Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, Japan is a prosperous country at peace, a representative democracy and one of the most advanced states both economically and technologically in the world. Yet unresolved issues dating to the war continue to bedevil relations between Japan and its East Asian neighbors and create worries about the future.

When Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, told the nation in a prerecorded radio broadcast on Aug. 15, 1945, that Japan was accepting unconditional surrender to the U.S.-led Allied coalition, he said it was to “pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come, by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.”

He also noted a cruel new bomb, the atomic bomb, had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that to continue to fight would lead to the very extinction of human civilization. The emperor urged Japan to be forward-looking and to rebuild. Others, looking back at a conflict that had killed somewhere between 2.6 million and 3.1 million Japanese soldiers and civilians, called for an end to war itself.

“Japan is now prepared to cooperate sincerely and energetically with the rest of the world in the common task of speeding the recovery from this universal affliction of war and assuring its final elimination,” The Japan Times said in its Aug. 15, 1945 editorial.

The postwar Constitution, written by the U.S. Occupation forces and including an article renouncing war, came into force in 1947. But by the time the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty went into effect in 1952, the Korean War was raging, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union, allies during World War II, were now adversaries.

“With the Constitution on one hand and the U.S.-Security treaty on the other, there were different assumptions and premises about Japan’s (foreign policy) role. These created tensions and inconsistencies in Japan’s postwar diplomatic approach,” said Masayuki Tadokoro, a Keio University law professor, at a July news conference at the Foreign Press Center Japan.

This led to the “Yoshida Doctrine,” named after postwar Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. Under the doctrine, the Constitution would not be amended but the security treaty would be maintained.

Tokyo, now aligned with the non-communist world, did not sign peace treaties with either China, which experienced a communist revolution in 1949, or the Soviet Union, which had a neutrality pact with Japan during World War II but invaded four islands off the northeast coast of Hokkaido in the last days of the war.

The Self-Defense Forces were created in the early 1950s. But Japan’s stance, supported by a strong anti-war public still traumatized by the Pacific War and the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was that military power would be limited to the minimum necessary.

This policy had its critics. The right wing wanted a more proactive military. The left wing wanted unarmed neutrality. The 1960 clash over renewing the security treaty pitted right-wing groups backed by members of the yakuza who supported revision against left-wing groups supported by the communists and socialists who opposed it.

Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, grandfather of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, rammed the highly unpopular revision bills through the Diet but was forced to resign immediately afterward.

The Japan-U.S. security treaty | KYODO
The Japan-U.S. security treaty | KYODO

Japan would spend the 1960s through the 1980s focused on the economy as the postwar baby boomer generation came of age. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics celebrated the nation’s return to the world stage, while the 1970 Osaka World Expo showcased industrial firms that would help make Japan an export powerhouse that same decade.

Meanwhile, U.S. military bases in Japan played a role in the U.S. war with Vietnam in the 1960s, keeping strong anti-base sentiment alive. Especially in Okinawa Prefecture, which, unlike the rest of Japan, was administered by the U.S. military between the end of the war and 1972, when it was finally handed back.

The 1970s saw Japan normalize relations with China while, by the 1980s, its economic rise created talk of Japan as No. 1. But there was a backlash in the U.S. steel and auto industries when they lost out to Japanese firms, resulting in “Japan bashing” by some American politicians and business leaders.

The economic bubble economy era in the late 1980s came amid trade disputes over U.S. access to Japan’s beef, fruit, semiconductor and even winter sports equipment markets, as well as over U.S. participation in the new Kansai Airport. American politicians, and a brash celebrity businessman named Donald Trump, all blasted what they saw as unfair Japanese trade practices that excluded U.S. companies.

By the early 1990s, the Cold War in Europe was ending and Japan’s bubble economy had collapsed. A rising China and the burgeoning post-Cold War era meant unresolved territorial disputes between Japan, Russia, South Korea and China became more problematic.

“In 1994, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea went into effect, setting out the new legal framework for ocean boundaries such as exclusive economic zones and the continental shelf. These territorial disputes started getting attention again,” said Kimie Hara, director of East Asian Studies at Canada’s University of Waterloo.

She adds that, after the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident, the dispute over the Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu, and the “history problem” — including the 1937 Nanking Massacre — were convenient tools for the Chinese government to shift public attention away from domestic unrest to outside, provoking anti-Japanese sentiment and uniting many Chinese in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere.

