When I was a boy, I loved going to the fairs held on Saturday nights. The main street leading to the east entrance of Kamata Railway Station would be lined with vendors’ stalls and stands. In the summer, there were stalls for netting goldfish and stalls selling fireflies, water-balloon yo-yos, and, later in the season, crickets trilling in ornate cages. There were stands for cotton candy, mint candy pipes, Chinese lantern plants, assorted handmade sweets, and baby chicks. The girls all flocked to the stand with coloring books. It was a time of few amusements, and strolling around the night fairs offered children and adults alike an enjoyable time.
In the summer of 1937, I was 9. With a few coins that my mother had given me tightly clutched in my hand, I was wandering from stall to stall, looking at their offerings. The heat of the day had dissipated into the darkening sky, and it was becoming pleasant out. The street leading to the station was packed with a jostling crowd as people came out to walk in the cool evening air and take in the sights. It was a peaceful scene—young and old, men and women, many wearing summer kimonos, making their way in the dim light cast by the lamps hanging in front of the stalls.
At the end of a long row, there was one stand belonging to a tall foreign vendor. He was thin and wore a gray suit. He was the first Westerner I had ever set eyes on. “What is he selling?” I wondered. I wanted to go up and look, but I was afraid. In those days, unlike today, it was very rare to see a foreigner. I watched him from a short distance away. He was selling Western-style razors. There were 50 or 60 lined up on his stand, and occasionally he would pick up two or three and call out cheerfully to the people walking past. I could hear him saying, in broken Japanese, “Watashi, Nippon, daisuki desu (I love Japan).”
For some reason, I found it hard to leave. I wondered if anyone would buy a razor. I stood there watching for some time, but people just walked by without stopping. He didn’t make a single sale. It wasn’t simply that his stand was in a poor location; the stands nearby were doing well enough. The cold expressions on the faces of those who passed by seemed to say: “What? A down-and-out foreigner? What’s he doing here?” People who had been talking and laughing looked startled and suddenly fell silent when they noticed him. Some even glared at him or showed their dislike with angry or disgusted expressions. The razor vendor couldn’t have failed to notice all this, but he kept smiling and repeating, “Watashi, Nippon, daisuki desu.”
The attitudes of the passersby were probably influenced by the times. In February 1936, there had been an attempted coup in Tokyo, and then the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in July 1937, which marked the beginning of all-out war between Japan and China. At the time, the idea was drummed into Japanese citizens that their nation was an invincible “land of the gods,” and they were superior to all other peoples.
We children naturally came to believe that we were very fortunate to be born Japanese; we were glad that we hadn’t been born in a foreign country. Our terrifyingly biased education etched racial prejudice into our impressionable young minds.
Of course, the purpose of propagandizing this supposed racial superiority was to justify Japan’s invasion and domination of other Asian countries. The rest of the world, however, observed Japan’s barbaric treatment of the peoples of Asia and was not about to believe Japan’s fine-sounding claim of “liberating” Asia from Western imperialism.
Japan’s educational system also taught the Japanese people a view of history and society acceptable only to them, which naturally led them to become estranged and isolated from the perspectives of the international community. False information is dangerous. So is concealing information.
In December 1937, Japanese military forces carried out what came to be known as the Rape of Nanking, but the facts went unreported to the Japanese people, who all cheered the “glorious” military victory and occupation of what was then the Chinese capital. Japanese war correspondents no doubt accompanied the invading forces, but none reported what actually happened. Nor did anyone report the outrage felt by the rest of the world.
We can’t see our own backs, nor our own faces. For this, we need a mirror. The leaders of Japan should have observed themselves in the mirror of their neighbors, the mirror of the world, the mirror of Asia. They should have humbly listened to their neighbors’ voices.
During the summer of 1937, I visited that night fair several times, and each time I couldn’t resist checking on the tall foreigners stall. It was always the same. He kept repeating “Watashi, Nippon, daisuki desu,” and he never sold a single razor. Sometimes, people gave him a hard time or made fun of him. He only responded to this harassment with a sad smile.
