Growing Vegetables

Phyllis Birnbaum

  • A Diary of Darkness: The Wartime Diary of Kiyosawa Kiyoshi translated by Eugene Soviak
    Princeton, 391 pp, £30.00, January 1999, ISBN 0 06 910014 4

‘One of the most important and compelling documents of wartime Japan,’ the publisher informs us. ‘A tribute to the human spirit,’ declares the blurb. The translators assure us of Kiyosawa Kiyoshi’s ‘meticulous attention to detail, the self-revealing thoughtfulness of his reflections, and the acuity of his observation’. The photograph on the cover shows him unprepared for this cascade of compliments, sitting amiably in front of shelves of books, rumpled and smoking a pipe.

Many Japanese of the war generation would have no trouble understanding the reasons for the fanfare. Kiyosawa, a journalist, was consistent in his criticism of Japan’s military Government throughout the Second World War, and never succumbed to its propaganda. Slogans about the superiority of the Japanese people and their mission to bring the nations of the world ‘under one roof’ drew citizens of all kinds, however intellectual or unintellectual, into fervent support of the war effort. According to Donald Keene, some of the Japanese writers ‘who expressed themselves so joyously’ on 8 December 1941 – the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor – probably ‘feared that unless they appeared enthusiastic they might fall under suspicion of harbouring dangerous thoughts, but most of the wartime comments have an unmistakable ring of sincerity. Once the war began, Japanese writers, with extremely few exceptions, became Japanese first and men of letters second.’ Kiyosawa marvelled at the successful indoctrination of his colleagues: ‘The Japanese people have had faith in the war,’ he wrote in April 1944. ‘Since the Sino-Japanese incident, even in the stratum of intellectuals in my circle, each and every one is a supporter of the war.’

From 1942 to 1945, feeling the need to record what he could no longer say out loud, Kiyosawa kept a secret diary, which was first published in Japan in 1948 when it caused a great stir. Japanese citizens were still contending with the devastating effects of the war, and with the country’s militarism and why it had not met with more resistance. Kiyosawa’s clear-minded thoughts were received with gratitude and reverence.

His life story is a curious mixture of overseas travel, journalism, liberal politics and vegetables. Born in 1890, he grew up on the family farm and began his education in Japan. But at a young age he came under the influence of a progressive form of Christianity and, in 1906, took the daring step of going to the US, where he attended Tacoma High School and Whitworth College. He decided to be a journalist and worked intermittently for several West-Coast Japanese-American newspapers. Returning home after 12 years, he came to be regarded in Japan as an expert in American culture – a distinction that did not always serve him well. The ‘odour’ of America stuck to him throughout his life. He became a journalist of some note, specialising in foreign relations, politics and social comment; books on foreign relations and other topics bolstered his reputation.

His liberalism was always controversial, however. In 1929, he wrote an essay about the anarchist Osugi Sakae, who had been murdered while in the custody of the military police, and incensed right-wingers accused him of dishonouring the nation to the point where he was forced to resign from his job at Asahi shimbum. As the years passed, he became more and more firmly allied with the liberal leaders of his day and had access to influential thinkers and government officials. Although he once wrote, ‘I want a life in which it would be all right to do nothing but study,’ he wasn’t suited to solitude. On the contrary, what most got him going was debating the fine points of policy at foreign affairs forums, in magazine offices and at the homes of friends. When he chose to speak his mind in public, he could be too cantankerous for many tastes. On at least one occasion, he was excluded from a political meeting for fear he would cause trouble.

With the outbreak of World War Two, he had to curb his sociability and keep his opinions to himself. Publications that even hinted at dissent faced harassment and orders to close; one reporter who irritated the Government found himself drafted and sent off to fight. Kiyosawa (and a few others in his liberal circle) continued to publish in these difficult circumstances, but guardedly and sometimes protected by a pseudonym. More and more, his life was centred on his books and on growing vegetables in his backyard. At the height of the war, he prided himself on his newly acquired skills as a market gardener and helped to keep his family fed with harvests of potatoes and green beans. When he wasn’t growing things, he worked on the manuscripts of his various books. Hardly a day passed without him making entries in his diary.

