The contemporary culture wars that have erupted over Japanese identity and history are undermining the country’s national interests and damaging its reputation.
However, as rightwing extremists again try to mount a takeover by seeking to rehabilitate Japan’s history of aggression and colonial rule in Asia in defiance of mainstream domestic opinion, they are also attacking Japan’s open society by muzzling the media, rolling back freedom of information, gutting transparency and boosting patriotic education.
The Dr. Feelgoods of Japanese history are feeling confident under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s sponsorship. Indeed, a majority of his Cabinet hail from a parliamentary revisionist-history association and sense a great opportunity to impose a degrading version of Japan’s wartime past that insults countless Asian victims.
In the process, of course, they overlook the sacrifices of ordinary Japanese citizens, and soldiers who served as cannon fodder for the extremists who led Japan into that national disaster.
Today’s extremists are willfully distorting the lessons of history. Somehow they imagine they can nurture pride in Japan by trampling on the dignity and sensitivities of the nations that suffered from Japanese aggression.
However, attempting to reinvent Japan’s shared history with Asia recklessly provokes China and South Korea, and also puts Tokyo on a collision course with Washington. A jingoistic Abe manages to make unthreatening, pacifist Japan appear to be an incipient warmongering nation — much to Beijing’s delight.
The vast majority of Japanese value their open society, but fear that the forces of darkness are descending.
Last summer, the school board in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, moved to restrict students’ access to “Barefoot Gen” — an iconic antiwar manga about the horrors of Hiroshima. The public outcry denouncing that demagoguery forced the rightists to retreat and sparked a surge in sales. Apparently, such criticism of Japan’s wartime leaders and military atrocities still resonates uncomfortably with rightists eager to reclaim that era. They also condemned Haruo Miyazaki’s 2013 anime “Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises),” deeming it antipatriotic. But that was exactly his point — and it proved to be a blockbuster at the box office.
The anti-Korean demonstrations that are now routine are another manifestation of Japan in jackboots, as small groups of marchers make nasty threats and intimidate students at Korean schools and also shoppers in Shin-Okubo, a well-known Korean enclave in the capital.
This thuggery has been red-carded in the courts and repudiated by counter demonstrations, but is a reminder that in the Abe era, ugly nationalism is coming out of the closet.
In the recent Tokyo gubernatorial election, disgraced former Air Self-Defense Force Gen. Toshio Tamogami garnered 610,000 votes — about 12 percent of the total cast. Exit polls suggest he attracted many young voters who like his tough talk. He favors Japan developing nuclear weapons and is unapologetic about its 1931-45 rampage in China.
Naoki Hyakuta, an NHK board member who campaigned with Tamogami, dismisses the Nanking Massacre as a fabrication and called the other candidates “scum.” Meanwhile, a film based on his book glorifying kamikaze, “Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero),” is currently a box-office blockbuster in Japan — and has entered the ranks of the 10 highest-grossing Japanese films ever.
One doubts that NHK will replay its kamikaze documentary that shows surviving pilots complaining they were duped into “volunteering” — a film whose conclusion is that the lives of the kamikaze pilots were wasted and their impact on the war was negligible.
On Abe’s watch, other prominent Japanese have also denied the Nanking Massacre and defended the comfort-women system of enforced wartime prostitution for its military.
Recent Diet testimony by Nobuo Ishihara, a senior government official who helped draft the 1993 Kono Statement acknowledging state responsibility and apologizing for the comfort-women system, asserted that at the time there was no direct documentary evidence of military coercion in recruiting the women. He said the Kono Statement was based entirely on the uncorroborated testimony of former comfort women, and was only issued to promote better relations with Seoul — disingenuously implying that there is a lack of real proof.
He also expressed anger that South Korea has spurned that 1993 olive branch, though he apparently doesn’t realize that belatedly admitting to gross violations of human rights after years of steadfast denial doesn’t usually win plaudits.
Mainstream Japanese historians acknow-ledge the Nanking Massacre happened and have detailed the repugnant practices of the comfort-women system. History can be a difficult subject, but why do so many reactionary extremists get it so wrong?
The number of victims in Nanking remains hotly disputed, but only crackpots deny that the massacre happened. The Japanese Army Veterans Association (Kaikosha) conducted research in 1984 among members who actually served in Nanking at that time, between December 1937 and January 1938. The investigation was launched to refute the allegations, but the veterans, with nothing to gain from maligning their own conduct, admitted they were guilty.
This unexpected mea culpa was published in 1985 in the group’s magazine, Kaiko, along with an apology that read: “Whatever the severity of war or special circumstances of war psychology, we just lose words faced with this mass illegal killing. As those who are related to the prewar military, we simply apologize deeply to the people of China. It was truly a regrettable act of barbarity.”
Last year, when Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto justified the wartime comfort-women system, polls found more than two-thirds of Japanese scorned his views.
NHK’s new Abe-era czar, Katsuto Momii, has also rationalized this dreadful system in an attempt to exonerate Japan — and still seemingly wonders why he has been condemned for his remarks.
His familiar assertion that all other nations did the same thing is misleading. Soldiers everywhere frequent brothels, but Japan’s comfort-women system was organized with government complicity and military involvement in recruiting and transporting tens of thousands of teenage Korean girls to frontline areas and operating the “comfort stations” on bases where military doctors checked for sexually transmitted diseases and administered drugs to induce abortions.
The closest parallel, although on a relatively minuscule scale, may be the mobile brothels of the French Foreign Legion. Koreans, however, tend to regard the comfort-women system as being closer to the Serbian rape centers operational during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
Momii retracted his comments, but by then he had already riled members of the U.S. Congress, forcing the Japanese government to hire Washington lobbyists to head off a repeat of 2007, when Abe was made to apologize for quibbling about the comfort-women system.
Perhaps they both should look into the quasi-governmental Asia Women’s Fund which, during its 1995-2007 existence, didn’t compensate very many former comfort women — its principal task — but did manage to bequeath a digital library that is a valuable resource on this issue, which can be accessed at www.awf.or.jp/e6/01-3.html.
David Pilling, the Asia editor for the Financial Times, recently told me that even if prospects for historical reconciliation in Northeast Asia are remote, this does not diminish the need for Japan to assume the burdens of this history, apologize more specifically and try to manage the past more productively.
There is, in his view, no excuse for Japanese revisionists’ senseless and counterproductive provocations.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.