Japan’s prickly revisionists

by Hugh Cortazzi

Japan’s right-wing politicians who react badly to foreign criticism are often insensitive to the feelings of foreign people whom they seem to despise. They seem to regard any foreigner who does not praise every aspect of Japan and points out that there were dark moments in Japanese history as a “Japan basher” and, accordingly, an enemy of Japan. This attitude is harmful to Japan’s national interests and reputation.

I was shocked to read in a recent issue of the journal of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo a farewell article by the correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which I know from my service in Germany as a highly respectable serious journal that would never report sensational stories and always checks its facts.

When the correspondent wrote an article critical of the Abe administration’s historical revisionism, the Japanese Consul General in Frankfurt, presumably acting on instructions from Tokyo, called on the paper’s senior foreign policy editor to complain about the article.

The Japanese Consul General refused to produce any facts to counter the arguments in the correspondent’s article and then apparently went on to insult the correspondent and the paper by suggesting that money was “involved,” and that the reporter had to write pro Chinese propaganda to get a visa for China. These remarks were not only unjustified but inept.

Sadly this is not an isolated case. The Japanese Consul General in New York in January requested McGraw-Hill, a reputable U.S. educational publisher, to delete paragraphs in a book produced by two U.S. scholars about “comfort women.” The publishers rejected the request and told the Japanese official that the scholars concerned had properly confirmed the facts.

It is probably impossible now to say for certain how many “comfort women” were forced to serve members of the Imperial Japanese armed forces, but there is overwhelming evidence that this obnoxious practice was widespread. Koreans were not the only women forced into prostitution.

Japanese revisionists also refuse to accept the facts about the Nanjing massacre. In this case, too, it is impossible at this stage to confirm the exact number of those killed, but the evidence from a variety of sources including Japanese confirms that numerous atrocities were committed by members of Japanese forces not only in Nanjing but also elsewhere in China. Anyone who points out such facts is only spelling out the truth and is not a Chinese propagandist.

When I wrote an article some months ago, which noted the fact that there was a dispute over the Senkaku Islands, despite my known antipathy to the anti-democratic behavior of Beijing, I, too, was accused of repeating Chinese propaganda and helping China.

Reports in the British media about Japanese school history books only refer to the downplaying of the Nanking incident and the “comfort women” issue. No mention has been made of what the textbooks say (or do not say) about the thousands of prisoners of war and forced laborers who died in the making of the Thailand-Burma Railway or other incidents in Singapore and Hong Kong when Japanese soldiers broke not only the Geneva conventions but Japan’s own moral code. There is no wish here to rekindle the inevitable resentments, which soured Anglo-Japanese relations in post-war years, but any attempts to water-down the facts or delete them from the record damages relations.

The inevitable reaction of scholars and journalists targeted by Japanese revisionists is to dig deeper and draw more attention to the facts which the revisionists would like erased from the record. Japanese historical revisionists remind me of the Orwellian double-speak and double-thinking of the Nazis and the Soviet Communists.

Intelligent friends of Japan in Britain have various views about the prospects of “Abenomics” and Japanese policies on defense issues, but I don’t know anyone who is prepared to defend Japanese historical revisionism.

The recent argument in favor of a Japanese apartheid by Ayako Sono struck British observers as ludicrous. It was hard to believe that these suggestions could be taken seriously and published in Japan. It made us wonder how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could appoint someone with such views as his education adviser.

It is equally difficult for non-Japanese to understand how intelligent and educated individuals can propagate the concept of Japanese uniqueness as propounded by the “Nihonjinron” theorists. Japan is no more unique than any other country. There are over 120 million Japanese individuals, all different, and most generalizations about Japan and Japanese characteristics are at best approximations.

The Nihonjinron theorists like Japanese historical revisionists seem to exist in a bubble outside the real world. Unlike their Meiji era predecessors they do not really know the world outside Japan. They have no real foreign friends. They act as a drag on efforts to ensure that Japan takes its rightful place in a world that is increasingly globalized both economically and politically.

