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It’s time for conservatives of Japan to get over the war

by Shaun O'dwyer

Special To The Japan Times

“And why shouldn’t we?”

With a thumping Upper House election victory behind them, this question is likely on the minds of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his political allies as they contemplate a visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, the day Japan commemorates the end of World War II.

If they do visit the shrine, they will probably insist that they are doing what politicians do in every other country with military conflicts in its past — proudly commemorating their war dead, with an utterance seemingly indifferent to the rights and wrongs of that past: “They sacrificed their precious lives for their country.”

There is nothing wrong with this, they will say, however much it angers the Koreans or Chinese.

What they say about other countries’ remembrance is obviously correct. For instance, at an April 25 remembrance service in my home country, New Zealand, the governor-general spoke of those New Zealanders who had “paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country.”

Luckily for New Zealand, no other country disputes its politicians’ right to express this truism, and none claims to be a victim of New Zealand’s wartime actions. Unluckily for Japan, its politicians voice this truism in an East Asia where stories of national wartime victimization abound.

These stories answer to the 19th-century French philosopher Ernst Renan’s principle that “where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort.”

In East Asia, the historic source of those griefs is usually Japan. Such stories provide meaning for the sacrifices that the citizens of China, North and South Korea collectively made or suffered in World War II and in the postwar struggles to build their nations as independent states.

They also provide legitimacy for their chief patrons: the governments who associate themselves with the nation-founding events depicted in them.

The nationalist identities in these stories in North and South Korea and (since the 1990s) in China have been defined against Japan’s past colonialism and wartime aggression. Conservative Japanese politicians’ efforts to boost what they see as weak Japanese national pride put them into collision with these identity-forming national memories.

Then there are the conflicting sovereign claims to islands and maritime resources, fueled by both historical grievances and opportunism. In spite of strong regional economic ties, these territorial disputes and conflicts over national memories are likely to escalate. How can they be defused?

Some hope impartial committees of historians can dig East Asia out of this mess. But historians can only make limited headway against these conflicts, when they are not co-opted into them.

While national memories dress in the rhetoric of historical language, especially its “facts,” they are really just as much about the moral and spiritual values story tellers and their audiences invest into the actions of their ancestors; of heroic martyrdom, self-sacrifice, loyalty and courage.

Historians can help drive the worst inaccuracies out of their country’s national memories. But their training in sober, evidence-driven research does not really position them to debunk or to compete with stories of heroic forbears. If they try to, they risk being ignored at best, and denunciation or censorship at worst.

Now regional antagonisms will deepen if Abe and his allies continue their struggle to assert a past of righteous sacrifice by Japan’s Asia-Pacific war dead.

There is no resurgent militarism at the heart of their revisionism. There is instead a conviction that if Japanese are to rally around their democracy in the face of an increasingly aggressive China and a belligerent North Korea, they must have feelings of pride rather than shame for those who lost their lives in past wars.

The dead servicemen honored at Yasukuni must all be remembered as having sacrificed themselves righteously for their country, including those executed as war criminals.

Naturally, conservative politicians’ revisionism and Yasukuni Shrine visits are infuriating the Chinese and Koreans, and disturbing Japan’s allies. They are also divisive for the Japanese people. Many still cherish Japan’s postwar pacifist values, and regard Yasukuni as the stronghold of a discredited State Shinto cult.

This State Shinto cult is often overlooked in foreign media commentary, but it deserves closer scrutiny. In the 1930s, as militarism took hold, Yasukuni Shrine moved to the center of Japan’s spiritual life, and so did its deadly contract with Japan’s enlisted men.

In return for their unquestioning loyalty to the emperor as the head of this cult, they were promised enshrinement as heroic spirits (eirei) at Yasukuni if they died in action, to be honored by the emperor and the rest of Japan. Yasukuni Shrine still embraces State Shinto, and refuses to accept criticisms of Japan’s wartime conduct that might insult the spirits it enshrines.

The problem for Yasukuni and its allies is a historical burden shared with Germany that irretrievably darkens patriotic truisms about the war dead. They cannot credibly deny that Japan waged an atrocity-laden war of conquest between 1937 and 1945. Many Japanese, and most citizens in nations antagonistic to or even friendly to Japan, see nothing meaningful in the cause that over two million Japanese servicemen died for in the Asia-Pacific war.

So a predictable cycle drags on in which conservative politicians and loose cannons like Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto assert their revisionist convictions, suffer international condemnation and then retreat into insincere back-downs or tu quoque bluster.

Their obsession with overcoming shame at Japan’s wartime past also comes at the cost of overlooking what Japanese patriots should be proud of in Japan’s postwar era.

This was brought home to me seven years ago when I heard a story about my wife’s grandfather at his funeral. He had been a soldier in the Japanese Army, and one time during the war his transport ship was torpedoed and sunk. Covered in oil, he floated in the ocean for many hours before he was rescued.

He did not become a heroic spirit. He lived. After the war he married, started a family, and with his brothers formed an engineering company that contributed to the reconstruction of Japan, building supports for bridge foundations.

