The long tradition of sanitizing history


Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World, by John W. Dower. New Press, 2012, 336 pp., $26.95 (hardcover)

Toru Hashimoto, mayor of Osaka and leader of the Nippon Ishin-no Kai, recently tried to revise the history of comfort women, saying that there is no evidence that the Japanese military coerced Korean women and girls into sexual servitude in wartime military brothels. His comments echo those of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and challenge the Japanese government’s official view along with scholarly consensus.

John W. Dower, the pre-eminent U.S. historian of modern Japan, reminds us that there is a long tradition of such efforts to beautify history and that Japan is not unique in this regard: “A parade of officials associated with the Liberal Democratic Party that dominated politics from the 1950s … routinely took turns … denying atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking.”

Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (2000-2001) is here remembered for evoking “the most extreme and exclusionist nationalistic rhetoric of the militaristic past by referring to Japan as an emperor-centered land of the gods.” Dower refers to Mori’s penchant for hoary wartime idioms as “rhetorical necrophilia,” but notes that this patriotic bombast was unpopular among contemporary Japanese, as few look to the authoritarian 1930s for inspiration.

Dower also points out that the United States has not critically reflected on its own wartime conduct, ranging from the atomic bombings and the Vietnam War to Iraq and Afghanistan. He reminds us of the exhibit on the atomic bombings planned by the Smithsonian Museum in 1995. The curator wanted to put on display various narratives about the atomic bombings, including those critical of President Harry Truman’s decision, but politics got the better of history. The curator was found guilty of trying to sabotage the heroic narrative and subverting patriotic remembrance by trying to include exhibits on the dreadful human consequences at ground zero and the nuclear arms race that ensued. Dower confides that the “gelded presentation” demonstrated the limits of public history in the U.S. to confront the nation’s unsavory past. He writes: “We castigate the Japanese when they sanitize the war years and succumb to ‘historical amnesia’. Yet at the same time, we skewer our own public historians for deviating from the Fourth of July historiography.” In his view, intellectuals need to be vigilant in drawing attention to how “censorship can operate in an ostensibly democratic society.”

This collection of 11 of Dower’s previously published essays spans four decades and touches upon various Japanese historical controversies and tragedies stretching from the Meiji Restoration to post-World War II developments. He has included brief reflections that introduce each essay, providing context and insights on what he was thinking at the time and how his analysis resonates today. As a historian he has extensively and critically explored in both Japan and the U.S., “how we forget, and how we remember the past.”

Dower asserts that victim consciousness remains a major impediment to a full and forthright reckoning in Japan about its wartime past. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the firebombing of 66 major cities, have focused attention on Japan’s massive losses, totaling nearly 3 million people or 4 percent of the population. Even though Imperial Japan inflicted monstrous horrors on much of Asia, in post-WWII Japan the role of victim has trumped that of victimizer, a narrative Dower finds sustained across ideological divides. Regarding the fraught issue of war responsibility, Dower tasks the U.S. for not holding Emperor Showa accountable. The Holy War was fought in his name and at his behest, explaining why few below him felt compelled to shoulder the burden.

Dower recalls how planning for the occupation of Iraq drew on fundamental misunderstandings about the U.S. experience in Japan and indigenous strengths absent in Iraq. He writes of “the astounding level of wishful thinking that saturated the highest levels of policymaking in the Bush administration. Occupied Japan should have been a red light, rather than the green light war makers chose to see.” In his view, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq unfolded in ways that were clearly different, but also eerily similar to the Japanese “defiant unilateralism” and occupation of Manchuria during the 1930s.

In recent months there have been massive anti-nuclear protests in Japan, a sign of vibrant activism that last appeared in the 1960s. Dower reminds us that strikes, violence, repression and demonstrations were common in post-WWII Japan.

Opposition to the U.S. security treaty animated Japanese politics in the late 1950s, culminating with the 1960 resignation of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, a suspected Class A war criminal who sealed the deal with Washington. Later in the 1960s there were large protests against the Vietnam War, the polluting consequences of growth at any cost, Narita Airport, Okinawa, etc., but “By the mid-1970s the nationwide people’s movement was moribund.”

According to Dower, a conservative hegemony developed in Japan, a legacy of the U.S. Occupation that has served Washington’s interests. Politicians on the right who have been the cornerstone of bilateral relations are also those who “have assumed an increasingly active role in romanticizing the patriotic and public-spirited nature of Japan’s prewar imperial and imperialistic history.” They have also sidestepped Article 9 and in the 1970s changed the channel from ideological confrontation and popular dissent to a catatonic focus on GNPism and consumer culture. They remain a resilient force and still control the commanding heights.

Historians are influenced by the world they live in and feel obliged to engage, raising questions about whether an objective history is plausible. In the forgetting and remembering wars, historians everywhere must contend with how narratives are manipulated for political purposes and how nations are prone to glorifying tendencies that marginalize inconvenient truths.

Dower concludes that it is “excruciatingly difficult to separate our truly heroic from our horrendous deeds. Yet we must face these terrible ambiguities squarely.”

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan