China and Japan: Consigning History to History: Japan and the History Consciousness Problem
It goes without saying that regional tension in East Asia hardly can be resolved unless Japan fully acknowledges its responsibility for its warfare there during fifteen years in the first part of the 20th century. Innumerable times Japan has been unfavorably compared with Germany in this regard.
The policies of the present prime minister Mr. Abe with the goal of making Japan what he calls a ”normal” country has strengthened this view, not the least in China.
A widespread picture of Japan is that the legacy of the war is not widely discussed there – and if it is, then Japanese in general do not feel guilty. On the contrary, they regard themselves as victims, betrayed by their political and military leaders and thus not responsible. In addition, as a country, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made Japan as a nation a victim.
This preponderant view of Japanese relation to the history of the war is uninformed.
The debate in Japan is lively and the views are very varied. To understand them is especially important now when tensions between Japan and its neighbors, especially China, are deep.
The Japanese sociologist Akiko Hashimoto has identified three trends regarding the so-called History Problem. In her book, The Long Defeat, Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity she discusses views of who was responsible and in what way and how to accomplish a closure - not only for Japan but in relation to neighboring countries who suffered from Japanese warfare and occupation. I would like to introduce them here:
They can be named Nationalism, Pacifism and Reconciliation.
During the last few years, Japanese nationalism seems to have become stronger.
The most obvious sign is the policies of the government of Prime Minister Abe. A string of changes in laws and interpretations of the constitution has radically changed some basic tenets (as we have heard). According to the new interpretation of the so-called Peace paragraph 9 in the constitution Japanese forces are now allowed to participate in warfare together with its allies. The Japan defense budget has been upgraded.The State Security Law makes it an offense even to seek information concerning an undefined field of security.
Also in other fields changes have been made. The anthem is now to be sung and the flag hoisted in schools. The opposition is vehement, not the least from the left- leaning Teachers ‘ union because the anthem, which hails the emperor, and the flag are strongly identified with the war.
The question regarding school textbooks and their presentation of the war has been a contentious issue for about fifty years. A law making the goal of schools to foster patriotism and loyalty, strongly echoes the wartime.
During 2015 Japanese media of all kinds published an almost unimaginable amount of material about the war. Again, as during years past, many veterans told their life stories, both those that were proud and those that were shameful. One reason that younger generations, born during or after the war, do not know so much about the war is said to be family reasons. The fathers, uncles and brothers who
came back when 2,3 million Japanese soldiers had died did not speak about their experiences. They carried deep trauma from more than sheer fighting - over 60 percent of the dead died from sickness, starvation and abandonment. Maybe specifically Japanese, out of respect they were not asked about their experiences either.
Another example of family influence may be the case of the prime minister himself. This was the subject of many articles last summer when I was in Japan. By making Japan a so-called normal country Abe is in fact said to fulfill the goals of his grandfather. He was Nobusuke Kishi, a leading government official in Manchukuo, Japanese Manchuria, later a minister of industry and after the defeat and the American occupation for some time prime minister. Like many, he wanted to change the constitution, written by Americans, in order for Japan to become truly independent from the victor ́s influence. He failed. But Abe is now said to be fulfilling his grandfather ́s goals.
To nationalists the dead are heroes – in spite of having lost the war. Many heroic stories circulate and some are made into films. An example is the Yamato, the world ́s largest war ship, which was sunk with its 3000 men. The heroes were tragic but brave and they fought for the survival of their nation. It is thanks to their sacrifices that postwar prosperity could be built.
In the ruling party, the LDP, many agree with Abe ́s assessment that change is necessary for Japan to get back its pride, which is stymied by the constant accusations regarding a war fought so long ago and demands for apologies. Japan must be a fully respected member in the international community, not only as an economic power.
Abe talks of peace – but peace has to be safeguarded by military power. Or, as the expression goes: ”pro-active peace”.
Not only right-leaning politicians welcome this nationalistic program. New, young groups, who are not interested in party politics, are nationalistic – some of them also racist. They are similar to disaffected youths in European countries where social upheavals, economic stagnation and unemployment have made their lives completely different from that of their parents.
2. Pacifism. However, nationalism is not at all the environment the young have
been brought up in. During the American occupation 1945-52, especially in the beginning, everything that possibly could foster nationalism was prohibited. Censorship of books, films, and even kabuki theatre was severe. All schoolbooks were changed and democracy was massively spread through radio and other means.
An important part was peace education in the spirit of the peace paragraph 9 of the constitution. In this perspective Paragraph 9 was not a means to weaken Japan and hinder it ever to make war again. It was something to be proud of.
This summer again I saw thousands of school children on school trips to the Atomic Bomb museum of Hiroshima. There are innumerable other museums all over the country showing all possible horrors of war. Older people are engaged to tell children about the consequences of war they themselves have experienced. The children are taught that militarists and politicians who failed and betrayed the people brought on the war.
Through their own experiences and such teachings a vast majority of Japanese are convinced pacifists. An example is a recent opinion poll showing that only 5 per cent would be prepared to defend Japan with weapons in a
conflict. All over the country thousands of groups are working against the change of the constitution, following the example of respected intellectuals like the Nobel Prize winner in literature Kenzaburo Oe. Right now for the first time since the Vietnam War young people are vigorously protesting. They have formed the organization Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (Sealds) against the change of the constitution.
In discussions about the changed interpretation of Paragraph 9 of the constitution, making it possible to sent Japanese soldiers abroad for so called collective self-defense, I noticed that the strongest feelings initially seemed to be horror at the thought that Japanese could be hurt or killed in warfare again – showing how memories of the 2,3 million dead soldiers remain a strong underpinning of pacifism.
One could say that pacifism has become a civic identity of the Japanese. Of course pacifism can be interpreted in different ways.
Peace through pacifism gives Japan moral prestige and thus pride. Japanese pacifism is the consequence of repudiation of the war. But it does not necessarily put emphasis on responsibility or even regret for what war brought to others.
3. Reconciliation. The third of Hashimoto’s groups in The Long Defeat is the reconciliationists. For them, reconciliation with the countries who suffered under Japanese warfare and occupation is the only way forward. This demands willingness to take full responsibility, to acknowledge guilt, to atone and to pay indemnities to victims. But it also means to build trust and mutual understanding in an even wider respect. An example is government-supported history projects, which have been started between Japan and China, and Japan and South Korea. The ties between these countries and Japan go back more than two thousand years and the divergent interpretations of history concern much more than only the 20th century.
The reconciliatory approach to war time history is built not on past pride as a nation of warriors and on patriotism, neither on the ideal of pacifism as a moral position and a civic identity built through democracy but on concepts such as human rights and mutual trust. Building international relations is to build and safeguard peace.
Only a minority of Japanese, according to surveys, feel proud of their country and young people least of all. The question of which group - nationalists, pacifists or reconciliationists - will be dominant in years to come, will also be important for international relations in East Asia.
Monica Braw Ph.D.
Institute of Strategic and Developmental Studies Stockholm January 27, 2016