“Kokumin no Rekishi,” published last year, has been touted as the first major attempt to rewrite Japanese history. I’ve acquired and read it because I’ve been asked to comment on Japanese nationalism next month, in Chicago. The author of the book, Kanji Nishio, has been prominent in the movement known as the Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho o Tsukuru Kai, The Japanese Society for Textbook Reform.

Nishio caught my eye several years ago when he spoke of Helen Mears with no small dose of I-told-you-so. Mears, the American writer resurrected for the 50th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, had argued, back in 1948, that the premises on which the Occupation policy rested were wrong. The Allied powers’ condemnation of Japan for having waged wars of imperialistic aggression was, she said, “a perfect illustration of respectable people smashing their own glasshouses.”

The supreme commander for the Allied powers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, personally wrote to proscribe the publication of the Japanese translation of her book, “Mirror for Americans: Japan.”

Subsequently I wrote a series of articles on Mears and, as a result, became peripherally involved in an effort to make a TV documentary on the American writer. The effort apparently went nowhere, but in the process I learned a good deal about the Japanese Society for Textbook Reform and some of its members. In essence, the society argues that “masochistic” interpretations have no place in historical accounts — at least those used in school.

Nishio’s book — its title may be loosely translated as “Japanese History for the Japanese People” — will surprise anyone who expects it to be packed with cheap jingoistic revisionism. A professor of German literature with an initial focus on Friedrich Nietzsche, Nishio has something grand in mind: to look at Japanese history from the perspective of world history. He tries to do this by questioning two strains of thought that have greatly influenced Japanese intellectuals: China’s view of itself as the center of the universe and Eurocentrism.

So, for example, Nishio dismisses as utterly unreliable the 2,000-character description of Japan in a third century Chinese historical narrative, which says a woman ruled Japan. The dismissal itself may not be new, but many Japanese scholars have and continue to labor over it because it is the earliest, extant written account of Japan. Besides, it was prepared in culturally advanced China.

Nishio argues that the Japanese government’s decision in 894 not to send any more envoys to Tang China was not an action of a timid, culturally backward nation turning inward, but a politically astute step taken by a government well aware of what was happening outside Japan; China was in chaotic decline. Taking a similar, though somewhat different, tack, he argues that Tokugawa Japan never pursued an isolationist policy. All it did was to refuse to deal with two declining foreign countries: Spain and Portugal.

Nishio is impatient with scholars who point out that Japan borrowed various institutions from China but lacked intellectual foundations to properly implement some of them. In fact, his impatience in this regard may be greatest with Japanese thinkers who try to apply European theories to Japan and find their own country lacking because it fails to meet the proposed theoretical frameworks exactly. Contrary to an array of analyses, he finds what happened during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), for example, far more “revolutionary” than the French Revolution.

So Kanji Nishio is deeply nationalistic. But if his rambling, often repetitive 773-page assemblage of essays was ever translated into English, the part likely to draw the most fire would be his view of Japan and its international conduct since the end of the 19th century.

Up to Japan’s defeat, his view is almost the same as that of Helen Mears: Japan behaved as any other normal power of the time did. As to what has happened since the war, Nishio contends that Japan was truly defeated not so much in the war itself as in the propaganda war that followed the surrender.

Especially pernicious has been, he says, the unthinking comparison between Japan and Germany. Not only is there little resemblance between the “crimes” the two countries are accused of having committed, but Germany, following the arguments made by Karl Jaspers soon after the war, in “Die Schuldfrage” (“‘The Question of Guilt,” 1946), has stayed close to his distinctions on guilt (criminal, political, moral, and metaphysical), as well as individual and collective responsibility. Japan has made no such effort.

Nishio’s analysis of former German President Richard von Weizaecker’s remarks is particularly noteworthy. To state it in the words of a friend of mine, a student of Germany who agrees with Nishio and admires Weizaecker, Germany has apologized for the Holocaust, but not for the war; Japan has been asked to apologize for the war.

Nishio’s book has become a best seller, having sold 720,000 copies so far. However, Akira Ueda, a friend of mine in Tokyo who looked into the matter for me, reports that the great majority of the copies were bought and distributed by rightwing organizations. I’m sure that the book is collecting dust in most households. It is bulky, and Nishio’s arguments are often too convoluted to permit the extraction of simple, nationalistic slogans.

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