Historian Kojiro Naoki, who died on Feb. 2 at the age of 100, served in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II.

His former navy colleague recalled the day he met Naoki for the first time: “He looked every inch a bookish wimp, and I felt relieved to have someone like him among us.”

Slight in stature, fair-skinned and with fearful eyes, the young Naoki joined the navy carrying a copy of “Manyoshu” (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry.

He was totally in love with this anthology of no-frills verse that gave expression to genuine human feelings. But something like literature was of no importance in wartime Japan, and no one dared to express their feelings even about their own families at the time.

Naoki lamented society’s prevalent atmosphere where people had no choice but to tell their loved ones to “die honorably for the country” when sending them off to the front, while they secretly and desperately prayed for their safe return.

A 26-year-old naval officer when the war ended, Naoki devoted himself to the study of history.

He saw through exaggerations, self-serving “interpretations” of historical facts and blatant glorification of the imperial court in “Kojiki” (Records of Ancient Matters) and “Nihon Shoki” (The Chronicles of Japan), the nation’s oldest chronicles.

Naoki came into fame for his theory that a dynastic change occurred during the ancient Tumulus Period.

While teaching history at Osaka City University, he was committed to preserving historical ruins.

He led a protest movement against a proposed golf course in Yoshino, Nara Prefecture, and called for the construction of a Manyo botanical garden instead.

He also supported a lawsuit to preserve the scenic Wakanoura Bay area in Wakayama Prefecture, a place of inspiration for poets featured in “Manyoshu.”

Late in life, Naoki penned many poems, and his name often appeared in The Asahi Shimbun’s Asahi Kadan poetry section.

One went as follows: “Japan became a better place after losing the war/ But oh, the sheer number of people who died for it.”

Another went to the effect: “My life has had many embarrassing moments/ But I have lived it to the best of my ability/ And somehow I’m 96 years old now."

Without being excessively elaborate, his works were straightforward expressions of his feelings as a man who survived World War II.

“Be candid, and never distort the truth” was the maxim Naoki lived by. His convictions rang loud and clear in his scholarship, activism and verse.

Come to think of it, his life personified the underlying spirit of “Manyoshu.”

He might have come across as a “bookish nerd,” but he possessed an outstanding “fighting spirit.”

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 19

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.