Japanese Power

Richard Bowring

  • God’s Dust: A Modern Asian Journey by Ian Buruma
    Cape, 267 pp, £12.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 224 02493 0
  • The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol V: The 19th Century edited by Marius Jansen
    Cambridge, 828 pp, £60.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 521 22356 3
  • The Cambridge History of Japan. Vol. VI: The 20th Century edited by Peter Duus
    Cambridge, 866 pp, £60.00, June 1989, ISBN 0 521 22357 1

At the last triennial meeting of the European Association for Japanese Studies in late September 1988 the major talking-point was the extraordinary outburst of anti-Japanese feeling which in parts of the British press greeted the news of Emperor Hirohito’s final illness. Later in the new year, as the gruesome saga of the Emperor’s coma continued, we heard that the journalist Edward Behr had just finished a BBC documentary which promised, with exquisite timing, to blow the lid off the ‘Hirohito myth’. Behr had apparently discovered some incriminating evidence which historians had hitherto either missed or wilfully ignored. One waited in apprehension, but the supposedly key passages from ‘newly-discovered’ diaries turned out to be the same old tired mistranslations from long-published sources that Bergamini had tried to pass off as history in the early Seventies. Yet again, it seemed that the overwhelming desire for a scapegoat was being linked to the notion that Hirohito had been a Japanese version of Hitler. Much easier to assume that the whole world operates as ‘we’ do than to inquire into the nature of the imperial institution in Japanese history. It was as if in 1952, on the death of King George VI, the German press had offered up fervent prayers that the Firebomber of Dresden would go to his just reward in Hell, or as if the Argentinians were to hold the Queen personally responsible for the Belgrano.

The incident was a sobering one. The role of the Emperor in the war does need reassessment; but even to question his ultimate guilt at this stage was to appear to be condoning all Japanese atrocities in South-East Asia, and those who questioned Behr’s credentials were clearly on a hiding to nothing. If the academic world finds it so difficult to make an impact on public opinion in such a vital area of Anglo-Japanese relations, then how can we justify that part of ourselves that takes pride in being able to interpret the foreign and the strange to a Western audience?

Part of the answer must lie in the fact that there are, thank heaven, some journalists who are qualified to act as intermediaries, who know and speak Japanese well and who are not afraid to make it clear that they could not really do their job of interpretation properly were it not for the published work of academics. One such man is Ian Buruma. Educated in the Netherlands but writing in English, Buruma is known for his work on the Far Eastern Economic Review and in the New York Times, and as the author of A Japanese Mirror, a racy book on the Japanese underworld. God’s Dust, too, is somewhat breathlessly written as he moves us from Burma to Japan at almost breakneck speed, but it is a sensitive and rewarding book. He has an enviable ability to come up with sharp cultural observations in the most compromising of positions. A description of what goes on in the barbers’ shops of Taipei is nicely turned into a metaphor for the passive nature of politics in Taiwan.

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