As I look back on the struggles of a foreigner running a stall at the night fair during an era like that, it’s clear he must’ve been in dire straits. I wondered then why everyone was so cold to him. Wasn’t he a human being just like us? The way he was treated both angered and saddened me.
That summer was the last time I saw the razor vendor. As the war intensified, the night fair lights gradually began to fade away.
Is a nation that rejects foreigners therefore kind to its own people? No, on the contrary—nationalism regards the nation or race as sacred and sacrifices its citizens as a means for the nation’s ends. My eldest brother was drafted in 1937 and, in 1938, two of my other older brothers were called up. At about this time, essential foodstuffs such as rice, sugar, miso, and soy sauce began to be rationed.
The ultranationalistic mood in Japan intensified as the years went by, and English was eventually banned as an “enemy language.” At school, my friends talked about how we would have to use Japanese words in baseball instead of the familiar “strike” and “ball” borrowed from English. Even the “HB” mark on pencils, indicating the hardness of the lead, was translated into Japanese, and the Cherry brand of cigarettes was renamed Sakura, the Japanese name for the tree. Jazz and American movies were also banned. The syllables of the musical scale do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do were replaced by the Japanese version, ha-ni-ho-he-to-ir-o-ha.
In contrast to Japan, with its ever-narrowing inward focus, the American government was conducting Japanese language training and research on Japan, in the belief that one needed to know one’s opponent in order to win.
Recently in Japan, we are once again hearing with increasing frequency phrases that deliberately stress “ethnic pride” and the “superiority of Japanese culture.” This may be a reaction to the loss of confidence accompanying the Japanese economic decline. Individuals, too, tend to put on a tough front when they lack self-confidence. They behave arrogantly because they have a strong sense of inferiority.
Why do many Japanese become consumed with national and racial pride? Is it because they have not embraced the kind of universal values that transcend nation and race, such as human rights or those found in the great world religions?
Just before the end of the war, some eight years after I discovered the foreign razor vendor, I was looking up at the night sky from a bomb shelter. I could see a squadron of B-29s illuminated by searchlights. Their giant silver bodies glowed vermilion, reflecting the fires burning below. From the beginning of 1945, B-29 raids had become a regular feature of our lives. The flames with which Japan had burned China and other countries of Asia and the South Pacific had returned to devour Japan.
Those who had a place to go in the countryside had already left Tokyo. The main street leading to Kamata Station was now filled with weather-beaten chests of drawers and other pieces of furniture left by people fleeing to the countryside. It was a sad sight. Any luggage too big to carry away had been abandoned along the street, as if it was a designated disposal site. The pleasant night fairs were no more than a distant dream.
The Kamata neighborhood had been engulfed in a great conflagration, cruel as hell itself, and reduced to ashes. My family had to relocate under government orders, and we were going to stay with one of my aunts in Magome, Tokyo. But just as we finished moving, her house suffered a direct hit from an incendiary bomb during a major air raid on May 24, 1945. We had no choice but to live in a rough shack with a tin roof that we built atop the burned-out site.
One night, the air-raid sirens were wailing, and the radio announced stridently, “A large squadron of B-29s has entered the Imperial capital.” We rushed into our bomb shelter. My parents, younger brothers and sister, my cousins, and perhaps some neighbors were all with me.
My four older brothers were all away at the war, and my father was ill. At 17, I was forced to think of myself as our family’s mainstay. So on that night, I was looking out the entrance of the dugout to see what was going on. The shells from the Japanese antiaircraft guns, aimed at the B-29s, flew through the sky like fireworks. However, they rarely hit anything.
While in the end there was no direct attack on Magome, I nevertheless spent a sleepless night. Just around dawn, about a hundred B-29s flew away majestically, heading into the eastern horizon. Though they were enemy planes, they were a magnificent sight. I watched them until they were tiny dots in the distant sky.
Just then, someone shouted: “Hey! What’s that?” Something was falling from the sky. I took a close look: It was a parachute. A plane must have been hit, and an enemy airman was falling from the sky.
