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Antidote for Abe’s nationalism

by Kevin Rafferty

Shinzo Abe is gearing up for a crushing victory in the Upper House elections this month, which will put him in a good position to fulfill his dreams of changing Japan’s U.S.-imposed “colonial constitution” and restoring the country’s “greatness.” Abe should think carefully before he takes bold or radical strides along these lines.

I hope that some well-wisher who cares about the future of Japan and of Asia will buy the Japanese prime minister a copy of professor Rana Mitter’s new book about the turbulent years in China from 1937 to 1945.*

Let Abe read it and understand the dreadful damage that Imperial Japan did to China before he tries to cash in on a majority in both houses of the Diet.

Abe’s promise that “Japan is back” is misplaced, mindless and stupid in the modern world where we are all dependent on one another.

In these days air pollution in China quickly blows to Japan; forest fires in Sumatra spread a noxious pall over Singapore and Malaysia; and one country’s tinkering with its currency affects all its trading partners, us all. It is especially dangerous when Abe in effect tries to wave red flags in front of a resurging China.

It would do no harm either for a well-wisher to supply copies to China’s leaders so that they too can understand the forces that shaped modern China and the roles of Japan, Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), the Communists, and indeed the Americans and other Western Allies in creating the modern world.

For Mitter, professor of the history and politics of modern China and about to become director of Oxford’s new China Center, World War II began not in 1939 but in 1937 with the Marco Polo Bridge incident when Japan thrust aside its pretenses and went to war with China.

According to this account, modern China was not the creation of Britain and the Opium Wars of the 19th century, however humiliating those events still are in Chinese folklore memories, but was created on the bloody anvil of the battle against Japan’s marauding forces.

Mitter is no polemicist. Indeed there are times when he is almost dispassionate in the face of terrible atrocities. He devotes only one chapter to the fall of Nanjing, though he provides copious references to Iris Chang and to other books that have documented the terrible things that happened. In an interview with China Daily Mitter said. “In the crucible of total war soldiers behave very badly. … Nanjing needs to be seen on its own terms.”

This is not the place to do a fully fledged book review. Mitter generally handles the swirling cast of characters superbly, introducing key players, including Wang Jingwei, who have long been forgotten in the way that Western historians have dominated the debate on the war and thus underplayed Asia’s and China’s tragic role.

Mitter sets a gloomy stage: “If we wish to understand the role of China in today’s global society, we would do well to remind ourselves of the tragic, titanic struggle which that country waged in the 1930s and 1940s not just for its own national dignity and survival, but for the victory of all the Allies, west and east, against some of the darkest forces that history has ever produced.” Digest that, Mr. Abe, before you spit in the face of history.

Someone might reflect on how — even today — the fate of hundreds of millions of people hangs on a few fatally flawed individuals and how they interact and clash with one another. Mitter points out that it was Chiang — or “Cash my check” as the arrogant Americans referred to him — who stood and fought for China and refused to give in to the Japanese, and sacrificed millions of Chinese lives in the process. At the same time, he was tying down half a million Japanese troops who stamped their presence on China and caused a lasting resentment, still today milked by politicians.

Chiang stood for China as one of the five victorious war powers and secured for China a place as one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The price was up to 20 million Chinese dead, 100 million refugees in their own country, and the swift downfall of the corrupt Kuomintang when the Communist forces were freed of the bother of the intruding Japanese Army.

Mitter is perhaps too kind to the Communists in suggesting sweet harmony in Mao’s kingdom of Yanan. But he does point out the terrible similarities among Mao’s security enforcer Kang Sheng, Chiang’s Dai Li, and Wang’s Shanghai gangster Li Shiqun, the last poisoned by Japanese security police.

It would have been nice if Mitter had devoted more space to exactly what drove Japan to its Imperial madness, though he could reply that this is a book about China, not Japan. He quotes Japanese Gen. Iwane Matsui as saying that the point “is to make the Chinese people recognize that Japanese troops are the real friends of China.”

A few pages later the Japanese ambassador to Berlin boasts of having “killed 500,000 people” at Nanjing and that Tokyo expected — correctly — the West to do nothing.

The real question is what politicians and peoples have learned from history. That is very much an open question particularly for Abe’s Japan, but also for China.

Abe still has much to learn. Is he still trying to vindicate his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi? He should be challenged on this, and whether the peace and security of several billion people in the Asia-Pacific region should be put second to Abe’s respect for his grandfather.

For Beijing, there is the question of accepting the uncomfortable truths and cruelties of history and learning from them, not parroting that the 1.3 billion people are still hurting from the Opium Wars and from the cruelties the Japanese did to their grandparents and great grandparents. The risk for Japan, for China and for the peace and stability of all Asia, is that if Abe and his friends try to turn the clock back, Chinese leaders will revert to a potentially more dangerous nationalism.

China and Japan are cultural cousins who should continue to learn from each other. This is especially so for Japan when Abenomics is faltering because of the failure to release the third arrow — real reforms. It is being called “awanomics” (“awa” means “bubble”) or “muddlenomics.”

The nationalist path that Abe has espoused can only lead to disaster, not least because it will lead to increased military spending that aging debt-ridden Japan cannot afford, if not to sulky confrontation or worse.

The problem is that politicians come from narrow-minded tribes and do not understand how our fates are all bound together. Mitter can teach the lessons of history and learning them may avert disaster.

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at Osaka University. * “China’s War With Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival,” by Rana Mitter.

