Session 10: Political Autobiographies and Memoirs

Session 10: Political Autobiographies and Memoirs

Session 10: Political Autobiographies and Memoirs

The Japanese Political Class

One of the most notable publishing phenomena in the postwar Western world has been the rapid appearance of huge numbers of political memoirs and autobiographies almost as soon as the politician has left office. The taste of the Japanese reading public for such combinations of gossip and insight is nothing like as strong as in Europe and North America. Perhaps this is because the Japanese reading public is more discriminating, perhaps because until very recently leading Japanese politicians tended to be very similar products of a system that valued the ability to work the party machine as the prerequisite for success. Leading Japanese politicians tend to be somewhat colourless (unless grey counts as a colour), middle aged males and unwilling to pass on the secrets of their success for fear of prosecution for bribery and corruption! Few predecessors of the current Prime Minister, Koishi, have had any real rapport with the wider public or have bothered to make any sort of popular appeal. Among those who have made the effort, Kakuei Tanaka, Shigeru Yoshida and the current Prime Minister Koishi stand out. The first is famous for holding the reins of power within the LDP for many years and (more so) for involvement in major corruption scandals in the 1980s. The second, perhaps the second most famous Japanese Prime Minister since the Second World War, helped create the postwar Japanese economic and political systems and deserves to be better known. The current Prime Minister may become the most celebrated Japanese politician of the century if his government can extract Japan from its fairly dire current mess. More typical of postwar Japanese politicians has been Hayato Ikeda, a good representative of the politician-bureaucrat common in recent Japanese political history. Ikeda had been the leading bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance before joining the LDP and took Japan through the political storm surrounding the security ties with the USA to the famous income-doubling plan and Japan’s economic miracle. Although his place in twentieth century Japanese history is assured, he was a less than imposing political figure (having been described as the ‘transistor radio salesman’ by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose own claim to fame is more marginal than that of Ikeda).

Perhaps as a result, the most prominent ‘political’ memoirs tend to come from those on the fringes of the political system. Perhaps the most famous of these was Yukio Mishima, a ferociously traditionalist author of fiction. His most famous work in this country is probably Spring Snow, the first of a four-part novel, The Sea of Fertility. His novels were political statements, as indeed was his death, committing seppuku (ritual suicide) in the cause of reviving militarism and the Emperor system. There are numerous web-sites for the largely western audience for details of Mishima’s life. Try the following for size: also among this group are Akio Morita, the founder of SONY, and Japan’s most famous postwar businessman, and Shintaro Ishihara, another who has made the transition from the world of the arts (a novelist) into politics (one-time LDP diet member and current Mayor of Tokyo). These characters are in many ways larger than life, especially when compared with the rather dull professional political class, but that makes their contributions especially difficult to rate. Are they really politicians? Are they looking to change/relate policy or have they other goals?

How to handle Autobiography and Memoir

Perhaps the best starting point for an appreciation of the usefulness of autobiography and memoir is to ask whether you expect politicians (Japanese or European) to be able to write halfway decent history. The main aim is surely to tell the story of the subjects own life as he (almost invariably he in the case of Japanese political memoir) saw it and where possible to make a claim for the author’s place in history. Clearly no-one should expect the politician to be as scrupulous in checking empirical material or in justifying opinion as would a professional historian, and you may even expect the reverse, that politicians would not be above manipulating the historical record in the wider aim of self-aggrandisement. This is not to rule out all political memoir as a source material for historians. There are some basic principles that can be applied (to politicians in any country). To what extent have these memoirs been constructed from diaries that were completed at a very timely point in the historical record. Does the subject have a diary that was completed daily? Weekly? Monthly? Or when free time was available? In general, try to find out about the source material from which autobiography and memoir is written and apply some of the criteria that we discussed in the early session on the usefulness of diaries. Be especially critical of those memoirists and autobiographers who have brought in professional authors (often journalists) to write the text. This is almost certainly a guarantee that the material is unreliable. Where possible, use only those that have been written by the subject his/herself.

It is also possible that the author of an autobiography has kept or been granted privileged access to the documentary source materials from his/her period in office. In the USA, the President typically keeps the papers relating to his term in office. In the UK, there is a well-run system of keeping and opening public records of all departments, including those of the Prime Minister’s Office and, crucially, of granting access to any PM who wishes to write his or her memoirs. In Japan the system is rather more complicated. The system of public keeping and control of the documentary sources for each government is not systematic or unified. Departments tend to keep their own papers and on occasion get sympathetic academics and/or publishers to produce an edition for public consumption. It is likely, therefore, that many Japanese politicians can count on their memoirs being the only source available for specific policy episodes (though there are many in Japan who recognise the rather restrictive nature of their system and are pushing for something similar to the British system of handling public records).

The rather haphazard state of official documentary sources on Japanese politics and government both makes memoir potentially more important and more difficult to use. In many cases, memoirs are likely to be the sole source material available for particular episodes, and the historian might therefore be forced to use the source. But how reliable is it? Of course, you should pay attention to the 20/20 hindsight of politicians and be especially suspicious of statements like: ‘I thought at the time that ...’ or ‘I remember saying to … that …’. It is almost certain that the author is trying to justify him/herself, put the record ‘straight’ (probably to suppress or shade some not-very-straight activities in the past). No politician is on oath when writing memoir and autobiography. Bear in mind, also, that political events can unfold rapidly and confusingly. For the very best reasons, politicians’ efforts to make sense of episodes at such moments may create difficulties for the historian of a later generation.

But it would be a very short-sighted historian who refused to look at Japanese memoir. Memoir and autobiography are evidence from the past, evidence from contemporaries. They (sometimes) have life and colour, the feel of the times, the signature of men and women who helped to shape events. They can inform and explain, or at least give side-lights, in a way that even official records, when they become available, cannot. Even the poorest memoirs of the least significant person may have some precious grain of fact or insight. The same principles apply as with other source materials on Japan. The usual safeguards need to be rigorously applied; memoir must be verified, where possible confirmed in other sources, and at least tested against the historian’s knowledge of the period and of the personality. Thus if Tanaka recorded his contributions to charity and a roster of his good works, the historian is entitled to be somewhat sceptical of the evidence.

Polemics and Tracts

If the Yoshida memoirs are very obviously political autobiography, to what genre does the volume by Ishihara belong, and how should it be treated? It might be included under a category ‘Contemporary Writing’ or ‘Current Affairs’. It might be especially useful to consider the impact of such by starting with obvious questions: when was it written? For whom? Why? Note that the Japanese have one great advantage in producing works of this type. The language barrier can be particularly difficult. Works written in the Japanese language have limited international mobility. Even though many foreigners now live in Japan, it remains a rather closed homogeneous society. All major countries have a diplomatic presence in Japan and one of the main tasks of foreign embassies is to report to their national governments on trends within the country. But there has been a suspicion among postwar Japanese that, despite these potential leakages, they are safe to circulate tracts in Japanese on potentially very controversial issues.

The Ishihara volume was one such. Its original form was a tract written in Japanese by Ishihara and Akio Morita, founder of SONY, and printed in Japanese for a Japanese audience. However, it was noted by Americans, who translated it and released it to the US press as a tract from the centre right of Japanese politics. The furore was such that Morita insisted that his contributions were removed from any authorised published version, for fear of damaging the image of the company that he had created. There was huge controversy in the USA over the (alleged) contents of the Ishihara book even before it was available in translation. The section that press ‘analysts’ most frequently noted was the claim that US defence was dependent on Japanese microchips, but the Japanese saw nothing permanent in this relationship – it was conceivable that the Japanese should supply the (then) Soviet Union with identical or better technology.

There are a couple of obvious questions to ask of this sort of literature. The first is whether the press reporting is an accurate assessment of the author’s position? Given that the western historian is inevitably dealing with a translation (that may vary in quality), does it appear likely that the language used matched the press’s assessment of it? The second is whether the polemicist was speaking only for him/herself, or whether he/she represents some force in formal or informal politics in Japan. Does the tract look as if it was aimed at the Japanese or the American establishment? What aspects of Japanese political culture found expression in the statement? Are/were these aspects permanent/established features or the reflection of a specific time and place? From the material given above, it is important to use your best judgement on the usefulness of the translation of the tract. Does the reputation of the publisher or anything in the preface/foreword/introduction give any information on the translator or the translation process so that you can judge its status and accuracy? If you have not overriding concerns about the quality of the translation, what do you make of the language used? Is it confrontational and polemical, or more measured and controlled? Has the author added/subtracted from the original to meet the demands of an English language audience? Are there differences between the original and subsequent additions?

If you can probe these questions and apply the same vigorous tests mentioned in the last paragraph of the section on memoir and autobiography, you will have some yardsticks by which to use this sort of ‘political’ material for historical purposes.