Sunday, January 28, 2007

Seicho Matsumoto's "Points And Lines": The Shortest Distance Is The Truth

An earlier draft of this academic article was published in the Fall/Winter 1997 issue of Clues, America’s premier academic journal devoted to mystery fiction, then published by Bowling Green State University Press. It was the first scholarly article by a non-Japanese on leading Japanese mystery writer Seicho Matsumoto.

Who was Seicho Matsumoto? Imagine a writer who is one part Raymond Chandler, one part John Steinbeck, and one part Gore Vidal. The closest thing we’ve ever had to him in America was the great Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate and Winter Kills—but unlike Matsumoto, Condon never cracked the JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King assassinations in best-selling serious investigative nonfiction books—with the mysterious shootings of George Wallace and Ronald Reagan thrown in as well. All this, Matsumoto did in a Japanese context.

Like Condon, he was obsessed with conspiracies, like Steinbeck, he was a radical, like Vidal, he was a keen left-wing observer of his society who knew where the levers of power were located, and like Chandler, he was a riveting mystery writer with serious literary qualities.

I’ve been interested in him ever since Japanese friends began telling me about him after I moved to New York in 1987. I began hearing about a best-selling nonfiction exposé he’d published in 1961, Nihon no kuroi kiri (Black Fog Over Japan), about a sinister, mysterious, violent string of events that plagued Occupied Japan, and he traced them persuasively to the Occupation authorities—MacArthur’s GHQ and his higher-ups in Washington.

These events included the October 1945 Bank of Tokyo diamond and gold heist (see Gold Warriors by Sterling and Peggy Seagrave, Verso Press, 2003); the terrible Teigin Bank poisoning of January 1948 (see The Flowering of the Bamboo by William Triplett); the mysterious and violent death of Japan Railways chief Sadamori Shimoyama in June 1949, run over by a train; the runaway train caused by sabotage in Mitaka in July 1949; and the notorious Matsukawa train wreck of August 1949, an act of sabotage that was blamed on the Japanese Communist Party (resulting in the banning of the party), for which the Communists were completely exonerated by the Tokyo Supreme Court in 1961. (For these last three events, see Conspiracy at Matsukawa by Chalmers Johnson, University of California, 1972.)

Fascinated by this information, I began writing a screenplay entitled Black Mist inspired by Matsumoto’s research, about an exiled American reporter who comes to Occupied Japan and who ends up chasing after the real perpetrators of these crimes. While I was a graduate student in Queens College in 1993-5, acclaimed experimentalist writer Joseph McElroy gave me invaluable feedback on the editing and rewriting of the script, which in 1995 was read by Oliver Stone and the great Japanese film director Nagisa Oshima (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Cruel Story of Youth, In the Realm of the Senses), but they deemed an historical film like this whose events were unfamiliar to American audiences to be too commercially risky.

Matsumoto’s classic novel Points and Lines undoubtedly had a huge influence on Akira Kurosawa’s 1960 film The Bad Sleep Well, as I mention in this essay, and I use stills from that film, as well as photos of Seicho Matsumoto himself, to illustrate this posting.

Lastly, I'd like to thank Prof. Barbara Fass Leavy of the Queens College English Department, in whose class on mystery fiction I wrote this paper, and who encouraged me to publish it in an academic journal. Because, unfortunately, Blogger does not allow text indentation, all extended quotations that normally would be indented in an academic paper are bolded. Endnote numbers are shown in parenthesis beside the text.

Seicho Matsumoto's Points And Lines: The Shortest Distance Is The Truth

Seicho Matsumoto (1909-1992) is considered the greatest mystery writer to come out of Japan since the end of the Second World War. According to Gonda Manji, a leading critic of Japanese crime fiction: "Matsumoto's crime fiction with a social consciousness made him the most popularly read mystery author in modern Japan." (1) As the father of social realism in Japanese detective fiction, he resembles Dashiell Hammett, whom Raymond Chandler said “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley” and "gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse." (2)

Matsumoto's most famous novel, Points and Lines (1957), is regarded as the best crime novel written by a Japanese. Consonant with his reputation as an exponent of social realism, it is a vivid social and moral portrait of a Japan in transition in 1957, and it reveals a great deal about Japanese social attitudes in general, as well as Japanese attitudes toward crime and punishment.

The plot centers on a double murder disguised as a lovers' suicide, committed to cover up a government kickback scandal. The victims are a young government bureaucrat, Sayama, and a Tokyo waitress, Otaki, whose bodies are discovered on a beach in Kyushu. The murder is investigated by two detectives; Jutaro Torigai of the Fukuoka police represents rural values, and Kiichi Mihara of the Tokyo Metropolitan police is entirely city-bred. They solve the case with hard-headed logic and by religiously studying railroad timetables, which become crucial in placing suspects.

A key clue is a dining-car receipt for only one person found on the body of Sayama, which puzzles the detectives; if the lovers were traveling together by train on their way to their death, why didn't they dine together? The murderer is revealed to be Yasuda, a contractor who has been bribing government officials to receive favorable treatment; his accomplice is Ishida, a bureaucratic division chief.

Points and Lines can only be understood in the light of postwar Japanese society. Such a story would have been inconceivable five years earlier, in 1952. Not only was the American Occupation still in effect, but in 1952 prosperity had not yet returned to the Japanese economy; not enough discretionary income existed to allow a widespread system of bribery and kickbacks.

When Matsumoto wrote Points and Lines in 1957, Japan's postwar economic recovery had stabilized and people were getting used to their improved standard of living; but inevitably married to this return to economic health was political and corporate corruption, two problems that continue to infest Japanese society to this day. If anything, the moral situation described in Points and Lines has grown much worse and the corruption has become much more thoroughgoing.

In terms of functioning as a social barometer, Points and Lines bears a striking resemblance to one of Akira Kurosawa's greatest films, The Bad Sleep Well, which the director released in 1960, only three years after Matsumoto published Points and Lines. The Bad Sleep Well is concerned with a corrupt construction firm that has been caught making massive payoffs to government officials in exchange for contracts. In time-honored Japanese fashion, the higher-ups in the corporation protect themselves by pressuring their subordinates to commit suicide rather than testify against their superiors.

The hero (brilliantly played by Toshiro Mifune as a tough guy in hornrims) spends the film avenging his father, who was manipulated into jumping out a window years before when the corporation suffered its last round of scandals. In a plot that owes at least as much to Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest as to Hamlet, the hero infiltrates the corporation by changing his identity and marrying the boss' clubfooted daughter, and then sets about ruining the men responsible for his father's death by pitting them against each other.

Points and Lines' phenomenal success as a bestseller may well have emboldened Kurosawa into making such a controversial anti-capitalist film as The Bad Sleep Well, with its shocking depiction of an evil corporation that kills people. The fact that these two works with such parallel themes came out within a few years of each other certainly is an indication of how this subject of political and corporate corruption was impressing itself on the Japanese public mind. (3)

In the muckraking tradition of proletarian literature, Matsumoto uses the conventions of the detective story to strip away social illusion and to reveal the true nature of political and economic power. When their bodies are at first discovered on the beach, it is assumed that the waitress Otaki and the young government bureaucrat Sayama died in a lovers' pact; the motivation for the crime is seen to be personal, an act of passion. It is only through the diligence of two common-man detectives (notable for their ordinariness) that the true nature of the crime is revealed—the murder is an economic and political crime rigged to bolster the existing order (the Establishment, if you will).

The detectives also learn to penetrate some of the masks of Japanese society. The killer Yasuda hopes to conceal his crime by cloaking it in a Japanese social convention; he arranges the murder scene so it resembles that of a love suicide (not unusual in Japanese society), hoping that it will cause the deaths not to be questioned. As the younger urban detective Mihara says in the letter that closes the novel:

Love suicides are not uncommon; this is the way the bodies are always found. No one would think of doubting it. And when termed a love suicide, the inquest is never as strict as in the case of murder. The investigation is generally perfunctory. Tatsuo Yasuda knew this. (4)

In the case of a simple suicide, there is always the suspicion of murder, but when a double suicide occurs and there is a woman involved, there is far less cause to be suspicious. Yasuda was very clever. (5)

At the risk of sounding extremely reductionistic, here is a possible explanation for the prevalence (or social acceptability) of suicide in Japan: in Japan the group is more important than the individual, where in the West the individual takes precedence over the group. In the West, when a person's internal pressures become unbearable, the individual explodes and projects his or her aggression outward; this can be termed a sadistic response, where in Japan the individual is encouraged to be masochistic and repress his or her rage or frustration. This makes for group harmony (or so it is seen). But when psychological stress becomes too much, one is encouraged to take oneself out of the picture. For disappointed or tragically mismatched lovers, it is the height of romanticism to die in each other's arms.

