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Fifty-eight years later, factions in Japan are still fighting the war, says BC historian Franziska Seraphim



By now, has Japan fully confronted its wartime past?

There never has been a national consensus in Japan, even on the state level, about what World War II meant to the country. Nor is there agreement on what Japan’s role in Asia was before the war, or what it should be now.

Rather, from the very beginning of the postwar period in Japan, different groups have embraced specific and contradictory versions of the past for their own political purposes. At its core, Japanese memory of the war has been contentious.

By contrast, the West German government has formulated a national consensus on German culpability in World War II, for international consumption. And the Japanese have compared themselves to the Germans continually in this regard. They’ve done it most intensely since West German president Richard von Weizsäcker’s speech to the Bundestag in 1985, in which he laid out very eloquently what it meant to take responsibility for the Holocaust.

Weizsäcker’s speech was immediately translated into Japanese, and the Japanese Left made a big thing of it. “Why haven’t we done this?” the Left asked. “Why don’t we have a Weizsäcker in Japan?”

The Japanese tend to be more conscious of the lengthening postwar period, the meaning of which is also hotly contested. In 1995, for example, the Japanese officially commemorated not only the end of World War II, but sengo gojunen, 50 years of postwar. The year 1995 also marked the 100th anniversary of victory in the Sino-Japanese War. This was significant, because in stressing the anniversary of a victory and not just a defeat, the Japanese began to discuss something that previously had been missing in the historical debate in postwar Japan: namely, prewar Japanese imperialism and colonialism in Asia.

Why have the Germans succeeded where the Japanese have failed?
The official West German expressions of regret over the Holocaust, which began with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer within a decade after the war, were critical to establishing a viable place for Germany in the European community. Without this, no economic or political rehabilitation would have been possible. Japan’s very close relationship with the United States, on the other hand, inhibited relations with its neighbors. The country’s most important wartime victims, China and part of Korea, were on the other side of the communist Bamboo Curtain. So, because they could get away with it, the Japanese were generally silent about the past.

But times have changed. Japan’s former conquests are now much stronger than they were. China is no longer isolated. And old enemies have become good at pushing war-era issues onto Japan’s political agenda, especially since the 1980s. The “comfort women”—the hundreds of thousands of Asian women, mainly Koreans, forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military—are a good example. Books on the comfort women were published in Japan as early as 1976, yet they made no splash until the early 1990s, when the topic exploded into international consciousness. At that point, under public pressure, the government did create a private fund to give compensation to former comfort women—the few who were still alive—and opened a historical documentation center to promote research on Japan’s war in Asia. These projects met with strong opposition from both the Right and the Left in Japan, though, for different reasons, and never became an effective way for the government to make amends.

How have Japanese school textbooks reflected the war?
Textbooks have been a major battleground in Japan ever since the war. The most famous protest consisted of several court cases that were brought against the government by the historian Saburo Ienaga and supported by prominent organizations across the liberal and communist Left. Ienaga’s battles began in 1965, when he sued the Ministry of Education for removing references in his textbook to the use of Chinese prisoners as guinea pigs in horrific medical experiments during the war. In 1997, the Japanese Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of Ienaga, but it did not go so far as to declare all government censorship of textbooks illegal.

What about images of World War II in popular culture—in movies, for instance?
The war is such a touchy subject that many Japanese filmmakers have avoided it altogether by going back to medieval and early modern Japan for their settings. The Seven Samurai, by the great director Akira Kurosawa, is an example of this. The films that do take place during the war focus mostly on the little stories, the sufferings of ordinary people. Another common theme in postwar movies, which is war related but not politically divisive, is the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the aftermath of nuclear devastation. The horror movies of the 1950s—the cavalcade of screen creatures, such as Godzilla, made into terrifying monsters by atomic radiation—all played off that theme.

This is not to say that the Japanese didn’t make any movies explicitly critical of the war. There are many. Perhaps the greatest antiwar film made in Japan is The Human Condition, Masaki Kobayashi’s epic, which came out in 1959. It was a huge hit at the time and remains a classic in Japan.

One of Japan’s internal disagreements has to be about the armed forces. When will Japan have a regular military?
Japan does have a full-fledged military, although they don’t call it that. They call it a self-defense force.

When are they going to take away the fig leaf?
Well, the notion of a self-defense force is closely connected to a cornerstone of postwar Japan, namely, Article 9 of the constitution—the renunciation of the right to wage war. Japan’s conservative leadership has long wanted to revise the constitution but has met with popular opposition. So your question would immediately be identified in Japan as having a conservative bias.

Since the end of the Cold War, though, this debate has taken on a new dimension. The term now used for restoration of the military is normalization. Can Japan become a “normal” country? At stake is Japan’s political profile as a world power, which requires, for example, active participation in international peacekeeping operations. Old-style nationalists, of course, see their chance to rewrite a constitution imposed by a foreign power in the aftermath of humiliating defeat. Old-style pacifists cling to Article 9 as the most important lesson learned from that defeat, and oppose sending Japanese troops abroad.

Then there is an outspoken constituency on the moderate Left that says, yes, we can be normal, but we cannot get there without first taking care of what has been left undone from the last war—be that a sincere apology by the government or full compensation to war victims or a more forthcoming treatment of Japan’s wartime aggression in school textbooks.

I can’t resist asking a what-if. How would things be different today if there had been no occupation of Japan after the defeat?
Without the American Occupation there might actually have been a civil war in Japan, as almost happened in Italy, and as did happen in Korea.

Japan’s defeat in the war resurrected huge ideological differences, rather than producing one uniform way of thinking about the nation. We used to think that Japanese Fascism was pervasive, that virtually everybody had jumped on the bandwagon and would therefore have to be taken off all together and all at once. But ultranationalism had not had a very long career in Japan. It materialized as the dominant force there only in the late 1930s. The wartime generation could easily remember a time, two decades earlier, when labor unionism and liberalism had both made great progress. Those same defeated liberals, socialists, feminists, and union leaders became the heroes of the immediate postwar period. The ones who had been imprisoned by the militarists and then liberated under the Occupation became the biggest heroes of all.

How successful were the reforms put in place under the Occupation?
The Americans did not completely remake institutions in Japan, and much of Japan’s postwar success is actually better explained by certain legacies of the wartime state than by specific Occupation reforms.

Undoubtedly the most important reform was the most basic—the set of civil liberties first laid down in the Bill of Rights in October 1945 and later anchored in the constitution. The new constitution established popular sovereignty for the first time and cast the emperor as a symbol of the Japanese state, with representational but no overt political power.

Then the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, which prosecuted and punished Japanese wartime leaders as Class A war criminals, had a strong symbolic impact. The land reforms, under which large tracts of land were seized and redistributed among the farmers, made a lasting difference both economically and politically. But education reform, while it partially decentralized the system and brought in new textbooks, didn’t do much to disturb the bureaucracy. And economic reforms aimed at breaking up the big business conglomerates never materialized.

This was because what loomed largest for American policy makers by 1947 was not the ideal of democratizing a former enemy, but of turning that enemy into a strong and stable ally in the deepening Cold War. That meant re-enlisting Japan’s most experienced elite—bureaucrats, conservative politicians, industry executives—who had learned their skills administering an empire and waging total war against the West.

As a result of this shift, the liberal Left that had benefited from the first phase of the Occupation lost serious ground in the next—while those on the Right who had been imprisoned in 1945 and branded as militarists came out on top again just a few years later. These reversals were highly disorienting to many Japanese.

All of this is relevant to the memory debate. Indirectly, as it turned out, the Occupation authorities encouraged the Japanese to forget about their war conduct, and even about war crimes such as biological warfare in Manchuria and the comfort women.

Of course, this doesn’t let the Japanese off the hook for not delving into those problems more deeply themselves. But it does go some way toward explaining why notions of wartime responsibility became understood in the public mind as a selective political tool, rather than a universal ethical imperative.

So the Japanese need to come to terms with the United States as a presence in their history—like the elephant in the living room?
Yes, with both the good and the bad. In many of the symposia that I attended during the anniversary observances in 1995, I noticed a collective unhappiness with the American presence. Some people complained, “In what other country is nationalism so weak? We Japanese have lost what it takes to build pride in our country.”

Others went to the other extreme and said, “The Americans instituted certain political rights and human rights that we did not have to fight for. They did this for us, but they took away our chance to make our own revolution.” Take women, for example. “Here, go and vote,” the Americans said, “you have the right now.” But women had not fought enough for this right really to make it their own. And some felt it would have been better if the Americans had not just handed it to them.

And our image of “Japan, Inc.,” a people completely united behind a single national vision, is—
A bunch of baloney! I argue about this with my students all the time, because many American textbooks still talk this way. Some of my students get impatient when I teach early-20th-century Japan and discuss the feminists or the socialists. The students will say, “Well, women had no power in Japan until practically yesterday, and Japan isn’t a socialist country, so what’s the point of teaching about the feminists and socialists? They lost, so who cares?”

But if you don’t understand the history, you can’t appreciate how, in the initial postwar years, the Japanese went back precisely to those earlier debates about modernity and about civil rights. They were trying, you see, to revive their own indigenous experiments with democracy—and to use them, not just Occupation reforms, to rebuild their country. The question for the Japanese remains, How far have we come? That’s what the debate over war memory is all about.

Dennis Hale is an associate professor of political science at Boston College.

Franziska Seraphim is an assistant professor of history at Boston College and a fellow at Harvard’s Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies.

Photo: BC historian Franziska Seraphim. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

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