Recollecting Previous Madnesses

I remember being in Japan in the winter of 1945–46 and driving around Tokyo and Yokohama in a jeep I had inherited from the previous C.O. of the LSM (Landing Ship Medium) I was myself now skipper of, as of sometime in January 1946, a few months after the solemn surrender tableau on the deck of the battlewagon U.S.S. Missouri.

When I reported on board late in December 1945, with my printed orders from SecNav in Washington, it was just as an additional officer for the ship. The C.O. and executive officer were notably cool to me, which I thought odd, since that was not the way of things in the amphibious fleet, where we all tended to be instant-friendly compatriots in the general untidy mess landing craft and landing ships were thought to be – certainly thought to be by the regular Navy.

Conversation over our first meal together in the wardroom went in the direction of exploring backgrounds – home, states, colleges (amphib officers were almost all recent college graduates), and time in the Navy. At some point, mid entrée, I gave my date of commissioning. But said the Captain, "That means you've been an Ensign [equivalent to a 2nd lieutenant] long over a year. How come you're not a Lt. j.g. [equivalent to a full lieutenant]?"

"Oh, but I am," say I. "I just haven't been anywhere where I could buy the Lt. j.g. bars." (All we had to show rank were little bars on cap and collar tabs. An Ensign's were brass, a Lt. j.g.'s were silver.)

With that the C.O. and the Exec both stood up and said, "You're our replacement. Wonderful. We wondered what the hell the Navy was doing sending us another Ensign." Many broad smiles and much warm feeling now in evidence.

And with that they began packing, and were gone in less than a day. The task force commander, to whom I appealed this thing to see if it was kosher, assured me it was and that I didn't have to take the assignment, but that he strongly recommended I did. After all, the war was over, senior people were going home, and certainly the Navy needed experienced people to captain these ships, and since as a junior I was having to stay out anyway, why not take on the command.

A persuasive fellow. I had great respect for high rank in those days. So I got to stay on and see a bit of Japan and then Korea and China, before decommissioning the ship in Shanghai and turning it over to the Chinese Merchant Marine to use on the Yangtze.

All the foregoing is a sort of stage-set for what I really want to talk about, which is something I remember from the four or five months I was in Japan. Even before I got there, the Japanese had stopped being the yellow-fanged torturers and murderers of war propaganda and become genuinely mild and cultivated citizens of an extraordinary land. It didnt take me long to realize that hostilities were really over, and you could drive, unarmed, all over that part of big-city Japan, all alone in a Jeep, and need have no fear.

I had a cracked radiator in the Jeep, so it frequently needed mizu (or however the Japanese for water is, spelt in romaji, the word I remember, perhaps inaccurately, as meaning spelled out phonetically in the Western alphabet.). I took to stopping at fire stations, where I was always greeted with smiles, and particular enthusiasm when I offered cigarettes in exchange for my water.

I remember a discussion with an Army officer, a chap who had command of a U.S. Army ship (there were such odd things) in Tokyo Bay about life in Japan as he was finding it. He had a polyglot, pick-up crew, some Germans, some Japanese, some American soldiers, and knew quite a bit of Japanese himself. He told me about the Japanese Denkai (my phonetic spelling). It was apparently a kind of thought police that had functioned during the war. The job of the Denkai was to find out if you were thinking bad political thoughts, and presumably put a stop to it.

I think none of us supposed the Japanese would be too gentle about cleaning up bad thoughts, but we thought the whole idea was hilarious. I forget whether it was then or later that I realized the curious fact that the German verb to think is denken, and I wondered if perhaps the Denkai was a Japanese bow to their wartime allies.

But as I say we thought it was typical totalitarian stupidity: you were going to assess what a man was thinking and then put the lash to him over it? How otiose can things get?

Our easy America superiority! How could we have guessed that Japan was so far ahead of us, it would take us more than a half century to get our own Denkai going. Our version of it is trolling for "hate speech," or estimating with the nicest discrimination whether a crime, a foul crime, is somehow all the fouler because the perpetrator was in a frenzy of hate (along ethnic or racial or religious lines) while committing it.

You might have thought it would be enough to forbid foul crime, but it appears now to be vastly worse to do foul crime with an evil racist, homophobic, or ethnic prejudice in full afflatus. That is really foul. Presumably a foul crime, to the extent that it is without that afflatus, is less foul, less reprehensible, perhaps even benign, and quite easy to overlook. There is a bit of Alice in Wonderland in all this.

These reflections were brought on by a Washington Post report that a “well-known performer in District drag shows who lived and dressed as a woman” was allegedly killed by a man who had paid for sex under the impression that he was dealing with a woman. Upon learning that the prostitute was really a man, the customer returned and allegedly shot the prostitute."

The Post quoted a spokesperson for the D.C. police gay and lesbian unit as saying the killing was being classified as a “hate/bias motivated” crime. How does that make it worse?

Well, I don't have much more to say about this. But I do have to laugh at the thought of us world-traveling young smarties sitting there in 1945 in judgment on the Japanese for being so stupid as to think you could punish thought. Boy, did we have a thing or two to learn.

August 22, 2003