Interview with Author/Historian, Augustine Kobayashi


Augustine Kobayashi

What better way to commemorate Memorial Day than with a history lesson?

Tokyo-born Augustine Kobayashi, author of “Japan’s Pacific War”, earned postgraduate degrees in modern international history and Byzantine history at Leeds and London Universities in the U.K. In the following interview he shares insights that convinced me that what’s needed in politics today is more attention to historians and less to lawyers, businessmen and career politicians. Historians possess a perspective that could work through differences in a diplomatic fashion while never forgetting the fact that future generations will be affected by those decisions. Most of what we see today are those seeking only to expand their own wealth and power. The few who know anything about history only use it to further their own agenda, not improve the human condition.

MF: What motivated you to research and subsequently write your book, “Japan’s Pacific War”?

AK: I had been writing some historical articles for Historical Quest ezine, and I got some responses from readers for my article explaining how Japan’s war in China in the 1930s and the Pacific War were linked. Many reacted saying that they had no idea how the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) directly led to WW2 in Asia. I felt that we have a knowledge gap in this area of 20th century history, and thought that I could make some contributions to fill it. As for the American side of the story, there are many excellent books out there, so I decided to tell Japan’s story, from a Japanese perspective. When I was a student back in Leeds University, UK, I did research on Anglo-American relations in the 1920s, including some naval strategic discussions, such as how Japan’s stance in the world stage might affect international politics. In a way, this current book of mine is the fruition of my past historical studies.

MF: What surprised you the most regarding Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor? Do you think they were realistic in their expectations of the outcome?japan_for web

AK: In hindsight, Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor is incredible, but, having gone through Japanese history of the 1930s, I have found that it is not really so surprising. Given the pre-WW2 American isolationism and Eurocentric tendency of the USG(overnment), giving strategic and diplomatic priorities to the solving of European situation, if they didn’t think that the USA would react by mobilizing the whole economy for war to crush Japan no matter what, it is understandable that they miscalculated this way. This is the time before TV or the Internet. People were not well informed and the Japanese public knew nothing about the outside world. The Japanese military basically thought that the US would be too busy fighting Germany or even be defeated and all they had to do was to immobilize the US Fleet a while, pick off Western colonies in the Western Pacific one by one and hold out until the European war was settled in favour of the Berlin-Tokyo Axis. If Germany had won, these expectations would have been deemed as quite realistic. Ironically, they attacked Pearl Harbor just when Germany tasted her first defeat in front of Moscow.

MF: As a student of Byzantine history, what is the most important lesson you believe it holds for those of us living in modern times?

AK: Things change. The secret of longevity of the Byzantine Empire was its ability to reinvent itself every now and then after crises. So much so that, even though it’s real designation should be the ‘Roman’ Empire, modern historians, who are so fond of the Classical image of Imperial Rome, feel uncomfortable with the designation ‘Rome’ and use ‘Byzantine’ instead for the empire after the 4th or 5th centuries. But this is precisely the point: it changed its shape and cultural characteristics so much to cope with the changing political, economical and military environment surrounding the empire, after several centuries, it was almost unrecognizable. So, the lessons for us are: be flexible and accept changes. Rely on your ingenuity rather than muscle power.

MF: A common saying is “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” What is your favorite example of a culture or country failing to learn from previous civilizations?

AK: There are so many, it is difficult to single out a favourite one. As I live in Japan now, I’m concerned with China at the moment, as she seems to be in danger of repeating Japan’s mistakes in the 1930s and the 1940s. Given that China was the chief victim of Japan’s aggression in those decades, it would be so ironic. Hope the Chinese are capable of learning from others’ mistakes.

MF: The world today has a lot of problems. Based on your studies, what do you think is the most important thing world leaders should do to avoid another World War?

AK: Do not let others fear you too much. A cornered beast tends to lash out, which was the case for Japan in 1941; and I suspect that that is what is happening with the Islamic militants right now. The Byzantine Empire fought a devastating war with its rival, the Persian Empire in the 7th century, which in turn led to the Islamic Arab conquests. The Persians started this war as they were so worried over the reviving power of the Byzantine Empire (in 476AD, they had gleefully been watching the fall of the West; but now alarmed by the Byzantine reconquests of North Africa and Italy in the 6th century).

Christianity as soft power of Rome, its spread among small countries and ethnic groups geographically surrounding Persia frightened her leaders. Persia attacked Rome when internal power struggle at the capital Constantinople momentarily paralyzed the Byzantine war machine as a heaven-sent and only opportunity to strike. In modern times, in WW1, both Germany and England were motivated by the need to weaken their rivals before they became too strong. Japan’s war in China in the 1930s was partly due to a resurgent China and thus Japan’s fear of losing their top dog status in Asia. As for solutions to this problem of power imbalance, I don’t really know. Probably we have to find out by working patiently through diplomatic effort.

guscropMF: What are you finding in your current research into Syriac Christianity and its spread into Persia that relates to modern tensions between Christians and Muslims?

AK: Persia’s state religion was Zoroastrianism at the time, but Christianity was gaining ground. It seems that Jesus’ saying that he came to fulfill old religion applied to Persia also! When you realise that Judaism had also been strongly influenced by Persia, which released Jews in captivity and allowed them to return to Jerusalem, you can see that Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians were not that very different. And Persia can be a very tolerant place for different religions.

But inevitably, religion and politics cannot be separated completely; conflicting socio-economic and political forces often clashed along religious lines, causing internal instability and external wars. As in my answer to question No.5, as Rome’s power grew, Christianity was seen as a threat by the Persians. At this stage, Roman Christianity became a political religion, which forced a political response from Rome’s rival(s). I think that today’s problems we have with Christians and Muslims are fundamentally the same: they are not really in conflict in terms of religion, but, whenever communal tensions arise and political conflict develops, they unfurl their respective banners and try to protect themselves by rallying around them. Some hotheaded young men often employ rhetoric of religious mission etc., but they do not really represent what should be the majority view.

MF: Do you think it will ever be possible for those two religions, which actually have similar roots, to make peace with one another?

AK: The answer should be yes. Different religious communities usually live in peace side by side most of the time anyway. It is a time of political tensions when religious communities are pitted against one another. The Coptic Egyptian Christians, for example, had lived in a relative calm for nearly 2,000 years until very recently. They should be able to go back to that, normal state. In Syria, sadly, the Christians appear to be being exterminated or displaced permanently, but, once a politically stable Syria could be achieved, Christians and Muslims should be able to live side by side again. But so long as political forces exploiting religious differences remain too strong, it might be a while before that could happen.

Pick up your electronic copy of “Japan’s Pacific War” on Amazon here.


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Ponderings on Veterans’ Day


For most people Veterans’ Day is just another day where the banks are closed and the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t deliver mail. If you work for the government, a financial institution or a few other employers you probably get the day off and might get an early start on your holiday shopping or simply relax. Most schools don’t take it off, probably don’t even mention its significance. You might remember to fly the flag, provided you’re not one who now finds it offensive. Numerous shows on TV such as the History Channel broadcast documentaries related to various wars, which you may or may not watch. If you know a veteran from a past or present war it probably means a little more. What does this day mean to you?

For me it’s a time to remember those I know who have served or are serving in the U.S. Military. I usually remember to put out my flag. My father was in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He’s pictured below, the one in the center, with two buddies in a restaurant in dad02081944Oakland, California on February 8, 1944.

Rather than being onboard a battle ship, however, he was in the Seabees, a name easily derived from the acronym, CB, which stood for “construction battalion.” Their function was to build infrastructure throughout the South Sea islands of the Pacific in preparation for military operations. My first geography lessons comprised my father using a globe to point out the numerous islands he’d served on in the South Pacific. American Samoa. New Hebrides. Hawaii.  Okinawa. As a child I never appreciated those stories as much as I do now.

He took these pictures while overseas which give some idea of the cultures that were nativesfishingimpacted by the war with Japan. Islands populated by those embracing a primitive life style who probably had no comprehension of why their peaceful lives were suddenly disrupted by the U.S. military. The little boy with the pig, the children with the old woman holding a baby, all tell a story.

boywithpigislandersMy father came home from the war alive and in one piece, which was more than thousands could say. I don’t know which island the cemetery below happens to be but it, too, tells a story. How anonymous all those white crosses seem, yet each represents a son, husband and/or father who never made it home.


My father’s military service was the highlight of his life. For years following the war he made it a point to attend Seabee reunions, wherever they might be. After he died, my mother received condolences from those still living. As a child I remember attending a reunion in Pittsburgh, not quite understanding who those people were or why they were so important to my father. Now I do.

Years later, on Veterans’ Day in 2004, I would visit the U.S. Military Cemetery in Luxembourg, one of many in Europe where American soldiers are buried. All we ever asked of the countries we defended was for enough land to bury our dead. The picture at the top of this post is of the inside of the Luxembourg memorial building, the outside of which you can see at the end. It was a sobering experience to see more white crosses representing so many lives lost.  Row upon row upon row.