The parachute seemed to be coming right at me. I was startled. “He might shoot me!” I thought but couldn’t move. I just stood there, watching the trajectory of the falling enemy. It was only a few moments, but it seemed like hours.
The American soldier dropped something. “Maybe it’s important secret documents!” I wondered, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him. The parachute continued to come straight at me. Then, with tremendous speed, it flew over my head. The whiteness of the soldier’s arm sticking out of his short-sleeved shirt reminded me that he was a “white man.” He passed by so close that I could see his face. I was astonished at how young he was, almost like a child, an innocent-looking blonde youth who might have been all of 20 years old.
He was completely different from the “barbaric Americans and British” that I had been taught to expect. This was a phrase frequently employed at the time, and when American soldiers or U.S. and British leaders were depicted in magazines, it was as monstrous, savage brutes. The gap between the reality of the young man who had passed not far from me and the images that had been pounded into me was too great, and I was confused.
Could this really be one of those vicious enemy soldiers? Was this a soldier of the American military which, in day after day of indiscriminate bombing, had burned and killed my friends and defenseless young children?
The airman landed in a field some two or three hundred yards away. I was relieved that the danger was over. Somewhere along the way, I noticed that any feelings of hostility I’d had toward him had completely vanished.
After a brief rest, at around seven, I went outside again. I was concerned about the object that the American had dropped. It was a quiet morning, and it seemed as if the air raid of the night before had been only a dream. I looked around for a while, and I found the object: a thick package wrapped in white bandages. I delivered it to the neighborhood police station, and the elderly policeman immediately telephoned someone and made a report. He seemed agitated, tense.
I left the station, and as I walked along, wondering what had become of the young American soldier, I came upon a circle of people talking on the street. They were discussing him.
Apparently, as soon as he landed, a group of people ran up to him and began beating him with sticks. Someone also dashed up with a Japanese sword, threatening to kill him. Beaten nearly senseless, he was eventually led away by the military police, blindfolded with his arms tied behind his back. Hearing this, I felt tremendous pity for him. Surely, he hadn’t come to fight this war out of any desire to do so, I thought.
When I got back and told my mother what had happened, she said: “How awful! His mother must be so worried about him.”
After the war, I learned that a considerable number of American airmen were shot down over Japan. Sometimes, they were treated kindly by the Japanese, but in many cases, though already injured, they were beaten or killed. I heard of an incident where a person armed with a bamboo spear lunged at a captive soldier, shouting: “The Americans killed my son! Let me take a stab at him!” Anyone who dared call for restraint in such a situation ran the risk of being accused of treason: “You’re sympathizing with the enemy? Are you Japanese?” This was the atmosphere in Japan at the time.
If one tried to be a human being, one was accused of being a traitor to the nation. If one wanted to be a patriot, one could not avoid being a traitor to humanity. Even the simple human act of sympathizing with another was forbidden.
My encounters with the foreign razor vendor and the downed young American soldier-taking place at the beginning of Japan’s war with China and at the end of World War II were both sad events for me. I do not know what became of either man.
More than half a century has passed since then, and the majority of Japanese have now never experienced war. The postwar generation does not bear responsibility for causing the war, but they do have a responsibility to oppose the ultranationalist tendencies and intolerant ideas existing in Japan today that can lead to war. To fail to oppose them, to fail to act, to remain silent, is a passive form of support for such ideas.
A foreigner living in Japan has said:
It’s because I love Japan that I want it to be a country trusted by the world and respected by its neighbors. If it goes on as it is, ignoring human rights, ignoring the facts of history, shutting its ears to the concerns of its neighbors, it will be ridiculed and disregarded by all. I speak out because I am so terribly worried that this might happen.
From a distant memory, I hear the voice of the man in the faded gray suit calling out, “Watashi, Nippon, daisuki desu.”
From Hope Is a Decision: Selected Essays of Daisaku Ikeda. Published with permission of Middleway Press, © 2017 Soka Gakkai.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters