Sunday, 30 January 2011

So lovely a country will never perish, by Donald Keene

Japanese wartime diaries

It is often not felicitous when you are given books by friends, but this was an exception. Once I started reading these extracts and commentaries on diaries of Japanese writers during the Second World War, I was rapidly drawn in. It may have had extra resonance for me, due to my close personal connections with Japan, but I think it would widen and deepen anyone’s understanding of history.

Donald Keene, a renowned scholar of Japan, has read, edited and selected from the diaries of prominent Japanese writers, who recorded their thoughts and events during and immediately after the war. This is history as experienced first-hand by individuals, not from tendentious text books. The diaries reveal the raw thoughts and emotions of our (former) enemies – though admittedly not those who fought in the front line. But these men (mainly men) had experiences being bombed and working in some overseas territories. It occurred to me that all school children should read history written by our enemies, not those written by our own side, especially those blessed by our own governments.

The diarists from which Keene quotes were all novelists, poets or literary figures of some fame. They naturally experience the war differently and interpret events differently. They are swept along by the euphoria of success in 1941-42, and are scorched by the defeats and humiliations of 1943-47. It is sobering to see how the zeitgeist, public opinion, rumours, military lies and government propaganda have a large influence on their thinking. It is even more sobering to reflect that such large-scale influences impinged and still impinge on all of us – such as the way the USA and Britain were swept into war with Iraq.

I have to confess that there were not sufficient markers for me to distinguish between the different writers. Unfortunately they blended into one self-contradictory voice for me. Maybe symbols in the margins would help, as Pullman uses in ‘The subtle knife’?

We peep into the minds of these diarists through the choices that Donald Keene has made for us. So one may pause to wonder how representative they are. It is a question of trust, and I give him that trust. By inserting some personal information about his own war experiences, such as his interviewing of Japanese prisoners of war, and his landing on Okinawa, we can perceive that he is a sympathetic and balanced commentator. Anyway, his distillation of these various diaries are something I have read and enjoyed, whereas it is unlikely that I would ever have had the chance or inclination to read the whole of each of the diaries. Even with diaries, we often have to encounter them at one remove.

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