Television producer Naoki Hyakuta has written several history-related bestsellers including the novels The Eternal Zero and A Man Called Pirate, as well as his recent The History of Japan. He said, “Half of the people in Japan despise me.” Toshio Motoya spoke with Hyakuta about topics including the motives behind his first novel, his feelings on writing about Sazo Idemitsu, and his expectations for young people today.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. It sounds like you are busy as ever, and I’ve heard that last year’s paperback version of The History of Japan is selling well.
(H) Thank you for having me.
(M) My first introduction to your work was the movie based on your bestseller, The Eternal Zero.
(H) That was almost 10 years ago. The Eternal Zero was my first novel. It was released in 2006 by OHTA PUBLISHING, a small company that isn’t a literary publisher. It didn’t win any prizes, nor did it draw much attention at first. KODANSHA put out a paperback version three years later, then it gradually spread through word of mouth and ended up as a bestseller that was made into a movie.
(M) I found the movie to be very touching. Afterwards I also read A Man Called Pirate, and I was fascinated by the many stories from the international economy that are not generally known.
(H) A Man Called Pirate was published in 2012 and won the 10th Japan Booksellers’ Award the following year. I feel like people started paying attention to my work as a novelist after that point.
(M) Everyone knows you’ve done great things since then.
(H) Still, I am the target of utmost loathing in the left-wing media, as represented by The Asahi Shimbun.
(M) I bet many people like you for that reason (laughs).
(H) Beyond the domestic media, I’ve also been bashed by China and South Korea.
(M) Me, too – the Chinese government censured me by name.
(H) I’ve also been criticized by American Ambassador Caroline Kennedy for my statement that the United States committed genocide with the bombing of Tokyo and atomic bomb attacks. That was during a speech in support of Toshio Tamogami, who was running for governor of Tokyo in February 2014.
(M) I agree entirely.
(H) The Mainichi informed Kennedy of what I said, and it printed her comment that she found my remarks disgraceful, and that they could destroy the Japanese-American alliance. The Asahi Shimbun told the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., and gleefully reported that I had drawn criticism once again.
(M) So the media inflamed this conflict.
(H) I was astonished! The two biggest Japanese newspapers were tattling on me to the U.S., just like an elementary student saying, “I’m going to tell the teacher!”
(M) I think that incident is one reason why your books like The Paradise of Frogs and The History of Japan are so popular.
(H) It’s true that I was praised by people who realized the truth of my remarks. They may have purchased my books after that. Still, about half of the Japanese public thinks I am an outrageous person, and a fair number have sworn never to buy my books.
(M) You were originally a television producer, is that right?
(H) Yes, I still work in that field. I’ve specialized in comedy programs for a long time.
(M) That’s not what I would have expected from your novels… How did you end up as a published novelist?
(H) I was born in 1956, and I turned 50 in 2006, the year The Eternal Zero was published. I enjoyed my work in the TV industry, but when I was 49, I realized I would turn 50 the following year. I found myself reflecting on my life for the first time and thinking about how people used to die at 50. Of course I did my best at work, but I wondered if there was also something else I could accomplish. I decided to dedicate myself to writing a novel. At that time my father had terminal cancer and was told he only had six months to live. My uncle passed away from cancer a little before that. Both of them served in the Greater East Asia War, and I suddenly realized there were fewer and fewer of those men left. That’s why I wanted to pen a novel about the men who lived during those times.
(M) That turned into your masterpiece, The Eternal Zero.
(M) A Man Called Pirate features a Japanese man who worked in the global oil industry, which was dominated by major corporations. What inspired you to write about that topic?
(H) I wrote that book six years after I became a novelist. One day I was chatting with an acquaintance of mine who is a female television producer. She asked me, “Have you heard of the Nissho Maru incident?” She worked on a section of a TV show about Japanese people who had shocked the world, and she felt surprised when she came across this incident during her research. When I learned the details of what happened, I was astounded by the unbelievable story. But I found out more, and it was actually true! That itself was surprising, but I also started wondering why I was the only one who hadn’t heard of it before. I started asking everyone I met if they knew about the Nissho Maru, but no one did. That seemed odd to me, so I kept studying it and found out why it had been concealed for so long. I was fascinated with Sazo Idemitsu, who planned and carried out this incident. I felt that my mission was to write about him, and I published the book in 2012.
(M) The Nissho Maru incident occurred in 1953. Iran declared that it would nationalize the oil resources monopolized by the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a major oil company that was the predecessor of BP. It was an explosive situation. Sazo Idemitsu of Idemitsu Kosan secretly built the Nissho Maru and sent it to Iran to procure oil at a stable price via an original route. This tanker evaded interference from the British navy and successfully returned to Japan with oil. Idemitsu truly did a great thing – that was true back then, and is still true now when we reflect on the Nissho Maru.
