Japan’s reactionaries waging culture war


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.

  • iwishitweretrue

    Good article. Japan and the Japnese cannot allow these reactionaries to ruin Japan’s outstanding reputation as a sincere and hardworking and decent nation, that has been carefully built up since WW2. Not so long ago, both China and South Korea were good friends of Japan, but have now been made enemies by the reactionaries and their attempt to glory the unspeakably awful behaviour by the Japanese war time leaders in WW2. The US, Russia and the West are all rightfly beginning to be worried by Abe and the reactionary forces at work in Japan. Abe needs to concentrate on the Japanese economy and stop all the reactionary propaganda and to accept the peaceful rise of China, without trying to antagonise China for populist reasons.

  • OgonBat87

    Excellent article.

  • risq

    The rallying cry of the ultra-nationalists: “In order to fight China, we must be just as bad as China!”

  • machy

    Another fine description of the problem. Nice structure. Well-organized. Strong facts. Very deliberate. There’s no chance the other side can prevail.

    Well-done …

    Unfortunately, like the countless other articles before which also are very good at “describing” the problem, they all end up just being impotent venting, pointing fingers and shaming.

    You should write something that SOLVES the problem.

    Empathy is the key. If you haven’t done so yet, watch Vice’s Youtube movie called “Gokudo” on the right-wing, ultranationalists.

    It’s an excellent, non-judgmental documentary that gives a fairly eloquent right-wing leader a chance to see things from his point of view.

    To be quite honest, I’ve met many people like him here in Japan. They’re everywhere! Knowing what these people are like, I can say with 100% conviction that there’s no way your article going to do anything to dissuade them. You are only acting to polarize the issue.

    To solve the problem, what is needed is for some “depolarizing”.

    The first way to start is just to give merit to those basic arguments which they so vehemently defend, namely:

    1. to preserve the Japanese culture
    2. to instill national pride (not appear so weak, not be so dependent on the US)
    3. to honor the dead (war-time or not)

    Now, if you were creative enough, I’m sure you could figure out a strategy and way to acknowledge these needs, thus satiating the nationalists, to get on with the bigger job of improving the country.

    Remember, base your strategy on resolving this issue on empathy.

    • Steve Jackman

      I think you are being overly harsh in your criticism and sarcasm, since Jeff’s article is excellent on almost all counts.

      It is important to first recognize that there is a problem, before one can come up with a plan to fix it. Secondly, only the Japanese can solve their problems. No outsider can do this for them.

      The best role that Jeff and other foreigners can play is to try to show the Japanese that there are more ways of looking at things than just one myopic, tunnel vision and group-think way.

    • kyushuphil

      Hey, “machy,” solution is simple.

      Teach kids — always — to talk, and to write essays, with plenty of reference to other, specific humans. Yes, it’s messy — humanity is messy (ta-men-sei 多 面 性 ). But what’s the alternative?

      The alternative, of course, is regimentation, group conformity, neglect of everything and anything Sōseki called kojin-shugi — individualism.

      Individualism doesn’t necessarily mean ego, emphasis on oneself, and one’s entitlement. It means skill, too, to see others as people, too — and to accept the basic messiness of life. Not run away from it in group insanity.

      Oops. I’m speaking now in graduation season in Japan, when you can guarantee hordes of honored speakers, all gushing their generalities, clichés, abstractions, and platitudes. They can’t help it. Most are males, and in Japan that’s automatically a disability. And most have been to schools, like, err, Japanese schools, where everyone marches regimented, depersonalized, and by same-age groups ( dō-ki 同 期 ).

    • zer0_0zor0

      An enlightened comment.

      That is basically why I have tried to elucidate US culpability with respect to inserting individuals that were to stand trial for war crimes into the newly established post-WWII political order, primarily by installing them in the CIA funded LDP.

      1. Japanese culture does need to be preserved, and to that end, young people need alternatives to the type of banal and debased media spectacles being promoted by the ‘culture industry’ in the USA. Education is one sphere for cultivating cultural values, but it is not a simple equation, and Japanese history has plenty of mutually opposed positions on diverse issues.
      So when the PM visits a politically loaded symbol such as Yasukuni Jinja, which has both historical and cultural significance that carries, on the balance, negative connotations according to most observers (at least since the enshrining of convicted war criminals in the 1970s), that is not something that serves to protect Japanese culture, it serves to problematize the prevailing Japanese political culture on an international scale.

      2. While a reduction of regional tensions would facilitate a reduction in the US military presence, there is a necessity for a US military presence to counter atavistic and xenophobic elements like some of the right wingers you describe.

      3. VP Biden and SoS Kerry were demonstrating a little leadership by visiting the cemetery that honors war dead in a more conventional manner, without any of the controversy associated with Yasukuni Jinja. John Breen has published a book related to this topic Yasukuni, the War Dead and the Struggle for Japan’s Past

  • Steve Jackman

    Great analysis and another very well written piece by Jeff. I would just elaborate a little more on one point, which is, the way Mr. Abe’s actions and those of Japanese business and society are damaging “Brand Japan” around the world, and in the process hurting themselves.

    Japan’s post WW2 development and affluence has been built largely on the strength of its brands like Sony, Panasonic, Toyota, Honda, Toshiba, Hitachi and others. Collectively, these contributed to building a strong Brand Japan globally. I have no statistical studies to back this up, but based on plenty of anecdotal evidence, I feel that Brand Japan has taken a big hit recently and it is on a downward trajectory. This is, in no small part, due to a Japanese government, corporations and judicial system, which is now being perceived by many foreigners as unfair, nationalist, confrontational, right wing, racist and arrogant. This may very well be one of the reasons that Abenomics and its weak-Yen policies have made virtually no positive impact on increasing Japan’s exports in volume terms (all gains have come as a result of conversion of overseas foreign exchange profits to a weaker Yen).

    Strong global branding has become increasingly important around the world, especially in today’s interconnected environment. When Japanese brands first rose to prominance in the 70s and 80s, they had a positive brand image based on foreigners’ perceptions of the many good qualities of the Japanese people.

    Unfortunately, foreigners these days are much more likely to hear negative things about Japan, than they are to hear positive ones. Read any major international newspaper, watch international TV news, or read news, analysis or commentry on the internet, and when discussing Japan, you are likely to come across plenty of negative opinions about Japan’s increasing nationalism, militarism, historical amnesia, taiji dolphin slaughters, questionable whaling, nuclear accidents and uncontrolled release of radiation into the environment, corporate and political corruption, sexism, racism, xenophobia, hate speech, discrimination against minorities and foreign residents of Japan, and the lack of due process afforded to them by the Japanese justice system in civil and criminal cases.

    Make no mistake, todays consumers consume large amounts of information, process it, and form well-informed opinions about brands based on this information. In many cases, they will only do business with brands which share their values and outlook on social and political issues.

    In the old days, strong brands could be built on perceptions alone, which could be created by having huge marketing budgets and hiring the best advertising agencies. However, this is not possible in today’s open, transparent, democratic, global and interconnected world, where information is so readily available. Apple and Google have positive global brand images since their customers know that these companies are truly progressive, global and open minded in their thinking, have diverse and international management and employees, and have a corporate culture that is inclusive and embraces change.

    On the other hand, many Japanese companies which may claim to be global, but whose management and employees in reality lack diversity, are insular and inward looking, are racist and xenophobic, abusive towards their foreign workers and treat them with contempt and suspicion, have ultra-conservative work culture and values, and are paranoid of change, cannot cultivate a positive brand image which today’s global, modern and informed consumers would aspire or gravitate towards. The world’s best advertising or PR companies cannot change this fact.

    It’s time for the Japanese politicians, government, corporations and judicial system to work together in creating a strong Brand Japan which is more alligned with the values, desires and aspirations of today’s modern consumers.

  • Tando

    I don`t understand all this whining from people here who say that they don`t want to apologize anymore and that Japan just did what everybody else did. Japan has lots of things to be proud of. After the war they built a first class economy, a peacefull and prosperous society, a worldwide admired ancient and modern culture. Apart from the history issues the world would probably judge Japan very posisitvely. Why would anybody want to trade this for the murky dream of past imperial glory.
    In my country politicians have to vow that they will keep away any harm from their country. Japanese politicans seem to have no such sense of responsibility. Did anybody make Ishihara responsible for the political and economic damage he caused with his drive to buy the Senkakus. Hashimoto, Abe and cohorts are resposible for the negative image of Japan, but in the end it`s the Japanese people who elect them.
    I am watching every morning NHK`s drama “Gochisosan”. It portrays the time in question and gives it a human face, but I think it only reflects a tiny fraction of the real suffering. Would anybody want to get their again?!?

  • The only thing worse than ultra-nationalists is the limp-wristed leadership of the status quo. The left’s own failure to lead is what causes the power of nationalism to grow.

    That topic is far more interesting than nationalist fear-mongering: What causes the power of nationalism to grow? Only the failures of so-called leaders who (claim to) believe otherwise.

    Ever watch “V for Vendetta”? I always thought that movie didn’t tell the whole story: what enabled the nationalists to come into power? The failures socialism tend to lead to dictatorship as a nation’s economic and social power necessarily flounders. People become desperate as the ideals they pay lip service to, in reality leads to a slow decay of everything. So long as people believe in this false alternative between socialism and fascism, and until they start to recognize that they are simply two sides of the same coin, we will continue the march towards fascism, war, revolution, then reinstatement of the same kind of socialist order that enabled the nationalism and war in the first place — and the cycle will continue.