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History is harsh unless you erase it

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

On his visit to the United States in April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed Congress and told them: “History is harsh. What was done cannot be undone.”

Apparently Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto did not listen to the speech or get the memo. The Osaka International Peace Center museum has just reopened after renovations that involved removing the exhibits on Japanese wartime aggression. Hashimoto once threatened to close the museum when he was Osaka’s governor, but after touring the facility on its reopening he praised the face-lift.

On a visit there several years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by a museum that unflinchingly presented both what Japan endured and what it inflicted during the 1930s and ’40s. It seemed an encouraging reproach to the Smithsonian museum, which in 1995 tried to mount an exhibition that complicated the atomic bomb narrative in an effort to give voice to scholars who questioned the wisdom and necessity of former President Harry Truman’s decision to drop them. The curator’s inspiring vision could not survive the political gauntlet, showing an America that was overly eager, half a century on, to stifle criticism.

In Osaka there has been a similar retreat from discomforting truths as the harsh aspects of Japanese imperialism have been tossed onto the garbage heap of history. Visitors no longer confront colonial rule in Korea, the Nanking Massacre, invasion of the Asian continent, aggression in Southeast Asia or the mistreatment of Allied prisoners of war. This sanitized peace museum now features more about the U.S. bombing raids on Osaka and a short video that exonerates Japan from allegations of aggression. At least pulling the aggression exhibits will save teachers the heartburn of explaining things that are no longer covered in Japan’s new textbooks.

Established in 1991, the Osaka International Peace Center long stood out for not shying away from the devastation inflicted by Japanese troops. It emerged in a time when it was deemed important to learn about Japan’s militaristic past, but the reflective and self-critical spirit of the 1990s has not fared well in the 21st century as perpetrator fatigue has set in. The right wing has mounted a sustained campaign to promote a glorifying and exonerating narrative that would surprise most of those who lived through the maelstrom and, indeed, would have been unthinkable in the aftermath of defeat when the popular mood was defiantly anti-military and wartime leaders were denounced as scoundrels and worse.

“People in Osaka shared a notion that they would never be able to fully understand the backdrop to the air raids without knowledge of Japan’s acts in other parts of Asia,” 78-year-old Masaaki Arimoto, former leader of the museum’s secretariat, told the Asahi Shimbun in an interview.

The government-ordained mischief in Osaka is part of a larger cultural war being waged throughout Abe’s Japan. Reactionaries are emboldened, and under his aegis are overturning Japan’s postwar norms and values — ranging from security and the Constitution to education and history. They have taken advantage of popular disengagement with the tawdry world of politics and a complacent society to assert their exculpatory narrative. One small museum in Osaka is no big deal, but put in the context of numerous similar assaults on Japan’s postwar liberal values, it is a sign of the times.

The museum has long been on the reactionary hit list and has periodically had to take down or modify exhibits under pressure. It even earned the ire of celebrity manga artist Yoshinori Kobayashi, who condemned it for brainwashing visitors with masochistic history.

Peace education has now been sacrificed on the altar of revisionist history. Revisionists like Hashimoto and Abe embrace the “self-righteous nationalism” condemned by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in his 1995 statement marking the 50th anniversary of Japan’s surrender. In his speech to the U.S. Congress, Abe affirmed that he upholds the Murayama statement, but it appears he does so quite selectively and with little enthusiasm.

So far, Abe has been a disappointment on history issues during this 70th anniversary year of the end of World War II, because he has been evasive and ambiguous about embracing responsibility for Japan’s wartime actions in Asia where the bitter legacies remain divisive. This “Abenesia” tarnishes Japan’s international reputation while antagonizing China and South Korea.

Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, made it clear at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue that he too thinks the Japanese government should come clean on its aggression.

“Japan needs to acknowledge past wrongs” and reject “the more outrageous interpretations of history, by its right-wing academics and politicians,” he said.

While admonishing Japan’s neighbors to accept reconciliation initiatives, Lee put the onus on Abe and complained that Japan has been equivocal about the “comfort women” and the Nanking Massacre.

Many nations downplay their unpleasant histories, but Abe is mounting a significant retreat from the repentant views Japan has expressed and embraced since the 1990s. He actively promotes a valorizing and exonerating history under the banner of patriotic education.

The prime minister is putting his personal agenda on history ahead of the national interest and therefore not meeting the test of statesmanship. Of course there is nothing that Abe could say that would assuage China or South Korea, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try harder.

“Our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries,” Abe told Congress. “We must not avert our eyes from that. I will uphold the views expressed by the previous prime ministers in this regard.”

Essentially outsourcing “apology and war responsibility” to his predecessors shows a lack of empathy and sincerity. It is also troubling that throughout his political career, Abe has worked to repudiate previous mea culpa. Rather than merely “upholding” what others have said, Abe should prove his critics wrong by clearly expressing an apology. The door is not closed on apologies, acts of contrition and atonement and a clear reckoning of the harsh history that still isolates Japan in East Asia. Abe is certainly right that the neighbors are playing the history card and ceaselessly hammering Japan on the anvil of history, but who handed them this hammer?

Given the prime minister’s evasive track record on the comfort women system of forced prostitution, a forthright apology or acknowledgment of state involvement was never likely, but Abe’s remarks in Washington were even weaker than expected: “Armed conflicts have always made women suffer the most. In our age, we must realize the kind of world where finally women are free from human rights abuses.”

This cavalier “s—t happens” attitude toward the comfort women system undermines Japan’s dignity and represents another step backward. Hopefully, a cure for Abenesia will be found before Aug.15.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.