Yasuda cynically plays on this cultural conceit when he murders Otaki and Sayama. By masking his crime as a love suicide, Yasuda here is committing a radical act of cultural corruption. At the deepest level he is tampering with Japanese social perceptions. To the Japanese mind it is outrageous for anyone to distort this beautiful, near-sacred social trope—two lovers dying romantically in each others' arms—and twist it by using it as a vehicle for homicide. Yasuda's cynicism in using love suicide as a smokescreen for murder is near-foolproof and shows how easy it is in Japan for authority figures to manipulate and distort the great spiritual idealism of the Japanese people.

But by carefully scrutinizing aspects of the case that don't fit (the dining car receipt for only one person, for instance), the detectives are able to see through Yasuda's carefully-constructed mask of social artifice and to illuminate aspects of Japanese power that have hitherto been kept in the dark. For example, they learn that in the government bureaucracy,

Division chiefs and section chiefs seem to leave all routine matters to these experienced assistants.... They [the assistants] have to stand by and watch the younger men, the university graduates, with the proper qualifications, get promoted and go past them. . . . . . .if a senior official so much as takes notices of one of them, the man is overjoyed. . . . That's why they'll do anything to please the boss. (6)

In a chilling parallel to The Bad Sleeps Well, we learn what is expected of subordinates when a scandal explodes:

Generally, the assistant chief is the conscientious type who takes the responsibility for the entire ministry and will give his life for it. Whenever there is a big scandal, it is always the man in the subordinate position who commits suicide to cover up for the others. (7)

This writer calls this "the Tojo syndrome," whereby unscrupulous leaders exploit the honest, innocent trust of the people below them and force the common people to pay for their mistakes, rather than taking personal responsibility. According to Japan expert Chalmers Johnson, Matsumoto has an insider's knowledge of the inner workings of Japanese government bureaucracy:

Particularly noteworthy is Matsumoto's knowledge of Japanese bureaucratic organization and style, including the bureaucracy's occasional corruption, and political appointees' exploitation of almost feudally loyal lower officials. He has even published a long series of purportedly nonfiction articles, similar to his kuroi kiri stories (8), under the general title Gendai kanryo ron (On contemporary bureaucracy). One of his great best sellers, Ten to sen (Points and Lines), which has sold over a million and quarter copies since its publication in 1957, concerns the murder of a bureaucrat and an innocent waitress—faked by an industrialist, his wife, and their bureaucratic allies to make it look like a "love suicide." It immediately caught the imagination of thousands of Tokyoites who were working in precisely the kinds of ministries that Matsumoto described. (9)

The main way in which Matsumoto's heroes penetrate the veil of social obfuscation concocted by Yasuda and his associates is by exhaustively studying railroad (and airplane) timetables to determine where those involved in the case could have been at crucial times. "As I look back on it, I see the case built around train and plane schedules, from start to finish," Mihara states in the book's final, epistolary chapter. "It is buried in timetables." (10) This fact about the novel, which is often commented on by Western readers, has both cultural and metaphysical implications.

On a purely practical level, Mihara and his rural counterpart, Torigai, are able to deduce truth from falsehood in this case through the analysis of timetables because Japanese trains are never late. Japan's tradition of clockwork efficiency makes it possible for the two detectives to pinpoint characters' movements with mathematical precision. This kind of tracking would be unthinkable in most other societies, which lack Japan's efficiency (or anal-retentive rigidity, if one prefers to see it that way).

In fact, on an episode of the PBS-TV series Locomotion aired in February 1994, a black-and-white clip from Japanese crime film (showing police studying a map of a train line) was screened to illustrate the point that the Japanese train system is so efficient that Japanese crime writers can regularly use its clockwork efficiency to establish when and where a crime could have been committed.

From a historical perspective, railroads are the premier symbol of Japan's modernization and Westernization. It is a remarkable historical fact that only twenty years after Commodore Perry presented the Japanese with a miniature-scale railroad, the Japanese had constructed their own full-blown railway line. Japan is also a nation that wholly depends on trains for public transportation; trains are to Japan what automobiles are to the United States. Just as cars represent personal freedom to Americans, railways represent to the Japanese a shared, communal existence based on mutual cooperation.

In terms of the dichotomy between nature and culture (or civilization), railroads are a nonpareil symbol of man's conquest over time and space. Great distances can be traversed in a relatively short period of time. The fact that Japanese efficiency can pinpoint the arrival and departure of trains with such mathematical logic is a triumph of the human will over the environment; nature can be calibrated, assessed, interpreted.

The title of the book itself, Points and Lines, refers to this method of railroad ratiocination, station stops being the designated points and time intervals (recorded on the timetables) being the lines. "Lines" can also represent physical direction, in terms of the detectives trying to deduce where various characters traveled at different times in order for them to have ended up at certain places at known times.

"Points and lines" possibly also refers to the abstract process of reasoning (namely, deduction and ratiocination) by which the detectives are able to infer motives and reasons behind mysterious acts; by using logic and the process of elimination, the detectives are able to connect the fixed points of known physical events with the lines of economic and psychological motivation, in order to create a diagram that explains human behavior.

The detectives pursue clues with a tenacity and a passion for the process of elimination that owes at least as much to the Japanese passion for thoroughness as to Sherlock Holmes and deductive procedures common to police forces the world over. Matsumoto employs a striking device in the book by having his detectives write out logical lists (11) and diagrams(12) that set forth and clarify the circumstances of the case; this device also serves to illuminate the reader and help him or her keep with up with the detectives, so that the reader can see if he or she can solve the crime before the detectives.

The detectives also learn to see through deceptive appearances. "Sometimes a preconceived opinion will make us overlook the obvious. This is frightening." (13) This point is underscored by Torigai's telling of how an old woman’s killer went free because she died wearing a heavy winter jacket in April and the chief suspect was in prison during the winter, letting him off the hook. Then Torigai realizes, "I still believe there are cold days even in April. . . . Just because she was wearing a heavy jacket need not mean that it was winter; it could have been April [when the suspect was free]." (14)

By not taking such assumptions for granted, the detectives are able to see through the conspirators' ruse and recognize that Otoki and Sayama were not lovers and they did not die together. For example, Mihara is initially stumped in one instance when he realizes Yasuda could have flown from Kyushu to Hokkaido (instead of traveling by rail) and still fit into the murder timeframe; but when Mihara checks airline passenger lists for the day in question, he is crestfallen to learn Yasuda's name appears on none of them. Later it hits him: "Yasuda didn't have to use just one name. He could have made the plane reservations under different names." (15)

The detectives also realize there is a time to examine the emotional truth of a situation. When the question comes up of a dining car receipt for only one person, Torigai asks his daughter if she wouldn't accompany her boyfriend to the dining car if the couple were traveling together; her reply is, "Well, I think it's a question of love rather than of appetite." (16) Based on this consideration, Torigai feels it highly unlikely that Sayama and Otoki were truly traveling together; this is the first chink in the facade of the murder coverup.

"Yes, the case had spread out and now extended from one end of Japan to the other." (17) In this and other instances, Matsumoto hints that his story is deeply emblematic of Japan. His narrative revolves around the terrifying fact of Japanese life that bureaucratic subordinates are expected to take their own lives rather than implicate their superiors, a practice that continues to this day, as evidenced by the suicide three years ago of then-Prime Minister Miyazawa's personal secretary when the scandal broke that forced Miyazawa's eventual resignation.

There are also echoes of an older, darker Japan in the triangle of Yasuda the murderer, Ryoko, his scheming, tubercular wife, and Otoki, Yasuda's mistress. "In other words, Otoki was Yasuda's official mistress, with Ryoko's approval. It was a curious triangle. We may find it hard to accept but these situations do exist in modern society. Of course, it was common practice in feudal times." (18) However, when one thinks of how Yoko Ono selected the pretty young Mai Ling to serve as her husband John Lennon's mistress during their estrangement in the early Seventies, it does not seem so impossible. (19)

The dishonesty of their social arrangement is a reflection of the twisted natures of Yasuda and his Lady Macbeth-like wife, a literary vampire if there ever was one. Possibly Matsumoto is also implying that this feudal holdover of a relationship is a symbol of the unwholesome nature of the Old Japan that went down in flames in the Second World War.

Matsumoto makes it very clear that the evil Old Japan has not died. Occupation-era democratic reforms have not abolished the feudal hierarchy of privilege that protects wrongdoers in high places. Rather than having to face punishment for his collusion in the twin murders, Division Chief Ishida is promoted and has a bright future ahead of him:

He will probably become a bureau chief or a vice-minister, and may even run for a seat in the Diet. I feel sorry for those poor subordinates whom he uses as stepping stones. However, even if they know they are being abused, they will try to stay in his good graces by showing their loyalty. (20)

"The whole case has left a bad taste in my mouth," (21) Mihara writes Torigai at the end of the book. Clearly he fears that this system of injustice will perpetuate itself and grow unchallenged. The only reason this social evil was checked in this case was because of the tireless efforts of two ordinary, down-at-the-heels police detectives. "I need not tell you that a detective should never give up a case; he must pursue it all the way," (22) Torigai advises Mihara.

Seicho Matsumoto wrote Points and Lines to expose these social evils, in the hopes of rousing the public. The unprecedented success that greeted his book proves that the Japanese public was concerned about these issues and found them of great interest. It also reveals the degree to which the democratization of Japan instituted during the Occupation succeeded; an informed, concerned citizenry had been created that cared about abuses of democracy and wanted them stopped.

Unfortunately, Mihara's pessimism has been borne out over the years. The Yasudas and Ishidas still hold sway in Japan. "Today, Japan is awash in one major scandal after another.... There seems to be no end in sight to political and financial corruption. Each scandal affirms Matsumoto's contribution and leaves mystery fans lamenting the void caused by his death." (23) But lest we here in the United States become too self-righteous, we should remind ourselves of our own heritage of scandal and corruption, from Richard Nixon's Watergate to Ronald Reagan's Iran-contra scandal to the massive S&L looting of the Eighties.

Any American crime writer who published a book as anti-Establishment and muckraking as Points and Lines in 1957 would have been attacked as a subversive, and to this day no American filmmaker has had the courage to make a film as radical and anti-corporate as The Bad Sleep Well.

In 1961, in the wake of the stupendous General Electric price-fixing scandal (now largely forgotten) (24) that is considered one of the greatest examples of economic rapine in 20th-century America, it would have been unthinkable for anyone in Hollywood to make a film dealing with the officers of a corporation, trapped in a government scandal, who engineer the deaths of anyone who stands in their way; it would be extremely difficult even today. It makes you wonder which society is freer.

  1. Gonda Manji, "Crime Fiction with a Social Consciousness," Japan Quarterly, April-June 1993, page 157.
  2. Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder," The Simple Art of Murder (New York: 1968), p. 530. Matsumoto, like Hammett, was a Marxist. See David Madden, Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties (Carbondale, Ill.: 1968), for an exploration of the connection between the proletarian writers of the New Masses school and the explosion of hardboiled detective fiction in Black Mask and associated pulps. Hemingway certainly was a bridge.
  3. Kurosawa, like Matsumoto, was a Tokyo newspaperman in the Thirties and Forties. With their shared journalistic backgrounds, both men clearly kept their ears to the ground and were exceptionally sensitive to the Japanese postwar Zeitgeist.
  4. Seicho Matsumoto, Points and Lines (New York: 1970), p. 149. All references are to the Kodansha paperback edition.
  5. Ibid., p. 157.
  6. Ibid., p. 124.
  7. Ibid, p. 125.
  8. "Black mist" or "black fog," meaning official smokescreen or coverup. In 1960 Matsumoto published his notorious nonfiction exposé, Nihon no kuroi kiri (Black Fog Over Japan), which accused American Occupation forces of having manipulated Japanese politics through political murder and clandestine sabotage for which the Japanese Communist Party was blamed, in order to discredit the Japanese Left.
  9. Chalmers Johnson, Conspiracy at Matsukawa (Berkeley: 1972), pp. 335-6.
  10. Matsumoto, p. 124.
  11. Ibid., pp. 45, 74, and 114.
  12. Ibid., pp. 57 and 120.
  13. Ibid., p. 149.
  14. Ibid., p. 129.
  15. Ibid., p. 122.
  16. Ibid., p. 32.
  17. Ibid., p. 83.
  18. Ibid., p. 155.
  19. Yoko Ono also happens to be a premier member of Japanese aristocracy, one of the heiresses of the great Yasuda zaibatsu fortune.
  20. Ibid., p. 158.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., p. 1128.
  23. Manji, p. 164.
  24. See John Fuller's The Gentleman Conspirators (New York: 1962) and John Herling’s The Great Price Conspiracy (Washington, D.C.: 1962) for a complete account of this amazing story.


Chandler, Raymond. "The Simple Art of Murder," The Simple Art of Murder. New York: W.W. Norton, 1968.

Chapman, William C. Inventing Japan. New York: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Fuller, John. The Gentlemen Conspirators. New York: Grove Press, 1962.

Herling, John. The Great Price Conspiracy. Washington, D.C.: R.B. Luce, 1962.

Johnson, Chalmers. Conspiracy at Matsukawa. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1972.

Madden, David. Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.

Manji, Gonda. "Crime Fiction with a Social Consciousness," Japan Quarterly, April-June 1993, pp. 157-164.

Matsumoto, Seicho. Points and Lines. New York: Kodansha, 1970.

Tsurumi, Shunsuke. A Cultural History of Postwar Japan 1945-1980. London and New York: KPI International, 1987.

Inside New York’s “Japanese Village” (Nihonjin-Mura)

Both sides now… After having been a fish out of water in Japan, when I returned to New York in August 1996, I noticed how the Japanese in New York were experiencing the same kind of culture shock and difficulty adjusting as I had in Japan. Shortly after my article, “Japan Should Never Be Rearmed” was published in Japanese translation in New York’s OCS News and received a lot of attention in the New York Japanese community, I was approached by an editor of The Yomiuri America, a New York Japanese-language paper, to write an article for them.

The topic I chose was something I’d noticed since becoming involved with the Japanese community when I moved to New York in 1987—the way the expatriate Japanese community in the U.S. had created its own very tight little insular enclave. I nicknamed it the “hai-hai ghetto”—watching Japanese TV in New York, I noticed that all the characters on the J-dramas were always saying “Hai-hai!” rapidly (“Yes-yes!”), as if to show their rapid acquiescence to whatever was being suggested.

(Japanese tend to be very agreeable, at least in public, but for Japanese, there are a million ways to say “No.” The best-known is, “Ah, I’m afraid that would be very difficult,” which, translated, means, “No fucking way!” Suffice it to say that if a Japanese person does not offer their unqualified agreement, they’re trying to back out in the most polite way. We just don’t understand this in American culture—but they figure that we already share their unspoken cultural assumption.)

Of course, in Japan, I had noticed Americans who clung desperately to American culture and never partook of Japan. It reminded me a lot of that scene in My Antonia, where Willa Cather writes about the old Norwegians in Nebraska who only read Norwegian-language newspapers and refused to learn how to read English. The new immigrants are not leaving their old culture behind, and they’re not gonna change.

Translated into Japanese, a different version of this article was published in the September 5, 1997 issue of The Yomiuri America.

Inside New York’s “Japanese Village” (Nihonjin-Mura)

Many Japanese transplanted to the United States live in a totally self-enclosed Japanese subculture. They work for a Japanese kaisha [company], they usually eat at Japanese restaurants, they mostly shop at Japanese markets, they solely rent Japanese videos, they only buy Japanese books and magazines. And they have only Japanese friends.

I've been involved with the Japanese community in New York for ten years now, and I know whereof I speak. Anyone who visits Yaohan Plaza, the mammoth Japanese shopping center in Edgewater, NJ, knows that when you pass through its doors, you leave American soil and enter a suburb of Yokohama. The great Kinokuniya bookstore in Rockefeller Plaza—a temple of Japanese culture in New York, thank God—has so many young Japanese hanging out there, the extensively-stocked magazine racks on Saturday nights have become famous as the closest thing Manhattan has to a Japanese singles bar, where you go, hopefully, to be picked up.

Part of this cultural isolation is the fault of the U.S. Japanese community, and some is that of their American hosts. Japanese society has strong tendencies toward insularity, and as a people the Japanese are very shy. Too many Japanese in the U.S. stay inside the Nihonjin-mura [Japanese village], because it's safe and offers no risk.

On the other hand, I think a large part of the blame lies with the failure of the American community. Too few Americans reach out to their Japanese guests. It is, after, all the job of the host to make his guests feel at home, especially foreign guests in your country. When I lived in Himeji for a year under the JET Program, I was constantly impressed by the warmth and openness of the Japanese people. They reached out to me and made me feel extremely welcome, inviting me into their homes and helping me participate in Japanese life.

