be kept a secret any longer. The Saipan calamity was reported to the Japanese nation on July 18, 1944, along with the resignation of the Tojo cabinet. Two days after Tojo’s fall, on July 20, Operation Valkyrie, the most nearly successful of all the assassination attempts on Hitler, was carried out. With renewed fanaticism, the Führer would continue to lead Germany until his suicide.
Germany without Hitler would have been an immediately different country. But Japan without Tojo looked too much like Japan with him. The same institutional and cultural failings that led to its decision to go to war remained, and if anything, the material and human sacrifices of the war years made it even more difficult for any leader to end the conflict. Some hoped to deal another decisive blow to the United States so that Japan would not suffer a total defeat. Others, equally misguidedly, believed that either Germany or the Soviet Union could intervene and mediate a peace. Some fanatics in the leadership wanted to fight on whatever the consequences. Even with the general understanding at the top that Japan could only lose the war, it would take thirteen more months, two more prime ministers, the complete destruction of Japan’s major cities, and two atomic bombs for the emperor to finally put his foot down—some say valiantly, some say all too belatedly—and end the war that had been waged without any concrete exit plan. The chronic preference of leaders for wishful thinking, self-preservation, and face-saving that in 1941 culminated in the country’s most reckless decision had too familiar an echo in 1944 and 1945.
Meanwhile, life had to carry on, and children continued to be evacuated. On August 22, 1944, about seven hundred children, in transit from Okinawa to Kagoshima, perished at sea. The U.S. submarines were already that close. The ill-orchestrated evacuation program ended in March 1945, and city families were urged to make individual arrangements to ensure the safety of their children. Family reunions were often brutally short-lived. Many children from Tokyo were sent back home just in time to experience the worst (but not the last) air raid unleashed on the city: the one in the early-morning hours of March 10, which cost Kafu his house.
With the destruction of almost every Japanese city and the constant announcements of soldiers’ deaths, Japanese morale could not have been lower. Surviving death—from disease, hunger, or the incendiary bombs that grilled alive newborns and old people alike—had become the utmost national priority. A distraught mother who embraced her baby to the point of suffocation while seeking shelter during a bombing raid, a schoolgirl trying to float her way to safety down a river filled with dying people clinging to her, people navigating heaps of charred bodies as they looked for their missing family members—stories like these were becoming all too common. The Meiji Palace, where the imperial conferences had taken place, was burned down in May 1945, forcing the leaders to hold the final two imperial conferences before Japan’s unconditional surrender in an air-raid shelter.
Life in the countryside was less pressed, though things were scarce. Toddlers innocently competed with one another to collect plant roots, a substitute staple for rice, and grasshoppers, an invaluable available source of protein and calcium for growing children. Students were sent into the forests for pine sap to make gasoline (which never quite worked), and all households were ordered to turn in their metal, including buckets and ladles, to make airplanes. “We must be losing the war,” said one farm boy at the time, deducing that the government wouldn’t otherwise sink so low as to take utensils from poor people’s kitchens. But uncomplaining, and with a degree of fatalism, the nation endured the horrid times as if it were dealing with a series of relentless natural disasters rather than man-made ones.
In the midst of all this, a very select group of Japanese, mainly military officers but also some filmmakers, university students, and other civilians, had a rare chance to see films that the British had left behind in Southeast Asia. One of them was Gone with the Wind. The Japanese were amazed by the quality, technical superiority, and glamour of the nearly four-hour-long saga. They wondered how they could possibly defeat a country that had managed to produce such an astonishing film. (Another film left behind was Walt Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, whose quality far surpassed that of Japanese animation technology.)
ON AUGUST 17, 1945, three days after the emperor announced on the radio Japan’s total defeat, Prince Higashikuni became the first (and most probably the last) prime minister chosen from the imperial house. It was up to him to disarm the nation, hand over the country to the Allied occupation forces, sign the document accepting Japan’s unconditional surrender, and, most critically, raise the morale of the thoroughly devastated nation.
The prince was a good orator who spoke simply and convincingly. On September 5, addressing a parliamentary session that included American GIs in the audience, Higashikuni insisted that the Japanese not dwell on the question of how the war was started and instead look forward. He proposed that the whole nation of one hundred million was to blame and so the whole nation had to repent. This was the same nation that had been told, until very recently, to fight until the bitter end, armed only with spears and helmets of bamboo. Higashikuni’s argument had some merit, especially in the late summer of 1945, when so much work lay in front of the Japanese people. But his words set the tone for Japanese leaders as well as those who followed them to overlook the most basic question of responsibility: Who was responsible for starting the war? The suggestion that the war might have been unnecessary was too difficult for any Japanese to accept, having lost so much and so many in the war. But this neglect, legitimized as a matter of official policy, in turn encouraged the general temptation to do away with various other kinds of responsibility, such as coming to terms with its war crimes and remembering the war after it was over.
This, of course, does not mean that people could forget what they had lived through. Contrary to received opinion, some serious attempts have been made in Japan to examine aspects of the country’s wartime past. Soldier U, who lived to be eighty-four, had enough time to reflect, discreetly and quietly, on his experiences. Though he never discussed any of them in his lifetime, he cared enough to leave a written record, unbeknownst even to his family.
Yet by claiming that every Japanese was to blame for the war, Higashikuni implied that nobody was to blame, fudging and diluting the real responsibility of the leaders who brought Japan to that momentous decision. Prince Konoe, who resurfaced as a public figure in Higashikuni’s cabinet, was doubtless the first to support this line of argument. Conservative politicians, in power for most of the postwar period, were only too happy to inherit such a partial and incomplete rendering of Japan’s past. Despite the efforts of some individual citizens, academics, and journalists to have a more honest debate, it is difficult to deny that Japan’s official impulse has been to look away from what is undesirable and unpleasant in its history. And this pattern was perpetuated as much, if not more, by what Kafu had so astutely noted on the eve of Pearl Harbor as the fundamental indifference to politics among many Japanese, absorbed as they were by their “primary pursuit … to pass one day at a time without encountering too much trouble,” as by the misplaced desire of some politicized right to impart glory to Japan’s lost war.
In 1952, Gone with the Wind was finally released to general audiences in Japan, and it became a huge box-office hit. Many Japanese identified with the spirited, impetuous, and indomitable southern belle Scarlett O’Hara, who remained determined to rise above any obstacles, even after having lost almost everything that mattered to her. Her celebrated last words, “After all, tomorrow is another day,” resonated with the generation of postwar Japanese trying to glimpse a better future through the wreckage of war. That was exactly what Japan opted to do—and that is why the past, with its improbable story of how the war came to pass, became another country.