Stereotypical images of Japanese collectively in denial about the atrocities committed by the Imperial armed forces are grossly misleading and overlook the more prevalent view accepting wartime guilt and favoring atonement. In this excellent study featuring media and cultural analysis, Hokkaido University’s Philip Seaton persuasively argues that, “Japanese war memories are not nearly as nationalistic as they are frequently made out to be.”
Seaton points out that war memory is fiercely contested among Japanese, and collective amnesia is impossible given this ubiquitous and robust discourse. History remains at the center of contemporary political battles and it is thus a “current affairs” issue. The author writes: “The ways that Japanese people interact with their Asian neighbors, attitudes toward conflicts in other parts of the globe, nuclear issues, and attitudes concerning the core symbols of Japanese nationhood — the flag, emperor, national anthem, constitution and Japan’s wider global role — are all inextricably linked to memories and interpretations of Japan’s wartime past. The war has not been forgotten. Quite the opposite, the Japanese seem unable to let it go.”
“Japan’s Contested War Memories” asserts that the English-language media consistently misrepresents the true state of war memory among Japanese by focusing too much on attempts by conservatives and the ruling elite to impose a vindicating and glorifying narrative of the war that emphasizes Japan’s victimization. This “orthodoxy” of a nation in denial and shirking war responsibility overlooks the significance of memory rifts in Japan. In examining textbooks, other educational materials, television documentaries, films and printed media, Seaton finds that progressive views critical of Japan’s wartime aggression and accepting responsibility are more representative of Japanese opinion. He writes, “typically 50 to 60 percent of people characterize the war as ‘aggressive,’ while anything between 50 and 80 percent . . . are either critical of the government’s ‘inadequate’ treatment of war responsibility issues . . . or are supportive of additional compensation and initiatives acknowledging aggression.”
Memory rifts in Japan feature a battle between “a politically powerful conservative lobby whose war stance . . . has been a minority opinion but which has maintained control over the official narrative and policy” versus “a politically weak progressive lobby which has the support of a small majority of public opinion but has failed to . . . change the official narrative.”
Japan is often criticized for not doing enough to apologize and make amends, but Seaton reminds us that other nations are equally guilty, for example the U.S. war encompassing Indochina. In terms of Japan’s steadfast legal position that all compensation claims have been resolved, he argues that “most governments tacitly accept or openly support the Japanese compensation position.”
Television is a major battleground for competing war memories. Seaton argues that “chauvinistic nationalism is not the key to maximizing ratings.” He concludes that “Pockets of genuinely conservative programming do exist on Japanese television and conservative pundits are ubiquitous, but war-related television across all the channels is conspicuous for being antiwar and concentrated in the progressive leaning to slightly conservative mainstream.”
Book sales suggest that the public favors the “selective gaze” of nationalistic writers, but Seaton asserts that this does not reflect a “wider historical consciousness.” He attributes this popularity to the feel-good factor, the lure of sensationalism and “war responsibility fatigue.” Moreover, “The readability . . . of progressives’ books is often diminished further by dense academic language and the meticulous use of evidence.”
There has been considerable controversy about Japanese textbooks. In Seaton’s view, “despite international media attention on nationalistic textbooks, the broader picture of the standard war history education received by school children in Japan reveals it is antiwar in nature, discourages identification with aggressive militarism, and focuses on messages of peace.” Perhaps this explains Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s various initiatives to strengthen patriotic education and reduce teacher’s leeway.
Representations of the past in mainstream films are also portrayed here as misleading. Beyond the backing of well-funded conservatives, Seaton points out that “Nationalists have many commercial advantages over progressives in cinema because the narrative conventions of mainstream films facilitate heroic renditions of wartime history.”
Although Seaton claims that Japan boasts “probably the most contested memories of any of the major WWII combatant nations,” this perspective does not seem to matter in China and Korea where the “orthodoxy” of an unrepentant Japan in denial goes unchallenged.
In looking at the future of war memory, it is hard to avert our eyes from the competing selective gazes of state-centered war memories that bedevil relations in East Asia. Translating this book into Chinese and Korean might help.
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.