As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, questions related to Japan’s wartime actions once again come to the fore. For example, will Prime Minister Shinzo Abe make an offering to Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, as he did a year ago? Will he admit Japan was an “aggressor nation” in his much-anticipated address to mark the occasion of Japan’s defeat?
The annual fuss about what will and won’t be said and who will and won’t visit Yasukuni always begs the question: Why can’t Japan do what Germany did, i.e., admit it was wrong and that it did some horrible things, and make a sincere apology that isn’t almost immediately contradicted by other Japanese leaders? Further, why can’t Japan do its best to make amends to the fast-dwindling number of “comfort women,” forced laborers et al?
The answer to these questions is that those Japanese leaders who continue to condone Japan’s wartime actions inhabit a “parallel universe.” This parallel universe shares just enough points in common with our ordinary world that the two seem, to the casual observer, to be one and the same. However, in this parallel universe Japan was not an aggressor but, on the contrary, was forced to take up arms in self-defense and valiantly sacrificed itself in a “holy war” (seisen) to liberate Asia from Western imperialism.
After all, weren’t Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma all Western colonies prior to being “liberated” by the Japanese military during the war? And, in the war’s aftermath, didn’t all of these former colonies gain their independence? Doesn’t Japan deserve some credit for that?
Surprisingly, one of the best places to encounter this parallel universe is on Mount Koya, a UNESCO heritage site in Wakayama Prefecture affiliated with the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Those who have visited Mount Koya are likely to be surprised by these words, for its many temples and vast graveyard might be the last place you would expect to encounter an affirmation of wartime Japan.
Nevertheless, this connection is not so surprising given that the Shingon sect, from the time of its introduction to Japan by Kukai in the early ninth century, has cast itself in the role of “spiritual protector of the state” (chingo kokka).
In a large, three-storied octagonal tower known as Manihoto, visitors to Mount Koya will see a display of military uniforms and other wartime paraphernalia. Adjacent to these is a row of photographs depicting the friendly interactions of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers with Burmese officials and ordinary people.
Not only are Japanese troops shown freeing Burma from British control, but visitors are also treated to photos of them training Burmese youth to become officers in the newly created Burma National Army. A final photograph, taken on Aug. 1, 1943, shows the new prime minister and Cabinet of an independent Burma, all wearing traditional dress and bedecked with Japanese decorations.
This version of Japanese wartime history is now shown to legions of Japanese schoolchildren visiting Mount Koya, proving Japan’s intent to liberate Asia. From Manihoto the children proceed to the huge cemetery, where they receive a second introduction to the parallel universe. Here they encounter a large building named the “Hall for Heroic Spirits” (Eirei-den), fronted by a sign identifying more than 1,000 “Showa [Era] martyrs” (Shōwa junnansha), better known to the ordinary world as convicted A-, B- and C-class war criminals.
As recounted in an article in The New York Times last August, Prime Minister Abe supports this depiction. He sent a message to a memorial ceremony on April 29, 2014, honoring these martyrs. In his message, he referred to these war criminals/martyrs as having “sacrificed their souls to become the foundation of the fatherland.”
As incongruous as this designation sounds, if Japan truly fought a holy war to liberate the colonized countries of Asia, why wouldn’t those brave and loyal soldiers who fought to achieve this goal be worthy of the name “martyr” despite (or precisely due to) having been falsely accused in the postwar period of being war criminals? These “martyrs” survived the war only to die at the hands of the Allies in what is regarded in the parallel universe as no more than “victor’s justice.”
The problem with the parallel universe’s narrative is that, at best, it is only partially true. Yes, Japan, at least for a time, displaced the Western colonial occupiers of many Asian countries, including the U.S. in the Philippines. And yes, many of the inhabitants of these countries initially welcomed the Japanese military as liberators. But, in country after country, the Japanese military soon outwore its welcome; it just wouldn’t leave.
Burma is a prime example. On March 27, 1945, the Burma National Army rose up in revolt against its Japanese occupiers and by that May, with British backing, it succeeded in routing Japanese troops from most of the country. Aung San, the Burmese government’s war minister (and father of contemporary political leader Aung San Suu Kyi), led the revolt.
But why had the Burmese risen up against their liberators? As British Field Marshal William Slim wrote: “It was not long before Aung San found that what he meant by independence had little relation to what the Japanese were prepared to give — that he had exchanged an old master for an infinitely more tyrannical new one. As one of his leading followers once said to me, ‘If the British sucked our blood, the Japanese ground our bones!’ ”
For a senior British officer like Slim to admit, if only in a quotation, that the “British sucked our blood” is refreshing in its honesty. Yet this doesn’t lessen the responsibility of the Japanese military for its actions — actions that historians believe were responsible for the deaths of 170,000 to 250,000 Burmese civilians from 1942 to 1945. Unsurprisingly, this side of the Japanese occupation of Burma is nowhere to be found among the many photographs in Manihoto.
If further proof were needed of the duplicity of wartime Japan, it can be found in its ongoing colonization of both Taiwan and Korea, not to mention the creation of a puppet government in Manchuria in 1932. Years before its attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan could, had it wished, have granted independence to its colonial subjects, but it refused to do so.
The truth is that, like its Western adversaries, Japan was yet another colonial power seeking to expand its empire by war. In the end, the only people left to believe in the myth of Japan’s wartime nobility were Japan’s unrepentant leaders, plus Japanese schoolchildren now being inducted into the parallel universe. Additionally, millions of bereaved in Japan also wanted to believe that their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers hadn’t died in vain — certainly not as “aggressors.”
Parallel universes, like myths, are hard to counter, especially when they serve the multiple needs of political leaders. In the parallel universe, Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was falsely imprisoned from 1945 to 1948 as a suspected Class-A war criminal. More importantly, Japan as liberator is a useful myth on which to base Japan’s current attempt to create a nation that can once again go to war far beyond its borders, ignoring the prohibitions of Article 9 of its “peace Constitution.”
Yet, a key question remains: What does the future hold in store for a nation whose leaders claim that convicted war criminals are actually the “foundation of the fatherland”? While myths and parallel universes die hard, human beings are far easier to kill.
Brian A. Victoria is a visiting research fellow at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan. Your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org