(H) That was when Japan had just regained its independence through the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco. Idemitsu directly confronted the British Empire. Unlike today, the United Kingdom was a major power with world-leading naval strength. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) was afraid of the UK and tried to stop Idemitsu’s project.
(M) How was he able to take such a bold action?
(H) Idemitsu was always thinking about what he could do for Japan from a young age. He was a businessman as well as a nationalist who was devoted to his country.
(M) The major oil companies formed a cartel and made enormous amounts of money by selling oil from countries that produced it to countries that consumed it. Idemitsu attempted to break down this structure through free oil trade.
(H) Yes, back then the so-called “Seven Sisters” controlled 80% of the global oil industry. Of course, Japan’s oil was imported through these major corporations. Japanese oil companies other than Idemitsu Kosan were also affiliated with these companies as a way to obtain oil. That meant Japan’s growth would be determined by the major oil companies. Idemitsu wanted to fix this situation and open up a path for Japan’s independent development.
(M) He had a wonderful vision and ability to act.
(H) Iran was the world’s top oil producer, and the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had full control of that industry for roughly 50 years. This profit was not returned to the Iranian people. After Mohammad Mosaddegh became prime minister of Iran in 1951, legislation was passed to nationalize the oil industry. Of course this angered the UK, but it couldn’t take any military action. Instead it put an embargo in place and told countries across the world not to buy Iranian oil. They believed Iran’s oil belonged to the UK, so Iran couldn’t sell it without permission. This posed a dilemma for Iran, which had nowhere to export its excess oil. As Iran boldly fought against the Seven Sisters and the UK, it was being abandoned by the rest of the world. Idemitsu, a Japanese man, took action to help Iran.
(M) Was the Nissho Maru tanker built solely to procure oil from Iran?
(H) No, it wasn’t. Oil companies chartered ships and rented tankers from shipping companies. None of the shipping companies would allow their vessels to be hired for a purpose that would antagonize the major oil corporations. Idemitsu Kosan’s aim was to directly purchase from oil-producing nations, and it needed a tanker it could use whenever it liked. No other Japanese oil companies had such unconventional ideas. The Nissho Maru was Japan’s largest tanker at that time, and Idemitsu took out a long-term loan to build the ship, overcoming strong opposition from executives who feared it would bankrupt the company. They actually planned to send a smaller vessel to Iran at first. The Iranian oil refinery was located along a river, and they feared the large Nissho Maru couldn’t dock there. However, the shipping company cancelled the tanker chartering agreement right before. The reason isn’t clear, but some theorize that the MOFA obstructed this deal. Former Emperor Akihito, who was crown prince at that time, was invited to Queen Elizabeth’s coronation planned for June 1953. Perhaps the MOFA wanted to avoid angering the UK.
(M) I imagine the UK wanted to interfere with the Nissho Maru to protect its dignity. The crew was quite courageous.
(H) The UK declared it would use any means against ships that transported Iranian oil without permission. In other words, they would sink ships if needed. I’m sure the captain and crew felt a great deal of fear, but they put their lives on the line to successfully carry out this project. In 1952 – one year before the Nissho Maru incident – the Italian ship Rose Mary was captured by the UK while transporting Iranian oil back to Rome. The cargo and ship were seized. I bet Idemitsu Kosan would have gone bankrupt if the Nissho Maru had been captured.
(M) It’s so bizarre that this great deed has been entirely forgotten.
(H) Japanese bureaucrats hated Idemitsu. He was also disliked in the Japanese oil industry, and was continually criticized for various things throughout his life. I imagine that’s why he’s been forgotten. He also fought against the military authorities before and during the war. I think he contributed greatly to Japan’s marvelous economic revitalization by making it possible to buy low-priced oil from the Middle East as a pioneer in free oil trade.
(M) The price of oil affects the prices of most other things. I think that a stable supply of cheap oil is the key to a country’s economic growth.
(H) Member of the House of Representatives Seiko Noda, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, caused an issue in 2015 when she said on TV that Japan had no direct connection with China’s reclaiming of reefs in the South China Sea. If China gained control of that region, Japanese tankers would have to make a major detour to the east of the Philippines. Transport costs account for half of the expenses required to import oil; increased shipping charges would cause oil prices to soar. I was baffled by this statement from a politician who has served as a government minister.
(M) The oil crisis of the 1970s caused a great uproar. Energy prices have huge impacts on our daily lives.
(H) Energy issues are also playing a big part in the current Ukraine crisis. European countries can’t act forcefully against Russia because they depend heavily on Russian natural gas. An underlying cause is the issue of greenhouse gas emissions – natural gas produces less CO2 than oil. That’s why the U.S. is cutting its shale oil provision and depending more on Russian natural gas. Energy-related considerations can even affect national policies.
(M) Energy also played a part in World War II. I think we can say that Japan – which had no domestic oil – started the war as a means to obtain Indonesian oil fields.
(H) China began claiming territorial rights to the Senkaku Islands in the 1970s when it became aware of the offshore oil fields.
(M) There is also a great deal of methane hydrate, an ice-like methane gas, deep in Japan’s offshore waters. Research is underway on how to utilize this gas as energy. I think that could really change things.
(M) I believe we should generate energy through nuclear power, which has zero greenhouse gas emissions. Operations have been stopped at many of Japan’s nuclear facilities, which I see as a huge waste.
(H) Right, power rates are so high because these nuclear plants aren’t being used. Japanese-made products will lose competitiveness across the world if factory and other production costs rise. I do think the situation will change over the next 30 years as different energy technologies are developed.
(M) I believe we should build small nuclear fusion power facilities in the ocean, close to where the electricity will be used. This resembles the concept of locally producing and consuming foods. If any problems occurred, the nuclear plant could be sunk into the ocean to avoid a horrible accident.
(H) That might be possible. People say Japan has the best nuclear technologies in the world, and it’s wasteful for us not to use these technologies. I think the media makes people much too fearful about nuclear power. On the other hand, nuclear plants create huge amounts of high-level radioactive waste, which we cannot treat with the sciences we have today. I’m not sure if it’s good for us to leave this waste that will negatively affect our descendants tens of thousands of years in the future, such as by burying it underground. But I also wonder if Japan can survive the next 100 years if we abolish all of our nuclear plants. If Japan is destroyed, we will have no future.
(M) Yes, we should first consider what we need to do right now.
(H) I do think the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station has had major impacts.
(M) Hydrogen explosions occurred in the building, and many people panicked about Tokyo being annihilated. Today the causes and status of the damage are clear, and steady efforts are underway to rebuild and put countermeasures in place for the future. We should correctly convey accurate information and adopt rational energy policy. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(H) The Japanese economy hasn’t grown at all since bubble burst, and also since the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. It seems to me that young people have lost their confidence and no longer feel any joy while working. Our generation remembers the asset bubble years, and we’ve experienced how working hard can improve our lives. Young people today lack that motivation. They seem to have given up from the start.
(M) We dreamed of buying motorcycles or cars, but the youth of today say they don’t want anything at all.
(H) I do think that shows how affluent Japan has become, but value systems are changing as well. It seems people prize their own time more than money or things, but that will end up weakening the nation. I want them to be proud of our wonderful country.
(M) Japan has a history of almost 3,000 years. Our nation has never been ruled by another ethnic group, and we’ve passed down our myths over this long history. No other country in the world is like Japan. The U.S. was founded just about 250 years ago. We should all feel a greater sense of pride in our country.
(H) All European countries have been ruled by other nations, multiple times. That has never happened in Japan, and I think we lack awareness about how frightening that would be. This is why people don’t feel strongly about national defense. I think Japanese people have never felt the fear that Ukrainians are experiencing.
(M) This is largely due to the oceans that surround Japan. People also say that’s why the Japanese civilization is so unique. China, our neighbor, is rapidly enlarging its military power based on economic growth. China established its borders by fighting with most of its land neighbors, and now it’s actively expanding into the ocean.
(H) China absolutely aspires to gain control of Japan someday.
(M) I don’t think China would stop at the Senkaku Islands – it would invade Okinawa and Kyushu, too.
(H) In addition to military invasions, China is also waging economic invasions. Chinese nationals are steadily buying up Japanese property, but Japanese people cannot purchase land in China. I think we need some kind of legislation to prevent this.
(M) China doesn’t recognize individual land ownership because it is a socialist country, so that applies to its own citizens as well. If we were to establish a law, I think we should only permit land in Japan to be purchased by the citizens of other countries that allow Japanese people to buy property there.
(H) I think that’s the minimum requirement it should include.
(M) In any case, Japanese people must have a sense of crisis if we are to maintain our prosperity in the future. We can’t just assume that Japan will always enjoy the peace of today. If we give China the Senkaku area because it only consists of small, uninhabited islands, China will then gain control of Okinawa and Kyushu. To prevent this, Japan should use its advanced sciences and technologies to build weapons like railguns, and strengthen our military force, according to the logic of a balance of power.
(H) The Ukraine war is inspiring people to talk about whether Japan should have nuclear arms. I think we should discuss that possibility.
(M) We should debate that in the future. Thank you for talking with me today.
(H) Thank you.
Born in Osaka City in 1956. Dropped out of Doshisha University and worked as a producer on television programs such as Knight Scoop. Made his debut as a novelist in 2006 with The Eternal Zero, a record-setting hit that has sold an accumulated total of more than four million copies. Since then he has released a series of bestsellers while writing in a wide range of genres including novels, essays, and non-fiction. His many well-known publications include A Man Called Pirate (KODANSHA; won the 10th Japan Booksellers’ Award), The Paradise of Frogs (SHINCHOSHA), and The History of Japan (Gentosha Literary Publication).