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Blindness tips the scales of history

by Jeff Kingston

THE POSTWAR CONSERVATIVE VIEW OF ASIA: How the Political Right has Delayed Japan’s Coming to Terms with its History of Aggression in Asia, by Yoshibumi Wakamiya. Tokyo: LTCB International Library Foundation, 1999, 370 pp. 3,000 yen,

This study of Japan’s dilatory and grudging attempts to come to terms with, and take responsibility for, its imperial aggression throughout Asia over the past century provides some interesting insights about contemporary Japan. Wakamiya argues that the ideology of Pan Asianism developed in the late 19th century remains vibrant as a means to obscure the reality of and to justify Japan’s self-serving aggression and systematic trampling of Asians’ interests since the Sino-Japanese War of 1895.

In recent decades, Japan has been the target of its neighbors’ ire for refusing to face this checkered past forthrightly, demonstrate contrition and take unequivocal responsibility for its transgressions. Other Asians seem to harbor no illusions about Japan’s self-congratulatory and exculpatory version of Pan Asianism and are well aware of the suffering inflicted by the Imperial military forces during the 1930s and 1940s. An image of Japan as the liberator of Asia appeals to conservative Japanese, but this is not how most Asians remember an often-brutal Pax Nipponica.

Wakamiya draws on his experiences as a reporter and editor for the Asahi Shimbun to elucidate the politics of history and how this has encouraged a collective amnesia in Japan and thwarted reconciliation with its victims in the region. This is a translation of the author’s book, “Sengo Hoshu no Ajiakan” (1995) with some additional material covering events up through 1998.

He usefully explains why denying, minimizing, mitigating and shifting responsibility for what Japan did to other Asians is part of the mainstream political debate more than five decades after the defeat of the militarists who led the rampage.

The author proves an interesting guide to the Alice in Wonderland of conservative Japanese attitudes toward Asia. In doing so he helps explain why prominent leaders seem to suffer from a bad case of foot-in-mouth disease when discussing regional history.

The colorful cast of characters, some well-known, others more obscure, come to life in these pages and help convey an immediacy and authenticity to the author’s insights. Wakamiya surveys the maneuvering, pandering, hypocrisy, principles, arrogance and racism of the men who have guided Japan’s postwar policy toward Asia, liberally quoting them and those who have followed their careers.

The book focuses on the paradox of Japanese ambivalence toward its Asian roots and how this helps explain why the posturing of conservatives on Asian affairs often resembles the theater of the absurd. Wakamiya writes, “While failing to outgrow their predisposed contempt for Asia and feigning to ignore the deep scars that Japan left on Asia, postwar Japanese rightists seem unable to live down their guilty sense of debt to Asia.”

The continuity of the pre- and post-World War II conservative leadership helps to explain the unrepentant adherence to perspectives and policies redolent of the wartime Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere among strident reactionaries who still wield power in the Liberal Democratic Party. The rise of Nobosuke Kishi from class “A” war criminal to prime minister in 1957 represented a rehabilitation of conservative views about Asia that continue to confound contemporary regional relations.

In this sense, Japan has been frustrated in moving beyond the troubles of the past precisely because the architects of that past have burdened the nation with a legacy that encourages blinkered historical views and policies that alienates neighbors. These hardline conservatives convey an impression that Japan only seeks to hurriedly bury the unexamined past without neither acknowledging what happened nor demonstrating responsibility and remorse for the excesses.

Wakamiya’s careful study helps explain why repeated apologies by Japanese leaders are needed: Once proffered, they are diluted and refuted by the intentional gaffes of conservative ideologues who oppose reconciliation with Asia based on the premise that Japan was wrong and that its “liberation” of Asia was actually only a transfer of imperial power. Readers can begin to appreciate why Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s denial of the Nanking Massacre has not led to him be hounded from public life and why similarly exonerating books and comics penned by the Dr. Feelgoods of Japanese history, Nobukatsu Fujioka and Yoshinori Kobayashi, are so popular with the public.

The author concludes that this conservative, self-absolving view of history is widely supported among Japanese who have trouble digesting the unsavory revelations concerning Japan’s wartime conduct that emerged after the Showa Emperor’s death in 1989. The history taught in Japan’s schools since the war has minimized or whitewashed the bad bits, leaving Japanese unprepared and disinclined to accept the exhumed past.

Wakamiya argues that this ignorance of the past and the “bigoted nationalism” that inspires it must be overcome by the efforts of educators and political leaders, but this book makes it hard to imagine these men and women as likely agents of change. He urges Japan to, “. . . break its habit of thinking of itself as ‘Asia’s leader’ or ‘first in Asia’ in every domain. It is crucial for Japan to act as a member of the Asian team with as much humility as possible, conscious of its militaristic stigma. In recent history, Japan brought untold misery to people throughout Asia (and brought ruin on itself). That is why it must teach its history as it is, without convenient excuses or omissions, to coming generations.”

Fine sentiments, but in reading his discussion about the Byzantine political maneuvering caused by the Emperor’s visit to China, the fiasco of the 1995 Diet resolution on a war apology and similar episodes, the forces of conservative orthodoxy seem equal to the challenges of revisionism and probity.