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Toshikazu Kase

November 8, 2003

A Japanese Witness to History Adroitly Survived It



SEEN through the prism of old photographs that sit atop the piano in the family living room, Toshikazu Kase is the Zelig of Japanese diplomatic history.

In this seaside town of gardens and temples, the forgiving light of a recent afternoon illuminated faded snapshots from a tumultuous century. There he was with Stalin in Moscow. There he was on the deck of the battleship Missouri for the signing of Japan's surrender to the United States at the end of World War II. He was there, too, raising the first Japanese flag at the United Nations.

Now 100 years old, Mr. Kase was witness to virtually every historical watershed to shape modern Japan, having walked through the 20th century's halls of power half a step behind the famous, and the infamous.

Descended from a long line of scholars, he graduated from Amherst in 1927 and was immediately posted to Japan's embassy in Berlin, where he got to know a fast-rising politician named Adolf Hitler. At his next posting, in London, he counted Winston Churchill among his dinner guests. Back in Tokyo, running the North America desk, he was on duty the weekend of the Pearl Harbor attack, in December 1941.

"A very unfortunate situation prevailed at our embassy in Washington on that gray day," he said in an interview, seated in a leather easy chair, his legs swathed in a blanket, his voice reedy thin but his memory clear. Embassy officers, he recalled 62 years later, "went out drinking" and ignored instructions to decode and deliver a cable from Tokyo.

"The instruction was to deliver the ultimatum one hour in advance of the commencement of the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor," he said. "Whether that would have freed us from the sneak attack curse, well, that is a good question for historians."

Historians generally agree that the ultimatum did not in any case constitute a formal declaration of war.

The recollection is one of many Mr. Kase shared from his centennial perch, memories of a life and a personal history that reflect the same contradictions and compromises that define Japan's own recent past.

BORN near Tokyo one year before the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, he has seen the shifting of national borders and national interests in a region where peace treaties and trade pacts are rarities.

An adroit survivor, he retained his place in Japan's elite for most of the 20th century. Like many Japanese of his time, his sympathy for many of Japan's wartime goals was eventually submerged under a strong pro-Americanism.

Nonetheless, in 1995, he opposed a resolution in Parliament calling on Japan to apologize for World War II atrocities. At the time, Mr. Kase was chairman of a largely conservative group, the National Committee for the 50th Anniversary of the End of World War II.

He and others argued that an apology would dishonor Japan's war dead and would ignore the role Japan played in breaking the grip of American, British, Dutch and French colonialism in Asia.

While this historical judgment remains common in Japan, many people in Asia believe that Japan tried to replace European colonialism with Japanese imperialism.

Mr. Kase traces his conversion to supporting the alliance with the United States to that morning on the hot deck of the Missouri. Like many Japanese, Mr. Kase was moved by the words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

"Here is the victor announcing the verdict to the prostrate enemy," he wrote later in his memoirs of the speech by the supreme commander of the allied powers. "He can impose a humiliating penalty if he so desires. And yet he pleads for freedom, tolerance and justice. For me, who expected the worst humiliation, this was a complete surprise. I was thrilled beyond words, spellbound, thunderstruck."

In his living room here, Mr. Kase was reminded of those words when he was shown a copy of the United States Navy photograph of Japan's surrender ceremony. Holding the cane of then-Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, Mr. Kase stands by attentively, his formal morning coat contrasting with the line of Japanese officers in field uniforms.

"I certainly felt that I and my colleagues were standing at the new start line of rebuilding the nation," he recalled. Losing his grip on American English, he relied on his son, Hideaki, a conservative writer, to translate.

Mr. Kase recalled that he had to borrow a top hat for the ceremony because, six months earlier, his family house in Tokyo had been destroyed in fire raids by American bombers. He moved to this village 30 miles south of the capital, where he lives to this day as a widower. His son and daughter live in Tokyo.

"I was the one who advocated wearing those swallow coats, not because we want to pay respect to American generals, but because we were representing our sovereign," he said, referring to Emperor Hirohito. "I had to borrow a top hat, but it was too small. It didn't matter because I had to hold it. There was a lot of wind on the deck."

EVEN today, he glimpses history beyond the daily headlines — dismissing talk of Japan's decline, marveling over Russia's fall as a player in the Pacific and seeing the greatest threat to Japan today coming from China's resurgence as a military power.

"Throughout my life, from the Russo-Japanese War to the cold war, Russia was the major threat in this area," said Mr. Kase, whose portrait with Stalin dates from his work preparing the 1941 nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. "Now Russia is on the decline demographically, and in science and technology."

Many have said the same of Japan. Even so, Mr. Kase said, Americans make a mistake when they write off Japan as a waning power. Japan's dynamism, he insisted, is not determined by its demographics. "Japan today may appear to be on the decline," he said. "But, once faced with great danger to our existence, the Japanese managed to find the strength to revive through drastic reinvention. We may be approaching the period now."

For the moment, however, the nation looks more and more like Mr. Kase himself. In the last 20 years, the number of Japan's centenarians has doubled every five years, hitting 20,560, the government says.

Mr. Kase said he was pleased to be among the 3,159 men in Japan who are more than 100 years old. But looking to society at large, he predicted that when faced with an external challenge, young Japanese people would respond by renewing the population.

It is judgment rendered from a long view. Indeed, he has already seen the rise and fall in the Pacific of major empires: British, Japanese and Soviet. Watching the rise of American power today, he chided Americans for not enjoying themselves enough. "American society is too tense," he said. "It has no cultural relaxation, like Victorian England."

The key to long life, he said: "Don't work too hard."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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