Whereas in my ten years in New York, I've heard too many horror stories of Japanese (and other Asians) cruelly victimized, exploited, and taken advantage of, because 1) they were perceived as having money ("the Japanese are rich"), and 2) culturally they're not inclined to be aggressive and confrontational; they don't put up a fight. The $700 cab rides from JFK to Manhattan are just the most obvious examples of this kind of outrageous vampirism.

But as with everything, there's a flip side to this story. After I first arrived in Himeji in August 1995, I once went out to dinner with three other newly-arrived JET teachers. They insisted on eating at an "Italian" restaurant, and then it was time for Mister Doughnut. I was amazed. Here they were in Japan, where you could get the greatest Japanese food in the world (and cheaply, if you knew where to look), and they were consuming the inaka's [countryside’s] idea of Southern Italian cuisine? I'm sorry, but the marinara sauce just didn't taste the same. As my mother taught me, "When you go out to eat, always order something you'll never get at home." In Japan you eat in a place where you sit on a tatami mat and manipulate hashi [chopsticks].

In Japan, there were many Americans who lived in the "red-white-and-blue" ghetto. They shopped at the local America-mura, the Yankee shopping center, they haunted Tower Records and the English bookracks at Kinokuniyas, they complained endlessly about inane Japanese TV fare. But my God, I thought, you're in Japan! Take advantage of the unique, beautiful, priceless things that only this particular nation and this special culture have to offer! Who wants Clint Eastwood when you can have Takakura Ken or Beat Takeshi? Why settle for Madonna when you can watch Chisato Moritaka or Yuki Uchida? Why look for a hamburger when you can gnaw yakitori? Why soak in a hot tub when you can relax in an onsen?

So maybe both cultures have to come out of their shells a little. As for myself, I'm glad I stand with a foot in both worlds. American culture by itself is pretty arid, and in Japan I got awfully homesick. But I know eventually I'll return to Japan, to live and work--even though, right now, I enjoy living in New York.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Made in Occupied Japan: A Review of "Embracing Defeat" by John Dower

I originally wrote “Made in Occupied Japan,” a review of John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, the definitive history of Occupied Japan, for the October 1999 issue of Inside/Outside Japan, the internal newsletter of New York JETRO, the Japan External Trade and Research Organization, a division of the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry. I was asked to do so by Hiroaki Sato, a well-known Japanese poetry translator, literary scholar, newspaper columnist, and author, who works for JETRO and whom I’ve known since 1995.

Hiro asked me to review Embracing Defeat because of my long-standing fascination with Occupied Japan. In 1993, I began work on Black Mist, a screenplay set in Occupied Japan inspired by Seicho Matsumoto’s Niho No Kuroi Kiri [Black Fog Over Japan], a fascinating journalistic history of sinister events in Occupied Japan that pretty certainly were engineered by MacArthur’s GHQ. These included in the amazing Bank of Tokyo gold and diamond robbery, the murder of Japan Railways head Sadamori Shimoyama, the runaway commuter train at Mitaka, the notorious Matsukawa train wreck, and the horrifying Teigin Bank poisoning.

In 1995, Black Mist was read and admired by Oliver Stone and the great Japanese directors Nagisa Oshima and Kei Kumai, but alas, historical films don’t sell well, and particularly those in which Americans are cast as the villains. Plus, while everyone in America knows who Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby are, when was the last time you heard about Matsukawa and Teigin Bank? (To learn more about these events, see Conspiracy at Matsukawa by Chalmers Johnson [University of California Press, 1972].)

But in the course of researching Black Mist, I had the occasion to interview at length Elizabeth Gray Vining, Emperor Akihito’s personal English tutor and the inspiration for the Deborah Kerr character in The King and I, in May 1995 four years before her death at age 97, and Faubion Bowers, MacArthur’s aide-de-camp, who literally single-handedly rescued the art form of kabuki theater from extinction at the end of the war. I did exhaustive research to ensure the authenticity of Black Mist and ended up moving to Japan in August 1995 for a year to work as a JET English teacher, and thereby terminate my status as an armchair expert. (I’ve been visiting Japan since 1991.) In August 2003, I spent a week in the village of Matsukawa, the site of Japan’s postwar 9/11, and interviewed many locals who were present at the site of train wreck, including the daughter of the engineer who died in the crash.

However, in the course of the writing my review, I fell under the implicit censorship of an overseas entity of the Japanese government. Dower’s central thesis is that Emperor Hirohito knew damn well what he was doing when he led Japan into war, and he was hoping to become undisputed ruler of all of Asia, plus any other real estate that was free to be picked up. Dower makes a compelling case that the reason why many Japanese didn’t embrace guilt after the war was because they figured, well, if MacArthur was willing to let Hirohito the war leader get away scott-free (to serve as a puppet), when everyone knew he was an integral part of the militarist cabal, then why should the average Japanese feel bad about a failed gamble at world conquest?

For some strange reason, this was not a point of view that an extension of the Japanese government wanted to have elucidated in its internal house organ, and so Hiro employed his vorpal samurai sword, and several political arms and legs went rolling off into the bushes.

Oddly enough, when W.W. Norton published its paperback editon of Embracing Defeat, after Dower went on to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for history, my review was prominently displayed. I was quite amazed when I stumbled across it in Kinokuniya, a major Japanese bookstore in Rockefeller Center—nobody had told me.

In the Nineties, I met Dower twice when he lectured at the Japan Society, and I quizzed him some about Matsumoto’s conclusions. I also showed him some photos I’d uncovered in a Japanese history book of actual photos taken of the 1945 looting of the Bank of Tokyo by Occupation forces—which was akin to finding a candid camera shot of the second gunman at the grassy knoll tucked away in a browning 1964 issue of Life magazine.

Dower is a brilliant man and an amazing scholar, but a very important fact is mostly forgotten about him—in the late Sixties and early Seventies, he was a leading member of the Committee of Concerted Asian Scholars, a group of prominent academics who were horrified by the minor fact that America was incinerating three million innocent Indochinese in the Great Indochina War (as it’s properly called). Of course, that exercise in “nation-building” bore absolutely no resemblance at all to the death party the Japanese were throwing in Asia between 1931 and 1945.

Made in Occupied Japan: A Review of "Embracing Defeat" by John Dower, by Wolcott Wheeler

In Embracing Defeat (W.W. Norton, $29.95), John Dower has written an epic history of postwar Japan under the American Occupation, which lasted from August 1945 to April 1952. Dower, the Etling E. Morrison Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is also the author of the masterful War Without Mercy: Race And Power In the Pacific War, which won the 1987 National Book Critics Circle Award, and Japan In War And Peace, a collection of essays.

Many books have been written about the American Occupation of Japan, but none come close to Embracing Defeat for a number of reasons. The passage of fifty years has allowed many fresh historical sources to come to light that have overthrown previous assumptions, and the end of the Cold War has made it possible to study Japan's history in broader terms, including the degree to which its destiny was shaped by Cold War priorities.

But most of all, no previous writers have matched Dower in his intellectual brilliance, historical scope, and insight into Japan. The depth of his scholarship is apparent on every page, and it is manifest that his research was exhaustive.

What set War Without Mercy apart from previous Pacific War histories was Dower's use of popular primary source materials--graphics in particular--that had been largely ignored by historians who focused on "great events done by great men." Dower brings this same technique to Embracing Defeat, which is illustrated both to great effect with photos and graphics of the day (cartoons, posters, and the like) so that the reader can see exactly what he is talking about.

Dower also strikingly illustrates his historical points by quoting the letters and personal accounts of the common people who suffered through this terrible period. These vivid words lend the book a humane, immediately accessible quality lacking in previous histories of the Occupation.

Who can forget this passage, from a letter printed in the November 7, 1945 edition of the Osaka Asahi Shimbun, entitled, "I Am About to Commit Suicide"?

"I am a mere common laborer. I write this now standing at the dividing point between life and death….My wife collapsed yesterday [from starvation], and two of the children are losing spirit. The government just talks and does nothing. I understand that high officials are filling their stomachs, but there is nothing we can do…

"At last, I have resolved to commit suicide. I am going to die, reproaching the incompetent, merciless government." [P. 97]

Dower opens the book with an account of the dreadful devastation suffered by Japan in 1945. By its surrender on August 15, 65 of its large cities had been leveled, and its largest, Tokyo, had turned into a vast parking lot. One immediate effect of the calamitous defeat on the Japanese was by kyodatsu--exhaustion and despair--which threatened to unravel the entire society. I have read many histories of the Occupation, but never before have I seen a book go into such heartrending (and fascinating) detail of just how devastated postwar Japan was and how much its people endured.

