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Ian Buruma

Why are so many educated young men willing to die to kill Americans? Perhaps the answer lies in Japan

Special report: terrorism crisis
Special report: Japan

Tuesday September 25, 2001
The Guardian

Let's switch the subject for a moment. The history of modern Japan. I have been trying to concentrate on this for a book, but like others have found it hard to tear myself away from the news. In fact, modern Japan is rather interesting in the light of current events. For one question needs to be explained: what made so many highly educated young men in 1944 want to kill themselves for their emperor, just to drag as many Americans as possible down with them? Peer pressure? Some coercion, perhaps, even though they were volunteers? Perverted nationalism? Something pathological in Japanese culture? The Way of the Samurai, and all that?

Self-sacrifice is one thing. Some soldiers are asked to do this in all wars. But the orgy of self-destruction, the idea of patriotic suicide as an aesthetic ideal (the kamikaze pilots were called "cherry blossoms", the Japanese ideal of evanescent beauty) - that is out of the ordinary. Of course, most young men like to be admired, and not a few are susceptible to the idea of a romantic death. Many Japanese may have believed the propaganda about fighting a "holy war", and were consoled by the promise that their souls would be honoured for eternity. But where did this modern death cult come from? How did it begin?

Sacrificial death is an ancient, and perhaps universal form of romance. But I would argue that the basis for the modern kamikaze spirit was laid roughly around the time the first Americans arrived in Japan, to open the country for trade. They arrived in 1853 on so-called black ships, equipped with guns that were bigger and more powerful than anything the Japanese had seen.

What do people do when they are confronted by a civilisation as materially superior as the 19th-century west? They can try to learn as much from the west as possible, in order to become a quasi-western power themselves. The Japanese did this. In his way, the Shah of Iran tried to do it too. But westernisation from above is always selective. Westernising autocrats don't want their subjects to be affected by such subversive notions as democracy or freedom of speech. These have to be resisted as noxious alien poison. In Japan, the cult of the Emperor, the samurai spirit and the spiritual purity of Japaneseness were promoted as antidotes to western influences, which the elite itself had helped to unleash. At the same time, disaffected intellectuals, frustrated by lack of freedom and humiliated by marginality in a western-dominated world, will turn their fantasies of spiritual purity against the "corrupt" westernised elite. The combination of political oppression and this type of rebellion is lethal. It brought the Iranian mullahs to power. It appears to have motivated Osama bin Laden.

In 1930s Japan, after the economic crash and the failure of democracy, the spiritual antidote became a national pathology. Young army officers assassinated government ministers and business leaders for ignoring "the imperial will". Dying for the emperor became the highest ideal. Britain and America became symbols of hate. Liberal democracy and capitalism had to be destroyed, inside and outside the country. General Tojo, one of Japan's wartime leaders, spoke about "overcoming western civilisation". The death cult began to take hold.

It took a bloody war to bring the Japanese to their senses. And for most Japanese, the moment of their defeat, even after their cities had been reduced to rubble, was also a moment of liberation.

I was thinking about this when I read in yesterday's paper about the Afghan in Peshawar who said: "The Americans love Pepsi Cola, but we love death." That is more or less what the Japanese generals thought when they went to war with the US. Tojo believed that the Americans were too soft and decadent to fight back. It is what all fanatics think about liberal democracies - that political freedom means moral collapse. To point out the flaws in our democratic systems is not "disloyal", as some are saying, but it misses the point of the present crisis, for it doesn't help us stop the fanatics.

There are other lessons to be learned from the Japanese past. A country does not have to be poor to produce pathological Occidentophobia. A country does not have to be Islamic either, or even located anywhere east of Suez. One of my favourite books about the roots of German thinking in the 1930s, of blood and soil theories, of cultish celebrations of racial purity and the German soul, was written by a Hungarian named Aurel Kolnai, and published in London in 1938. It is entitled War Against the West.

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Terrorism crisis
Attack on America

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