This is the third report in a four-part series looking at the past seven decades during which Japan maintained its national security while enjoying economic prosperity, and the ongoing social changes that could determine the country’s future course.
Ryota Toyomura, 18, a freshman at Waseda University in Tokyo, is adamant that he would enlist in the military and fight for Japan should the nation ever be attacked.
He also professes unwavering reverence to those he calls war heroes who died in the disastrous war Japan fought against the Allied powers seven decades ago.
Likewise, Mizuki Yamamoto, 19, another university student in Tokyo, vowed to do all she could to support the Self-Defense Forces in the event of war, because she believes that is a “natural obligation” as a citizen of Japan.
“Japan is a nation with a long history that must live on no matter what,” said Toyomura, who is majoring in politics. “And I want to protect it for future generations, like our ancestors did for us.”
In a nation that constitutionally rejects the option of going to war, with a society effectively allergic to the very notion, seemingly right-leaning students like Toyomura and Yamamoto are a rarity, and they readily acknowledge this.
As the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat approaches this year, the majority of the nation’s youths, critics and students appear as disinterested as ever about looking back on their nation’s wartime past — let alone paying homage to the sacrifices made by their compatriots back then.
“War is definitely evil. It should never happen again,” said Yamamoto, a Keio University student, voicing worry that today’s young people won’t be inclined to fight for their country should it again find itself drawn into a war. “But they don’t even seem the slightest bit grateful to those people who died as soldiers.”
Yamamoto may not be wrong to have such premonitions.
Japanese ranked the lowest in their “willingness to fight for country” in a global poll released last year by the World Values Survey.
Asked if they would fight for their nation in the event of war, only 15.3 percent of Japanese said yes, compared with 57.7 percent of Americans and 74.2 percent of Chinese.
By age, 9.5 percent of Japanese under 30 said they would be willing to fight, as did 20.3 percent of pollees older than 50.
Not only are young Japanese apparently disinclined to fight for their nation, they are generally disinterested in the war or have little understanding of what happened.
On one December evening on a street in Shibuya, the Tokyo shopping district that serves as Japan’s mecca for youth culture and fashion, an 18-year-old high school boy named Sora seemed stunned to learn Japan and the U.S. once waged a brutal war against each other.
“Oh, did they?” he muttered, somewhat embarrassed.
“Now that you mention it, I guess I did learn that somewhere before,” Sora said, asking to only be identified by his first name.
Likewise, 19-year-old university students Mitsuhiro Kurokawa and Tsuyoshi Tanaka said in Shibuya they had no idea what significance Aug. 15 — the anniversary of Japan’s unconditional surrender in World War II — holds for their compatriots.
“To be perfectly honest, I’m not that interested in thinking about the war, although I do hope there won’t be another one,” Tanaka said.
Street interviews aired by NHK last Aug. 15 likewise showed 52 out of 100 young people approached didn’t know the significance of that date. Some nonchalantly said they had no idea Japan and the U.S. had even been enemies, before laughing at their own ignorance.
Critics and young people both blame this indifference in part on the short shrift given to the topic at school as teachers “run out of time” at the end of each semester.
Even the modicum of time spent on teaching modern Japanese history is consumed by rote learning, with an emphasis on memorizing even the minutest of details that could pop up on the vaunted university entrance exam, said Ryoichi Matsuno, a journalism and media studies professor at Chuo University in Tokyo.
He said it was “egregious” that modern history is being neglected by the school system.
“That’s the essential part of Japan’s history they need to know more about — those series of errors of judgment committed by the wartime government back then that caused such tremendous harm,” Matsuno said.
To rectify that problem, Matsuno advocates that schools introduce dedicated classes on modern history, rather than Japanese history as a whole, which tends to be lengthy.
The government of nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to be inching toward that goal — or around it. His team is thinking of making Japanese history, currently optional, compulsory at the high school level.
In January 2013, education minister Hakubun Shimomura told reporters he will actively consider making the switch to instill a stronger sense of “national identity” in students. In November, the Central Council for Education, which advises him, began reviewing the guidelines for school curricula with an eye toward an overhaul in the near future. Shimomura asked the panel to consider, among other things, whether to make Japanese history compulsory.
Matsuno said this approach misses the point.
Even if studying Japanese history is made compulsory, he said, students will remain as ignorant as ever about the war as long as schools continue to give modern Japanese history the brushoff.
The youths interviewed for this article also said their education on the war, if any, boiled down to simply underlining that it was brutal, with the result that many were left with an almost instinctive aversion to war.
They also seemed aware of a few specifics about the fighting Japan engaged in during the first half of the 20th century.
“It’s like how you flinch at cockroaches,” said a 26-year-old former SDF member who spoke on condition of anonymity. “To many Japanese, war is something so cruel and evil, and responsible for so many deaths, that they automatically turn away from it and don’t think about it.”
This mindset seemingly ran deep among his former comrades at an SDF training school who, despite their purported patriotism, often voiced a reluctance to fight.
“Some of them said they would run away if there was a war,” he said, disappointed.
Keio University student Yamamoto noted that all she was ever taught about the war was that it was brutal. But she believes, like the ex-SDF serviceman, that war is not that simple. It is much more multifaceted — and even necessary — from a political and diplomatic standpoint, she said.
Yamamoto said she doesn’t believe that today’s Japanese can think of war in diplomatic terms. Even in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, the Japanese, unlike the Americans in September 2001, would probably not be able to justify going to war, she said.
The eloquent 19-year-old was emphatic that she has no intention of glorifying war and that she is absolutely opposed to its recurrence, from a human rights perspective. But she nonetheless stood by her position that there are circumstances under which the nation must overcome its anti-war mindset and embrace the strategic importance of war to protect its people.
“Should Japan be involved in a war, it means the well-being of its citizens will be significantly jeopardized. Our economy may collapse. Or countries like China — for example — may take control of our government (and) deprive us of free speech,” she said.
“I think, in the face of such threats to our human rights, what the government should do is not dwell on the notion that war is brutal, but instead stand up and fight to protect us,” she said.
Young people approached by The Japan Times on the streets of Shibuya sounded blissfully hopeful that Japan will never again experience war.
But Yamamoto and her lot urge them to drop their complacency and accept the likelihood that Japan will, someday, again be involved in war, even if not directly, however much they might hope to the contrary.
“Just because Japan hasn’t fought a war for the past 70 years doesn’t mean it never will again.
“As the American experience suggests, war is something that’s there all the time. It’s time for (the younger generation) to step out of their comfort zone and start being realistic about it,” said Waseda student Toyomura.