Democracy with a Gun, by Fumio Matsuo
Book review by Tadashi Ito, China bureau chief of the Sankei Shimbun

Foresight (Page 55) (Full)April 2004

Digging into the roots of American democracy

       I hear that the English translation of Inazo Nitobe's book, Bushido, is selling. It must be the influence of the hit American movie, The Last Samurai, from which Ken Watanabe was nominated for an Academy Award. It is a film that depicts the high spirits of the samurai who fought vainly against modern times, even though they knew they would lose and disappear. But on seeing the movie again a month later, I gained a different impression. I think it was because I had read the book, Democracy with a Gun (published by Shogakukan), in the meantime.


The book in question is a painstaking work that analyzes from various angles the meaning of the "gun" in a state that was created to embody the ideals of democracy. Since the movie came out after the book was published, there naturally is no mention of it in the book. But as we can see recently in Iraq, American traditions involve not just the pursuit of ideals but also the protecting and maintaining of security and national interests by armed force. One cannot help but notice from the Last Samurai that the gun symbolizes America, as this book teaches us.

I had the chance to work together with Fumio Matsuo when we were both at Kyodo News. But I learned for the first time from this book that the starting point of his insatiable interest in America was his experiencing the random bombing of Japanese cities by B-29s in World War II.

The Last Samurai is set at the beginning of the Meiji Period, with renegades commanded by Ken Watanabe being wiped out by Imperial forces armed with the latest weaponry purchased from America. The opening scene in the movie shows arms merchants, who still make their way around to other countries even today. The military officer played by Tom Cruise, who later becomes enamored with Bushido or the Way of the Samurai, comes to Japan to sell weapons to the Imperial army. More than 60 years after this time, America fought a war with Japan and even though victory was assured, it dropped atom bombs on it and slaughtered large number of civilians. This book is the summation by Mr. Matsuo, who has spent 40 years dealing with America, of his quest to find out whether such an America can be reconciled with the democratic ideals it holds.


The most important correlation between this book and the movie is the doubt raised about the positive attitude toward the indiscriminate use of armed force. In the movie, the Imperial force and the renegades fought in the mountains where non-combatants would not be hit by their fire. In addition, the main character is motivated to join the renegades, who fight with swords against modern firearms, because of his anguish over his participation in the slaughter of American Indians. This motif has appeared in numerous Hollywood films since the Vietnam War, but in the real world, America believes it has a clear mandate to make its system and values absolute, and is moving in the direction steadily of unilateralism, under which it will not hesitate to use armed force in violation of the rules and order of the international community.


Why is this?  Mr. Matsuo uses repeatedly the keyword, "DNA of using armed force," and he even goes back to the Mayflower's arrival in Plymouth to analyze the origin of the country called America. When he was twelve years old, he was evacuated with other children to Fukui, encountering the experience of indiscriminate bombing by the U.S. military.  This tactic of blanket bombing Japan by General Lemay, the commander, Matsuo writes, "was probably the source of the Bush Doctrine that led to a preemptive strike on Iraq."

In February 1945, when victory was certain in the European theater, U.S. and British forces carried out random bombing of Dresden in the eastern portion of Germany, producing 35,000 victims. In 1995, 50 years after that act, a memorial Mass was carried out on the sight with German leaders and U.S. and British military leaders attending. An historical conciliation took place, but there has never been a formal apology for the fire bombings of Tokyo and other places across Japan, as well as the atomic bombings. The Japanese government in 1964 even presented General Lemay with a high decoration. Mr. Matsuo sees this gap as a contributing factor to the discrimination and exclusionary treatment of native Americans and Blacks. He feels impatient with Japan for not pursuing America on carrying out the same conciliation as it did over the Dresden bombing.

This book can be regarded as beautifully bringing out the dynamism of American democracy and the principles it stands on, based on the rich experience and knowledge of the author himself. It is a tour de force of the author, who has returned to journalism at the age of 70, to transmit his warm memories through this book.

© Fumio Matsuo 2012