At the time, for political reasons, the severity of the human and material damage was largely suppressed or unreported to the American public; but Dower has dug up the truth and told the compelling story of a nation close to ruin from grinding poverty, homelessness, and despair. Western observers frequently accuse the Japanese people for their lack of "war responsibility," but after reading Dower, one wonders if the Japanese people, who were forced to consume the poisoned aftermath of the war for seven years, may not be justified in feeling that they had adequately dealt with the war and its outcome.

In the wake of this devastation, America set about remaking and rebuilding Japan on a thoroughgoing basis. As Dower describes it:

"Such an audacious undertaking by the victors had no legal or historical precedent. With a minimum of rumination about the legality or propriety of such an undertaking, the Americans set about doing what no other occupation force had done before: remaking the political, social, cultural, and economic fabric of a defeated nation, and in the process changing the very way of thinking of the populace." [Pp. 77-78]

The United States succeeded, in many ways, in bringing democracy to Japan, as Dower shows: civil liberties were introduced for the first time, women were granted legal equality and the right to vote, and a constitution even more democratic than that of the U.S. was implemented, including the famous Article Nine, which forever renounces war as a means for settling international disputes. But Dower shows that although this "revolution from above" was highly successful, it was still imposed from above.

This high-handedness on the part of GHQ (General HeadQuarters, shorthand for the Occupation authorities) showed another side in the curtailment of popular demonstrations after May 1946 and the crushing of the proposed general strike of February 1, 1946. In addition, strict censorship was imposed, reinforcing the Occupation's reputation as a benign military dictatorship. Any criticism of the Occupation or the United States was silenced--hardly the sign of a flourishing democracy--and the atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were considered wholly taboo subjects.

This dark side expanded as the Cold War began, and many Japanese came to believe that the U.S.'s mission in Japan was not so much the granting of freedom to the Japanese people as the establishment of a fuchin kubo--an unsinkable aircraft carrier, America's forward military base in Asia in the event of trouble with Russia and China (and later with Korea and Vietnam). In 1949, the Occupation assumed a conservative "reverse course," known as the Dodge Line, after Joseph Dodge, a conservative Detroit banker, was brought in to bring fiscal solvency to Japan and deal with widespread labor unrest. However, through his stringent budget-cutting, Dodge succeeded in raising unemployment at the cost of curbing inflation, which only produced much more violent labor unrest.

Fortunately for the Japanese economy, the Korean War arrived on June 25, 1950--"a gift from the gods," as Prime Minister Yoshida said--and overnight the demands on Japanese industry stimulated the economy out of it stagnation. "'These orders were Toyota's salvation,' the president of the company later recalled. 'I felt a mingling of joy for my company and a sense of guilt that I was rejoicing over another country's war.'" [Pp. 542-3]

Again and again Dower displays his evenhanded approach. No group emerges as a hero or a villain, but largely he sees the history of the Occupation as the jockeying for power on the part of various elites, both American and Japanese. He clears up the mystery, once and for all, about what happened to the untold billions of dollars' worth of war materiel, supplies, and goods that vanished immediately after the surrender; it was stolen by Japanese "men of position and privilege," as Dower calls them, with the help of Japanese authorities.

"The diversion of military funds and supplies into private hands actually began the day before the emperor's broadcast [of surrender] and unfolded in several distinct phases… It was later estimated that approximately 70 percent of all army and navy stocks in Japan were disbursed in this first frenzy of looting--and this for a force of some 5 million men at home, over 3 million overseas." [Pp. 113-4] Dower sees this as an act of economic sabotage; the material went directly into private hands or the black market, further crippling the common Japanese people.

Dower argues that many Japanese felt betrayed by the Occupation; instead of replacing or abolishing the prewar elites, it was felt, GHQ kept them in power, and so the feudal basis of Japanese society went untouched. Dower bolsters this argument convincingly and raises compelling questions about America's true aim in the Occupation.

While the elites warred for power, the everyday Japanese people struggled and suffered, and in every section of the book, Dower paints the interplay between a nation's private life and public life brilliantly. In addition, he explores how changing times were reflected in all forms of Japanese popular expression, from literature to cinema to child's play (the last of which is often neglected by historians).

Dominating the stage of Embracing Defeat are two men: General Douglas MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito. Dower unveils evenhanded portraits of both men, while reporting surprising facts: MacArthur, while ruling Japan like a shogun, never left Tokyo and spoke to only a handful of Japanese in the entire course of the Occupation. Apparently, Hirohito seriously considered abdication on a number of occasions.

With great use of colorful detail and a clear writing style, Dower shows how the Occupation paved the road for Japan's subsequent prosperity and reunion with the world's leading nations. No one book can give an omniscient view of what truly went on in the American Occupation of Japan. One of the fascinating things about pursuing the subject that is one finds quickly that each book is part of a larger historical jigsaw puzzle, and each book augments the next, supplying a missing piece of the overall story with new information and insights. John Dower has done what no one else has done, up to now, and that is to deliver a wise, compelling, encyclopedic study of the collision in peacetime between two major players on the world's geopolitical stage: the United States and Japan.

This is a book that takes its place instantly on the shelf with such other masterworks on the Occupation as Japan Diary by Mark Gayn, Dilemma in Japan by Andrew Roth, Japan's American Interlude by Kazuo Kawai, and The American Occupation of Japan by Michael Schaller. But Dower has the advantage of historical hindsight and the greater pool of knowledge now available, and he uses them to tell the amazing story of how a nation--whose adventure in Manchuria in 1931 ended in atomic warfare in August 1945--coped with shattering defeat, later becoming the second strongest economy in the world.

The 1948 Cheju-Do Civil War: How To Kill Over 30,000 Innocent People In One Year And Get Away With It

This is the example of my writing that has received the most public attention. I originally wrote it in May 1998. Back in November 1990, I was watching the brilliant BBC/PBS documentary Korea: The Unknown War, and in the first episode, “Many Roads to War,” the narrator mentioned casually that between 1948 and 1949, at least 30,000 innocent civilians on the South Korean island of Cheju-do off the southern coast of South Korea—an estimated 10% of the population—were exterminated by the South Korean army in a single year, with the tacit support of the occupying American army.

I’d never heard of this, and I’m pretty politically and historically knowledgeable. As someone who lived through the Vietnam War in the Sixties, I was astonished that you could murder over 30,000 people in a non-Communist country after World War II and NOBODY would know about it. How come?

Haunted by this little-known act of genocide, I began researching it—no easy task for a piece of deliberately hidden history. While working as a JET English teacher for the Japanese Ministry Education in rural Himeji, Japan, between 1995 and 1996, I made it a point to undertake a political pilgrimage to the island of Cheju in May 1996 to see what I could learn for myself. Mr. Dong Seop Kim, the Curator of the Cheju Provincial Folklore and Natural History Museum in Cheju City, was especially helpful to me. I was surprised to see, in this historical museum describing life in rural Cheju in the postwar period, wooden shovels. These people had been so poor they couldn’t afford iron-wrought farm implements.

On my return to New York City in August 1996, I continued my research and contacted the expatriate Cheju Association of New York City for further leads. At a dinner held by the association, I met Mr. O-kyun Kwon, a young South Korean doctoral candidate in Sociology at the City University of New York, and he was invaluable in getting me in touch with Cheju activists and primary source materials.

Under the title “International Conference Reawakens Nightmares of 1948 Cheju-do Civil War,” this article first appeared on the Korea WebWeekly Seoul Website in May 1998, and as “The 1948 Cheju-do Civil War,” it was also featured on the Korea WebWeekly U.S. Website. It was then picked up by the Korean History Project Website.

Translated into Japanese, “The 1948 Cheju-do Civil War” was published in OCS News (then the largest Japanese language publication in the United States) on November 6, 1998. Later, my article was presented at the international symposium devoted to the massacre held on Cheju-do on August 21-22, 1998, and I was honored to hear that it received the praise of attendee/activist José Ramos Horta, the winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and now prime minister of East Timor.

For awhile, I considered writing a work of fiction about the 1948 Cheju-do civil war, but I got involved in other writing projects. Who knows, I may yet return to it.

In June 2000, I was amazed to learn that Prof. Chalmers Johnson cited my article in his bestseller Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Henry Holt, 2000). In a footnote on page 245, he includes this piece as among “the most important” sources on this little-known act of genocide. I was also surprised to find out that it was cited in the 2003 senior thesis of Ms. Yeri Kim, a Korean-American undergraduate majoring in history and political science at Yale (“The Debate Over Seoul's U.S. Embassy: Exploring 120 Years of US-ROK Relations"). I’m very honored.

Since 1996, I’ve visited Cheju three times, the last time in 2002, but now I can’t go back. I realize now that the island’s population was destroyed, physically and emotionally, by the massacre, and its spirit is broken. The people there are totally demoralized, and the island presently exists as a shabby “island paradise” straining to cash in on the international tourist dollar. Now the killers and the children of the killers run the island, and all of those in power are and were complicit in this act of mass murder, which was frankly committed so that South Korean freebooters could seize the islanders’ land and private property, and by marrying the daughters of the men they killed, legally inherit it. Kind as many of the people there were to me, it became too disturbing for me for hang around there any longer.

The 1948 Cheju-do Civil War

Some crimes are too terrible to be forgotten. From August 21 to 25, 1998, the Cheju April 3 50th Anniversary Pan-National Committee sponsored an international scholarly symposium at the Cheju Youth Hostel in Cheju City on the South Korean island of Cheju-do. The keynote speaker was Dr. Jose Ramos Horta, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate from East Timor.

As a whole the conference focused on Cold War human rights abuses in South Korea, Taiwan, and Okinawa that were backed or perpetrated by the U.S. government. But the main object of the conference was to bring world attention to one of the darkest yet least-known chapters of postwar Asian history--the horrific genocide of 30,000 innocent civilians on Cheju-do between 1948 and 1949. In the space of one year, fully ten percent of the island's total population of 300,000 was massacred--literal Roman decimation. Privately the governor of Cheju told American intelligence at the time that 60,000 were killed. Some contemporary Japanese sources claim that the number of the dead is closer to 80,000.

This mass murder, in the guise of an anti-Communist civil war, was undertaken by the South Korean army, the Cheju-do police, and the U.S. military, which directed the counterinsurgency operation, providing military advisers, naval and air support, and U.S. ground troops. Prof. Bruce Cumings of the University of Chicago, America's foremost authority on contemporary Korea, is the scholar in the United States who has been trying to notify the American public about the 1948 genocide in Cheju-do. In 1990 he wrote in Volume II of The Origins of the Korean War, published by Princeton University Press:

"Other evidence demonstrated active American involvement in attempting to suppress the rebellion: daily tutoring of counterinsurgent forces, interrogating prisoners, and using American spotter planes to ferret out guerrillas. One newspaper reported that American troops interceded in the Cheju conflict at least one instance in late April [1948], and a group of Korean journalists charged in June that Japanese officers and soldiers had secretly been brought back to the island to help in suppressing the rebellion."

The last assertion is shocking indeed. Allegedly these "Japanese officers and soldiers" were World War Two veterans who were recruited as mercenaries, either by the U.S. occupation forces or the South Korean government. Ex-Japanese servicemen also served as mercenaries in Indochina and Indonesia after the war. If these Japanese troops were actually offered by the Tokyo government at the time (which seems unlikely), it would have represented an obvious violation of Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution, which after World War Two forbid Japan from engaging in any sort of military activities.

What triggered off this bloodbath?

Following the end of World War Two, Cheju-do, like much of South Korea, was governed by democratic people's committees. In October 1947, General Hodge, the U.S. Occupation commander, informed a group of visiting American Congressmen that Cheju-do was "a truly communal area that is peacefully controlled by the People's Committee without much Comintern influence."

All was quiet on the island until March 1, 1947, when police fired into a crowd of nonviolent demonstrators who were celebrating the anniversary of the Korean people's 1919 mass demonstrations against the Japanese occupation. Six people were killed, many wounded, and a general strike resulted.

At the time Cheju-do's Governor was Hae-jin Yu, a mainlander noted for his contempt for the local islanders and their growing postwar political independence; the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC) described him as an "extreme rightist" who was "ruthless and dictatorial in his dealing with opposing political parties."

He called on South Korean dictator Syngman Rhee to send in cadres of the Northwest Youth Group, an extreme right-wing paramilitary vigilante organization comprised of refugees from the North with a vendetta against Communism, who began an increasingly brutal and arbitrary campaign of repression and intimidation against the islanders. In late 1948 the CIC warned the Northwest Youth Group about their "widespread campaign of terrorism" against the island's population.

On March 1, 1948, police arrested 2,500 young people who were protesting the separate elections in South Korea then taking place, designed to cement the partition between North and South Korea. Shortly thereafter, the body of one of these young political prisoners was pulled out of a river; he had been tortured to death. This outrage triggered a widespread insurrection on April 3 that quickly became a full-scale agrarian revolt. Eleven of the island's 24 police stations were attacked, roads and bridges were destroyed, and telephone lines were cut.

This was the jaquerie of a starving peasantry armed with little more than bamboo spears, whose sole demand was for political democracy and a little more rice. In 1948 unauthorized grain collections were five times 1947 levels. After landlords took 30% of the peasants' produce, an additional 48 to 70% was seized as government taxes or "contributions" to local officials. This was a society so poor that wooden shovels were used, because iron was so scarce.

The repressive right-wing government of South Korea, ruled by Syngman Rhee, responded by fielding an all-out scorched-earth war of attrition against the peasant rebellion. Enlisting the aid of the U.S., they made Cheju-do America's first military intervention in postwar Asia, our first Vietnam. The counterinsurgency tactics employed were strikingly similar to those used in Vietnam. As a body, the peasantry, the guerrilla's' support base, was pulled out of the highlands surrounding Mount Hallasan in the center of the island, and in a move worthy of Vietnam's "Mad Dog" Samuel Huntington, placed in "strategic hamlets" (i.e., concentration/resettlement camps) along the coast.

From then on, indiscriminate slaughter raged on against villages suspected of guerrilla/"Communist" sympathies, all too reminiscent of Vietnam. These atrocities are vividly revealed in a film entitled Red Hunt directed by Sung Bong Cho, banned in South Korea, which centers around eyewitness accounts of numerous atrocities committed against innocent civilians by the South Korean army and the Cheju-do police, with the support of U.S. forces. There you see the schoolyard where 400 people were slaughtered, and an elderly woman points to a trench and tells you this is where she was dumped in a mass grave with 168 other bodies. In 1997, Jun Sik Sun, the director of a human rights film festival, was arrested and imprisoned for showing Red Hunt; he was subsequently released.

Survivors' accounts are unrelenting in their horror. According to testimony collected by Kim Chong Min, a reporter for the Cheju People's Daily, victims were stripped naked in public squares and forced to have sex, after which they were executed. Soldiers and Northwest Youth gangs forced young men to have sex with their mothers-in-law before their execution. Family members of those about to be executed were forced to watch the killing and clap their hands and shout "man-se" (Korean for "Hurray!").

Villagers were herded into open fields to watch "bucking" and "slapping" games where young women were forced to ride on their fathers-in-law, who were made to crawl on their hands and knees; young men were forced to slap their grandfathers, and vice versa. The villagers of Suh-hung-ri witnessed a woman forced to carry her son's severed head. In November 1993, the people of Buk-chon-ri published a list of their dead. Of the 412 killed, 409 were executed by the military without trial. Verified reports of massacred villages abound.

By official count, 39,285 homes were destroyed. Of the island's 400 villages, only 170 remained at the end of the war, meaning half of Cheju-do's villages were wiped out. An estimated 40,000 islanders fled to Japan, where many settled in Osaka. The refugee community there keeps the memory of this evil, grisly war alive.

"Killing this many civilians in wartime is a major war crime," Jung Hae Gu of the Korean Politics Research Institute wrote. "Killing this many innocent civilians in peacetime is an unforgivable crime against humanity."

In a paper Prof. Cumings presented in Tokyo on March 14, 1998 entitled "The Question of American Responsibility for the Suppression of the Cheju-do Uprising," he wrote, "By the end of 1949, 300 of the Northwest Youth had joined the island police, and 200 were in business or local government: 'the majority have become rich and are the favored merchants.'"

One wonders how much of the island's wealth and power remains in bloodstained hands. Much gore must underlie those sprawling manicured golf courses and luxury resort hotels that are being used now to attract the international tourist trade.

When I visited the island in May 1996 on a research trip, all the islanders I questioned denied any knowledge of a war on the island, except the Curator of the Cheju Provincial Folklore and Natural History Museum, Mr. Dong Seop Kim, who photocopied a U.S. military intelligence report in Korean on the Cheju-do insurgency for me. It was akin to visiting Okinawa and having everyone say, "No, the Americans were never here in 1945."

I learned of the Cheju-do genocide by accident, while watching the superb TV documentary Korea: The Unknown War, co-authored by Bruce Cumings and jointly produced by the BBC and PBS, which aired in November 1990, and the story has haunted me ever since. For informing me of the August 21-25 symposium, I must thank Mr. O-kyun Kwon, a South Korean friend of mine who is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the City University of New York, who shares my interest in the Cheju-do story.

The Cheju April 3 50th Anniversary Pan-National Committee is to be greatly congratulated for striving to make this story better known to the world at large, and it is hoped that with the death of the Cold War, we will recognize that many unforgivable acts were committed in the name of anti-Communism around the world.

With the new openness of the current reformist regime in South Korea, many of the brutal political crimes committed by Syngman Rhee and his followers, with the blessing and support of the United States, are coming to light, of which the Cheju-do holocaust is the most shocking. It is wonderful that these atrocities are finally being exposed.

But the question remains: will any of the surviving officials in South Korea, Cheju-do, and the United States responsible for these abominations ever be brought to justice, or will the murders of those 30,000 innocent people on the sunny, tragic island of Cheju-do between 1948 and 1949 forever go unpunished?

Friday, January 5, 2007


“Arranging Everything”
except debacle and conflict
on the set of Hello Dolly!

by Nick Zegarac

“In the years when Hollywood musicals were a popular genre being churned out in abundance, (Gene) Kelly’s ebullient performing prowess and venturesome spirit put him at the head of the pack; now he tends to be remembered as the Astaire-not, a chesty hoofer with a slant smile who danced the Hollywood musical into its coffin.”
– John Updike

Sadly, Updike’s critique of the Kelly magic is remarkably on point. But in retrospect, it seems particularly fitting as an epitaph to the wrap up on Hello Dolly! (1969); an ill-timed expensive venture poorly received by the critics upon its initial release. In fact, the costly financial burden generated from this flop threatened to push the balance sheet of 20th Century Fox into the red. Yet, removed from all its hype and prestige, Ernest Lehman’s musical production of Thornton Wilder’s ‘The Matchmaker’ is one of the greatest American films to debut in the latter half of the 20th century.

On stage, Hello Dolly! had been a grand old time show of immeasurable grace and bombastic charm, sweeping the Tony Awards in ten categories. The gestation of its musical origins derived from Austrian playwright, Johann Nestroy’s 1842 play, Einen Jux will er sich machen which American playwright Thornton Wilder (right) eventually reconceived as The Matchmaker.

A straight forward light-hearted tale blessed with winning songs by Jerry Herman, the somewhat simplistic plot of Hello Dolly! concerns a middle aged matchmaker employed by wealthy hay and feed merchant, Horace Vandergelder to secure him a bride.
After setting Horace up with lady milliner, Irene Malloy, Dolly decides to snag Horace for herself instead. She sends Horace’s two unsuspecting clerks, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker to court Irene and her shop assistant Minnie Fay, while baiting Horace with a phony countess, Ernestina Simple. After a humiliating dinner arrangement, Horace is all set to go back to Yonkers a bachelor.
But then he spots his niece, Ermengarde dancing with her fiancée Ambrose Kemper, whom he’s forbidden her to see. In the resulting brawl that breaks out, Horace is disgraced. He returns home, intending to disown Ermengarde and fire his two assistants. Ah, but then there’s Dolly – weaving her wily matchmaking magic in and out of Horace’s vial little thoughts and making everything better for everyone, but chiefly for herself. She and Horace marry and Barnaby and Cornelius are made full partners in Horace’s business. So much for plot.

Gregarious character actress Carol Channing, who had premiered ‘Dolly’ on Broadway - and was still playing her in revivals when Fox decided to green light the project - was quietly overlooked for the film lead. So too did Fox discount such stage luminary Dolly’s as Betty Grable and Ginger Rogers who had made their own smashing successes of the part on tour. Not that this sort of studio blind-sightedness was unique.

Of the transitions from stage to screen, few Broadway transplants had made it to celluloid with their original casts in tact. For example, Gertrude Lawrence was replaced by Deborah Kerr in film version of The King and I (1956), as was Mary Martin supplanted by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965), and Andrews herself replaced by Audrey Hepburn for the big screen adaptation of My Fair Lady (1964).
So Fox’s reluctance to cast any of the prior Dollies as their star was perfectly in keeping with the Hollywood tradition.
It has been nearly forty years since director Gene Kelly reluctantly committed himself to the project, and yet, the film remains fresh, vital and engaging: no small feat considering the arduous production schedule, numerous setbacks and behind-the-scenes feuding that daily dogged the project.

Gene Kelly, the innovator who had taken the stagy conventions of the Hollywood musical in the mid-1940s and willed a new and progressive art form from its conventional paper thin ‘boy-meets-girl’ scenario (that had served as satisfactory fodder for at least half of the genre’s output during its glory days); Kelly, who’s ego often matched his talent; whom most today hold synonymous and dear with a wet umbrella and torrential downpour from that iconic moment in Singin’ In The Rain (1952); Kelly had, by the late fifties seen the artifice of musical entertainment crumble beneath his feet at MGM as television replaced the big budget film musical as America’s favorite escapism.

Throughout his profitable tenure at MGM, Gene Kelly had made enemies, both of his collaborators and bosses. Of L.B. Mayer, Kelly once declared, “I didn’t like him. He didn’t like me. It was mutual.”
Indeed, Mayer was often furious with Kelly when viewing the daily rushes, to discover that one of his greatest stars and biggest money makers had defied studio edict by doing his own dangerous stunt work without the benefit of safety nets or wires. Yet Kelly could be difficult on his own and generally without cause, but very much with considerable ego to fuel his confrontations.
By the late 1950s, even those who had worked diligently by his side, as co-director Stanley Donen, had grown weary of Kelly’s desire to ‘hog’ the screen. Nowhere was this vanity more obviously exercised than on the set of It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) the second to last (and some have argued, the best) of Kelly’s Cinemascope musicals. Determined to pivot the plot in his favor, Kelly neutralized his costars musical moments to all but a handful. Ill-timed and even more poorly received, It’s Always Fair Weather marked a decided downturn in MGM’s illustrious career as purveyors of the grand musical art of the day.

Despite Kelly’s lack of respect for Mayer and others, his days at MGM made him a recognizable and outstanding star. Determined to push the musical envelope in new directions, and also, to exude control behind the camera, Kelly and co-collaborator Stanley Donen shared director credit on several of Kelly’s greatest musicals – including Singin’ In The Rain.
Had he remained under contract to producer David O. Selznick (who initially invited Kelly to Hollywood after his success in Broadway’s Pal Joey), there is little to suggest that the world would have come to know his genius. For Selznick disliked musicals and most certainly did not desire to produce one himself.

In the interim between Kelly’s departure from MGM - that abruptly came about during the cost-cutting last days of 1957 following Les Girls (an undistinguished piece of fluff and boredom) - and his resurfacing as Hello Dolly’s director, Gene Kelly had garnered considerable respect for his efforts in non-musical entertainment; most noticeably in Marjorie Morningstar (1958) and Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind (1960). Although Kelly continued to appear both on television and in the movies throughout the decade, he had increasingly grown bored with his roster of assignments.
Then came Dolly.

“A human being is only interesting if he’s in contact with himself. I learned you have to trust yourself, be what you are, and do what you ought to do the way you should do it. You have got to discover you, what you do, and trust it.”
– Barbra Streisand

Fox had an even greater incentive in overlooking these obvious choices: the overwhelming zeitgeist of critical and financial success that had accompanied the town’s latest golden child; Barbra Streisand. The gifted chanteuse had dazzled the stage with her debut in Funny Girl, a success she carried over to William Wyler’s big screen adaptation for Columbia/Horizon Pictures in 1968.

Streisand had also achieved unprecedented popularity as a regular guest on several well known television variety shows including Ed Sullivan, and, had starred in her own TV specials; My Name is Barbra (1965) and Color Me Barbra (1966). In choosing Streisand for his Dolly, producer Ernest Lehman and Fox made what seemed to be a very shrewd business decision – a talent with formidable singing experience who was already a pre-sold commodity to audiences. She was guaranteed box office. Streisand’s Best Actress Oscar for Funny Girl shortly before the commencement of shooting on Dolly began cemented her complicity in bringing this grand show to the big screen.

Depending on the source consulted, there are conflicting viewpoints as to exactly who was responsible for the miserable working relationship between Streisand and costar, Walter Matthau on the set. What is certain - and fact - is that the daily clashes between these two began almost from the moment they arrived to begin work, and, quickly thereafter escalated to a level of professional animosity that became the stuff of legendary backstage squabbling.

Cast as Dolly’s love interest Horace Vandergelder, Matthau was aware that Streisand had a knack for scene stealing. In point of fact, the stage play is a showcase for a powerful and demonstrative female lead. That is precisely the quality Streisand – even in her early years – was well known. Matthau was also acutely concerned that the film was shaping up to be another ‘Streisand’ flick and perhaps felt somewhat apprehensive about playing ‘second fiddle’ to this fresh young newcomer.
As a matter of record, it seems that Streisand began the film with at least a hint of optimism that was readily diffused and later shattered by Matthau’s constant ‘tolerance’ rather than respect for her. Reportedly, the breaking point that began their artistic struggle of wills derived from Matthau bluntly telling Streisand during one of their many strained moments on the set, “you haven’t the talent of a butterfly’s fart!” adding “stop being the whole show”, to which she curtly reminded Matthau that the title of the story was not ‘Hello Walter!’

Confronted by the press in later years with the ‘rumors’ of their behind the scenes bickering, Matthau was perhaps more adroit – and certainly more forgiving - when he replied, “I'd love to work with Barbara Streisand again…in something appropriate. Perhaps Macbeth.”

Gene Kelly, who had had misgivings prior to beginning the project, but then had looked forward to the filming when Fox committed a then epic $25 million to produce it, quickly digressed in his role, from director to peacekeeper between his feuding costars.
He was also not pleased to discover that Streisand had been freely giving interviews to reporters in which she stated that although Kelly was adept at plotting the film he knew absolutely nothing about characterization.

In the sweltering heat, Kelly’s quiet distemper incrementally grew until he, like Matthau, was left wishing he could place both body and thoughts elsewhere and forget that such a thing as ‘Hello Dolly!’ ever existed.


When 20th Century Fox threw its money and hopes behind Hello Dolly! executive logic may have superseded more blind faith than wisdom. For although the Hollywood musical continued to yield such artistically rich and financially successful movies as My Fair Lady (1964) and The Music Man (1962) more often than not, the public’s estimation and response to these elephantine spectacles had lost much of their appeal. What worked for an audience in The Sound of Music (1965) or Mary Poppins (1964) inexplicably failed to catch on in Dr. Doolittle (1967) and Star! (1968).
Generally speaking, the artistic tightrope in translating a Broadway smash to the big screen is best crossed by retaining as much of what made the original stage show successful, while ever so slightly ‘opening up’ the scenery to take advantage of the infinitely greater proscenium and presentation that film production allows.

Hello Dolly! is a film brimming with spectacular turn-of-the-century recreations and breathtaking visual splendor concocted by production designer John DeCuir. Undaunted – and perhaps driven by blind perseverance to outdo their previous flops, the artisans and craftsmen at Fox converted the façades of their front offices into four square blocks of New York City, circa 1900 – complete with elegant courtyards and fountains, ornate gingerbread construction and a functioning elevated train.

The expansive and expensive set serves to showcase the film’s most over-inflated production number; Before The Parade Passes By. It begins with Barbara Streisand contemplating her reintroduction to the world after being a reclusive widow for several years. She sings with throbbing emotion that builds to a crescendo amidst a bevy of willows. From here the camera wildly pivots to an overhead shot of the spectacular New York set, brimming with thousands of extras recreating the 14th Street Parade.

The spectacle of the parade itself (below) is stifling; an ever-changing cornucopia of mere moments, it is a pantheon of marching bands, jugglers, military men, women’s temperance movement participants, firefighters and even the trademark Clydesdales pulling a carriage of Anheuser-Busch lager.

Production designer, John DeCuir, who had previously conceived and supervised the building of lavish palace sets for Fox’s Cleopatra (1963), once again lived up to the nickname that writer/director Joseph L. Mankewicz had bestowed upon him – ‘the master builder.’
Shifting focus from exteriors – both on the Fox backlot and in Yonkers (properly aged and restored to its turn of the century splendor) – DeCuir’s absurdly lavish interior for the Harmonia Gardens (below) restaurant delivers sumptuousness in production design that surpasses all expectations in excellence.
The Harmonia Gardens set is a cavernous, multi-tiered promenade with ornate architecture, elegant finery, curled ostrich feathers and gurgling fountain towers. Elegant beyond all refinement, the set serves as mere backdrop to introduce the film’s title song which Streisand delivers in an elegant gown of gold, cooing to her waiting flock of red-coated waiters.
Jazz great, Louis Armstrong, who had previously made a considerable success of improvising the film’s title track as a hit single, unexpectedly appears as the conductor of the Harmonia orchestra; a moment of sheer musical delight, but one that serves as a reminder that Hello Dolly! is a product of the 1960s - not a vintage time capsule.

Michael Kidd’s intricate choreography further exemplifies the gilded age of stylish artifice; recapturing that bygone forgotten age when the length and cleanliness of one’s glove – as a matter of form – outweighed matters of state as societal interests.


“Every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment to moment on the razor edge of danger and must be fought for.”
– Thornton Wilder
Amidst this intricately realized patina of gingerbread pomp and gilded procession, the tender charm and wit of the period should have been decorous to one of 20th Century-Fox’s most triumphant spectacles. Yet, two great misfires prevented the film from becoming anything more than a costly footnote on the Fox ledgers.
First, Fox was still reeling from the expenditures on Cleopatra (1963) which had nearly bankrupted the studio. Great luck and good timing prevented Fox from entirely disappearing off the map with the debut of The Sound of Music (1965); one of their most glorious screen successes. Unfortunately, executive logic and largess reasoned that more money spent on more musicals would ‘obviously’ mean more profits.
Tragically for all, as a genre the Hollywood musical had run its course. By 1969, Fox had invested heavily much too often in properties like Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Star! (1968); undeniably good-looking song and dance spectacles that echoed a decidedly tinny clank at the box office registers.

Even as the on the set fireworks cooled, the premiere and subsequent theatrical release of Hello Dolly! was an unqualified disaster. Initial ticket sales were abysmal, despite an ambitious marketing campaign from Fox’s publicity department.
As Dolly Levi, Barbra Streisand received some of her harshest – though largely unwarranted - notices from critics. While it is certain that at the age of 26 Streisand was not old enough to embody Thornton Wilder’s perception of the middle aged widow who can fix practically anything, Streisand’s interpretation of Dolly remains one of the most genuine and engaging of her entire filmic career.
For beneath Streisand’s outward bombastic ambition, what had on stage mimicked a somewhat overblown caricature of the nosy dowager, on screen reverts into a genuine woman of sincere flesh and blood. What Streisand lacked in years she made up for with heart. Her magnificent vocals on “Love is Only Love”, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and, of course, the title track throb with a musical intensity none of the Broadway incarnations had.

With so much going for it, and so much riding on the film’s success, Hello Dolly! ought to have hit pay dirt with a bull’s eye. Instead, the film proved to be Fox’s most cataclysmic misfire since Cleopatra. In a last ditch effort to secure renewed interest and box office, Fox campaigned hard for a slew of Academy Award nominations. The film’s failure to win all but two statuettes cemented its reputation as a colossal bomb and relegated its viewing to truncated late night television.
Yet, Hello Dolly! is not like other failures of the decade. The film is remarkably fresh and frank, moving effortlessly through its three hour plus running time and making the most of every set, costume and bit of dialogue to spare as it gushes lush overtures and waves a fond farewell to the Hollywood musical on the way to its’ own final fade out.

The heavy handedness and painfully coy atmosphere that plagues so many 60s musicals like Oliver! (1968) Star! (1968), Doctor Doolittle (1967), Camelot (1967) and Paint Your Wagon (1969) is wholly absent from Dolly’s mélange and to this credit is largely due to Gene Kelly. For all his behind the scenes angst and consternation, Kelly delivers an adroit and jovial procession that never once seems strained or dull. And then, of course, there is Barbra Streisand’s centralized performance; an uncannily unique departure from the expectation, and engaging despite the readily publicized fact that she is entirely too young for the role.

The personal animosities behind the scenes are nowhere to be found in the performances from either Streisand or her costar, Walter Matthau. Rather, there is a quaint sugary sweetness – though never saccharine - patina that permeates the entire production, particularly as Horace’s heart melts under the duress of Dolly’s unapologetic plotting to make him her own. In the end, the branding of Hello Dolly! as a colossal flop was premature; if anything, time has proven the film to be a marvelous artistic achievement.
@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).