Books: So Lovely A Country Will Never Perish (Donald Keene)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2011-09-07 14:30:00 No comments

Donald Keene is translator of, among others, Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human, but during WWII he was in the employ of the U.S. Navy, translating diaries of captured Japanese soldiers and even providing an on-the-spot interpretation of the Emperor’s capitulation speech (delivered, as it turned out, in language so archaic and format that not only Keene but many native Japanese had trouble understanding it). With this work Keene plumbs the diaries of writers—some famous, some less so—for their introspections and musings before, during and after the war that left Japan devastated and forever altered.

Keene has focused on writers who were well-known in their native Japan, some of whom are either known only to readers of Japanese literature or not much known at all outside of the country. Nagai Kafu is one of the better-known: his diary was one of his prized possessions, and he kept it with him during the whole of the war even after he had lost just about every other material possession, including his home, to the Allied firebombings. He was also one of those Keen chose to represent the more critical and non-nationalistic of authors: Kafu resented the rise of the military mindset and the awful implications it was having for his country.

What’s also made clear is how each of the authors had varying degrees of luxury for expressing their thoughts, even in the form of a diary. Kafu was old and considered enough of a harmless eccentric man-of-letters to not worry about police searches. Some authors, however, took up militancy as a way to pre-emptively avoid trouble—for instance, joining or being invited to “literary” groups like the Bunpō, which existed as little more than a thinly-disguised propaganda organ.

Some took up militancy because it suited their natures. One major example of this is Fūtaro Yamada—the author who would later give us The Kouga Ninja Scrolls, Pleasures of the Flesh and many other works of mystery, suspense and fantasy. His diary entries, from when he was a medical student in his twenties, are fiercely pro-Japanese and anti-American, and articulate enough to make one wonder how someone this smart could express such jingoism. The answer appears to be “very easily”: his own love for French literature did not automatically make him that much more cosmopolitan, it seems. One of the books’s shortcomings is that it’s not entirely clear how the Yamada of then relates to the Yamada of the more recent present: Keene only mentions that after becoming a famous author, he traded his criticism of foreign invaders for criticism of the Japanese themselves. This criticism, which ostensibly revolves around postwar Japan’s fixation on material gain, is very visible in Pleasures of the Flesh. Probably why another equally bitter social critic—Nagisa Oshima—ended up directing the book’s film adaptation.

Keene’s selection of diarists and diary entries is broad and well-chosen—they’re mainly authors rather than ordinary folks, but that pays off in terms of the eloquence of what’s expressed. The selections also provide a good sense of how these creators responded to the war in many sectors of life: politics, their art, day-to-day survival during wartime, their notions about the war itself, their reaction to the Emperor’s capitulation. I particularly liked a section that discusses the plight of nonliterary entertainers—in particular, song-and-dance man Furukawa Roppa, whose diary is filled with unsentimental observations about the occupation army. The experience of the war so bothered him that he avoided performing anything that reminded him of it afterwards, and he was forced to cultivate good relations with the Americans in order to get much work done at all. When he wasn’t being censored by the Occupation authorities, he was getting stiffed by soldiers selling him goods at way above their (black) market value.

Post-war censorship by the Occupation is something that the book touches on in some detail, but I cannot say if this last element suffers from bias on Keene’s part—he having been technically part of that group. His main line of comparison is with the censorship imposed by wartime authorities, who were not above imprisoning those perceived as too outspoken, and who were often singled out for things that seemed implausibly innocent. Post-war, you could have your work censored and sometimes in a highly petty way, but the creator himself was not endangered—which I guess does count for some kind of progress. That said, Keene mostly sits back and lets the diarists speak for themselves about their experiences in this regard, which is probably the best approach. There’s also relatively little discussion about the use of the atomic bomb, although that may be because an entire book could well be written about Japanese reactions to that subject and Keene wanted to cast his net a little wider.

What comes through very clearly in every case is the diarists’ love for their country, a love that does not necessarily spring from or include slogans or even politics. The title itself is a strong hint of that. How they express that love, though, is something Keene takes pains to show had such variegated expression that it might well serve as an example of how outsiders’ views of Japan as a unified whole are almost always incomplete.

Tags: Donald Keene Fūtaro Yamada Japan Nagai Kafu WWII diaries writers writing

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This page contains a single post by Serdar Yegulalp, in the category Books, published on 2011-09-07 14:30:00.

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