Historian battles to redeem the past


JAPAN’S PAST, JAPAN’S FUTURE: One Historian’s Odyssey, by Saburo Ienaga. Translated by Richard H. Minear. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001, pp. 202, $19.95.

For the past four decades, Saburo Ienaga has crusaded as the conscience of Japan, fighting to protect intellectual freedom and challenge the arbitrary intrusion of the state into matters of education. His battle has been marked by more setbacks than victories.

In this sense he is a tragic hero, one whose moral probity and doomed persistence against the powers that be stand as an indictment of a society that has stood by, apathetically complicit in the whittling away of constitutional freedoms and the hollowing out of democracy.

Ienaga has been motivated by the impact of pre-World War II education on the outbreak of war and how the war has been portrayed in post-WWII education. He stands for a forthright rendering of Japan’s past in order to expose the role of conservatives in leading Japan into the abyss. He has challenged the constitutionality of the textbook-screening process whereby the Ministry of Education has censored and molded the historical narrative served to Japanese students in ways that gloss over inconvenient and uncomfortable aspects of Japan’s wartime excesses against fellow Asians.

Rather than glorifying or whitewashing this sordid chapter in Japan’s history, Ienaga argues that the suffering of both Japanese and victims of Japanese militarism will have been in vain unless young people learn the lessons of this tragedy.

The Pacific War (1931-1945), according to Ienaga, was due in part to a flawed educational system that stoked a dangerous ultranationalism and unquestioning obedience to authority, especially the Emperor. Reactionary forces took over the polity in the name of Emperor Showa and pursued reckless confrontation and aggression that scarred the region.

In this autobiography, he describes the stifling atmosphere of that era, when the state imprisoned and killed people for harboring dangerous thoughts, reading the wrong books or speaking out against government policies. Educators worked to brainwash students into becoming soldiers of the state.

He expresses shame at his own inaction at that time in failing to oppose the warmongering policies that consumed the media and public. This lapse has motivated his post-WWII struggle to present an unvarnished history of the Pacific War.

In battling government censors, Ienaga has become a hero and inspiration to many Japanese. However, in challenging the exonerating, unblemished history preferred by conservatives and foisted on young Japanese, he has taken on the establishment. For this reason, he is vilified by conservatives and harassed by rightwing thugs.

The essence of this confrontation centers on the meaning of the war and the memory of those who died fighting it. In Ienaga’s view, the conservative stance that the war was forced on Japan by Western colonial powers fails to properly acknowledge the critical role Japanese aggression in China from 1931 onward played in precipitating conflict with the Western powers.

He also dismisses the notion that Japan was fighting a war to liberate Asia from the yoke of Western colonialism, pointing out that the war in China was an effort to impose Japanese imperialism. He argues that the Japanese invasion of Western colonies in Southeast Asia was chiefly motivated by the need to secure resources in order to win the war in China, and was not a noble crusade to help other Asians.

In the author’s opinion, the millions of Japanese who died in the war were needlessly sacrificed by the militarists; thus, glorifying their deaths is a contemporary attempt to justify the failed policies of aggression embraced by wartime leaders. He ponders “how to give meaning to these meaningless deaths. How? By working to keep such a tragedy from happening again; then and only then will the deaths of the victims be not meaningless but revered sacrifices.” This means exposing atrocities and ensuring that they are never forgotten by the nation that perpetrated them. It also means holding wartime leaders accountable for their choices and shedding the cloak of victimization that the government has promoted among Japanese.

In trying to promote peace and soul-searching about Japan’s Asian rampage, he emphasizes that “in the war, Japanese learned firsthand that the military never protects the people. Not only [did they start] a war that was hopeless . . . but [they called] for a ‘decisive battle on the home islands’ right up to the atomic bombs and the Soviet entry into the war . . . when if they had stopped the war millions of their countrymen would have survived: From these facts, isn’t it crystal-clear that the military considers the lives of the people as so much worthless rubbish?”

Shrugging off his setbacks in the courts, Ienaga points out that the act of challenging the state and exposing it to greater scrutiny in the name of asserting rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution has been a struggle worth fighting. Indeed, his odyssey can be considered a success: It demonstrated the power of a citizen who shoulders his democratic responsibilities. Procedures for certification of textbooks have become more transparent, and the government has become much more hesitant about trampling on intellectual freedom. In the process, the public has learned about the buffoonish logic of the censors, and there is greater understanding “that certification, under the pretense of deciding the educational merit of specific examples, is in fact the attempt to force into the textbooks the historical view that the authorities favor and to expunge from the textbooks the history the authorities don’t like.”

“Japan’s Past, Japan’s Future” conveys the author’s passionate regard for principle, his fascinating perspectives on a tumultuous era in Japanese history and his commitment to democracy.

The Japanese are fortunate to have an activist historian who stoically persists in shaming those who seek to bury an unexamined past and curtail the freedoms that are the basis of democracy.

One can only hope that his struggles have not been in vain, but it is telling that very few young Japanese have ever heard of him. Instead, they flock to the Dr. Feelgoods of Japanese history, such as Nishio Kanji, Nobukatsu Fujioka and Yoshinori Kobayashi, hucksters of a palatable, exonerating version of Japan’s checkered past. The public appetite for such pablum appears undiminished. Their Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform has produced a new textbook that has passed the Ministry of Education screening process, despite protests from neighboring governments outraged at the biased coverage of their history with Japan.

Glossing over the past seems to be back in fashion, and the reactionary targets of Ienaga’s long struggle must be gloating that their blinkered history is returning to the classroom. One wonders whether their attempt to stoke young people’s pride in their nation can be achieved by such means and, if so, what are the implications for Japan and its neighbors.