Suffering and recovery

18th August 1995 at 01:00
HIROSHIMA NOTES by Kenzaburo Oe Marion Boyars Pounds 14.95 0 7145 3007 7 JAPAN IN WAR AND PEACE: ESSAYS ON HISTORY, RACE AND CULTURE by John Dower HarperCollins Pounds 18. - 0 00 255602 2 Richard Tames and Richard Woolfenden mark VJ Day with accounts of Japan and a young writers' competition.

Kenzaburo Oe won his first major literary prize in 1958 aged just 23. Five years later his first son was born with permanent brain damage. Oe responded to his own pain by chronicling that of others, visiting Hiroshima to record the lives of people "who did not commit suicide in spite of everything".

The essays in Hiroshima Notes recount the sufferings of the A-bomb survivors, describe the help they received from doctors and fellow-victims and castigate past and present Japanese governments both for their aggressions and their refusal to acknowledge them or compensate their victims. Read Oe's specially written Introduction to this English edition and you will read the rest. Get your local library to order a copy. Other people need to read this. In 1994 Oe was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. He was also offered an imperial honour - and refused it.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Professor Dower is a myth-buster. To appreciate him in action some prior knowledge of Japanese history is therefore desirable. Almost all of the contents of this volume have already appeared elsewhere, usually as the author self-deprecatingly admits, in "well-concealed academic places". They deserve a wider reading. Varying in focus and length, they pursue common themes - the continuities between pre-war and post-war Japan, the conflicts and tensions with Japan's purportedly homogeneous society and the racist resonances which have bedevilled Japan's international relations, especially with the United States.

"The Useful War" stresses the positive contribution of Japan's wartime exertions to her post-war "economic miracle" through strengthening the directive powers of the bureaucracy, forcing bank mergers and industrial rationalisation, broadening the industrial skills base and boosting technical education. "Japanese Cinema Goes to War" contrasts Hollywood's crude demonisation of sub-human "Japs" with the totally different Japanese approach, which virtually ignored the enemy in favour of introspection and treated war as an incomprehensible and malevolent process, akin to natural disaster. The 1938 film Chocolate and Soldiers, which focuses on a father fighting in China, who encloses chocolate-wrappers with his letters home to his son, drew from American film-maker Frank Capra the grudging admission that "We can't beat this kind of thing. We make a film like that maybe once in a decade. We haven't got the actors". A similar preoccupation with imagery underlies the essays on "Japanese Artists and the Atomic Bomb" and "Graphic OthersGraphic Selves: Cartoons in War and Peace".

Dower's long essay on Japan's wartime efforts to create an atom bomb of its own reveal them to have been half-hearted, disorganised and based on a paltry pool of manpower and resources. The army and the navy backed separate and unco-ordinated projects. Senior scientists didn't believe any nation could make such a bomb before the war ended but played along in a desultory way to keep their junior colleagues from becoming cannon-fodder.

"Sensational Rumours, Seditious Graffiti, and the Nightmares of the Thought Police" documents the extent to which the wartime Japanese were conspicuously not "one hundred million hearts beating as one". "Occupied Japan and the Cold War in Asia" is a painstaking examination of the reversal of US policy from regarding the Japanese as vermin worthy of extermination to loyal and essential allies against the contamination of communism, all within the space of seven years. This tight-knit foreign policy analysis is complemented by more reflective discussions of "Race, Language and War in Two Cultures" and "Fear and Prejudice in US-Japanese Relations".

"Yoshida in the Scales of History" is an epitome of Dower's full-length biography of the prime minister usually credited with being the architect of Japan's post-war recovery, both economically and internationally. Dower reveals that General MacArthur, supremo of the Occupation regime, thought Yoshida "monumentally lazy and politically inept" and argues that Yoshida was far less important for what he did than for what he refused to do. Content to acquiesce in the virtual annexation of Okinawa by the Americans and to reduce his own foreign ministry to a sub-branch of the US State Department, Yoshida nevertheless resolutely refused to re-expand the Japanese army to the 325, 000 envisaged by American generals who were drooling at the prospect of ordering banzai charges against the "commies" without having to worry over-much about the casualty figures.

Dower's volume concludes with two brief but thought-provoking essays on the significance of the long reign of the Showa emperor, Hirohito. The fact that both American and British official wartime propagandists were explicitly forbidden to attack the emperor - while simultaneously contemplating his indictment as a war criminal - was only one of many things I learned from this elegantly-written collection.

Richard Tames is the author of A Traveller's History of Japan.

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