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  • Writer's pictureStone Bridge Press

The collected works of award-winning translator of classical and modern Japanese poetry, Hiroaki Sato

A Bridge of Words by Hiroaki Sato cover art
A Bridge of Words by Hiroaki Sato cover art

Hiroaki Sato's A Bridge of Words: Views across America and Japan is an anthology of over 60 of Sato’s commentaries that reflect the writer’s wide-ranging erudition and his unsentimental views of both his native Japan and his adopted American homeland.

Broadly he looks at the Pacific War and its aftermath and at war (and our love of it) in general, at the quirks and curiosities of the natural world exhibited by birds and other creatures, at friends and mentors who surprised and inspired, and finally at other writers and their works, many of them familiar—the Beats and John Ashbery, for example, and Yukio Mishima—but many others whose introduction is welcome. 

Sato is neither cheerleader nor angry expatriate. Remarkably clear-eyed and engaged with American culture, he is in the business of critical appraisal and translation, of taking words seriously, and of observing how well others write and speak to convey their own truths and ambitions.

A Bridge of Words: Views across America and Japan by Hiroaki Sato is available in both print and digital everywhere now. Order your copy here.

Read a sample of A Bridge of Words below.


Shattering the Mirror That Distorts Japan

December 25, 1995, Japan Times

One book that has recently caused a stir in certain circles in Japan is a new translation of Mirror for Americans: Japan. It is not the latest tract—God forbid—that purports to show lessons that the United States ought to learn from Japan. Rather, it is a sober look at the postwar U.S.-Japanese relationship at its incipient stage.

Written by the American writer Helen Mears and published in 1948, Mirror for Americans was so bluntly critical of the premises on which the Occupation was based that its translation into Japanese was prohibited. Indeed, its first translation did not see print until after the peace treaty was signed. The recent translation was prepared following “rediscovery” of Mears’ original.

Mears’ thesis was as simple as her analysis was persuasive. In occupying defeated Japan for the purpose of “punishing the Japanese and re-educating and reforming them,” she said, MacArthur and his deputies were basing their policies on “exaggerated” and “distorted” images of Japan created in the heat of war. And Mears made each of her points by dispassionately looking at each claim made.

Take the central issue—the notion that the Japanese are “inherently militaristic and expansionist.” It was largely on this charge that the Occupation was instituted, and it was because of it that MacArthur equipped the Constitution he gave Japan with an extraordinary “no-war” clause. This characterization of the Japanese has lost none of its power today, half a century later.

Just a few weeks ago, for example, at a cultural society in New York, when the talk turned to a possible reconsideration of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, at least two Americans in the relatively small audience—one young, the other somewhat advanced in age—voiced concerns about a “resurgence of militarism” in Japan. The idea that Japan, given a chance, would quickly turn itself into a nation of warmongers is so ingrained in the American psyche that it pops back at the drop of a hat. The speaker that evening was Frank Gibney, whom I admired.

Mears had no inclination to entertain such a view. Writing only three years after the fury of the war, she argued that a quick look at the history of the world since the sixteenth century would prove that view to be mostly wrong. From 1600 until the U.S. Navy pried its doors open in 1853–54, Japan was a “peace-loving” nation nonpareil. It traded with a few countries but otherwise tightly held to itself and showed no expansionist signs. It was during the same 250-year period, in fact, that expansionism ran rampant elsewhere, with Portugal, Britain, France, The Netherlands, Russia, and “even” the United States busily “conquering the world.”

What about the decades preceding Pearl Harbor?

It took Japan forty-five years, until 1899, to shed the last of the “unequal treaties,” so we could look at what had happened from the last decade of the nineteenth century onward. Then, we would see, Mears said, that Japan turned “warlike.” Still, even during that period of international transformation, Japan became no more warlike or expansionist than any other power.

It is a telling comment, Mears said, that “at the time of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese controlled only two tenths per cent [sic] of the islands in the entire Pacific area.” Japan’s seizure of Manchuria, which began in 1931, is taken today—as it was right after Japan’s defeat—to be a turning point in Japan’s expansionist policy. Yet, even when the puppet Manchukuo was included, Japan’s foreign territories—again at the time of Pearl Harbor—amounted to less than what France had in Asia and the Pacific alone. When it comes to Britain, its holdings in the same regions were thirteen times larger.

Such things do not of course absolve Japan of its effort to emulate Western powers in imperialism and its consequences. Nonetheless, the West’s postwar condemnation of Japan “in toto” would be “a perfect illustration,” Mears said, “of respectable people smashing their own glass houses.” After all, until Japan plunged into war with Western powers, it was “generally accepted as a modern progressive nation—the vanguard of Westernization in Asia.” For them, Japan was a competitor of some stature but also a convenient ally. None of them voiced a demurrer, for example, when Japan annexed Korea, in 1910.

That Western powers had regarded Japan more or less as one of their own is clear from their failure to take any decisive action against it following “the Manchurian Incident,” in 1931, and, again, following “the China Incident,” in 1937. They each had their own stake in the region and needed to engage in complex maneuvers to protect them. All that changed with Japan’s successful assaults on them and its eventual defeat.

To go with the condemnation of the “inherently militaristic” character of the Japanese people was the characterization of the Japanese soldier as “a diabolical, unpredictable, unconquerable savage . . . who preferred death to surrender.” By citing contemporary newspaper accounts (mostly the New York Times), Mears demonstrated that this, too, was a willful distortion.

True, the Japanese soldier sometimes chose death over surrender. He was told to do so. Yet, the choice in no time became a non-choice because of several stark realities. The Japanese military became quickly overextended. America’s material superiority came to the fore in short order. And the United States zealously engaged in “a war of extermination.” As a result, in a great many engagements, the Japanese side “fighting to the last man” was not so much an act of bravado as a necessity.

In a dispatch of March 8, 1944, for example, Frank Kluckhohn described “a slaughter in which the cream of Japanese fighting men died like sheep in a packing-house” because of the staggering U.S. firepower. In another for the Times, dated February 5, 1945, George E. Jones reported: “Organized resistance [on Namur] was ended, and even the toughened battle-hardened Marines were disgusted with the task of wiping out Japanese troops who hovered on the borderline of insanity as the result of the Allied bombardment and the ensuing hopeless retreat across the island.”

On Okinawa, W. H. Lawrence wrote, in June 1945: “Stated in its simplest terms we were able to announce the victory of Okinawa because the enemy had run out of caves and boulders from which to fight and we were nearly out of Japanese to kill.”

Mears cited a number of other examples. Indeed, contrary to the benign images of the U.S. military that were later generated, the U.S. policy in the Pacific War, “on the whole, was not to take prisoners.” Mears went a step further: “There was little question but that our policy was, on the whole, to fight it out as a war of extermination.”

The upshot of all this was the kill ratio of fourteen Japanese soldiers to one American, according to the Strategic Bombing Survey.

Speaking of benign images, Mears showed that the Occupation was less than benign in certain important respects. At the start of his rule MacArthur declared that “the punishment for [Japan’s] sins . . . will be long and bitter.” Indeed, in large measure the Occupation was not a form of noblesse oblige, as was depicted later. Instead, it was designed to be and was a full burden on a defeated, half-starved country.

“In the first three months,” Mears noted, “the Occupation—which is run in an extravagant American style—cost the Japanese more than the entire yearly expense for their armed forces in 1930. . . . By August, 1947, the Japanese Government budget had mounted to . . . over 184,500,000,000 yen, of which more than forty-three per cent was allocated to Occupation costs.”

Mears detailed in a footnote: “The Japanese have been charged for flowers for officers’ billets and homes; telegrams and telephone calls to the United States; the maintenance of rest camps; high salaries for civilian experts and secretaries, and various other niceties of life,” as well as for “Japanese individuals who were injured in traffic accidents by members of the Occupation.” As Lucy Herndon Crockett, Mears’ contemporary but with a totally different outlook and attitude, said of the Occupation in her account, Popcorn on the Ginza (William Sloane, 1949), “Americans in Japan are enjoying to the fullest the privileges that constitute the spoils of war.” In the midst of a starving people Crockett said this without irony, with full approval.

That Mirror for Americans: Japan did not sit well with U.S. authorities at the time is understandable. But it was also subjected to a “historical blackout,” according to Richard Minear, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Minear, who regards Mirror as “the most important book on Japan written by a westerner in the entire decade 1940–50,” which far outclassed the writings of influential academics like Edwin O. Reischauer and Ruth Benedict, believes that had Helen Mears’ views been taken more seriously, the United States might have avoided some of its blunders in Asia in the decades that followed.

I would like to think if this writer of profound sensitivity and unerring intelligence had not been ostracized, as she was, she might have helped soften the American perception, which persists to this day, that Japan, for some reason, is the odd man out in international transactions.

It was in the frontispiece of Mirror for Americans that I learned John Quincy Adams’ famous speech before the U.S. House of Representatives on July 4, 1821, which included these words for the United States: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

When this article appeared in the Japan Times, Donald Richie wrote to tell me that he had reviewed Mirror for Americans: Japan for Stars and Stripes when the book came out, agreeing with Mears completely.

In 1998 I gave a speech based on this article at a brownbag lunch at the New York University Stern School of Business. I remember an elderly woman getting upset by my talk. Later, I was told that her deceased husband was the captain of a destroyer who had taken part in some of the operations in the South Seas of the Pacific during the war.


A Bridge of Words: Views across America and Japan by Hiroaki Sato is available in both print and digital everywhere now. Order your copy here.



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