History loomed over the recent visit of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji like a threatening storm cloud. But other than some scattered showers, this trip was unmarred by the type of cloudbursts unleashed by the demands of President Jiang Zemin during his 1998 visit, when he called for Japan to admit to and atone for its wartime aggression. Tokyo has been pouting ever since and there were clear signs of relief among the Japanese leadership that on the latest occasion the legacies of the past were kept at bay.
Pretending that history need not influence present and future bilateral relations has an obvious appeal in Japan, but people should not delude themselves that neighbors are willing to let Japan off the hook. In stating that addressing past misdeeds is Japan’s responsibility, Zhu has put the onus on Tokyo to revise what Beijing clearly views as an inadequate rendering of the shared past.
Without the duress of hectoring and arm-twisting, expectations are building for a less evasive and self-exonerating history that rises above the nationalism that has prevented Japan’s regional rehabilitation. Japan can ill afford to miss this opportunity to rebuild bridges it razed more than six decades ago.
Japanese conservatives shrilly denounce any such attempts, arguing that the nation’s pride is at risk, but they seemingly ignore the fact that, while wrapping themselves in the flag, they are blithely trampling on their nation’s dignity and providing ammunition to its critics.
This superb collection of essays surveys the transnational battlefields of history and explores the permutations and implications of censorship and denial. The past resonates fitfully but powerfully in contemporary Japan, Germany and the United States, ensuring that history is continually a work in progress and a source of controversy. The dozen authors represented in this volume share a commitment to assessing the costs of collective amnesia, elucidating the politics of history and promoting shared memories freed from the blinkers of nationalism.
How nations teach about their past provides important insights into the role of history in forging national identity and cultivating desired values. Hein and Selden suggest that “schools and textbooks are important vehicles through which contemporary societies transmit ideas of citizenship and both the idealized past and the promised future of the community. Narratives of nationhood, like textbooks themselves, are always unfinished projects, requiring revision and reinterpretation to remain relevant in ever-changing times.”
The battles over textbook content are so heated because the outcomes have such significant implications for how people view their governments and what lessons they glean from the past.
It is evident that Germany has made much more progress in coming to terms with its Nazi past than Japan has with its contemporaneous 15-year rampage through Asia. Germany has settled on an unequivocal version of Nazi atrocities that incorporates perspectives from its neighbors, details the suffering inflicted and clarifies issues of responsibility and victimization.
“Censoring History” suggests that this transnational and forthright version of history has significantly contributed to Germany’s integration into Europe. In contrast, Japan has failed to embrace a balanced history of the shared regional past that satisfies its neighbors, thus impeding the process of regional reconciliation and integration.
Why has Japan dragged its feet in coming to terms with its conduct during the 1930s and 1940s? Hein and Selden argue that the benefits of, and pressures for, regional integration are greater for Germany than Japan. German leaders recognize that not repudiating the Nazi past is untenable. Japanese leaders have expressed ambivalence about the wartime record because they believe they have less to lose by clinging to a self-exonerating history.
The U.S. has also played a key role in how Japanese have come to terms with the past by permitting considerably more wartime-postwar continuity in Japan in terms of officials, institutions and practices. Japan’s postwar purges were less encompassing than the de-Nazification programs in Germany, and its conservative elite enjoyed U.S. support. In addition, the Tokyo tribunal only railroaded a handful of scapegoats while sweeping numerous war crimes under the tatami and protecting the Showa Emperor from prosecution.
In the context of the Cold War, the U.S. downplayed issues of wartime responsibility because it was far more concerned with rebuilding Japan into a bulwark of the “free world” in Asia. This meant that claims for reparations and pressures for a full accounting from within Asia met resistance in Washington.
The end of the Cold War served to disinter the hastily buried past, a process reinforced in Japan by the death of Emperor Showa in 1989. Suppressed grievances came to the fore at a time when Japan’s accelerating economic integration in Asia raised the stakes and costs of whitewashing the past. Japan has had to become more responsive to international criticism, but revising narratives of the war years has forced Japanese to suddenly digest large scoops of unappetizing and unfamiliar history.
Inevitably there has been a backlash among conservatives who feel that Japan’s image has been tarnished by what they term “masochistic history.”
Gavan McCormack and Aaron Gerow disagree with Japanese conservatives who assert that the function of history is to instill national pride among students and make them good citizens. The logical conclusion of such efforts would be to revive a distorting and destabilizing nationalism. McCormack warns that “if Japan chose to speak to the region in shrill tones of correctness and narrow Japanese pride and to adopt textbooks that would substitute for historical education the inculcation of a set of edifying stories designed to promote traditional virtues and nationalist fervor, closely akin to prewar ethics textbooks, it would also have to confront its neighbors, rejecting their histories . . . as ‘incorrect.’ “
Gerow also takes issue with ongoing efforts “to solve the nation’s serious educational problems by reinterpreting students as receptacles of national ideology, to be protected from any knowledge that may prompt them to question their status as national subjects whose duty is to serve the state.”
Saburo Ienaga has been at the front lines of the textbook controversy in Japan since 1965, in a series of epic court battles. His efforts have led to heightened public scrutiny of the Ministry of Education’s influence on how the past is depicted.
In confronting issues of Japanese war crimes, war responsibility and censorship, Nozaki Yoshiko and Inokuchi Hiromitsu suggest that Ienaga “made visible the operation of the imperial, ultranationalist power that had allowed such individuals to commit crimes and that now attempted to conceal them.” He and like-minded historians have woven into the narrative of war the long suppressed voices of Japan’s Asian victims and made it more difficult for government officials to arbitrarily exercise their powers to rid the nation’s history of unpalatable truths.
In the U.S., war memories have also been clouded by nationalism and racism. It was not until the 1970s that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was subjected to critical assessment, and even today textbooks do not fully come to terms with the brutal destruction inflicted by the U.S. on Vietnam. It is a sad commentary that the voices and war experiences of the Vietnamese are notable for their absence from U.S. textbooks. Unlike Japan and Germany, the U.S. has not yet been subject to international pressures that would promote a more thorough reflection on the causes and consequences of the war.
James Loewen points out that U.S. students instead are fed a war history that dodges controversies, fudges causation, ignores the powerful images of war and in general occupies less than four and a half minutes of the annual curriculum. His essay is a grim reminder about the need to get over sanctimonious finger-pointing and get on with the task of countering the ubiquitous forces of nationalism and denial that betray wartime histories, preclude reconciliation and stoke animosities.