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Adding color to pre- and postwar mentalities


During the ceremony to mark the 58th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba blasted the United States for “worshipping nuclear weapons as God” — a statement that, understandably, received a great deal of media attention. And while U.S. President George Bush, who is advocating the development of smaller tactical nuclear weapons, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who has indicated his intention of joining the nuclear-arms race, were singled out by Akiba as men who seem to be moving backward, he also mentioned that Japan had suddenly gone from a “postwar” mentality to a “prewar” one.

This distinction wasn’t mentioned much by the foreign media, but the Japanese understood exactly what Akiba was driving at. Ever since the end of World War II, the citizens of Japan have been under the impression that they would never be involved in a war again, not in this lifetime nor in any lifetimes to come. That is the “postwar” mentality. The “prewar” version that Akiba cited so ominously is one that not only accepts war as a possibility, but sees it as inevitable.

Akiba’s fear is founded mainly on the violation of the antinuclear “taboo.” Some Japanese are now discussing seriously the possibility that Japan will someday possess nuclear weapons of its own.

At a deeper level there is the question of patriotism, a concept that was never taboo in the same way that nuclear weapons were, but which for many years was informally regulated by the educational system. In accordance with the Fundamentals of Education Law that was foisted on the nation by the American occupiers in much the same way that the war-renouncing Article 9 was foisted on it, “patriotism” was defined as an individual act of faith that could not be mandated. Inevitably, Japanese school teachers taught their charges that patriotism was a negative thing, since in the past it was instilled in people for evil purposes, i.e. Japan’s imperialist aims.

In recent years, the Fundamentals of Education Law has come under attack from Japanese politicians and opinion leaders. They see it as the root cause of the irresponsibility and self-centeredness that they say has increasingly infected the generations of Japanese who grew up after World War II. “Individualism” has become a negative concept and several years ago the government enacted laws that made it mandatory for schools to instill “love of country” by forcing students to sing “Kimigayo” and stand to attention before the flag. Educators balked. Some were fired and some quit. A few even committed suicide.

The Japanese seem to be caught, struggling, between the prewar and the postwar mentalities. The disturbing thing about this development is not that people are reassessing the benefits of standing armies and automatic patriotism, but that they are doing so in ignorance of what armies and patriotism meant when they really were “normal” parts of everyday life.

Last week, on its satellite and terrestrial stations, NHK presented a series of documentaries on the war years that featured color film footage never before broadcast in Japan. Before and during the war, official news film was only shot on black-and-white stock, which means this newly discovered footage was taken either by foreigners or by Japanese for their own private use. Until now, all the documentary film shown on television about the war was made mostly for propaganda purposes.

The quotidian realism of the new material is powerful, since it shows people going about their lives in much the same way that they do now. Because of the color and the lack of an overt propaganda agenda, the images are more direct. Within the context of history, they can also be disconcerting. Prewar scenes of mass demonstrations in support of the war effort look like the kind of rallies North Korea loves to hold.

This realism gives the lie to the idea that history is only about the past. Voiceover narration in one of the documentaries explained the embargoes implemented by the United States to force Japan out of China — and the parallels with the current North Korea crisis are striking. Kim Jong Il insists on U.S. assurances that its integrity as a country be recognized, otherwise he will build nuclear weapons to guarantee that integrity himself.

Many Japanese cannot see these parallels. Two weeks ago, TV Asahi’s “TV Tackle” conducted a street survey of young people to find out what they knew about World War II. Most couldn’t name the years in which the war took place, and many didn’t even know who Japan fought.

The adage about people being condemned to repeat history whose lessons they have not learned, is acutely relevant in Japan. The whole “victimhood” issue, which many believe has prevented the country, and Asia as a whole, from moving on, can be blamed on an educational system that has not made the people understand how the war came about. (Similarly, if Americans fully understood the economic events that led up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, they might have looked upon the invasion of Iraq differently.)

This situation is aggravated by a mass media that finds it easier and more dramatically effective to present the war years as a time of sacrifice and suffering, while oversimplifying the social, political and economic forces that led to war. Current events have shown that these forces are still at large in the world. The “prewar” mentality, it seems, never really went away. It was just stunned.