In many ways, a novel that Oda wrote in 1998 called Gyokusai serves to define his life’s work. The word "gyokusai" in Japanese, broadly translated, means a kind of defeat with honor. Directly translated, it means "crushing of the jewel" — the "jewel" in this case being the emperor of Japan and the "crushing" being the act of common people dying en masse for the glory of the emperor, who is a living god in human form under Shinto religious belief.
Oda has long maintained that the Japanese emperor is not a living god but a normal human being like any other — a very dangerous position to take in a society where cult-like ultra-rightists, the self-proclaimed guardians of the "honor of the emperor," still resort to physical intimidation and even assassination to quell such public opinions. Oda has gone so far as to say that the late emperor Hirohito, whose life was spared by the Americans after the war, should have been put to death along with all the other common Japanese people and Japanese foot soldiers who died in the emperor’s name during Japan’s colonialist drive in WWII.
His novel Gyokusai focuses on the final days of a fictional group of Japanese soldiers stationed on a small South Pacific island, as they prepare their last stand for the glory of the distant emperor against the massive American military machine sweeping the region near the end of the war. Gyokusai was translated into English and published under the title of The Breaking Jewel in 2003.
BC: What compelled or inspired you to write that book?
MO: ….The small nations, when they fight against the big nations, they use two or three tactics or strategies. One is a surprise attack, like on Pearl Harbor. When the war is prolonged and it is impossible to win anymore, then they have to use very strong tactics or strategies such as suicide attacks, tokko, or gyokusai battles, like this. From the standpoint of normal times, they are crazy, of course. They commit such kinds of actions, such as suicide attacks or gyokusai. It seems they are crazy, insane or drunk, in a sense. The American side, at that time, thought this is stupid, of course. I read many, many books, reactions of the American soldiers at that time.
So [the Japanese soldiers] began to fight. They know they are logical people, they are not insane. But this is a kind of logical conclusion of small nations fighting against big nations such as the United States. So I began to think after the war, remembering the war experience one after another — atrocities, destruction and slaughter. The only possible way for us Japanese at that time, if you are not insane, if you are normal human beings, was to sacrifice yourself. And the logic was provided to us: We had to die for the emperor. We had to win this war. And many kinds of justification [were given to us] about the Pacific War — we called it Dai-Towa Senso, the Great Asian War; we didn’t call it the Pacific War — under the pretext of liberating oppressed people in Asia: “We have to fight against such kinds of great powers — America or England,” like this.
To some extent, this has a logical justification because this is real history: Western powers invaded Asia, colonized Asian people. So Japan had to fight against these kinds of nasty powers of the west to liberate Asian people. This one point is very logical in a sense. But at the same time, of course, Japan began to hide their own history: colonization of Taiwan, [annexation] of Korea. They didn’t mention that.
So anyway, we began to fight against the big powers under this kind of pretext as a justification of the Great Asian War. Finally, the end came: We are a small nation, so we have to fight against this [big] one using such kinds of tactics — suicide attacks, gyokusai. Very logical conclusion in a sense, if you believe in such kinds of principles, see? So I began to think after the war: If I had been somewhat older than my actual age — I was 13 at the end of the war — if I were around 16 or 17 years old, I might have joined them, I thought. So many things are there — some justification, some propaganda, mixed up — at the time of the war.
So I began to think of this. And after reflections of many years, I thought I have to write about this gyokusai battle in my own sense. I surveyed, I went to the South Pacific islands one after another, gyokusai islands. I studied. I began to see real scenes. Then after that, I thought I have to write this one.
On 6 August 2005, the 60th anniversary of the U.S. dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the British Broadcasting Corporation aired "Gyokusai: The Breaking Jewel," an excellent radio dramatization of the English version of Oda’s book Gyokusai. Here are excerpts of Oda’s interview session with the BBC that were also broadcast over the global airwaves that day:
BBC: Why do you think soldiers were prepared to die in suicide attacks?
MO: They died for the emperor; they died for the glorification of the Japanese empire. But after the war the emperor survives. [laughs] So strange. The emperor must die with them, with the soldiers of gyokusai battles. But the emperor survived intact. He is considered a kind of symbol of peace now, after the war. So many people began to have enormous doubts about such kind of logic and ethics of gyokusai attacks. I was one of them, see? So I began to have much more sympathy with the soldiers, where they died for nothing. The soldiers in the gyokusai battles, the "breaking jewel" battles, compelled me to write a novel.