During Japan’s economic bubble, the Japanese presence in London was phenomenal. There are much fewer Japanese there today. The British authorities, with their restrictions on students, are partly responsible, but the main reason seems to be a Japanese reluctance to venture abroad. An increasing proportion of Japanese in London come here without their wives and families, claiming that the educational needs of their children or looking after aged parents causes them to come as tanshin funin. Some Japanese businessmen and diplomats seem to regard a posting to London as a kind of temporary penance.

I recognize that Japanese diplomats have to carry out the wishes of their political masters and, accordingly, that the consuls general in Frankfurt and New York were obeying orders. But I hope that the Foreign Ministry officials who sent the instructions tried first to persuade their political masters that facts cannot be altered by fiat, and that attempts to censor what journalists and scholars write is likely to be counterproductive.

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

  • Jonathan Fields

    There needs to be a Japanese version of this article stat. I’d certainly be willing to work on that.

    • tisho

      Last year i sent an email to JapanTimes asking them the same question – why is there no Japanese version of this news website and they said they will forward my email to the right people but i never got any answer. I think the answer is pretty clear, it is because they don’t want to become a target of the right wing, just like Asahi is.

  • Catherine Dassy

    The article has a point, but at this time, I think it is clear that there is absolutely no point wasting one’s time on the people who are basically cultists. You will never be able to convince them by argument, because they are religious fundamentalists, and their religion being “Japan”.

    The time and effort spent on trying to communicate with Japan on an adult level could be used so much more effectively by improving relations with cultures that have a future.

    • zer0_0zor0

      It’s not fair in any sense to to identify the rightist ilk of Abe and the LDP with Japanese culture.

      A good amount of study of history is necessary to appreciate that.

      They do try to appropriate certain aspects from certain periods, but that is mostly fringe remnants–though politically effective at present–that came into existence after the forced opening of the country under threat of Western military power.

  • Steve Jackman

    Another excellent and timely article by Hugh Cortazzi which provides a good summary of several current issues here in Japan.

  • Armchair Asia

    Yes, but where are the former American ambassadors? They need to be saying the same things. They need to be free of their Japanese funders. Mondale even had a cousin who was murdered by the Japanese as a POW. He says nothing.

  • Forest2014

    I think and agree that there are certain points current Japanese cabinet believe to be taken out from misunderstandings overseas especially comfort women issues. The way they try to do so might not be smart but still better than prohibitting entry or departure of journalists to/from to a country done by a few neighbours

  • Liars N. Fools

    The attempt to suppress non-rightist history abroad mirrors the much more comprehensive imposition of a historical orthodoxy by the Abe Shinzo administration through Shimomura Hakubun, a premier revisionist and denier. It is truly a travesty that Japan’s stellar record of peace, prosperity, and promotion of human rights since August 1945 is being undercut by a Japanese government insistent that the only thing Japan did wrong was to lose the war.

  • Paul Martin

    What this writer says may be factual veritas, but as we live here I as a professional journalist and writer-director prefer to seek the more positive and congenial images about our adopted country of residence rather than to further antagonize the fragile foreign relationship between Japan and other countries.Their is a strong generation gap in today’s Japan and the older generation together with the establishment is understandably concerned about foreign influence changing Japan’s culture and historical lifestyles.

    • Barry Rosenfeld

      Paul, you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about.

      • Paul Martin

        If you really believe that check my blog:
        paul martin foreign correspondent
        I do know exactly what I’m talking about and my credentials over 50 years in the media supports my credibility, as does the many emails that concur !

      • Barry Rosenfeld

        How about we lunch sometime this week or the next Paul at the FCCJ?
        I shall be glad to meet your acquaintance. if you have time. Or perhaps if that is not suitable, perhaps at the Japanese Kisha club’s facilities. Let me know.

      • Barry Rosenfeld

        How revealing of you Paul not to partake of my invitation at the FCCJ after all.

        You are indeed a man of your word; an accredited, informed foreign correspondent alright!
        I had you checked out my friend and you’re nothing than a common self-styled ‘correspondent’; typical-foreigner-living-in Japan-ex Eikai teacher who needs a job type. My invitation still stands; kindly let me know if you should like to come ‘Mr. Foreign Correspondent.’