PattongraveIt was touching to see how much the Europeans appreciated our service. Every year on Veteran’s Day the government of Luxembourg honors General George S. Patton by placing flowers on his grave. There were several monuments of thanks erected to the U.S. Military as well, such as the one shown below, also in Luxembourg.

I’d never heard that much about the war in Europe since my father served in the South Pacific. I find it ridiculous looking back that we never studied WWII in school. Somehow the American history books for that time stopped before World War I. Certainly nothing about LarochetteMonumentWWII, nothing about Korea, even as we were stepping into the Vietnam conflict.  No wonder everyone thought history was boring.  It had no relevance to our lives.  No wonder Baby Boomers rebelled.

They say that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. How ironic that more recent wars, much less current events, are not explained and taught to those growing up in the aftermath. The most relevant conflicts are ignored rather than explaining how they developed. How stupid is that? No wonder we continue to fight.  Or are we ashamed to admit what some wars were really all about?

I suppose there’s enough commonality in all conflicts that the details at a certain level don’t matter. All wars are about dominion, power and control. Some despot decides that his view of the BigWarMap2world needs to be imposed on others. In some cases resources or land plays a part, another symptom of greed that demonstrates a total lack of regard or respect for others. People will obviously fight for what they believe in or if someone else wants to take something away that they value. No one wants to be forced to believe something with which they don’t agree. And I must admit that though I like to consider myself a pacifist, if Headstones4someone suggested eliminating all those who want to take away my freedom, property or anything else, I’d be cheering them on. Like Bill Pullman said so eloquently in the movie Independence Day, “Nuke the bastards!” I believe we should live and let live, but ironically that only applies to those who share that belief. So I suppose I’m not that much different than anyone else.

One thing worth noting is that in astrology politics and religion fall within the same house along with all other belief systems. Other cultures and faraway places are also included in the 9th house as well as academia and various other things. Spirituality is covered by an entirely different house, which says a lot about so many so-called “religious” people. I always liked the thought that “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in the garage makes you a car.” But I digress.

Who really benefits from war? Do the spoils really go to the victors?  Both sides lose precious lives and suffer deathgermanwardead and destruction. On that Veterans’ Day in 2004 that I spent in Europe we also visited German cemeteries. bitbergwarcemHitler’s obsession didn’t only kill those he murdered in concentration camps. Untold numbers of his own people also died. Soldiers fighting for what they were forced to believe in or die as well.  Were they any less victims of a tyrant?

I have a neighbor who was born in Berlin, Germany in 1943, around the time they were being bombed heavily by the allies, a.k.a. the U.S. She grew up playing on piles of rubble, the remains of bombed out buildings. Her father fought in the war, was a prisoner in Russia for several years until he escaped and eventually made his way home. He’d been gone for seven years.  I find it entirely incomprehensible what they must have gone through.

Monument1I suppose my generation’s war was Vietnam. There have been several since, mostly in the Middle East.  While both World Wars focused on political ideologies, too many since have born shades of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning regarding the military-industrial complex. Wars are expensive which means they’re profitable to certain industries.  Bullets, rifles, uniforms, airplanes, tanks and so forth cost money.  Big money, which benefits those who have no regard for their fellow citizens, particularly the upcoming generation who are inducted into the military and sacrificed on the altar of greed. Fighting to defend one’s freedom is one thing; getting involved in a foreign war to make money for a chosen few is quite another.

The Europeans appreciated what the U.S. did for them while other conflicts in which we’ve become involved have not resulted in anything but hatred for Americans.  Is it any wonder some countries see us as intrusive and violent?  A self-appointed world police force?  Mercenaries at the beckon-call of the elite?  Our soldiers were willing to sacrifice their lives based on the pretense of fighting for others’ freedom.  My personal opinion is that in most cases we should mind our own business. Defend our borders, but live and let live. Or die, as the case may be.

Yet we live in an increasingly hostile world where it’s unbelievable how many cultures indoctrinate their youth to be warriors at an early age. Need I remind you that’s what Hitler did, too?  Many of us do the same thing, starting with G.I. Joe. Teaching the principle of defending your own freedom is one thing; taking it away from others is quite another.  For some cultures, that’s what it’s all about.  And you know exactly who I mean.  No matter how much they have it’s never enough.

It’s too bad there’s no day in sight when we’ll live on a peaceful world other than that mentioned in post-apocalyptic scripture. In such a future time and place Veterans’ Day would honor those who fought only in the past. Until that day comes, there are veterans, past, present and future, all around you. Make it a point to thank as many as possible for their service today.