Victim or war criminal?
Daniel Nassim on why Japan presents such an ambivalent attitude towards
the Second World War
The Second World War is a key point of discussion for all of the major powers.
For the USA and Britain, the war represents a triumph of national heroism.
For Germany and Japan, the war remains, even 47 years on, an acute embarrassment.
Britain and America's hankering after their supposedly glorious pasts can
only be understood in relation to the troubled present. Both countries need
to rerun history to compensate for their lack of dynamism today. It is far
easier to show the Dambusters on television than to rebuild Britain's
For Japan matters are less straightforward. The Japanese experienced the
war as a national disaster. As Japan's relative economic strength pushes
it towards the centre of global affairs once more, revising the history
of the war becomes an essential part of legitimising Japan's new relations
with the outside world.
The difficulty in discussing the war is shown in Japan's 'diplomacy of contrition'
towards its East Asian neighbours. Whenever Japanese ministers travel to
Asia, it seems, they make a mandatory apology for Japan's past behaviour.
So, in January, during a trip to South Korea, Japanese premier Kiichi Miyazawa
issued an official apology over the press-ganging of Korean 'comfort women'
to serve as prostitutes for the imperial army.
Despite this public display of contrition, it would be a mistake to assume
that Japan accepts the Anglo-Saxon view of its wartime behaviour. It is
more that Japan has a different understanding of what the war was about.
For the Allied powers the 'Pacific War' is recalled primarily as a war of
Japanese atrocities against US and British prisoners. This is the war epitomised
in the Bridge over the River Kwai. It was also a war of inhuman modern-day
samurai soldiers and kamikaze pilots stoically defending Pacific islands
against the US advance. Japan's murder of 20m Asians in the war barely warrants
a footnote in this Western account.
Japan's view of the war is entirely different. Japan is presented as the
victim of Western aggression, as symbolised by the dropping of atomic
bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the internment without trial of thousands
of Japanese in the USA. On the fiftieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl
Harbour last December, while Americans were being told about Japan's sneak
attack, the Japanese were told that Japan was forced into attacking America.
(Neither story is exactly true - see 'Harbouring Illusions', Living Marxism,
The view of Japan as victim also comes across in Japanese cinema. War films
in the USA and Britain are about the daring exploits of the military against
German or Japanese opponents. Those made in Japan are invariably about Japanese
Images which do not accord with the view of Japan as victim are struck from
the records. This is why references to the rape of Nanjing, where the Japanese
slaughtered 200 000 Chinese in 1937, are kept out of school textbooks. It
is why an academic like Shoichi Watanabe can breeze through the evidence
and conclude that 'the massacre in Nanjing did not occur' ('The Emperor
and the militarists', Japan Echo, XVIII(2) 1991).
A popular sub-theme of the Japan-as-victim view is that the USA waged a
racial war against the Japanese. In The Japan that Can Say No, Shintaro
Ishihara, a maverick conservative politician and popular novelist, puts
the point bluntly:
'The United States bombed German cities and killed many civilians but did
not use atomic bombs on the Germans. US planes dropped them on us because
we are Japanese. Every American I mention this to denies that race was the
reason, but the fact remains that nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima
and Nagasaki. We should never forget this. The same virulent racism underlies
trade friction with the United States.'(p28)
This theme is not considered particularly right-wing in Japan.
At first sight, Japan's 'diplomacy of contrition' in East Asia and its frequent
apologies for the war seem to contradict the view of Japan as victim. In
reality, the difference is between what Japan presents to the outside world
and the debate inside the country.
Last December there was a long debate among Japanese politicians about whether
to apologise for Pearl Harbour. Eventually an apology was published in English
which said that Japan was 'deeply remorseful' for the attack. The Japanese
language text, however, only said that Japan 'deeply reflects' on its actions.
This dichotomy also explains the debate inside Japan on Article Nine of
the constitution. This clause, which was written by the Americans when they
occupied Japan after the war, states that Japan renounces war and will have
no armed forces.
In one sense the debate about the clause is academic since, whatever the
constitution says, Japan is the third largest military spender in the world.
The debate is important, however, because it pertains to how Japan's role
in the outside world is seen. Since the war the Americans have had ultimate
responsibility for Japan's security. To challenge this arrangement would
disrupt Japan's key bilateral relationship. Yet America's decline relative
to Japan has created new pressures to adjust the power balance in their
relationship. These contemporary tensions find expression in the discussion
of the war and the postwar constitution.
Japan's apologies to East Asian states also have more to do with its present
ambitions than its guilt about the past. Apologies for the war are invariably
linked to a bid for a bigger economic stake in East Asia. It is the return
of the old Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere in the guise of conciliation.
Japan's debate about the Second World War is no historical matter. The outcome
of the war forced Japan into a junior partnership with the USA in exchange
for a guarantee of global security. As the old world order collapses, Japan's
concern is to reforge its relations with the Western powers and its neighbours,
so as to safeguard its place in the new. This is the hidden agenda behind
the ongoing Japanese controversy about what happened last time.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 44, June 1992