To all the Japanese people,
Life is comparable to a spiritual drama that in retrospect can be recalled as a series of happy, sad and bitter memories. However, the Japanese, perhaps more than any other people, appear to want to forget those most unpleasant of memories as quickly as possible. And this, I believe, ultimately threatens the wellbeing of all Asians.
There are memories that, terrible as they are, must never be forgotten. War is one of them. A tremendous number of Asians went through unspeakable hardships during the Pacific War.
“During the war the human spirit was completely demoralized; unrestrained self-interests brought people into conflict everywhere, and the hellish life-condition had a strong hold over the human community,” said a Japanese octogenarian at one of my peace promotion seminars in August 2005, held to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Now I have a strong determination to see to it that the terrible experiences of war never fade into oblivion.”
Unfortunately the majority of Japanese citizens don’t seem to think like this old man, as they are not speaking out loudly against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempt to whitewash the history of Japanese cruelty in Asia.
Things have changed since World War II, but look below the surface and the culture of brutality, fanaticism and racism that was encouraged in the Japanese military during the 1930s is still feeding an underlying psychological malaise in contemporary Japan.
One of the most shocking aspects of the evil indoctrination of those days was the teaching that Chinese were chankoro, or subhuman, and that the killing of Chinese was of no greater significance than the killing of vermin. That abhorrent mind-set has been largely vanquished, but today another dangerous belief is taking hold: the widespread paranoia that the Chinese are going to invade Japan and steal land, and that the Japanese therefore need to build up an army to drive them away.
Japan’s security was once measured in terms of its ability to fend off military attack. But now, there seems little likelihood that any nation would attack Japan. It is obvious that the real front line of its defense is not on any military perimeter. It is the maintenance and healthy growth of international cooperation. For this, world peace is, of course, necessary, but so also is the solution of endless economic and political problems in Japan’s relations with China and the two Koreas.
Prime Minister Abe has always portrayed China as a strategic dagger pointed at the heart of Japan. But world economic and diplomatic conditions now make such a concept an anachronism. A more apt figure of speech would be to describe stagnation or decline in Asia-Pacific trade as a guillotine hanging perilously above Japan’s head. The thread that supports it is threatened by a various breezes: extreme terrorism, ecological damage or, most probably, the inability of East Asians to cooperate successfully in a situation of rapidly increasing complexity and growing tension.
One might expect that the vigor the Japanese once put into military defense would now go into the solution of the serious problems that stand in the way of effective Asia-Pacific cooperation, for this is Japan’s great strategic frontier. But this is seldom the case. In fact, the Japanese seem remarkably passive, and they still seem to see their nation as somehow separated from the rest of Asia. They do their best to fathom what Asia may have in store for them but do not think of Japan as being a major force that will help shape the continent.
The Japanese seem slow to realize that, while Japan is undoubtedly dependent on the rest of Asia, what that Asia will be is in no small degree dependent on Japan’s role in it. It is indeed an irony — perhaps even a tragedy — that the Japanese, while possessing Asia’s most developed economy, should at the same time be among its psychologically most parochial peoples. As they themselves are fond of saying, they have an “island mentality” (shimaguni konjō).
It is doubtful that much of present Asia would survive a nuclear holocaust, but certainly Japan as it now exists would definitely not. As nuclear weapons proliferate, as seems probable, even localized wars, if they prevented Japan’s access to food supplies or oil resources, would certainly bring the country tumbling down is less than a month. Uncontrolled population growth in developing Asian countries or growing frictions between them and their more industrialized counterparts might lead to such disorders as to impair trade. There is also a growing capacity for acts of terrorism to produce chaos in an ever more intricately knit Asia. Any of these developments would have particularly serious consequences for Japan’s finely tuned economy and economic dependence on the rest of the world.
The importance of Japan’s diplomatic relations with its neighbors — or lack of them — has been a recurrent issue since World War II, sometimes arising out of a trivial confrontation, but more often growing into a vociferously fought dispute. The 127 million Japanese — or even a fraction of that number — can thrive on their slender archipelago only if there is a huge flow of natural resources into Japan, a corresponding outward flow of manufactured products to pay for these imports, and the conditions of peace in East Asia to enable this seamless quid pro quo.
All their abilities and achievements will serve the Japanese very little if these conditions are not nurtured. A stable Asian cultural melting pot built on warm relations with their fellow peoples is thus fundamental to Japan’s well-being.
Prince Edward Island
Writer and illustrator Joel Assogba is a passionate public speaker and the author of many colorful books for children. He lived about two decades in Japan and now resides in Prince Edward Island, Canada. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send your comments and Hotline to Nagata-cho submissions of 500-700 words to email@example.com.