Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tokyo Record

My father recently gave me an old copy of "Tokyo Record." The 400 page memoir chronicled the dispatches sent from Tokyo by Otto Tolischus. Tolischus was the Tokyo correspondent for the New York Times and the Times of London beginning in January 1941.

My father raved about the book but I found it quite a slog. Tolischus had been expelled from Germany in 1940 for his reporting. When he arrived in Tokyo (Germany's ally and similar totalitarian state) in January 1941, he embarked on a style of reportage that probably saved his life. Rather than develop confidential sources and back channel communications, Tolischus culled his reports from various official sources such as government press releases, reports and speeches as well news articles and editorials from Japanese newspapers (which were controlled by government agencies). By comparing these different sources, Tolischus was able to coax out nuanced report about the state of affairs in Japan.

Rather than a monolithic government marching in lockstep, Tolischus showed how there were disparate elements among Japanese leaders regarding national policy and in particular, the view towards the United States. This was not news to me. Japan had three cabinet changes or governments in 1941 and there were numerous assassination attempts on political leaders. However, everything is now viewed through the prism of the inevitability of December 7.

Tolischus published "Tokyo Record" in 1943 and after he had been tortured by the Japanese so I will forgive his outmoded and jingoistic prose. The premise and his story are amazing but somewhat lost upon me by page after page of direct quotations of Japanese governmental proclamations in stilted English. The story truly becomes interesting on December 8 when Tolischus is arrested for revealing state secrets in his news dispatches. I found it striking that some of the torture techniques the Japanese police used on him were extended periods in "stress positions" and solitary confinement in a cold cell. It was sobering to see the parallels between Tokyo 1941 and Guantanamo Bay 2005 drawn by someone other than a rabid anti-war activist.

One of Tolischus' main defense arguments was that he only quoted from public sources and submitted everything to a government censor ergo everything he published was public record and de facto not a state secret. Despite these cogent arguments, Tolischus was sentenced to 18 months in prison but the sentence was suspended during a three year probationary period. Soon after sentencing, Tolischus was allowed to leave Japan as part of a prisoner exchange with the US.

It wasn't until Tolischus described in detail his 6 months in captivity that I found the book worthwhile. Regardless, Tolischus threw out some choice bon mots along the way. I chuckled at these three in particular.

"After seeing it [the Tokyo Red Light District], I realized that the Japanese like their loves cold and businesslike; and I understood why the rape of girls in their early teens was a favorite topic of Japanese literati."

"That was the first Japanese I had met who could see himself as others saw him. I thought it must be his French studies that gave him [one of his interrogators] this rare objectivity."

"When she [his interpreter] saw me look around, she smiled and shook hands with herself in congratulation. I always did feel that the Japanese women were a different race from the men."

No comments: