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February 26, 2000
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BOOK REVIEW: All but Godzilla

Giants of Japan: The Lives of Japan's Most Influential Men and Women

By Mark Weston, Tokyo: Kodansha, 1999, 377 pages.

Reviewed by Victor Fic

The people in a nation's history are like stars in the night sky: most are invisible; some shoot across brightly, then disappear; a few are supernovas that shine forever. Weston, formerly a journalist with ABC News, trains his eye on the vaulting sky which is Japan's 25 centuries of history and perceptively sees the several dozen leaders, writers, actors, artists, and industrialists of lasting importance. He describes their personal lives and achievements in clearly written mini-essay accompanied by a drawing or photograph.

One of the brightest stars was the warrior Hideyoshi, who unified war-torn Japan in 1592. When he was still warlord Oda Nobunaga's deputy, Hideyoshi demonstrated his loyalty by holding Nobunaga's straw slippers against his chest to warm them up.

The tragic Isoroku Yamamto was a star reluctant to shine. Weston shows how the moderate Yamamoto became the unwilling strategist behind Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, even as he prophesized that America would destroy Japan. As Yamamoto had only eight fingers due to a war injury, geishas who manicured him charged not the full 100 yen, but only eighty.

Kakuei Tanaka was a quasar politically, but a black hole ethically. He was surely the most corrupt leader in Japan's post-war history. As a poor but driven youth, Tanaka would fight off the demons of exhaustion during night classes with a small knife which he poked into his drowsy forehead. As a warm but scheming man, Tanaka amassed an estimated US$110 million. Weston explains how byzantine factional politics led to Tanaka becoming the prime minister in 1972, and how he fell on bribery charges.

The several women featured include Fumiko Hayashi. After World War II, millions of pathetic Japanese women saw their tired eyes and frowning lips in the mirror which was Hayashi's writing. She often described her struggle against poverty in a bitter, cynical world. Hayashi learned her realism from teachers like her abusive boyfriend. He beat her to the floor, stuffed her into a sack and then threw the sack under the floorboards.

Other luminaries Weston includes are baseballer Sadaharu Oh, who surpassed Hank Aron's record for career home runs in 1977. As a coach, Oh sometimes encountered resistance from players who resented his half-Chinese background.

A hilarious anecdote is told about Mitsui, the tycoon who started to build the business empire in the 17th century. People loved his original policy of ''cash only, one price for all'', and Mitsui convinced the public to associate his corporate logo with the policy. He was embarrassed when brothels sported the same logo - they had an identical policy.

Weston claims that his book is an introduction for the non-expert. True, the novice will learn much from most of the essays. However, the detailed chapters on Tanaka, Hideyoshi and other leaders will overwhelm most beginners.

Experts will find that every essay provides a short, but serious review; in addition, they can debate Weston's very thoughtful inclusion of the feisty Shizue Kato, a pioneer in birth control. Weston's bibliography, itself a valuable research tool, indicates that he based his summaries on many core works about each subject.

The book, unfortunately, is weakened by its neglect of intellectuals. Japan's seminal thinkers include Dogen, the thirteenth century Zen philosopher; Motoori Norinaga, the Tokugawa-era scholar; Tenshin Okakura, the Meiji-era pan-Asianist; and Masao Murayama, the post-war social scientist. Why are big brains absent?

One also wonders about the great humanitarians: medical scientists, champions of the oppressed and philanthropists. Do any Japanese names come to mind? Could it be that Japanese history fails to offer evidence of deep Japanese regard for the Other?

Weston invariably depicts his subjects positively. Even when judging the violent warlords, he emphasizes that they secured peace or national unity. His reasoning is usually sound. However, surely he could fault Hideyoshi for cruelly hacking off thousands of Korean noses and ears when he invaded in 1592? Only Tojo fails to garner any accolades. But is he the only major villain one can pillory? How about Yoshio Kodama, the slave trader who exploited Manchuria?

In his preface, former American ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale bemoans that even well-educated Americans know shockingly little about Japan. True. They consider Japan too complex, remote or intimidating to warrant the attention that, say, China gets. Often, the Japan hand returns home eager to teach others, but finds himself communicating with other isolated Japan experts.

One hopes that Weston's book will get more people interested in fascinating Japan. Weston has adroitly applied the old journalistic adage that the story, especially an abstract one like ''history'', comes alive when it is told through the people. To make future editions of this book even more interesting, however, the author should add a biography of the only Japanese who is both world famous and a true giant: Godzilla.

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