At first it had seemed like an ordinary day in that Jerusalem court in mid-1961, during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the logistical mastermind of the Jewish deportations in the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish philosopher attending the trial as a journalist, wrote later of “endless sessions” of witness testimony.

Much of it, she hinted sourly, was not especially relevant. But the witness Arendt heard that day, a former Jewish partisan, was a standout. In passing and to an astonished courtroom, he mentioned a German soldier, Anton Schmid, who — before his arrest and execution — had dedicated himself to assisting the Jewish Underground in Eastern Europe.

In her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Arendt wrote of the revelation this testimony brought upon her: how differently it might have all turned out, “if only more such stories could have been told”. Yet, she added, it would benefit Germany, both for her standing abroad and also “for her sadly confused inner condition,” if the few stories there were could be told.

Their stark, simple lesson was this: “that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not”.

Today it would benefit Japan if similar stories from the Asia-Pacific War were also told. The implied comparison seems unfair. Japan never perpetrated a genocide. The teaching of war history in Japanese schools, however inadequate, is less nationalistic than it is in South Korea or in China.

True, yet I think the comparison holds. Japan’s troubled status in Asia would improve from the telling of such stories, and they might go some way to mending the fractured landscape of Japanese war memorializing.

For unlike Germany today, where stories of anti-Nazi resisters like Sophie Scholl have achieved mainstream, iconic status and attracted international recognition since 1961, Japan’s war remembrance remains polarized and largely insular.

On one side is the output of nationalistic writers trying to restore the honor of executed war criminals. Their work occasionally makes the international news, stirring anger in East Asia.

More popular are stories of idealistic young servicemen struggling with the knowledge that the war was lost but persevering, in the belief that they were protecting their country, or helping to build a new, purer Japan. One of them was a kamikaze pilot killed in the Battle of Okinawa, Katsumi Washio. He is eulogized in “Toward a Beautiful Country,” a book written by Liberal Democratic Party president Shinzo Abe.

Despite doubting in his diary whether later generations would admire his manner of dying, Washio went ahead with his mission, and Abe asserts that Japan’s “current prosperity” was built on the sacrifice of such men’s “precious lives.”

“Will we who were born in the postwar era … revere such people, who willingly gave their all for their country?” Abe wonders. He then lists what modern Japanese must protect, beginning with “our freedom and democracy.”

The morally confused state of mind that would hold up a conflicted suicide bomber as a hero for a democratic Japan hardly requires comment. For many foreigners and Japanese, Washio’s story can only inspire horror and pity.

The deaths of such men are meaningless in the hindsight of a detached, historical perspective: Their sacrifice merely hardened their enemies’ resolve and Japan’s current prosperity has nothing to do with them. For countries that fell victim to Japan’s militarism, the kamikaze symbolize a fanaticism that prolonged their own suffering in the last year of the war.

On the other side of the remembrance landscape loom the atomic-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The stories of Sadako Sasaki’s thousand paper cranes and of the hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) have educated the world about the horrors of nuclear war. Yet the cruel fact remains that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were victimized cities in a war-perpetrating nation, and it is a fact not easily forgotten by the survivors of Japan’s wartime aggression.

Japan’s well-known perception gap with America over the justification of the atomic bombings is just as prominent with some Asian countries, limiting the impact of stories about even the most innocent bombing victims.

In his autobiography, Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew speaks bluntly for many Asians who survived the arbitrary violence of Japanese military occupation: “Genghis Khan and his hordes could not have been more merciless. I have no doubt about whether the two atom bombs … were necessary. Without them, hundreds of thousands of civilians in Malaya and Singapore, and millions in Japan itself, would have perished.”

In this polarized landscape, there seems little space left for remembering those who “did not comply.”

Manga stories about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima like “Hadashi no Gen” (Barefoot Gen) do bear witness to the dissent of powerless individuals, who influenced at least their immediate families.

Various explanations have been offered for why so few Japanese actively disobeyed: the hypnotic power of the State Shinto emperor cult, drilled into schoolchildren and servicemen; the co-opting of Confucian and Buddhist moralities into nationalist ideology; and the insidious conformism fostered by the militarization of Japanese society in the 1930s.

Yet some did disobey. In February 1942, Japanese military police in newly occupied Singapore commenced operations to detain and execute suspected fifth columnists. Untold thousands of ethnic Chinese died in the killing spree that followed.

One horrified Japanese former spy working for the occupation administration, Mamoru Shinozaki, illicitly used his authority to distribute “good citizen” certificates to Chinese and Eurasian civilians, which saved thousands of lives. He later worked with Chinese community leaders to protect civilians from the worst excesses of occupation.

One year after the war ended, an editor at Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper remembered Shinozaki as “the one Japanese official whom the Asiatic population of Singapore could rely on for help and sympathy in dealing with the terrorist regime”.

Few Japanese today have heard of Shinozaki. Yet telling stories like his to a wider audience could force a reordering of Japan’s war memorializing landscape. They challenge conservative definitions of wartime patriotism, for were those who flouted regulations and obstructed their compatriots’ brutality not also acting in their country’s interests?

They also provoke uncomfortable questions about moral autonomy in wartime Japan.

Amidst the conscience-deadening atmosphere of wartime collectivism, amidst all those Japanese who collaborated with, actively perpetrated or who were simply cowed by militarism, there were some who had the moral strength to sympathize with its victims and disobey.

From the imaginations of artists, writers and filmmakers these stories of “righteous Japanese” may one day help to bridge the vast gaps between the patriotic pasts of East Asia. The telling of these stories will also show the world that the Japanese are confronting the complicity, or criminality, of all those who willingly complied.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the School of Global Japanese Studies at Meiji University, Mamoru Shinozaki’s alma mater.

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