Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has appointed a Cabinet that, according to press reports, contains a number of ministers who want to rewrite the history of the 20th century. They, including the new minister of education, are reported as demanding the rescinding of the statement made in 1995 by former Prime Minister Tomoichi Murayama expressing remorse for Japanese atrocities in Asia.

Japanese ministers should be aware that going back on the Murayama apology not only would offend Japan’s neighbors in Northeast Asia (China and Korea) but also would outrage opinion elsewhere in Asia where many people suffered under Japanese occupation. It would in addition arouse anti-Japanese sentiment in Western countries including Britain.

Most of Japan’s former prisoners of war who suffered so much, as in the Bataan death march and the building of the Burma-Siam railway have passed away, but their families and friends have not forgotten their sufferings.

Friends of Japan in the West and many Japanese have put great efforts into fostering reconciliation and mutual understanding. Rescinding the Murayama statement would cause a serious setback to these efforts.

The nationalists in the Japanese Cabinet are also reported to want to re-inspire patriotism in Japanese youth. Patriotism is not necessarily wrong, although it always reminds me of the famous saying of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English lexicographer, that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” He was critical of the unthinking people who shout “my country right or wrong.”

Japanese should, of course, know more of their culture including the wonders of Japanese art and the masterpieces of Japanese literature. They should also learn about Japanese history in the pre-modern as well as in the 20th century. The Heian court and the merchant civilization of the Edo Period are fascinating and worthy of study by Japanese and by foreigners.

Japanese need to understand not only how Japan developed after the re-opening to the West in 1858 but also why what has been called Taisho democracy failed with the rise of Japanese militarism.

International history is complex and we must beware of sweeping judgments, but the image that some Japanese nationalists attempt to draw of Japan as a victim rather than an aggressor is not in accord with the facts. The attack on Pearl Harbor was no more a defensive action by Japan than were Japanese military actions in Manchuria and China. Japanese attacks on the British and the Dutch in Southeast Asia were not based on anti-colonialism but on the Japanese wish to get hold of natural resources, particularly oil.

The argument that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 made Japan the victim and atoned for Japanese aggression ignores so many facts. Japanese were certainly victims, but they were victims of their own evil and misguided rulers.

If the Japanese government as a whole had recognized, as former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe did, in January 1945 that Japan could not win and had sued for peace, the air raids on Japanese cities, which killed so many Japanese citizens and nearly destroyed the country, might have been avoided.

No one can deny the importance or value of Confucian ethics as major factors in the history of Japan, but it seems to many of us who have studied Japanese history that Japanese have often placed too great an emphasis on loyalty making it the supreme virtue. Loyalty cannot reasonably be used as an excuse for dishonesty or mistakes in government or in business as it sometimes seems to be used, such as in the attempt to cover up the recent Olympus scandal.

It is also reported that Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura wants to “annul” the verdicts of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) held between 1946 and 1948, thus rehabilitating such war criminals as Gen. Hideki Tojo.

Criticisms can be made of the way in which the IMTFE conducted these trials and some of the decisions made by the court can be justifiably questioned, such as the guilty verdict and sentence on politician and diplomat Shigemitsu Mamoru, who had opposed the war, but the evidence over war crimes committed by members of Japanese forces overseas was overwhelming.

The argument that other countries have also committed war crimes and their leader have not been punished and tried is not a reason to try to overturn these verdicts. No one should condone war crimes, no matter who commits them or where they occur.

The Japanese government have no legal right to annul these decisions and any unilateral attempt to do so would attract international condemnation and scorn.

Fortunately Shimomura and his rightwing nationalist colleagues are unlikely to stay in their posts for long except in the unlikely event that the Japanese habit of reshuffling ministerial posts to give jobs “for the boys” on the kawari-banko (taking turns) principle has been discarded.

The image of Japan conveyed by the unwise ranting of Japanese nationalists is bad for Japan’s international prestige and can only harm Japan’s relations with their friends. Japanese ministers who pay official visits to Yasukuni Shrine may think that it attracts votes at home.

Foreigners do not have votes in Japanese elections, but Japanese national interests can be impaired in other ways. Japan seeks foreign investment and foreign visitors. For the moment I hope that neither will be put off by a few rightwing nationalists who are not in my assessment representative of general Japanese public opinion. Japanese politicians are understandably sensitive to criticism but are not always themselves sensitive to the feelings of their friends or conscious of the negative impact made by their nationalist rhetoric.

Japan will always remain an island, but it cannot isolate itself as it did at one time from the rest of the world. To survive and prosper Japan needs to participate in international trade without being encumbered with isolationist ultra-nationalists. Like horses in blinders, they are unable to see beyond their noses.

They do not seem to recognize that Japanese national interests make it necessary for Japan to play a positive role in international affairs and that the narrow- minded intolerance of nationalism damages Japan’s prospects.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

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