Despite being a WW II baby (May 23 1944) and thus brought up in a period when both Germany and Japan were not thought of with much affection, I have long been intrigued by Japan.
It was strange, really, because most of the books I read when I was growing up were ferociously anti-Japanese, I did not know any Japanese, and most of the movies I saw were equally unforgiving.
Beyond that, a much admired uncle, Joe Lentaigne, had fought the Japanese in WW II and had endured terrible privation while fighting with Orde Wingate’s Chindits. After Wingate had been killed, General ‘Fighting Joe’ Lentaigne had gone on to command the Chindits, and, as it happens, Wingate’s son, also called Orde, had been in my class at school.
The Chindits, by the way, were special forces who fought behind enemy lines and were supplied from the air. It was a brilliant idea which ran ahead of the capabilities of the air forces of the time. The men achieved some military successes, but suffered horribly.
My anti-Japanese influences did not end there. When I was 19 – which would make it 1963 – I once had the privilege of spending an evening with the famous Australian author Russell Braddon, whose book, THE NAKED ISLAND, was as powerful an indictment of Japanese wartime cruelty as you are likely to read. Russell had experienced this first hand.
He had been a prisoner of the Japanese for four years, from 1942-45, in the notorious Changi prison in Singapore.
Russell was a delightful man (he died in 1995), and a talented writer, but suffice to say that, at that time, he still was not minded to forgive the Japanese. He had seen numerous friends die quite unnecessarily from malnutrition and disease in Changi, and he had also witnessed, and been the victim of, much brutality.
He had also witnessed a number of executions by decapitation. He was of the opinion that Japanese culture was fundamentally flawed and, in a word, hated them.
In my opinion, he had earned the right, but though I thought about his words a great deal – I was much impressed by him – my interest in Japan did not waver.
A further negative regarding Japan was that, in those days, anything cheaply, and frequently badly, manufactured, seemed to come from either Japan or Hong Kong.
Times have certainly changed.
So where did my interest in, and respect for, Japan come from? I don’t really know, but I suspect I read a couple of contrarian books – I have been reading 2-4 books a week for most of my life, and I know I was profoundly impressed by various features I read (and looked at) in the National Geographic. Their standard of photography has always been commendable.
My conclusion went roughly along these lines: Here is a culture which is certainly different, but which makes a great deal of sense within its own parameters, and which is impressively focused on the excellent, and the beautiful. As to its behavior in China, Korea and during WW II, one has to appreciate that Japan was still in the middle ages less than three generations earlier, and cultural confusion under such circumstances was scarcely surprising.
Eventually, in the Nineties, I made it to Japan to do research for my second book, RULES OF THE HUNT. It was a truly marvelous trip which pretty much confirmed my conclusions. I have always wanted to go back, but somehow that has never been possible. I regret it deeply. It’s a truly fascinating country, and culture. And I made some good friends there.
I was reminded of Japan when I watched THE LAST SAMURAI recently. It’s a stunningly beautiful movie starring Tom Cruise and directed by Edward Zwick which somehow was not as well received as it might have been.
I enjoy it more every time I see it. It brings back many, many, marvelous memories.
As for the rest, it will be in my memoirs.
But, by the way, the original title for my first book, GAMES OF THE HANGMAN, was to have been: THE IRISH SAMURAI. I always saw my protagonist, Hugo Fitzduane, that way (albeit without a master) and still do.