“The most critical thing for us Japanese in the 21st century is to free ourselves from Japanese-style nationalism, both politically and culturally.” So said author Kenzaburo Oe to me in the autumn of 1995, a year after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Prominent in the world of Japanese letters since the late 1950s, Oe has been, for more than 30 years, at the forefront of issues relating to Japan’s role in World War II and its place in the world today.

But what did he mean by “Japanese-style nationalism (nihonteki nashonarizumu),” and is it any different from other countries’ nationalism?

A court case involving Oe has been in the news recently, and it speaks volumes about “Japanese-style nationalism,” and how its stubborn and narrow tenets are preventing Japanese people from “freeing themselves politically and culturally.”

I will go further: In some senses, this may be the most important case in postwar Japanese judicial history.

On March 28, the Osaka District Court rejected a libel suit against Oe for statements made in his 1970 book, “Okinawa Notes.” Oe claimed there, on the basis of many accounts by people caught up in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, that the Japanese military coerced some Okinawans into committing suicide during the American assault on the islands that Spring.

The plaintiffs in the case — one of them Yutaka Umezawa, now a 91-year-old former garrison commander on Zamami Isle in Okinawa — asked the court to ban Oe’s book. He was also demanding compensation for alleged slander. The second plaintiff is the brother of Yoshitsugu Akamatsu, the wartime garrison commander on Tokashiki Isle.

Both officers had requisitioned the local people’s food for their soldiers; and, when the situation turned desperate during the prolonged and incredibly bloody battle, Oe claimed they ordered Okinawan civilians to kill themselves rather than be captured (though, with a strange irony, Akamatsu has lived to this day to deny the tale).

Razors, hatchets and sickles

Nonetheless, on Tokashiki Isle more than 300 civilians committed mass suicide at the Onna River. Even though hand grenades had been given to them by soldiers, most killed themselves, according to historian Saburo Ienaga in his book, “The Pacific War,” “with razors, hatchets and sickles.” Those who refused to do so were apparently murdered by members of Akamatsu’s unit.

On Zamami Isle, writes Ienaga, Okinawans unwilling to kill themselves were either shot on the spot or confined and starved to death.

Okinawans had been told they were in the front line of the defense of their country, and that the other islands of Japan would be next. They were expected to set an example of bravery. In the 87-day battle, some 110,000 Japanese soldiers and upwards of 140,000 Okinawan civilians lost their lives. The civilians were, at it turned out, caught in the middle, victims of attack from both enemies — American and Japanese.

It is no wonder, then, that Emperor Hirohito never visited Okinawa during his reign. (Although he did go there in 1921, when he was Crown Prince.) Many Okinawans felt — and still feel — deeply ambivalent about the events surrounding the defense of their homeland.

In the end, the people of Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu were the victims of indiscriminate bombing by the U.S. Army Air Forces, but their islands were never invaded. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced the Emperor’s hand, and he announced Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. The people of Okinawa felt betrayed that they were forced to fight to the death and told to never surrender; and this profound feeling of betrayal has hardly diminished in the more than six decades since the war’s end.

In the recent Osaka District Court case, the plaintiffs claimed they were defamed not only by Oe’s book, but also by Ienaga’s — insisting that the Okinawan suicides were voluntary.

Judge Toshimasa Fukami rejected the plaintiffs’ claims, stating that “the former Imperial Japanese Army was deeply involved in mass suicides (in Okinawa).”

He left his judgment open to interpretation, however, by adding that it could not be determined whether the suicides were directly caused by orders given by commanding officers.

The plaintiffs have said they will appeal Judge Fukami’s opinion, and it remains to be seen what ruling a higher court will hand down.

Why, then, is this such an important case in Japan’s postwar history — more than 60 years after the events in question?

Since the end of the war, and particularly since the Liberal Democratic Party’s domination of Japanese politics began with the party’s formation in 1955, the government has officially denied the forced sacrifice of Okinawans in Spring 1945.

Self-righteous pride

The discrepancy between the government’s version of what happened during that horrifying battle, and the reality as described by Okinawans who survived victimization by their own side, is clear for all to see. And yet, the LDP government is to this day determined to deny Okinawans their due justice by admitting the truth.

This brings us to the nub of the issue of Japanese-style nationalism.

Is it truly nationalism, or is it merely a recalcitrant and grossly cynical, self-righteous pride?

Unlike the Germans, whose postwar pride justifiably derives from their collective admission of guilt for wartime atrocities — an admission that has enabled them to form alliances of trust and friendship with former enemies — the Japanese have mistakenly adopted a most grotesque and uncompromising stance. To them, it seems as if love of nation is enhanced by rejecting the suggestion of past crimes committed in its name.

In fact, true love of country is something fostered with eyes wide open to the past. Turning one’s face away from history alters neither the history nor the long-term effect on the psyche of those who must live with it.

It is said that, when it comes to misdeeds of the past, Americans don’t pay the bill, they just leave the restaurant. They go from restaurant to restaurant, wreaking merry havoc, then leave the people remaining there to “pay the bill.” Japanese, however, never leave the restaurant. They continue to sit in their corner, legs crossed, arms folded firmly over their chests, chins in the air, ever intent on remaining silent, yet unable to move lest they be obliged to pay the bill.

How long will this go on?

Will the Japanese never be able to stand up, recognize the unspeakable things done so long ago in their name, and walk away from their awful past with a true pride that comes from recognizing and acknowledging the truth?

If they don’t — or can’t — they will never free themselves, politically or culturally, from the burden that their wartime leaders, with a hideous cruelty, imposed on them. That, above all, makes the final outcome of this court case absolutely vital to the future of this country.

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