[part 2]

Oda Makoto, Author and Activist, Talks to Brian Ohkubo Covert


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 died 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.

Oda’s 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 by the end of the war. Gyokusai was translated into English by Donald Keene and published as The Breaking Jewel in 2003.

What compelled or inspired you to write Gyokusai?

Small nations, when they fight against the big nations, 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. The American side, at that time, thought this was stupid, of course.

But this is a logical conclusion for 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 were not insane, if you were a normal human being, 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.

To some extent, this has a logical justification because this is real history: Western powers invaded Asia and 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 its own history: the colonization of Taiwan, the (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. A 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 — if I were around 16 or 17 years old, I might have joined them, I thought. So many things were there — some justification, some propaganda, mixed up — at the time of the war.

After reflections of many years, I surveyed, I went to the South Pacific gyokusai islands, one after another. I studied, I began to see real scenes. Then, I thought I have to write about this gyokusai battle in my own sense.

“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 Hiroshima, the subplot is white American discrimination against Native Americans, 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.

Concerning Corporal Kon in Gyokusai and Koreans in Japan: could you speak a little about how Koreans are treated in Japan these days?

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 (moving) in a very good direction now. But at the same time, a nationalistic feeling (among Japanese) is getting powerful.

Young Japanese people would say, “No, Japan doesn’t have any discrimination. America does, other countries do, but we don’t.” How is it that even young people in Japan cannot recognize discrimination against Koreans?

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 ask me questions about discrimination against Koreans, burakumin (Japan’s caste minority), and so on. It’s quite true, of course. I accept this kind of criticism. But I always ask them: “What do you do about discrimination in your own country?” I said to a British journalist about discrimination against West 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 against 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 a kind of Olympics
[laughs]. Fifty 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.

You mentioned your wife a few minutes ago. How aware or conscious were you of discrimination issues of Koreans in Japan before you met her?

Osaka was full of Koreans and also had a burakumin problem. When I was 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 didn’t like to see such stupid things. So the starting point of my, how to say, “inner movement against discrimination,” started 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. 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 against too, of course. For example, at that time in the south, marriage not only between whites and blacks but also between Japanese and whites was illegal.

I wrote a novel (in 1962) called
Amerika [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.

Article 9 of the “Peace Constitution”

Oda was a harsh critic of Japanese government inaction following the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck Kobe and surrounding areas on January 17, 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 many of the surviving 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 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 9-11 attacks, both before and after the U.S. invasions 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 Oe Kenzaburo) 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. (2) 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.”

Although 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 has 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. Japanese public opinion has stood strongly against changing Article 9, but the pro-America nationalists in the Japanese government and the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party (with rabid support from Japanese neo-conservatives such as
Shinzo Abe, now the prime minister) are moving steadily to weaken it.

I recently heard the head of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan say that the Japanese people are more concerned about the consumption tax than about Article 9. I disagreed with that, but is there any truth to that kind of assumption?

It’s very hard to answer this kind of logic. In this country, peace is a very accepted idea, an 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?

Maybe they just take it for granted.

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 — theoretically speaking, legally speaking, no army. Peace is so much taken for granted, (whereas) 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. It means that they are conscious (of Article 9).

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?

It’s a very bad direction. Younger people think Japan can be defended militarily. But I don’t think so, from a realistic point of view. Toward the end of the war, Japan didn’t have food, in the first place. 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. 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 or view.

Second, we don’t produce petrol, oil. Toward the end of the war, Japanese planes could not fly because of a shortage of oil. We dug up the roots of pine trees for pine oil. Without 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.

From a realistic point of view, Japan is a country of peace. Our Constitution says this. 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.”

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 or view.

We have to keep this Constitution. The foundation of postwar Japan is the Peace Constitution. That’s from a realistic point of view, not a dreamer’s point of view. The preamble of the 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. So the Peace Constitution is very important — not only for Japanese, but for the entire world. This is my way of thinking.

(Excerpted from an interview originally published at

BRIAN OHKUBO COVERT is an independent journalist and author based in Japan. He currently teaches journalism at Doshisha University in Kyoto and serves as an editor of the Tokyo-based monthly photojournalism magazine
Days Japan. He lives with his wife and son in Kawanishi, Hyogo.