Let sleeping gods lie

By David Pilling

Financial Times

Published: February 20 2005

The first inkling Yuko Tojo had of what really happened to her grandfather was when she was in fifth grade at school. Gripping her small white hands around her neck, the 65-year-old re-enacts the classroom scene of more than half a century ago when a boy stood on a chair before leaping to the ground with the cry: “Tojo hanged.”

The young girl looked up the strange word, kohshukei, in the dictionary and found a description next to the picture of a hooded man with a rope around his neck. “Then I knew the meaning,” she nods, releasing her grip to continue the dissection of her lamb fillet.

”Until then I had always believed he had died on the battleground,” she says, recalling her childhood fantasy about her grandfather, Japan’s prime minister in the second world war, who had in fact been executed for crimes against humanity. “My mother had always told me he had fought vigorously for his country and died.”

Nearly 60 years after the armies he marshalled perished on the battlefield or fled back to their devastated homeland, Hideki Tojo’s ghost is still stalking Asia. He is the most famous of 14 Class A war criminals enshrined - along with another 2.5 million war dead - at the Yasukuni shrine, a quiet sanctuary in central Tokyo that has become a rallying point for the Japanese right.

Since Junichiro Koizumi became prime minister four years ago, he has made a point of visiting the shrine each year, provoking outrage in China, which likens the gesture to bowing at the tomb of Adolf Hitler.

Yasukuni has become a dangerous flashpoint in Japan-China relations, already poisoned by history and suffering anew as the two Asian giants jostle for influence. Some Japanese politicians, including former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, want to defuse the situation. They have urged the families of Class A war criminals to disenshrine their relatives’ souls from Yasukuni. (There are no bodies buried there.) In that way, the prime minister could honour Japan’s fallen soldiers without appearing to condone those who sent them on their suicidal mission.

Yuko Tojo, stalwart defender of her grandfather’s reputation, has chosen the Crown, a French restaurant overlooking the Imperial Palace, to discuss Tojo’s legacy. A tiny, straight-backed figure, dressed in a green woollen suit with large, gold-trimmed buttons, she arrives with bullet-train punctuality clutching a miniature trunk in eggshell blue. Prim and with an old world politeness, she reminds me of Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s straight-laced detective.

Almost as soon as she sits down, she starts disembowelling her little trunk, pulling out her grandfather’s memorabilia, including 161 postcards that Tojo sent to her father, then a young boy, from Europe. Next comes a ream of grainy photographs and a battered notebook, in which Tojo kept a neatly handwritten diary of his parental experiences.

”There is one entry describing how my grandfather would hide behind a chest and tie a piece of string to a candy bar,” she says as I thumb through the yellowing pages. “When the baby tried to grab it, he would pull it away.”

I decide to order while there is still room on the table. She leaves the choice to me, smiling benevolently as I scour the menu. “Just something simple. Not so expensive. The view is nourishing enough,” she says, drinking in the imperial gardens, the verdant vacuum at the centre of Tokyo.

My eyes alight on Le Menu Affaire, a set lunch that requires only one decision. She opts for the wrapped fillet of lamb, I for the grilled sea bream. As the waiter brings our amuse bouche, a sliver of apple atop a quivering oyster, I ask if she can remember her grandfather. “Just fragments,” she says, her eyes wrinkling kindly. “I was six when the war ended.”

After Japan’s surrender, Tojo was imprisoned, awaiting trial. “I was a girl so I wasn’t brought so often, but my brother, who is two years older, remembers sticking his hands through the bars and touching my grandfather’s hand.”

Family anecdotes form the basis of her memoirs, later turned into a box-office hit called Pride, which portrayed Tojo as a patriot and the tribunal that executed him as a kangaroo court. A scene in the film shows prosecutors turning off the microphone as defence lawyers argue that the perpetrators of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should also be brought to justice. “It wasn’t a fair trial. It was the victors judging the defeated. To deem Hideki Tojo a villain would mean the war was bad and that all the soldiers who fought in the war were bad,” she says, sipping the fluffy haricot bean soup through pursed lips. “I want to review the war and the actions of the soldiers so that their deaths are not meaningless.”

But isn’t the point that their deaths were meaningless, I say. Tojo’s campaign was barbaric and led to the near-annihilation of Japan. “It’s true that precious lives were lost and that Japan lost the war. But they fought desperately hard and stood proud,” she says, her smile fading slightly. “As a result Japan is enjoying peace and an affluent life. I would be sorry to say they died in vain.”

We take to studying our main course intensely, before I venture to ask how exactly Japan’s aggressive expansionism, admittedly learned at the knee of the Great European Powers, brought about peace. “I think from the way you use the word ‘aggression’, your stance is totally different from mine,” she says after a silence broken by the sound of her knife clinking against the plate. “You are looking at this from the standpoint that Japan was an invader. I say it was a defensive war. Japan did not have resources.”

After a discussion of the Nanking massacre, accounts of which she refutes as Chinese fabrication, and my suggestion that being short of resources does not justify grabbing them, she says: “I wish you had a deeper understanding of what happened. Please make it clear in your article that we have very different standpoints.”

I switch to what suddenly seems like the less controversial subject of Yasukuni. “China has no business in this internal affair,” she pronounces, revealing her dislike for that country with a sideswipe at its plumbing arrangements. “The Americans and the British haven’t complained. It is only China who is whipping the souls of the dead.”

Japanese politicians too should know better than to talk of moving the souls. “Once a soul is enshrined, you can’t tear them into bits and take them from the shrine,” she says. “Once they are enshrined, whether they are generals or rank-and-file soldiers, they all become equal. They are all gods.”

As petits fours are brought to our table, she dips back into her trunk. Like a conjurer, she pulls out a succession of astonishing items: a little brown box that Tojo fashioned in prison while awaiting execution, pencil stubs he used to record his last thoughts, and even the ash from his final cigarette.

At one point she puts a little packet on the white tablecloth a few inches from a strawberry parfait I have been eyeing. She opens it to reveal a small clump of her grandfather’s hair as well as his nail clippings - a parting gift he had prepared for his family before a bungled suicide attempt.

”He told his lawyer that he was living in shame because he failed to commit suicide,” she says. “His whole purpose of continuing to live was to avoid the prosecution of the emperor,” she adds, referring to his testimony - disputed by many historians - that the emperor was largely ignorant of the details of Japan’s disastrous war drive.

There’s an argument, I say, with a nervous back-glance at the imperial palace, that it would have been better if the emperor had been prosecuted. That way Japan might have made a cleaner break with its past. It seems ironic that Tojo, by being enshrined at Yasukuni, became a Shinto god, while Emperor Hirohito, as the price of US exoneration, gave up his divine status to become a mortal monarch.

”The emperor had wished for peace and had wanted to avoid war,” she replies, echoing the testimony her grandfather took to the grave.

All of Tojo’s relics are now safely back in their case. But, through her, his voice still ripples through the air.