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
Why have the Germans succeeded where the Japanese have
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
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
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
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
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
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
BC historian Franziska Seraphim. By Gary Wayne Gilbert