In them, Kiyosawa fumed at the idiocy of the Government and the sycophancy of the newspapers, as well as at the general ignorance about foreign affairs among ordinary citizens and even Government officials. ‘When I listen to the morning radio nowadays, I find it completely insulting to the intelligent,’ he wrote in exasperation on 15 December 1943. ‘There is the attempt to make the entire nation listen to stuff that has descended to this low level.’ ‘Students,’ he wrote on 5 May 1944, ‘are being hunted down for labour. University students are transporting earth in civil engineering projects and are loading and unloading commodities ... The special characteristic of wartime Japan is not to think about either scholarship or the future.’ His contempt for Japan’s leaders was scarcely containable: ‘At the times that are critical for nations, are there not, throughout the world, childish, stupid leaders such as these who lead these nations? Every day I lament this. A certain professor of the Imperial University ... said, “Premier Tojo has the mind of about a middle-school student, hasn’t he?” There are many middle-school students with his intellectual ability.’

There is petulance, too, in the diary entries – in particular, Kiyosawa felt slighted by officials who did not bother to seek his advice about the US. The Americans routinely consulted their Japan experts, while ‘Japan keeps such people at arm’s length.’ And he was admirably measured in what he had to say about the enemy. ‘The outstanding trait of those who received their education in America is seriousness and sincerity,’ he reflected on 19 August 1943. ‘Probably in America there is an atmosphere that teaches this sort of sincerity.’ Benign opinions are rare, and Kiyosawa’s list of dissatisfactions ranges widely, from the unfriendliness of railway workers to the lack of fertiliser and on to Tojo’s ‘commonplace and stilted’ public statements. For these and other developments, Kiyosawa blamed the education system which had formed his nation’s rulers.

It was his intention to record information in the diary for use in a future book, so there are plenty of entries of a political kind. But they are less interesting now than the more human touches. Kiyosawa’s vignettes take us into the dark, stinking interiors of wartime trains jammed with terrified passengers, or outside, to the pleasures of growing crops (‘Producing things is pleasant. I did not think that “earth” would be so appealing’). He bears witness to his homeland’s moral collapse, recording the increase in rudeness and thieving. With shortages widespread, lunch boxes were snatched from schoolgirls and petty theft became a common occurrence. ‘I went to a Japanese eating place in the Ginza area,’ he wrote. ‘After two or three minutes, I suddenly wondered about my hat which had been put on a chair, and when we looked for it, it was gone. It had been stolen. It was a new soft cap. It was taken by a man with the look of a gentleman. Japan has become a nation of thieves. The country that is the “land of the gods” doesn’t mind at all if it has thieves.’

As the pilfering continued, he looked beyond the breakdown in public order to the more widespread upheaval to come, envisioning a revolution that would not look kindly on his own educated and propertied class. ‘There is a reaction against the bourgeoisie,’ he declared on 15 May 1944. With ‘the worsening of the war and the shortage of food supplies ... an explosive upheaval is coming just one step ahead and can be seen on all sides. There was a bridal procession for the imperial prince, Mikasa. A very large amount of furniture for the bride was transported. I heard the story that the chauffeur expressed his annoyance, saying: “And we are not even able to eat!” ’ Two months later, he wrote more darkly: ‘Revolution will soon be inevitable. It won’t be too long in coming. After defeat in war, the destruction of order will inevitably appear and what follows will be violence, revolution, assassination.’ Though he believes that the upheaval will have dire consequences – not least the loss of his own way of life – Kiyosawa remains a fervent patriot, dedicated to country and Emperor, something that no doubt contributed to his popularity in postwar Japan. ‘Let Japan be fortunate! Let Japan be great! Let the Imperial Family be eternal!’ wrote this foreign-educated champion of liberal policies.

For all its high ideals and keen perceptions, the diary cannot have anything like the impact now that it had fifty years ago. A Western reader today is more likely to gnash his teeth than to experience any sense of uplift. The translation of A Diary of Darkness is partly responsible for this, since the English, too often retaining the constructions of the original, is very laborious. Japanese is a famously vague language; it is also, less famously, a clause-ridden language, and this has defeated the translators. ‘As a result, he rejected decisively fear of the threat of society becoming his enemy, and, establishing the idea of a civilian Cabinet, there was no one to compare to him in the outstanding structure of his make-up as a politician’ is not a good sentence. Nor is: ‘The war resulted when those who make war their aim and the bureaucratic officials who see only one part (and, moreover, feel they should rule) mingled together and compromised.’ Or: ‘While both the Government and newspapers are encouraging for Cabinet discussion the development of empty land as a fixed national policy, there is no allotment of seed potatoes, and if they are not planted within two or three days it will be unfortunate.’ Japanese terms have been translated awkwardly: ‘The deficiencies of bureaucratism and controlism have become completely clear as a result of testing over a number of years.’ Finally, the translators are stingy in giving background information.

In the introduction, Eugene Soviak makes a strong case for the importance of the diary, citing Kiyosawa’s analyses of Japan’s disintegration. In 1948, in the silence of a ruined country, his observations will have read very powerfully. Fifty years later, his thoughts about Japan’s misguided rulers have lost their power to shock, and his impatience with the country’s stultifying bureaucratic traditions and its excessive formalism seems all too familiar. It is only when he turns his attention elsewhere and shows off his more literary gifts that he captures the madness of Japan’s war years. There is a memorable encounter with the writer Masamune Hakucho in April 1945. ‘Even without his present hardships,’ Kiyosawa wrote, ‘Masamune Hakucho

was never an impressive-looking man. Now he spends his time in the cold mountain area and has become a shabby country fellow. He treated me to rare items such as pure American coffee, walnuts, peanuts and doughnuts.

   He cursed his lifestyle. He spat out: ‘I am barely existing, fighting hunger and cold.’ He said that ignorant farmers and labourers obtain money from the overpriced black market, but still move about as arrogantly as kings. He said everybody is a ‘beggar’. When I encouraged him to write about his life for future reference, he said: ‘I don’t have any such idea in mind. I am still only living like an animal.’ He had bought land next door ... He said, ‘I hate to work!’ but if one did not work one did not eat. I advised him to cultivate the easier parts of his land.

Towards the end of the diary, Kiyosawa seems in danger of fading from view, sequestered and angry, hunched melancholically at his desk. But finally he rallies himself. In 1945, the bombing of Tokyo takes centre-stage. He did not, as Government propagandists urged, prepare to drive the enemy from his native soil with a bamboo spear, but instead went off on his errands through the rubble of his shattered city, noting the destruction of neighbourhoods and the corpses along the road. With Tokyo in flames, he collected together the shards of his intellectual life. ‘I hear the Ueno area is burning. The fire fighters come and they run around, asking: “Where are the hydrants of the water mains?” ’ he wrote on 26 February, before calmly going on to reveal his eventual destination. ‘Jinbocho was not burned out, and I picked up the books I had bought.’ A few days later, he is still turning up for his usual appointments: ‘In the morning I went to the centre of the city to attend a meeting of the People’s Scholarly Arts Society ... At Kamata Station there was a couple with reddened eyes and smeared with mud. When I asked them about it, they said the area of Asakusa was burned.’ Some of the last images of Kiyosawa show him cradling his volumes on China and dousing the fires that nearly consumed his library. He died of pneumonia in May 1945, three months before the war ended. His final days, spent salvaging scholarly books from the wreck of his nation, could almost be seen as a struggle to rescue a civilisation.