Amid the war, I find America

I became a college freshman in Tokyo in the spring of 1942 - four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That attack destroyed my hope of going to college in America - or so I thought. Yet coming of age in wartime Japan was not a process of unrestricted gloom. The tightest of police states is never without loopholes, and my own country was full of them.

Britain and America were our enemies, we were told, and English was a "hostile language." But it was during the war that I became acquainted with modern American novelists, from Sinclair Lewis to John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser to John Steinbeck, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton. I even attempted to read Karl Marx (in English) on my daily train commute.

One of my most instructive lessons in the kind of country Japan was (and in some ways still is), came one evening as my father and I waited for my mother and younger brother to return home from a weekend at a beachside resort. They had not returned by suppertime, as we had expected.

At about 9 p.m., the phone rang. It was my mother. She and my brother had been arrested by the dreaded military police on their train ride home. They had just finished a round of interrogation. The police had put them up at a local inn, but they had to return to the police station in the morning for further questioning.

Why had they been arrested? My brother had a passion for locomotives in those days, and kept a notebook in which he faithfully recorded every type of locomotive he saw. The train station nearest the beach gave him a field day, as it was a major transfer point. He had been busily jotting down the details of each locomotive when a busybody grandmother on the platform saw him - a boy of 14 - and reported his suspicious behavior to the police. The police came aboard at the next station and yanked him and Mother off the train.

My father spent most of the night telephoning friends and acquaintances who might help. Eventually, he got through to a major-general with whom he occasionally went horseback-riding. The general said he wanted to be helpful, but that it would never do if he simply called the police chief (who was a captain) and told him to release the prisoners.

In order to avoid losing face, this junior officer would immediately try to justify the arrest by dredging up all sorts of incriminating evidence. The general would therefore try to find a captain or major among his own subordinates who might prevail on his fellow officer to release the prisoners as a personal favor.

The next morning, the general called back. One of his staff officers knew a police chief in Tokyo. He would get his friend to talk to his fellow police chief. The general was as good as his word, and by nightfall the erstwhile prisoners were home, safe and sound - my mother looking very relieved, my brother looking rather jaunty.

Meanwhile, I was exploring my own forbidden area. Rikkyo, the college I attended, had been founded in the mid-1800s by an American Episcopalian missionary. In fact, its English name was St. Paul's, and its campus was redolent of late-19th-century America, with ivy-covered brick buildings, a clock tower, a chapel with pipe organ (unusual for Japan in those days), and a Latin motto: Pro Deo et Patria (For God and Country).

It was famous for its American Literature department, had a whole roster of American professors, and was the first Japanese university to play American football.

But most of the college's American teachers had been repatriated before the war started. Now there was only one Nisei professor, Mr. Hattori, who had been stranded in Japan by the war and was not interned because he had dual Japanese and American citizenship.

Short, with a boxer's build and a pug nose, Mr. Hattori had been a lawyer in America. But here in Tokyo, his job was to teach English conversation, which he found boring.

Maybe because Mr. Hattori sensed that, like him, I was an internal exile, he took me under his wing and let me wander with him through the college's musty library stacks. Here, whole rows were devoted to American literature. His enthusiasm was for the grittier contemporary novels, and he would pull out a Theodore Dreiser, a John Dos Passos, or perhaps a Sherwood Anderson and talk about "Sister Carrie," the complexities of the USA trilogy, or the character of George Willard.

I found Dos Passos confusing, but could empathize with Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome. Outside the library walls was daytime Japan, now in its wartime garb of increasing shortages and, in the last year of the war, frequent air raids. But the library was my version of "Fortress America." As I got to know it, I strayed from Mr. Hattori's somewhat cheerless vision of contemporary America and took comfort in Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and Carl Sandburg's "Lincoln."

I even discovered Marx. This was really forbidden territory. Earlier, the "thought police" had carried out a series of raids on university campuses, where Marx and his theory of surplus value were the dominant economic school. It was one of the ironies of prewar Japan that while the government was ferociously anti-Communist, in academia the only school of economics that had any prestige was the Marxist.

The same bureaucrats who rigorously enforced the purging of Marxist textbooks had learned from those textbooks during their own student days. In my case, I was coached in the theory of surplus value by an older student whose professor had been forced off campus for continuing to teach Marx in his seminars.

All the Marxist books in the Rikkyo library that were in Japanese were kept under lock and key, but as an example of one of those loopholes I spoke about earlier, Marx in English remained on the open shelves - all three volumes of "Das Kapital."

Whatever got into me I do not know, but I checked out "Das Kapital" and read it on my train commute to and from school.

Alas, even the thrill of reading forbidden stuff was insufficient to keep my eyes from glazing over after a few pages. No one on the train ever seemed to notice what I was reading, but I found I was getting less and less out of the great philosopher until I finally abandoned the first volume before quite finishing it.

English itself was not banned by the college, and I joined the English Speaking Society. Our club song, penned by an American teacher in the days before the war and still sung boisterously at club gatherings, went like this:

English speakers, English greeters, join our happy throng

Come with folly and be jolly, nothing can be wrong

We assure you we can cure you from what ills befall,

Come, fellows, raise a song for old St. Paul's.

We had speech contests, and even memorized the "Gettysburg Address" as an exercise in elocution. That seemed the ultimate irony: Our government was fighting America, but in the privacy of our club quarters we were pledging, with various degrees of fluency, that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." And in the end, that is what triumphed.

The war ended in defeat for Japan, but all the contradictions that had seemed so ineradicable to me turned out not to be so. For today, government of, by, and for the people has sunk deep roots in what had seemed alien soil. It has become the basis for a true partnership across the Pacific.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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