  • Cristian Muñoz

    But, could someone give Xi Jinping a book of China’s crimes in Tibet and inside China after 1945??. Crimes committed by the same China “victim” that lived a tragic period under Japanese occupation before 1945. What kind of lesson learned China??? The answer is simple: Nothing learned. Finally, nationalism and racism aren’t BAD, because both means protect the homeland. But, those people who praise multiculturalim/multiethnicism and less homeland, have this name: MARXIST internationalist.

    • nosos

      It’s not nearly comparable! Before you excuse yourself, you should learn reality of Tibet, not your fantasy. Japanese brutality pales whatever communists had done in Tibet.

      • Masa Chekov

        The communists sure did A LOT in Tibet, though. Brutal invasion and repression, still ongoing.

  • 思德

    Good article. I studied modern Chinese history in college, it is a sad tale. Because of our estrangement from China in the mid century, we (Americans, American history books) never fully acknowledge what the Chinese did in tying down the Japanese on the mainland.

    As far as “Cash my check” goes, his moniker was well-earned. Chiang Kai Shek was a fascist who was a fan of Benito Mussolini and who had his own secret police who were imprisoning, torturing, and press-ganging people into military service. He ruined his country’s economy with over-inflated fiat money, then persecuted it into exhaustion in his quest to root out communists and stay in power. When he retreated to Taiwan, white terror reigned there for a good while. It has only really been since the 90′s or maybe slightly earlier that Taiwan has become more fully democratic, as far as I am aware. Mao was no angel- but neither was Chiang Kai Shek some paragon of virtue.

    That award belongs to Sun Yatsen, who hasn’t been mentioned in this article. He sought refuge in Japan (and Haiwaii) when the Qing Dynasty agents were after him and was responsible for the 1911 revolution that toppled the last dynasty. If only Sun Yatsen had not died so noon and had been able to raise up a better protege than CSK…

  • yoropajin

    So Japan would be cursed for ever because of its past? It should never recover the attributes of all other nations (e.g. a true army) because it was on the wrong side of history? It should not play an active role in the rapidly moving geoppolitics of Asia?
    I think this article forgets to state that today’s Japan has little in common with the nation it was during the previous century. Doesn’t the autor see that today’s Japanese, just like Europeans and Americans, are respectful of democracy, peace and human rights? Doesn’t he see that aggressive nationalicism and military activism his growing in the increasingly more assertive China, where the government is keen to play with the patriotic fervor? It is not legitimate – anymore – to want Japan to remain a junior player on the world stage.
    By the way, a careful Watch of current Financial market movements may indicate that awaeconomics is a topic in China as well (real estate bubble, over investment in infrastuctures, excessive lending, etc.)

  • zer0_0zor0

    One can only hope that more Japanese citizens will awaken to the delusional underpinnings of the nationalist path being pushed by Abe and other remnants of Choshu/Satsuma associated with the “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” oligarchy involved in overthrowing the Takugawa bakufu during the Meiji Restoration with assistance from Western powers.

    That would include Aso, too, for example. Their forebears were responsible for the extremist Shinto nationalism of WWII Japan, which basically came to hold sway after the last of the Japanese progressives were crushed in the Taisho era.

  • Michael Craig

    Had Nobusuke Kishi been tried, convicted and hung in the first place, the LDP would never exist and there wouldn’t be talk of constitutional revisions.

  • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

    There’ll be less and less hope for him to read the book the writer recommended, he shouldn’t have published a book like “Beautiful Country” in the first place, if only he was a person able to read the book which written in all of the things he doesn’t like to know.
    Also there’s no such person represented to be our PM if we were the people tending to read a book like that.
    “Beautiful Country” doesn’t need any of not beautiful history, that’s exact what moves him anytime anywhere.

  • Gene Sasserky

    Japan’s history during WWII is what gave birth to 70 years of a completely pacifist nation. The U.S, has been pressuring Japan to revise it’s constitution and rearm since 1950. At least we got them to create the JSDF. Today with China an economic power but still a one party dictatorship on a massive military buildup and territorial expansion agenda, Japan is “forced” to consider the very things it has continued to refuse the U.S. all these years. WWII is over, China cannot use past history as an excuse to take over all of the South and East China Seas at the expense of other Asian countries. Japan has lacked any semblance of “nationalism” for 70 years and now China has become a “nationalism” nightmare. A great number of books and articles on Japan and China during 1937-1945 contain the very propaganda that the Kuomingtang and the United States constructed in the 1930-s to bring world opinion against Imperial Japanese expansion in Asia. 500,000 people killed in Nanjing is quite a feat for a city with a documented population of 250,000 in 1937. The ROC attempted to prosecute the Nanjing Massacre at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials using a figure of 100,000 deaths but the claim was dismissed for lack of evidence. This at a time when we allies were throwing everything we could at the Japanese leaders. Iris Chang’s book has been discredited by critics on both sides of the argument for lack of verification and false photographs. China today attempts to justify it’s belligerence with it’s version of past history. Wouldn’t you if you were out to dominate Asia?
    Time for people to wake up and look at the real threat at our doorstep today.

    • http://ameblo.jp/cluttered-talk/ Michiko

      Hi, I’m a Japanese citizen, nice to meet you.
      Would you mind to tell me what kind of books written in Japanese you’ve ever read before, till something led you to “that” pathetic point?
      And it’ll be glad if any of no Japanese person is not going to refer irresponsibly, to the 2000 years relationship between China, even when it’s an individual belongs to our Allied country, Japan didn’t make such a promise beween US to allow her interfering or intervening the relationship between Asian countries in the first place, we’re not her pet dog, it’s totally uncalled for business.
      Better concentrate only on what your country requires you to do.