BBC: Makoto Oda, the woman who appears at the end of the play [and the book] talks about love. That’s strange, isn’t it, in a piece about war?
MO: The only consolation in this desperate situation is love. Love between the man and woman is very natural love. So, the woman appears — the symbol of love. Human love is the only consolation, the only hope, in the entire world full of many wars and full of many contradictions, full of many problems, fighting against each other. But the consolation and hope we can have is our love.
BBC: Thinking about gyokusai attacks, would Japanese people commit those kinds of suicide attacks now?
MO: If asked 20 years ago, I might answer, "They would not do that." But now the situation is somewhat changed. Again, nationalism, nationalistic feelings, patriotic feelings, such kind of propaganda or such kind of education [are rising]. So that in this case, I cannot answer so definitely.
BBC: The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima 60 years ago: What are your feelings personally about that action now?
MO: After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the question is always like this: We can forgive the crime, perhaps, but you cannot forgive the responsibility for this crime. Crimes are made by people. You have to understand, in the first place, why the atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans. I tried to understand how and why. Then after understanding the situation why the Americans made this one, I cannot forgive the responsibility of those who did it. This is my way of thinking.
BBC: You've been a prominent activist for peace for a long time now, haven’t you?
MO: I just do what, as a citizen, I have to do to make the world somewhat better than today. I’m 73 years old, I think I’m very young in a sense because the world is still young [and still needs] to be changed.
I asked Oda about a part of his BBC interview that seemed especially controversial:
BC: One comment you made to the BBC was really interesting for me. You had said that it was strange that the soldiers would have to die for the emperor, even though the emperor remains alive.
MO: So tragic, you see? They believed in the emperor; by glorification of the Japanese empire, they died. But the emperor remained safe, intact. He was not brought to the war criminal court, the war criminal military trial, at all. And also he began to be respected as a symbol of peace. So I got angry, of course. The soldiers, they died there completely miserable. They were not forsaken by the British or Americans — they were forsaken by their own emperor. I fight against the emperor system, of course. [laughs]
BC: You mentioned that the emperor should have died with them.
MO: Yeah, I think so. At least they retired [in death], the emperor should be retired.
BC: ….In those days it was devotion to the emperor. Now it's aikoku-shin.
MO: Yes, "devotion to the country." And the center of the country must be the emperor — some people say so.
—'Olympics of discrimination'
Of the dozens of books that Oda has written over the years in Japanese, surprisingly only two have been translated into and published in English: The Breaking Jewel and H: A Hiroshima Novel (also published as The Bomb). Both books, however, have a common subplot running through them: racial and ethnic discrimination, an issue Oda has strong feelings about. In the book Hiroshima, the subplot is white American discrimination against Native American Indians, Blacks and Japanese-Americans, as well as Japanese discrimination against Koreans, during the making of the atomic bombs that would be later dropped on Japan. In The Breaking Jewel, it is Japanese discrimination against a skilled Korean soldier, Corporal Kon, who enlists in the Japanese Imperial Army to fight the Americans.
BC: Speaking about Corporal Kon in Gyokusai and Koreans in Japan: Could you speak a little bit about how Koreans are treated in Japan these days?
MO: My wife is Korean, in the first place. [pauses] The situation is changing. In the main, I think, the situation is getting better, when speaking about discrimination and these kinds of matters. So I might say, Japan is in a very good direction now. But at the same time, a nationalistic feeling [among Japanese] is getting powerful.
When we speak about Koreans: If they are not so noisy about relations between the two countries, the Japanese side thinks they have very good relations. It’s somewhat better comparing with 10, 20 years ago, I might say. But if you are Korean and you say something about [Japanese prime minister] Koizumi Junichiro’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine like the president of South Korean does now, they [Japanese] think, "You are not so good." Like with Americans: If Arabic people, and Arabic people in the United States, are very calm, I think [Americans would say] "Good people, good people." If they say, "You are nasty, Bush!" like this, [Americans say], "You are noisy." Very universal words. Same with the French immigrants: If they are not so noisy about the main policies, main trends of society, they are treated as equal people; they are treated in a good way.
Speaking about Chinese, for example. The Chinese are much noisier about Japanese attitudes toward the past. They [Chinese] are making noise now. ….If you are content with a Toyota, for example, and think Toyota is a good car, it’s OK. But like other nations, the relation is not particularly a Japanese one but also a French one, American one. Japan has advanced to the stage of American discrimination or French discrimination, I might say. [laughing] You understand what I mean?
BC: Yeah, that’s interesting. But at the same time, if you talk to young Japanese people, they would say, "No, Japan doesn’t have any discrimination. Of course America does, other countries do, but we don't." How is it that even young people in Japan cannot recognize that there’s some discrimination against Koreans?
MO: But thinking about the same question: If I ask this question to American young [people], they say "We don’t have any discrimination here. Look at Japan!" [laughs] Many foreign journalists asked me questions about discrimination of Koreans, burakumin [Japan’s caste minority], and like this. It’s quite true, of course. I accept this kind of criticism, of course. But I always ask them the question: What do you do about discrimination in your own country? I said to a British journalist about discrimination of Indians in London: "If you do something, I could talk with you. You don’t do anything. OK, you are just 'superior,' that’s all; Japan is a ‘backward country’ on the point of discrimination. If you do something when you come across prejudice among the people of London, then you can talk about my prejudice — our prejudice, your prejudice. We can talk, we can find out the same points. We can talk real talk. Otherwise, it’s a kind of 'Olympics of discrimination' — 'Olympics of [racial] superiority'."
Japanese journalists have the same kind of feelings: "You talk about discrimination of Koreans and burakumin here, but look at America! Discrimination against Blacks is so enormous. Look at the immigrants in France." Same kind of thing. But they don’t do anything; they just say that. It means we [Japanese] are a "superior" people, something stupid like that. I don’t like such kind of Olympics [laughs]. Japan has advanced to the same extent of discrimination you can find in the United States, France or England. Not a primitive one. Fifty, 60 years ago, we [in Japan] had a very crude, primitive discrimination. Now, we have a much more advanced, sophisticated discrimination; you can find the same kind in the United States, France or Germany.
BC: So how do you — we — deal with this kind of "sophisticated discrimination" in Japan or outside Japan?
MO: …I would like to have a real talk with people outside this country, facing the same problems: discrimination in London, discrimination in New York, discrimination in Sao Paolo, discrimination in Germany. We can have a real talk; we can find the same situation, how to solve this situation — commonly and separately. This kind of real talk is necessary at this time. Otherwise, it’s a kind of waste of time. Just talk.
BC: You mentioned your wife a few minutes ago, and I’m really curious about how you became aware of issues of discrimination. How aware or conscious were you of discrimination issues of Koreans in Japan before you met your wife? And what was her influence on you afterward?
MO: Osaka was full of Koreans and also had a burakumin problem. When I was a small boy in school during the war, [Japanese] openly discriminated against Koreans, they openly discriminated against burakumin at that time. Not in sophisticated ways — crude ways. I came across such kind of scenes. I didn’t like to see such kind of stupid things. So the starting point of my, how to say, "inner movement against discrimination," started in boyhood, when I was a small boy. I came across many kinds of stupid discrimination.
And also, in the United States I came across discrimination against Blacks, see? I was a student in the north, where there was not apparent discrimination against Blacks. Not so many Japanese students at that time went to the south. I decided to go to the south, using the bus. I found enormous [cases of] crude and apparent discrimination against Blacks. And in a sense, I began to feel I was discriminated too, of course. For example, at the time in the south, marriage not only between whites and Blacks but also between the Japanese and whites was illegal. I came across such kinds of problems.
I had to go to the "white" section of a waiting room, for example, but I was "colored" — so strange. In the north, it's in more subtle ways: I was talking with a woman and just happened to mention the color of my hair. It’s white now [laughs], but was black then. "My hair is black," I said. She said, "No, your hair is dark." I understood it was a kind of discrimination. Before the Black [power] movement, they used "dark"; "black" was not a good word. Later "Black is Beautiful" came out, but at that time, it was in subtle ways: "Your hair is not black, it’s dark." I understood what it means. This is discrimination. So I felt I was discriminated. I was not such a stupid gentlemen coming from Japan. I wrote a novel [in 1962] called America after spending two years in the United States, about Black and Japanese and white relations. I'm against any kind of discrimination in the first place, whatever it is.
BC: At least in your academic days, you moved in the elite world of Japanese society. You went to the best universities in Japan and in the United States. Didn’t you feel some pressure to conform and stay in that world, rather than to go outside and see real people?
MO: Well, I didn’t feel so much oppression, in the first place. My family was a very liberal family. If I had been somewhat older at that time and if I had told my mother or father "I’m going to get married with a Korean," maybe they would have said, "Oh, OK." [laughs] Something like this. They might not have said "yes" instantly; they might have taken one hour [then said], "OK, let’s go." That was the latitude of their liberalism.
—Article 9 of the 'Peace Constitution'
The open-minded environment under which Makoto Oda was raised by his homemaker mother and lawyer father was to serve him well much later in life. In 1989, Oda won the Lotus Prize of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association for his book Hiroshima. Oda was a harsh critic of Japanese government inaction following the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck Kobe and surrounding areas (where Oda lives) on 17 January 1995, leaving more than 6,000 people dead. He took up the cause of the earthquake victims, helping to draft and get enacted a bill that would provide government financial assistance to some of the victims (Oda later declined a call by local citizens for him to run as governor of Hyogo Prefecture). In the wake of the 1999 NATO attack on Yugoslavia, Oda appealed for Japan to be become a "conscientious objector nation" that refuses to fight in or support any war, just as individual soldiers do in many countries. In the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks, both before and after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, Oda again was one of the most prominent anti-war voices in Japan.
For Oda, being "anti-war" is synonymous with being "pro-Constitution" — in particular, protecting Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution and applying it on an international scale. Toward this end, in summer 2004 Oda and a few other prominent scholars (including Nobel Prize-winning author Kenzaburo Oe) helped to kick off the Article 9 Association.
Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, drawn up 1947 in the ashes of WWII, renounces war forever and prohibits Japan from having a military. The two paragraphs of Article 9 read as follows: "Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. / In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized."
Though it was America that forced Japan to accept those conditions in its Constitution in the wake of WWII, under America’s Cold War strategy, Japan did indeed re-establish an army, the Self-Defense Forces. In the 21st century, the SDF have come to supplement the estimated 50,000 U.S. soldiers still stationed in U.S. bases around Japan today. There has been increasing pressure from the United States, especially in the last few years, for Japan to "amend" Article 9 so Japan can ostensibly play a stronger military role in supporting U.S. wars around the world. As a result Japan has hundreds of SDF troops stationed in Samawah, Iraq, as of this writing. Japanese public opinion has stood strongly against changing Article 9, but the pro-America nationalists in the Japanese government, under prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (with rabid support from Japanese neo-conservatives) are moving steadily to weaken Article 9, the war-renouncing clause of Japan’s postwar Constitution.
BC: So talking about Article 9: Now Japan, under some pressure from the United States, is moving back into the position of once again being a military power. Of course, people in Japan understand that. One interesting point I wanted to share with you: I heard recently the head of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan — an American guy [with Reuters] — say that Japanese people don’t care that much Article 9, that they care more about the consumption tax than they care about Article 9. I disagreed with that, but is there any truth to that kind of assumption?
MO: It’s very hard to answer this kind of logic. In this country, peace is a very accepted idea, accepted fact. Peace is so much a common thing here, quite different from peace in other countries. Speaking about freedom in the United States, are Americans conscious of their own freedom?
BC: Maybe they just take it for granted.
MO: Yes. Peace is taken for granted now here, so it seems that they don’t care about peace; peace is like "air" in this country. No [Japanese compulsory] military service, for example. If you come across military service, you have to think about war or peace, whatever. But here, no military service at all —theoretically speaking, legally speaking, no army. Of course, it’s false anyway: People think there is no army, yeah? People don’t have to go into the army at all. Peace is so much taken for granted. The consumer tax is quite an immediate problem. So, it’s very difficult to answer such kind of logic as to whether it is correct or not. But anyway, when we organize meetings, many people come to our place, to our meeting. It means that they are conscious [of Article 9].
BC: I think so too. And I think that from the mainstream media point of view, it may appear that most people don’t care about peace. They are not marching in the streets; they’re just going about their daily lives.
MO: Many media do not print much news about peace, about our activities. Only the Akahata [Japan Communist Party newspaper] prints many things about our activities. Many [media] people don’t care about that. It means that the journalists don’t care about peace, in the first place.
BC: If it’s a war, then they’ll print it, but peace doesn’t get much action in the news.