As for South Korea, after the jointly hosted 2002 World Cup, relations between Japan and South Korean were quite good. But they later deteriorated due to the dispute over the Takeshima islands, known in South Korea as Dokdo, and historical issues.

“Territorial issues became bigger in China and South Korea. Japan reacted to the new nationalism arising in both countries, which helped distract from (its own) domestic problems,” Hara said.

The U.S.-Japan military alliance remained fundamentally unchanged, wedded to the early 1950s Yoshida Doctrine. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, pressure from the U.S. for Japan to provide more military support grew intense. After Abe returned to power in 2012, the Diet passed controversial legislation allowing the Self-Defense Forces to play a greater role in U.S. military missions, easing some of the pressure.

Abe attempted to address some U.S.-related historical issues. In May 2016, he welcomed U.S. President Barack Obama as the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima. In late December that year, Abe became the first sitting Japanese Prime Minister to visit Pearl Harbor. Both visits were widely interpreted as indications that the U.S. and Japan had put the war behind them.

A statue said to represent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kneeling before a Korean 'comfort woman' has caused controversy in recent weeks.  | THE KOREA BOTANICAL GARDEN / VIA AP
A statue said to represent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kneeling before a Korean ‘comfort woman’ has caused controversy in recent weeks. | THE KOREA BOTANICAL GARDEN / VIA AP

But things were different with Japan’s East Asian neighbors. Disputes over the Senkaku Islands with a rising China, historical and territorial disputes with South Korea and the as-yet unrealized return of any of the four islands from Russia all remained. Relations with North Korea grew worse after that country admitted in 2002 it had kidnapped Japanese citizens during the 1970s and ’80s, and worse still following Pyongyang’s missile launches and development of nuclear weapons.

Domestically, as Japan’s wartime generation fades, the postwar generation debates how to recall the era. Testimonies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hibakusha and interviews with veterans of battles in Okinawa and elsewhere are subjects that receive much media coverage, as are stories and exhibits about the firebombing of cities in the last months of the war.

Akiko Takenaka, a University of Kentucky history professor, has written about the memory and historiography of the Asia-Pacific War and history museums in Japan. In the past, she said, many curators told her their war-related exhibits focused on local experiences, she said.

“This tactic allows the museums to not engage with the larger context (of the war), which includes controversial topics about Japan’s war crimes or the criminality of the war itself,” she said.

Museums attempting a broader context can become centers of controversy. Tokyo’s Yushukan museum has long been criticized as whitewashing Japan’s wartime responsibility. Its exhibits include the personal effects of soldiers who fell in battle, items common to many war museums worldwide. But Yushukan also pays tribute to the Indian judge who said at the 1948 Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal that none of the Japanese defendants were guilty, including 14 Class A war criminals enshrined at neighboring Yasukuni Shrine in 1978.

Other museums have been attacked as “anti-Japanese” by postwar nationalist politicians and others for focusing on wartime atrocities or the suffering of other nations. In 2015, the publicly funded Peace Osaka museum changed its exhibits after complaints from Mayor Toru Hashimoto, who bristled at using public money to present negative images of Japan’s wartime actions.

Takenaka said that, for the postwar generations, there are two kinds of war memories that are at odds with each other. The first are those of stories from relatives who experienced the war. The second are those of controversies over the reasons for the Pacific War, the actions of the Japanese military and government, and of being blamed for those actions. But many resent being told they are responsible for a war that took place before they were born.

“Most oral war narratives that have been compiled and preserved are those of the home front experience — the experience of victimhood. I think this is one of the key reasons why many Japanese born after the war have a difficult time grappling with the concept of Japan’s war responsibility,” she said.

Such disputes, combined with current tensions in East Asia and worries about the future of democracy worldwide, have caused fears that Japan might return to the prewar regime. But Keio University’s Tadokoro disagrees. He also believes the past three quarters of a century will be judged favorably.

“For Japan’s postwar generations, the Constitution has been internalized. I can’t see them accepting a regime other than a liberal democracy,” he said. “If you consider the 75-year period in Europe between 1815 and 1890, there were at least two wars and many regime changes. Compared to that, future historians will look back on the 75 years between 1945 and 2020 and conclude that it was an extremely stable time for Japan.”

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