As today marks the 69th anniversary of Japan’s unconditional surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, it is all the more important to learn and hand down to future generations the reality of war, including both the suffering experienced by Japanese and the suffering Japan inflicted on others — most of them other Asians — in its wars in the 1930s and ’40s.
These efforts should serve as a cornerstone for preventing our nation from being involved in war and for maintaining and building peace. Such endeavors are indispensable in view of the dwindling number of Japanese who actually experienced war. It is now estimated such citizens account for just 20 percent of the nation’s population. And some of them were too young during the war to be able to meaningfully pass on their experiences to younger generations.
As of the end of March, survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki numbered 192,719, falling below 200,000 for the first time. Their average age is 79½, and some of them find it increasingly difficult to share their dread of war and the horror of a nuclear attack.
This year’s surrender anniversary comes on the heels of last month’s decision by the Abe administration to change the government’s long-standing interpretation of the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9 to allow Japan to take part in military conflicts overseas even if it is not under attack.
Currently about 90 percent of the Diet’s members were born after the end of World War II and none of them have experienced combat. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself was born in 1954. It comes as no surprise that the leaders who are striving to undermine the no-war principle of postwar Japan — which was based on the nation’s resolve not to repeat the blunders of taking the path to war — have no firsthand experience of war. If they had, they would not take war so lightly.
It is estimated that the war cost the lives of 3.1 million Japanese, including 800,000 civilians, and some 20 million other Asians. But these numbers will become meaningless unless lawmakers and citizens can cultivate the ability to accurately conceive of the terrible consequences that the war brought to both Japanese and other people. This should be done through study and exposure to war-related materials. An appropriate education system is indispensable.
But in today’s Japan, emphasis is instead placed on erasing memories of the war. For example, the Osaka International Peace Center, funded by both the Osaka prefectural and city governments, plans to drastically reduce the number of displays dealing with acts of aggression by the Imperial Japanese armed forces, at the request of Osaka city’s board of education and in accordance with the central government’s guideline on screening of school textbooks, which holds that textbooks should respect the government’s views on issues in modern history. The plan by the center — which is dedicated to studies of the war and efforts to foster peace — contradicts its purported independence. Because the center has displays related to the 1937 Nanjing massacre and the use of Koreans as forced laborers during the war, conservative elements had accused the center of harboring a “masochistic” view of history.
The Gunma Prefectural Government in July refused to renew the permit for a memorial monument erected by a civic group in 2004 in a public park in Takasaki, which commemorates Koreans who were forced to slave in mines and munition factories in various part of Japan, including Gunma. The prefectural government cited “political use” of the monument in 2012 as the reason for not renewing the permit. Some people had complained that the monument was anti-Japanese after a member of the Pyongyang-affiliated General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), during a 2012 meeting sponsored by the civic group in front of the monument, criticized the Japanese government for not sincerely studying the reality of Koreans brought to Japan to serve as forced laborers during the war.
In Tenri, Nara Prefecture, some people demanded the removal of a sign at the site of a former airfield of the Imperial Japanese Navy, which mentioned the past use of Korean forced laborers at the airfield and Korean women compelled to serve at a “comfort station” located there. The city removed the board in April.
The local governments and protesters involved should remember that their efforts to bury the dark past will not change the fact that many Koreans were forced to work in Japan against their will during the war.
Meanwhile, a community center operated by the Saitama municipal government refused to run in its July newsletter a haiku chosen by residents that described the scene of a demonstration calling for protecting the Constitution’s Article 9, on the grounds that it dealt with a politically divisive issue.
These are just a few examples of a number of events that highlight efforts to play down Japan’s war responsibility, and the fact that some local governments do not take a firm stand to protect the freedoms of speech and expression because they want to avoid antagonizing the Abe administration.
We need to have to have the courage to face the reality of Japan’s war history and to uphold and exercise the freedoms of thought, speech, expression and assembly, which are the foundation of peace. If Japan fails to heed the lessons of its war experience, it could find itself once again diplomatically isolated or embroiled in conflict, with similarly tragic results.