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Greatly and Permanently Anxious About Japan : SONS OF HEAVEN A Portrait of the Japanese Monarchy by Jerrold M. Packard (Charles Scribner's Sons: $25; 416 pp.) : IMPERIALIST JAPAN The Yen to Dominate by Michael Montgomery (St. Martin's Press: $35; 534 pp., illustrated)

December 20, 1987|Alan Booth | Booth is the author of "The Roads to Sata" (Viking/Penguin). and

Jerrold M. Packard has made a profession of writing about royalty. His work includes a study of the British monarchy, a "Social Guide to the American Presidency" and a volume on the Popes. His new book on the Japanese imperial family benefits in a limited way from his ability to compare, say, the Fujiwara regents to "the Frankish Mayors of the Palace," but Packard's overall grasp of Japanese history, geography and language is demonstrably shaky, and the bulk of his book reads like the work of a bedazzled court correspondent more interested in "the gilded artifice and deliberate deification" of his subjects than in such mundane matters as getting their names right (the personal name of the Emperor Meiji, arguably the most important of all the 124 sovereigns treated in Packard's book, is misspelled throughout).

At the outset, Packard warns his reader that "it would be difficult to find another reigning house that has . . . been so excluded from any substantive role in the shaping of secular policies of state." This being so, Packard is faced with the difficulty of holding his reader's interest in figures who were almost always peripheral to the major events of their lifetimes. For century upon century the Japanese court busied itself with "unimaginably florid liturgy" and "shenanigans" that had no possible consequence outside its own hermetically sealed sphere. The real shapers of the nation--men like Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu--are shunted on from the wings to enact their crucial roles in summary, but Packard's chosen focus dictates that they must soon be shunted off again to be replaced center stage by the unbroken line of shadowy and mainly boring figures who occupied the chrysanthemum throne.

Packard's attitude to the founding myths is one of tongue-in-cheek canniness designed, perhaps, to demonstrate his healthy American disdain for such tomfoolery as gods being born from each other's noses ("out of which nostril we can only guess"). But sarcasm gives way to quivering awe when Packard begins to describe the elaborate mortal ceremonies that leave him and his grasp of English so giddy: "The capital (he writes) still bravely exuded, however transparently, a festive mantle common to all royal venues that mark illustrious events in the lives and times of their dynastic seed." And the reader, still reeling from the muddled metaphors and misused vocabulary of that sentence, is perhaps too preoccupied to recognize that if Kublai Khan's war fleet approached north Kyushu by sailing through the Inland Sea, as Packard says, it must have come from Hawaii.

The question of how far Hirohito was responsible for Japan's going to war in 1941 has been raised in more than one recent book, but Packard finds the emperor innocent on all counts: "He was simply too trusting for his own and for his country's good." This is precisely the opposite view to that put forward by Michael Montgomery in his dense study of Japanese deviousness during the century or so before Pearl Harbor.

Montgomery makes no bones about the iconoclastic nature of his study. Japan's history, as presented in its own school textbooks, is, he charges, the result of a "twelve-hundred-year campaign of imposture and fabrication." Practically all Japanese historians and political leaders have been "fraudsters" quick to employ "chicanery" and a "tradition of . . . inventing pretexts with which to justify otherwise unacceptable actions." The first U.S. consul in Japan called the Japanese "the greatest liars on earth," and their public word, insists Montgomery, continues to be a form of "doublespeak," usually couched in "tones of injured innocence" that mask their "endemic chauvinism."

Not only was the Rape of Nanking "personally superintended by an uncle of present Emperor Hirohito," but the emperor himself was "directly involved in the establishment of Unit 731" (the biological research unit that conducted vivisections on prisoners of war). According to Montgomery, Hirohito personally monitored the unit's findings, and his own purportedly innocent experiments had sinister military applications. He was, Montgomery claims, an enthusiastic warmonger, and such reluctance as history shows him to have voiced was either a device by which his ministers could shield him from later blame or was provoked by the fear that precipitate military action would compromise his own "longer term expansion plans." Nowadays, in Montgomery's words, " 'The Way of the Warrior' has given way to 'The Way of the Salaryman,' " but the struggle to obtain world hegemony continues, with arch-villain MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) systematically seeking to bring about the destruction of U.S. industry.

There is food for thought in Montgomery's study, and the reader would probably feel more disposed to chew and digest this unpalatable food if the tone of the book were not so openly combative and if Montgomery did not resort so frequently to Packard-like sarcasm. Apart from the atrocious pun in the subtitle, the scholarly detail and encyclopedic length of the book begin to seem like an elaborate veil behind which the old Yellow Peril can be summoned up and bashed. Montgomery concludes by quoting a Chinese statement that Japan remains "a great and permanent anxiety." It does, but the shelves of Western bookstores are starting to groan, so ponderously anxious are the right-minded tomes they carry.

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