Gen. Curtis LeMay, who masterminded the fire and atomic bombings of Japanese cities during World War II, once remarked that, if the United States had lost the war, he would have been hanged as a war criminal. So reports Philip Terzian of the Providence Journal in a recent column reminding us that the definition of war crimes--even when the defendant is Slobodan Milosevic--depends heavily on who is doing the judging.
Terzian, arguing on the basis of moral relativism, didn't want to go too far in that direction. He backpedaled immediately, denying that LeMay should be compared to the Japanese leaders who unleashed the attack on Pearl Harbor; it's unlikely that Kiyohara Takuya, the convicted war criminal at the center of Akira Yoshimura's new novel, would let the general off so easily.
At Pearl Harbor, at least, the Japanese struck military targets. In 1944-45, Takuya argues, U.S. incendiary raids "designed to kill and wound non-combatants in urban areas" were "serious violations of the rules of war," so that crewmen from shot-down U.S. bombers needn't be treated like regular POWs. Instead, he says, they should be subject to the death penalty.
Takuya, a lieutenant at the Japanese army's air defense headquarters in Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu, knows how much damage LeMay's bombers are causing. It enrages him to hear that U.S. crewmen, concluding their missions, listen to jazz and look at pin-up pictures, as if "strafing defenseless schoolchildren" were a sport.
Yoshimura ("Shipwrecks," "On Parole") gives Takuya the thankless job of trying to warn Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, that two B-29s are headed its way and that the city is likely to share Hiroshima's fate. He feels "with increasing conviction that the American military had ceased to recognize the Japanese as members of the human race."
After an earlier raid on Fukuoka itself, several U.S. airmen held captive in Fukuoka are handed over to a local university to be killed in medical experiments--a historical incident also described in Shusaku Endo's 1958 novel "The Sea and Poison." Thirty-three others are taken into the woods and beheaded with swords, one by Takuya personally.
The character feels no guilt, only a righteous rage. After the war, however, he is alerted to U.S. war-crimes investigations and roams Japan as a fugitive for two years before he is caught, tried and sentenced to life in prison.
Yoshimura has extensively researched both the air war and the Tokyo trials, but the heart of the novel describes Takuya's life on the run in a burned-out, half-starving, demoralized country. The physical and psychological details of that ordeal, presented in a clean, spare style, are telling.
Takuya is progressively disillusioned. His family is afraid to harbor him. Friends resent having to share their rations with him.
Japan adapts to the Occupation with what strikes him as unseemly haste. Even respectable girls go out with GIs. Superior officers Takuya once admired try to escape the gallows by blaming "rogue" subordinates like him.
Most galling is his own transformation from a fearless, decisive soldier into a man who flinches from any stranger's glance. His sustaining anger--his belief that the American airmen were the \o7 real\f7 war criminals--fades into a cynicism that his release after only nine years in prison reinforces: The Korean War had made the United States seek friendlier relations with Japan. "Judgments were made by the victors in whatever way they saw fit."
Endo, a Christian, sought to counter moral relativism, what he called the "mud-swamp" of Japanese thinking, with a sharper sense of individual responsibility. Yoshimura--surely with the earlier novel in mind--replies here that life is a trap that can make ordinary people of any nation seem like monsters to one another.