The leaders of many countries evoke their nation’s history as if it were an idyll of virtue and civility. They gaze into the mirror of the past and see no dark blemish, only purity, goodness and light.

Some Japanese prime ministers of the last 50 years — notably Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982-87) and Junichiro Koizumi (2001-present) — have displayed a tendency to idealize the spirit of Japan as something pristine and moral. But it is only in the last few years that the government has been emboldened to turn nostalgia into law. It is clear that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is now intent on reshaping this country in the prewar mold, a mold that restricted the freedoms of the populace and ensured their loyalty to an empire.

In June 2004, the LDP set out, in documents approved by its senior members, a policy for reforming the Constitution. This document, titled “Summarizing Vital Points,” envisioned a Constitution with “values characteristic of our country, that is, our national character, and the morality originally followed by the Japanese.” It went on to speak of values rooted in Japanese history and tradition; values forgotten since the end of the war.

Koizumi and other powerful figures in the government often express their wish to restore “prewar values” to contemporary Japanese life. I do not know how many times I have encountered this term — “prewar values” — in the press. But I have yet to see a detailed explanation of what these values actually were. So, I thought I would list here, as a reminder to the leaders of this country, some of the things that people in prewar Japan could expect from their government and society.

The first years after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 witnessed the wholesale abandonment of Japanese traditions. Millions of cherry blossom trees were chopped down, for the notion of Buddhist transience and resignation in them was no longer seen as a viable philosophical idea in a modernizing society; and one Osaka public bath proprietor nearly succeeded in dismantling Horyuji Temple in Nara to use the wood as fuel. Traditional arts such as the noh theater were also widely considered embarrassing anachronisms, and a vast amount of exquisite graphic art and temple sculpture was either destroyed or sold to tourists for a song. Prewar values here meant the gross neglect of anything “Japanese.”

Vastly uneven growth

As Japan modernized, the major port cities flourished, but many regions in the countryside, particularly in Tohoku (the northern prefectures of Honshu) and in districts facing the Sea of Japan, slid into abject poverty. Japanese growth at the time resembled the vastly uneven growth of China today. Countless families sold their young daughters to brothels in provincial towns and big cities. Prewar values in this sense meant condoning the rape of young Japanese women.

The finest of Japan’s sons joined the armed forces, to help build a great new empire for the nation. Among those fine sons, perhaps none was finer than Kohei Kikuchi, valiant bugler in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. He was so valiant, in fact, that even after he died in battle, his bugle continued to play. Prewar values here signified the great spirit of the Japanese soldier, who had the uncanny ability to fulfill his duties posthumously.

And while we are on the subject of soldiers, a subject dear to the heart of Japan’s ardent present-day remilitarizers, let us not forget the heartfelt discipline enforced by officers on enlisted men. Years ago I had a left-handed friend who worked in one of Japan’s leading daily newspapers. He couldn’t use his right hand very well because when he was a private in the army an officer disciplined him by putting pencils between his knuckles and crushing his fingers. His crime was to have whispered a pessimistic remark about the outcome of the war.

As for the treatment of Koreans, Chinese and other Asians whose countries were colonized by Japan, the wanton exploitation and vicious practices of the Japanese tell of a nation whose lofty spirituality was pure jingoism, whose insistence on humanitarian colonial rule was a stratagem to ensure that export markets were open in Asia for Japanese companies and valuable resources were secured for Japanese profit. When the Red Army invaded Manchuria on August 8, 1945, many of the 600,000 soldiers in Japan’s courageous Kwantung Army there ran for their lives, fleeing south and leaving civilians, women and children to the mercy of the Soviet enemy. Prewar values for the military meant brutality and, in the end, the forfeiture of courage.

What of something like freedom of expression, so important to the development of Japanese culture? Censorship was rife, particularly from the mid-1920s onward. By the ’30s, the police were clamping down on writers and intellectuals who “deviated.” They clamped down so hard on novelist Takiji Kobayashi that, in 1933, he died in custody.

Goals of education

As the hostilities in Asia and the Pacific expanded, freedom of religion, too, became endangered. Shinto, with emperor worship at its core, became the state religion and Buddhist organizations were actively persecuted. Prewar values here signaled intolerance toward people of any faith other than the one chosen by the state for all.

The goals of education were dictated by the Kyoiku Chokugo, or Imperial Rescript on Education, which became law in October 1890 and was only finally rescinded in June 1948. This inculcated pupils in devotion to the divine emperor, with the exhortation: “Should [an] emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State.” Prewar values here required, on the part of the young of Japan, total obeisance to the nation and its spiritual head.

The prewar Japanese family, at least the typical one, was a strict patriarchal unit, where the fate of children was decided, from birth to marriage, by semi-feudalistic rules and traditions. The primary thing valued here was the honor of lineage.

Cruel treatment meted out to the disabled, wide-scale bullying in schools, child abuse, rape within the family and similar brutalities went largely unreported, unlike today. Prewar values here meant hypocrisy and cover-up.

In actuality, prewar values as envisioned by Japan’s leading politicians today comprise no more than an array of cliches, saws, invocations and anthems. To them these symbolize a Japan in which people are allegedly selfless (meaning meek and self-sacrificing) and law-abiding (meaning intolerant of difference). The desire to “restore” so-called prewar values is based on the wish to make the Japanese people pliant and submissive.

Building a strong, vibrant and healthy nation is a laudable endeavor. But seeking ways to accomplish this by reviving some idealized, semi-mythical version of the past is dangerous and bound to end in disaster, as it once did.

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