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Japan must re-learn its militarist past

by Pankaj Mishra

Bloomberg

It was raining heavily last week when I visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japanese who died in the “Imperial cause.” But the tour buses still discharged scores of elderly Japanese visitors, and I received approving looks and even a faint smile from two Japanese women as we stood in the rain before the memorial to an Indian jurist called Radha Binod Pal.

Pal was the only Indian judge at the so-called Tokyo Trials, Japan’s protracted version of Nuremberg. In his 1,235-page dissent, he voted to acquit the 25 Japanese accused by Allied powers of the “unprecedented” crime of “conspiring against peace.” Not surprisingly, he became a hero to those Japanese who felt more “victim consciousness” than guilt over Japan’s brutalizing of Asia. He continues to be revered, as more than one Japanese nationalist I met last week proudly informed me. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants to revise Japan’s 1995 apology for its Asian war, is a fan.

To be sure, Pal had no time for Japanese militarism that claimed millions of lives across Asia. But he argued that thousands of Japanese implicated in atrocities during the war — the Class B and Class C criminals — had already been executed or imprisoned. In any case, Pal wasn’t the only one to notice serious problems with the Tokyo Trials.

For instance, the Soviet Union’s representative had previously served as a judge in Josef Stalin’s mock trials of the 1930s. The British, Dutch and French presuming to judge Japan’s conduct invited attention to their own much-despised imperialisms in Asia. Though “fiendish,” Pal argued, Japan’s expansionism was hardly unprecedented. Like all modern imperialist and industrial powers, Japan had sought to advance its outsized ambitions and respond to perceived threats.

Other points raised by Pal also warned against an easy moral clarity about Japan’s war in Asia. He argued that the firebombing of Japanese cities and the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should also be counted as major war crimes.

In fact, the trial was rendered absurd from the very beginning by Allied Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur’s aggressive and obsessive attempt to shield Emperor Hirohito from responsibility for his country’s crimes. The chief Japanese militarist Hideki Tojo was forced to recant his statement of the obvious: that he could not have done anything against the wishes of the divinely ordained emperor.

The American chief prosecutor lunched with the Emperor on the day that Tojo’s death sentence was confirmed. Even the right-wing Gen. Charles Willoughby, MacArthur’s chief intelligence officer, privately denounced the trials as the “worst hypocrisy in recorded history.”

Japan’s reckoning with its war was further complicated when the U.S. Occupation authorities went on to enlist former war criminals in their anti-communist crusade, entrenching rather than uprooting the right-wing politicians and bureaucrats who had brought Japan such misery and grief. Nobusuke Kishi, a former prime minister, the grandfather of Abe and another huge admirer of Pal, was one such beneficiary of a hasty and expedient rehabilitation.

Certainly, the contradictions, absurdities and hypocrisies of the U.S. Occupation opened up plenty of scope for conservative nationalists, even as they became Japan’s most staunchly pro-U.S. force. Their aggressive self-pity and sanctimoniousness is fully on display in the Yushukan museum adjoining the Yasukuni Shrine.

National war museums or memorials are built out of the intense need to grieve and mourn, and to give meaning and dignity to the sacrifices of the dead; they don’t usually mention the victims on the other side. Maya Lin’s moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, for example, has no record of the millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians who also died in the 1960s and ’70s in an unnecessary war.

Still, Yushukan takes too many liberties with historical accuracy. It presents the invasion of Manchuria in 1931, which inaugurated a particularly deranged phase of Japanese militarism, as an act of “legitimate self-defense.” The Rape of Nanjing in 1937 is referred to as the Nanjing Incident in which “Chinese soldiers in civilian clothes” were “severely prosecuted.”

The narrative on display portrays the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 as a response to America’s malign bellicosity. Coerced into war, Japan kept pursuing peace but was crudely rebuffed by the Allies, and then viciously firebombed into submission, but not before it had “liberated” much of Asia from Western domination.

Nothing undermines this litany of half-truths, omissions, suppressions and outright falsehoods than the simple failure to acknowledge that Japan’s pan-Asianist crusade, which claimed more than 10 million lives in China alone, came as a calamity to most Asians.

But it is a bit unfair to expect Japan’s conservative rulers today to periodically denounce their country’s short-lived empire and produce apologies on demand to its former enemies while British Tories propose to celebrate their imperial past in revised history textbooks.

At least Japan’s extreme case of forgetfulness, ignorance and self-absorption can be credited partly to its stifling embrace of the United States.

In the last decade, however, Japan has finally been forced to become more conscious of its place in Asia, as old rival China has emerged as a world power, and the U.S. has been distracted by futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Japan searches, still confusedly, for a new identity within Asia, it may come to appreciate, as Jeff Kingston, a close observer of contemporary Japan, writes, “the potential benefits of reassuring past enemies.” But how will the effort at reconciliation with victims of Japanese aggression shape official memories of Japan’s war in Asia?

In most Asian eyes, Japan has remained for the past two decades a U.S. client state — unable or unwilling to alienate its former occupiers by charting an independent path. Remarkably at the same time, another formerly occupied country and close U.S. ally, Germany, has moved to the center of Europe, and is shaping the continent’s future.

Even Turkey has broken out of its long isolation, and moved away from its Western alliances; its new Islamist rulers have proposed a new version of its imperial past, and assumed its geographical and geopolitical destiny in the Middle East with policies designated as neo-Ottomanism.

Though far from upholding neo-Pan-Asianism, Japan is showing small signs of building new bridges with its Asian neighbors, especially those alienated by China, even as it huddles under the U.S. security umbrella. Abe has visited Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Mongolia in recent months.

Japan’s conservative rulers, however, will need a more capacious sense of history to accomplish this task. Japanese revisionists may be heartened by the inscription in stone at Pal’s memorial at Yasukuni:

When time shall have softened passion and prejudice,

When reason shall have stripped the mask from

misrepresentation,

Then justice, holding evenly her scales, will require

much of past censure and praise to change places.

But Pal, who was actually quoting Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War, was wrong: The requirements of justice, however noble, have little to do with the facts of history. Japan’s own history shows that such contingent truths are shaped by socioeconomic imperatives and geopolitical pressures. How these will define Japan’s latest sense of itself in Asia remains to be seen.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.