In the post below I expounded on the Law of Unintended Consequences, using an episode of my service with the U.S. Army as an example. The Law is a universal constant, a great crocodile which bites in all directions and nips all whose attentions wander.
It says that any action – done with the best (or worst) of intentions and the cleverest of planning – is liable to backfire in ways that cannot be foreseen and are rarely appreciated.
The Law flexed its jaws again as April waned in 1952, and communists around the world prepared to celebrate May Day, choicest of their annual religious observances. I was laboring away as a corporal at Yokohama Engineer Depot in Japan, idly ignorant of the storm which was about to break around me.
To set the stage: Japan, seven years after its catastrophic defeat in World War II, still wallowed in a maelstrom of moral and political confusion. Shinto had been Japan’s state religion, and with the collapse of the state many Japanese had become — there’s no better word — atheists. They latched frantically on to the nearest most appealing secular political dogma, democracy, socialism, autocracy or even communism. Some of the older geezers even hoped for a return to days of the Samurai. Although we were tutoring them in representative government, there was no assurance our pupils would keep the faith once we teachers took our expected sabbatical. The only common theme in all Japanese politics was the notion that everyone was thoroughly sick of war and wanted to study it no more. The most popular brand of cigarettes in the Land of the Rising Sun was one named “Peace,” sporting a white dove on its label.
Emperor regains the common touch
Of nervous concern to us was the upsurge of communist dictators, Mao Tse Tung in China and Kim Il Sung in Korea, both seemingly presages of Asia’s future. Their exploits attracted a new generation of Japanese intellectuals, eager to break with their nation’s past and thrust out into a new “scientifically designed” and state-run world.
As May Day 1952 dawned, the Japanese Communist Party prepared a huge coup de main right in the heart of Tokyo, a political rally in Hibya Park. Thousands of students, workers and allied groups poured into the park to be harangued by speakers of every political stripe. Communists were in the minority, as usual, but were cleverly running the show. Their audience at first was loud but good-humored. They soon became boisterous, spurred on by oratory and a potent mixture of red wine and gin.
Orators worked the crowd gradually into a frenzy and at just the right moment a communist speaker yelled: “Let’s toss the emperor into the moat! On to the Imperial Palace!” It is in the nature of crowds to respond to such outlandish appeals. With no further thought hundreds poured into the street and became a rioting mob, overturning cars and smashing windows.
At that moment they collided with a cordon of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. These were not your ultra-sophisticated Japanese riot police of today. In 1952 they were newly minted officers dressed in American Army olive drab uniforms, topped off with nightsticks and GI helmet liners. The communists had planned this conflict carefully. The tall poles carrying their political placards had sharpened tips. Shaking off their placards pole bearers charged into the police line like so many knights with lances. Behind the lancers, slingers tossed bags of rocks and dung onto the heads of the constabulary.
The police line collapsed and the mob surged forward to one of the bridges leading over the moat and into the Imperial Palace. They did manage to cross the bridge and boil into the Imperial Plaza, shouting that it “belongs to the people!” But this encounter was to be different. The whole Tokyo Metropolitan Police force was drawn up there, armed with everything they could snatch up in a hurry. There ensued one whale of a fight, and when it at last simmered down, two rioters had been killed and hundreds arrested. Although their trials dragged on into 1972, the public’s verdict on them was passed immediately.
The next day when I checked in at the depot comptroller’s office, the place was downright spooky. None of the Japanese workers were talking or joking, not to me, nor even to Corporal Schultz, the office comedian. There was no gossip, no horseplay; they were all business, and gathered gloom around them like an invisible shroud. Did somebody die?” I wondered. I headed straightway to the office of Kawamoto, the
MacArthur and Hirohito
comptroller’s draftsman, and the depot’s biggest blabbermouth.
“Okay, Kawamoto,” I said. “Level with me. What the hell is going on here today?”
It took him moments to answer, and when he did the words were squeezed out painfully:
“We are so ashamed….”
“About the riot and the insult to the emperor?” I guessed.
“Yes,” he said. That was all one could get from this Asian merry-andrew who could pun and joke in English, and was the life of everyman’s office gabfest.
That afternoon I toured Sagamihara and in Haramachida, where the same great miasma of despair enveloped everyone, merchants, pedestrians, even B-girls at the night clubs. But while everyone about me was perishing in shame, my own heart pumped with optimism.
The vast wisdom of our American proconsul, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was stunning. While Hirohito had been retained as figurehead emperor by terms of the World War II peace treaty, MacArthur had gone the next mile and treated him like a real monarch. Himself the true, absolute dictator of Japan, the general never missed an opportunity to pay some token of respect or reverence to the funny little man in top hat and tails.
I blushed with a bit of regret myself, recalling how many of us at the end of the war had yelled for Hirohito’s head on a platter. Although downgraded from Son of Heaven to titular ruler, the emperor had retained a great reservoir of awe and regard among ordinary Japanese. That reservoir had been disgustingly polluted by the May Day desecration.
In its riot, the witless Communist Party had bent over and been bitten squarely in the butt by our old friend, the Law of Unintended Consequences. They were finished as a political organization. And so were all the far-left groups who rioted, including the Zengakuren, that nasty student bunch who started the whole business with a march that morning from the Meiji Shrine to Hibya Park.
From that day on it was clear that when Japan finally decided to move it would not be to the pink side of the political spectrum. The nation’s frustrated, defeated and wandering atheists had found their true devotion.