In the light of stories like this, Japan’s current prosperity and stable democracy can be said to be owed not to the war dead but to those men and women who survived, who rebuilt their country and who put their trust in the new democratic institutions of postwar Japan.

Through their self-sacrifice and faith they bequeathed something worth preserving to today’s Japanese.

If Japanese conservatives truly renounce revisionist nationalism and address themselves to this democratic inheritance, many outside of Japan could live with the other side of their agenda, of a more powerfully armed Japan taking an active role in maintaining regional and global security. Deprived of revisionist provocations, anti-Japanese nationalists would also be less able to play their historical victim cards.

We can only hope that politicians like Abe are smart enough to change their minds and take this course. For their dogmatic posturing can only stir up the swell of angry nationalisms in East Asia.

Shaun O’Dwyer, an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University, has published articles on war memory and historical revisionism in journals such as History and Memory, and Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

  • May15th

    “There is no resurgent militarism at the heart of their revisionism.”

    I believe this to be true. But despite having no intentions, in simply creating the opportunity for others to return Japan to militarism is just as bad. The difference is like that between murder one and negligent homicide.

    We see this with the attempt to change the Japanese constitution from that of pacifism to one which maintains a standing army that has the potential to strike first if Japan perceives it will be under attack. Politicians are asking us to ‘trust them.’ And making the Emperor the official head of state again, not the symbolic one he is today. How is this not returning to the era of Imperial Japan, where one man’s personal greed causes great harm to millions? Of course Emperor Akhito isn’t that dumb, but what of the next emperor? What child wouldn’t be manipulated when he is told that he is a god and that any desire, especially those of his ministers should be fulfilled?

    Are the ultra-nationalist apologists on this board going to simply say, “Oh, certainly they have all the legality of waging war, but trust them. They will never use it.”

  • Sergei Witte

    A relatively well considered and balanced piece.

    However, while Associate Professor O’Dwyer’s assertion that Japan ought to reject its pre-war history and instead embrace its post-war record sounds sensible and reasoned at face value, it is not without difficulty.

    Inherent in the assertion is that Japan should be ashamed of its period of true independence, and instead cherish only the part of its history which saw it subjugated and incorporated into the geopolitical framework of the “pax Americana” world order. In other words, while it was a proud and independent power that dared to challenge Western hegemony over Asia, its history was somehow clouded and shameful. But while it has been an emasculated minnow obedient to the Western-dominated framework, it has been acting legitimately and should celebrate its record.

    The neo-colonialistic undertones in this assertion are obviously troubling.

    There may well be pragmatic reasons for Japan to take the course of self-denial and abandon its right to view its own history as it sees fit. The propaganda value of historical grievances (however factually incredible) to certain elements in China and Korea are undeniable. But the current discourse in Japan is a natural response to the imposition of historical narratives from abroad — or history written by the victors. It is a discourse that is well overdue. Suggestions such as AP O’Dwyer’s, howsoever well intentioned, should be made with due sensitivity and consideration of the wider historical context.

  • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ andrew Sheldon

    That’s all we need, a conservative offering a moral appraisal of a nationalist. That’s the moral ‘normalcy’ that kicks off wars. It is not a case of Abe et al ‘getting over it’ or ‘moving on’. The issue is that they never learn from it. They instead minimise its significance. They believe that Japan is a ‘new paradigm’ rather than Western values tacked on to a historic legacy of collectivist failure, with a bit of hard work & excellent organisation.
    There is everything wrong with sacrifice. The great present day sacrifice is by depositors earning 1% when I’m investing for 200% in several months, in the case of UCL.ASX. Japanese retirees are ill-prepared for retirement, whilst their govts ‘sacrifice their lives’ for their indulgences. This is war; but its not fought on battlefields; its being fought in the minds and bank accounts of Japanese residents, and they are ambivalent.

  • neuxreux

    An admirable take on the issue, I hope Japanese politicians can take something from it. On a different note, China and Korea are not the only countries that experienced Japanese occupation and its wrongs: The Philippines, together with other Southeast Asian countries, though not as vocal as China and Korea experienced the same military rule and treatment. Why these countries are mum about it, I do not know.

    • Shaun O’Dwyer

      You can add Singapore to that list too: thousands of civilians were killed in anti-Chinese massacres in the early stages of the Japanese occupation in 1942. Why are these countries less vocal these days? Probably a combination of factors, including decisions by successive governments to emphasize good diplomatic and economic relations with Japan over war era grievances, a lack of focus on Japan’s wartime atrocities in school history curricula and evolving national identities which are not defined in relation to colonial or wartime suffering at the hands of Japan. SIngapore did receive some pretty handsome, but informal post-war reparations from Japan too, if I remember correctly.

      • Jeffrey

        The differences are probably linked to China seeing itself as the greatest nation in history and their belief that reestablishing themselves as such requires the continued excoriation of Japan. Rather than prove its claim by earning it, China, like many insecure people, chooses to belittle others in attempt to make themselves “look better.”

        Korea’s situation is also different than the other nations occupied by Japan during the as they suffered as a colony during Japan’s 30 years of annexation.

  • pervertt

    As pointed out by Mr O’Dwyer, every country wishes to honour its war dead, and Japan can be expected to be no different. The key point of contention among Japan’s Asian neighbours is not the annual visit to Yasukuni shrine per se, but the enshrinement of 14 convicted Class A war criminals such as Hideki Tojo who was hanged after the war. There is a big difference between honouring men who followed orders and who gave all to the nation and honouring men who made orders that brought unmitigated disaster both to Japan and its neighbours. To honour the latter in the name of collective sacrifice is to sanction a wrongful war that led to millions of deaths in Asia and the Pacific. If that point cannot be understood by senior Japanese politicians who feel entitled to visit Yasukuni jinja then I fear the lessons of history have not been learnt. You can only attribute so much blame to dodgy history textbooks.

  • thedudeabidez

    >The dead servicemen honored at Yasukuni must all be remembered as having sacrificed themselves righteously for their country, including those executed as war criminals.

    Would you make this same argument about the Waffen SS in Germany? If not, then how exactly do you view Japan’s wartime fascists differently?

    • Jeffrey

      Exactly. Nearly as stupid and tone deaf as Reagan agreeing to visit cemetery containing SS dead at Bitburg (see the Ramones’ “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg”).

      The dead roped into a war that they had no control over (think of American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War) should never be disrespected, but honoring those that died in a war of aggression is equally inappropriate.

      • Sergei Witte

        So the German and Japanese soldiers who fought in WWII weren’t “roped into it”? Interesting.

        Curious that American soldiers who died in Vietnam (a country 14,000 km away) are perceived to have been innocent victims of a war that somehow wasn’t aggressive.

        What about American soldiers who died in Iraq? That war was a clear cut case of US aggression. Presumably then those soldiers are not to be respected and should not be honored at all – no memorials, no state recognition etc.

        Or if that is not the case, is it possible that what you really meant was that American war dead are to be respected, but those who fight against America are not to be respected?

      • Jeffrey

        Never said that German or Japanese soldiers who fought weren’t conscripted. But, there is a difference between being respectful to those killed in a war and honoring the leadership that started it. This is what goes on at Yasakuni. Have you ever been there? It very much glorifies Japan’s Asian and Pacific war.

      • Sergei Witte

        So your problem lies with honoring leaders who initiate wars.

        Given that virtually every US president in the last 60 years has initiated or sustained some form of foreign military action, can one assume then that you oppose honoring them in any way? Likewise the US military leaders who carried out their orders to wage those wars?

        Can one also assume that you oppose all museums and memorials in the United States that “glorify” those military actions?

      • Jeffrey

        As you avoided my question about Yasakuni with a misdirected question about how Americans regard military and political leaders in the U.S., I can assume that you’ve never been there nor have you probably been to the U.S.

        To my knowledge there are no official or quasi-official museums, monuments or what have you in the U.S. dedicated to and glorifying the Vietnam, Gulf, Iraq or Afghan wars or the leaders that initiated them. If any existed, I would oppose them. And, unlike Japan, politicians, academics and former military personnel can openly criticize these wars without fear of being harassed by veterans or right wing cranks as happens commonly in Japan. Hell, there’s a whole “academic” cottage industry in Japan to censor school texts and idiot politicians who routinely spout of about how this or that never occurred during WWII. We have similar idiots in the U.S. and they are regularly called out as such. Therein lies the difference in the U.S., the U.K. and, especially germane to this discussion, Germany.

    • Shaun O’Dwyer

      I wouldn’t make the argument for either, because I don’t agree with it. This is a view I attribute to those politicians who align themselves with the Yasukuni take on war history.

  • StevenStreets

    As a US Military child born during a Navy divorce I went through 4 military fathers in one lifetime and saw the destruction of war on a family. Even the birth family kept secret from me for 34 years as I was raised in the Air Force.

    I envy Japans victory of 63 years of endless peace. Why would anyone disparage Japans Peace and the possibility of leading the entire civilized world into a new day of mankind without war?

    Don’t be seduced by the Military Industrial complex body politic nexus with the debt industry and its perpetually depreciating Fiat specie.

    When I was a child in Japan during Vietnam War one dollar was worth 360 yen. Somebodys entire nation has been robbed of the value of their Peoples money. Japans 63 years of endless peace proves which nations people has been robbed; The American People.

    Be filled with Patriotic Pride for your 63 year Peace Japan and I salute your dead warriors. May they remain the last to fall in war.

    • Sergei Witte

      I agree with your pacifist sentiments.

      But is Japan’s 63 years of peace not at least partially attributable to its sheltering under the US military umbrella?

  • Dipak Bose

    If Tojo was a war criminal, why not Churchill or Truman or De Gaulle. if you go back war crminals should include almost every American and British Presidents and Prime Ministers and their Generals.

  • Steven R. Simon

    Simon says that a Japanese person visiting Yasukuni is no different than me visiting the graves of my Confederate veteran ancestors who fought with great valor and enormous skill but were on the wrong side of history because their cause was the perpetuation of human slavery which I as a modern American find abhorrent.