MO: No. Peace is so much taken for granted. ….Journalists always say: "One million people [demonstrating] in Italy, but there’s only a hundred here," like this. I say: "You don’t write about it! You write about Italy, you write about the United States! You don’t write about any organization, any movement, any demonstration in Japan I organize." They don’t come. This is the situation. I don’t want to complain about this; if I complain about this, I end up complaining about many things, one after another.
BC: People don’t read it in the papers, so it doesn’t exist in some ways. That’s the problem.
MO: But the situation might change overnight — in this country, too. If something happens, people may change. Everything doesn’t go on forever. They might change.
—Wars of the present and future
BC: As for some final thoughts: We talked about many things. What do you see as the direction Japan is now going in? And what should Japan’s legacy be in the future in the international community?
MO: It’s a very bad direction. ….Younger people, including [prime minister] Koizumi Junichiro, they think Japan can be defended militarily. But I don’t think so, from a realistic point of view from my war experiences. Toward the end of the war, Japan didn’t have food, in the first place. [We] didn’t have any food. If the war had been prolonged six months more, I would have died. Many people would have died. Look at the food situation today: Only 40 percent of the food consumed in this country is produced in Japan. Sixty percent Japan has to import.… Food production in France is 130 percent, Germany 100 percent, something like this; Japan only 40 percent…. If war takes place, Japan cannot import anything, so we are going to die from hunger or malnutrition very easily. This is the No. 1 lesson from war — a realistic point of view.
Second, we don’t produce petrol, oil. Toward the end of the war, I was a 13-year-old boy: I witnessed Japanese planes that could not fly because of a shortage of oil. Nothing. We dug up the roots of pine trees for pine oil. Without any oil, tanks cannot move, planes cannot take off. Very simple. So it means that Japan cannot make any war now — quite different from the situation in the United States, quite different from France or Germany or England.
From a realistic point of view, Japan is a country of peace. It should keep the peace, in the first place. Our Constitution says this. We have to cling to peace. Article 9 is an important pledge to the world: "We don’t want to make war. We can’t make even a war of defense. So we have to change the world situation by negotiation or peaceful means."
Article 9 is very important not only for not making war outside [the country]; defense of war is impossible here. But dreamers such as Koizumi Junichiro or the young Diet members of the Liberal-Democratic Party — or the Democratic Party, [Seiji] Maehara, these kinds of people — say "We can make war," like this. But it seems to me they are dreamers. I’m a realist, and should be a realist first. This is very important. And looking at the world situation today, war efforts cannot make any peace — not even in Iraq — now. If even the biggest country in the world, the most powerful country, the United States, cannot stop terrorist actions, Japan cannot do that. This is a very realistic point of view. I’m very much a realist, in a sense. They are dreamers.
So that’s my important point: We have to keep this Constitution. The foundation of postwar Japan is the Peace Constitution. It’s from a realistic point of view, not dreamers’ points of view.
BC: Good point. After all, war is the ultimate dream or ultimate fantasy, isn’t it?
MO: Gyokusai makes a good point. The conclusion of Gyokusai is: Any war is wrong. That’s very important.
BC: One final question: You have been through World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Now, new generations have to deal with these issues. Do you have some message for young people who are now facing their own kind of World War II or Vietnam War? How do they handle this?
MO: You have to face present and future wars [together], see? The preamble of the [Japanese] Constitution is very important. It says many things there. The world situation has to be changed, it says there clearly — but through peaceful means, not war. When I came in here to look at TV [on 11 September 2001], I saw one plane hit the World Trade Center. Instantly, I thought of the kamikaze attacks of when I was a boy. "This is a kamikaze attack," I said to myself. Nobody said that at that time; instantly I thought, "This is a kamikaze attack." We did something like this [during WWII].
So I wrote this small article in a Japanese newspaper; nobody else wrote about this in such a way. I told them: "We should be realists, in the first place. We can’t make any war, not even a war of defense. But at the same time, we have to change the world situation, otherwise terrorist actions will always take place: suicide attacks and so on. But to stop terrorist actions, you cannot use any military power to just suppress them — [you can do so only] by other means, peaceful means. This is very important. This is a lesson from the Great Asian War."
So the Peace Constitution is very important — not only for Japanese, but for the entire world. This is my thinking. Gyokusai expresses this kind of feeling of mine.
Brian Ohkubo Covert is an independent journalist based in Hyogo, Japan.
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR AND ANTI-WAR ACTIVIST MAKOTO ODA (part 1)