There’s a reason the nuns in Queens had me and my classmates read Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” several times — the same reason that’s made the book required reading around the globe. The 15-year-old’s account of hiding from the Nazis is impervious to nut jobs who argue the Holocaust is fiction.
Shockingly, in recent days at least 282 copies of Frank’s memoirs have been vandalized at 36 libraries across Tokyo — their pages torn or defaced. No one knows who did it, or why. But it requires an acrobatic feat of compartmentalization not to see the connection to Japan’s own recent efforts to deface history.
Earlier this month, the southern Japanese city of Minami Kyushu asked the U.N. World Heritage organization to enshrine farewell letters written by World War II kamikaze suicide pilots alongside documents like Frank’s diaries and the Magna Carta. The request drew an immediate rebuke from China and stirred up Japan’s right wing. What many see as evidence of Japan’s wartime fanaticism, nationalists view as testaments to manly duty and devotion to the Emperor.
I have no evidence that Japan’s right-wingers are behind this clearly coordinated campaign to desecrate Frank’s work. Anti-Semitism isn’t particularly pervasive among Japanese (although one extremist group is organizing a 125th birthday party for the Fuhrer so fans can “converse, listening to Wagner’s music and enjoying wine together”). But it would be a coincidence of astounding proportions if this shameful vandalism weren’t related to the kamikaze letters controversy.
One has to ask to what extent the return of nationalistic leader Shinzo Abe has encouraged such behavior. Though most attention has focused on Abe’s efforts to revive the economy, right-wingers have delighted in the prime minister’s other initiatives — to whitewash textbooks, beautify Japan’s wartime aggression, load the governing board of national broadcaster NHK with like-minded conservatives, and embolden the nation’s military.
No, I’m not suggesting Abe bears responsibility for the Frank diary attacks. But his 14 months in office have created an atmosphere that’s encouraging fringe activists, who may believe Abe secretly supports them. Intentionally or not, the Prime Minister has fed this impression by visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 14 World War II Class A war criminals, and hinting that he wants to revisit a past apology for the military’s sex-slave program. Among Abe’s picks for the NHK board is a man who claims the Nanjing Massacre of the 1930s never happened.
When Abe and his ilk explain why Japan should be able to honor its dead soldiers and rewrite its pacifist Constitution, they highlight how their nation has been a model global citizen. The argument is not without merit. For 68 years now, Japan has been a peaceful, generous, and reasonably cooperative power.
Yet Abe’s rightward turn could squander much of the “soft power” Japan amassed since then. Japanese don’t tend to track events in Richmond, Virginia and Glendale, California very closely. But it’s in these two American cities that officials in Tokyo can get a glimpse of their nation’s future. It’s not pretty.
On Feb. 6, the Virginia legislature passed a bill to change textbooks to say the Sea of Japan is also known as the East Sea. It may not seem like a big deal, but the move outraged Japan. The change came at the behest of fast-rising contingent of Korean-American voters who are wielding that power to right what they view as historical wrongs by Japan 11,000 km away. Tokyo has also taken great umbrage at a “comfort women” statue in the Los Angeles area erected by Asian Americans, and protests from Japanese diplomats and an online petition to President Barack Obama have gone unheeded. More and more, Chinese-Americans are showing up at Japanese consulates with protest placards, including in December when Abe visited Yasukuni.
As Abe preaches the glory of patriotism more than capitalism, expect Korea and China to intensify efforts around the world to shame Tokyo. Take Xi Jinping’s trip to Germany next month.
According to Reuters, the Chinese president plans to highlight Germany’s atonement for the sins of World War II, in order to embarrass Japan. It’s a reminder that statements from Japanese politicians have repeatedly undercut the country’s many apologies for its wartime behavior.
Abe’s mandate from voters is the economy, not prettifying some ugly moments in the nation’s history. He should get back to that job. But first he must unequivocally condemn the Frank attacks in clear and strong terms. Few issues are more cut-and-dry than the need to denounce anti-Semitism in all forms. This isn’t an issue to be left to Abe’s Cabinet chief, Yoshihide Suga, whose name isn’t widely known outside Japan. It’s a task for the nation’s leader, and Abe’s silence is, like much of his other signaling thus far, damaging the nation’s interests.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo.