In 1997, shortly after getting married and buying our first house, I was invited to travel to Japan and spend a little over a month researching Japanese-Chinese machine translation under a grant from the Japanese Ministry of Education. It was a disorienting experience, like most non-Japanese find Japan, and the hours spent studying my translation guide helped me very little. In the mornings I would jog through downtown, around the canals, and past the temples. Days were spent writing and optimizing statistical matching algorithms for lining up runs of characters that I didn’t understand in an early incarnation of the same approach currently used in Google Translate.
I, of course, visited the Peace Memorial Park several times and toured the museum there, ultimately purchasing a slim volume of recollections from the day the bomb fell that was written in Japanese and English on facing pages. There was also one thing that struck me and I later inquired about to a Japan expert who worked in the Intelligence Community: the narrative presented in the museum was that the Japanese commoner had little understanding of the war effort; they were victims of the emperor and the elite classes. It was a moral distancing that resonated with similar arguments about the German volk being non-complicit in the Holocaust, and an argument that I found distasteful.
With this background, then, I was intrigued when I discovered that the father of my new boss wrote a memoir on being perhaps the first Westerner to enter Hiroshima following the dropping of the atomic bomb. Kenneth Harrison’s book, The Brave Japanese, was originally published in 1966, then republished in 1982 under The Road to Hiroshima due, in part, to the controversy in Australia over ascribing bravery to the Japanese. The book is now available in Epub and PDF forms for free and for a nominal price on Amazon.
This is not my usual cup of tea but I thought I would read it since it describes Hiroshima and, initially, I was worried that I had gotten into something that was a tedious example of genre fiction concerning how to ambush tanks in jungles. I was trapped on a pair of weather-enhanced flights to Tokyo and then on to Taipei, so I stuck with it. And it turns out to be a remarkably good book. Remarkably good, but also filled with an astonishing amount of horror. The war goes badly for Allied Forces in Southeast Asia in the early years, as you recall, but for Ken and his fellow soldiers it goes amazingly downhill, very fast. They are injured, escape capture, become part of an insurgency, are further injured, surrender, and become POWs in some of the most barbaric situations imaginable. In turns, they harm themselves or even ask to be killed rather than continue on working ceaselessly while waiting for the next beating by their Japanese captors. The injuries are supplemented by typhus, cholera, malaria, and festering skin ulcers. The POWs become expert thieves to stay alive while lamenting their participation in helping the Japanese war effort.
Finally, in 1944, a group is transported to the Japanese homeland to build ships and then dig coal until the war finally ends (indeed, I was reading about their sailing from Formosa to Japan as I was en route from Tokyo to Taipei). The scene becomes Gravity’s Rainbow as the fabric of Japanese society breaks down in a bombed-out world and Ken’s motley band wander peripatetically from stealing Japanese swords to investigating Hiroshima and, later, Nagasaki.
The book is flawed in a few ways, but those flaws don’t minimize its impact. First, it appears to have been scanned, OCR’d, or rapidly typed-in to make the digital copy and there are about a dozen typos in the epub version I read. These are easily ignored, moreso since the volume is free. More interesting to me is the question of how to interpret the moral reasoning that dominates the book. Could the Japanese character be generously granted as having the “basic virtues of loyalty, cleanliness, and courage…[and] were soldiers of tremendous bravery” given the extensive dehumanization, cruelty, and beatings suffered by their prisoners? Indeed, dehumanization is probably the most pervasive human character in the book, from the Sikhs who join the Japanese, to the treatment of the Chinese Communist rebels in the Malaysian hills, to the Thai prostitutes who warn away the Aussies because they are reserving their diseases for the Japanese. We see a world where xenophobia dominates and nationalistic passions are an amplification of tribal drives. The last grasping hands of colonialism cling to the region as a new imperial master replaces the oppressive exploitation with rapacious cruelty.
I reflect on a suggestion by Richard Dawkins (and dealt with ad nauseam in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angles of Ourselves) that something has happened in the last 50 years that has accelerated our moral feelings to such an extent that using fire bombs and atomic weapons against civilian populations can’t even be imagined as serving a productive or retaliatory role in military conflict. And even in Ken’s time, torture and slavery were unthinkable to the Australian mind that had supported indentured servitude only a few generations earlier. Perhaps the best conclusion is that we are all becoming better, and should strive to do even more, and let Ken’s amazing story of resourceful courage remind us that even in the face of enormous cruelty, it is our restraint that makes us better.