Enough is enough. How dare UNESCO inscribe primary sources and a wartime video about the Nanking mayhem into global memory? I fully support the Japanese government’s threats to withdraw funding from UNESCO to protest its recent decision to include a dossier submitted by China, “Documents of Nanjing Massacre,” in the Memory of the World Register. Nothing could better highlight Japan’s bumbling public diplomacy, or pettifogging about its shared history with Asia.
Perhaps the money saved could be used to establish a “Forgetting of the World Registry,” an institution that would surely do a brisk business as so many nations would love to cleanse their reputations and bury their darkest moments in such a repository. The Yushukan Museum adjacent to Yasukuni Shrine could serve as a model for such an initiative as the displays regarding Japan’s era of imperialism are meticulously scrubbed of any atrocities, while the wartime leaders who led the rampage through Asia between 1931 and 1945 — liberating tens of millions of oppressed Asians from the miseries of life, while enslaving countless others — are presented as martyrs who sacrificed their lives for a noble mission.
I think the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should make a publicized visit with a phalanx of LDP lawmakers to the museum, perhaps inviting UNESCO representatives, so everyone can see that there was no Nanking Massacre, no mistreated prisoners of war, no Unit 731 vivisection experiments on those POWs, no “comfort women” and indeed no Asian victims whatsoever of Japanese colonialism or aggression. Now that is airbrushing with verve!
At a news conference following the UNESCO decision, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga complained about the lack of transparency in the process of evaluating the documents. But truth be told, the Japanese government has a rather mixed record on this issue. Nonetheless, Suga confirmed the government’s official position that Japanese soldiers killed many noncombatants and engaged in the plundering of China’s wartime capital. So what it boils down to is Japan quibbling over the precise scale of the atrocity that it owns up to committing, caviling about exactly how many died and were raped in the Rape of Nanking.
Sure there are some reactionary Japanese who deny that a massacre ever took place, but Abe has denied denying this. Alas at the time nobody had an abacus handy to record every single Chinese soldier, hands tied behind their back, mowed down on the banks of the river by machine-gun fire, nor was anyone meticulously keeping track of the rapes and slaughter of noncombatants, but a Japanese Army Veterans Association survey of members who were actually there, which was published in the group’s magazine in 1985, confirms that atrocities were widespread. Conservative historian Ikuhiko Hata actually revised his casualty estimates significantly upward after the publication of the diary of John Rabe, a German employee of Siemens and member of the Nazi party who witnessed the outrages and tried desperately to protect as many Chinese as he could from marauding Japanese soldiers.
In terms of public diplomacy, the Abe government’s fulminating damages Japan’s reputation because it sends a message that the government is seeking to downplay or deny the atrocities committed by the Imperial armed forces in the war of aggression Tokyo instigated against China. Its denunciation of UNESCO makes Japan appear churlish and clueless while handing China a rare diplomatic victory.
Moreover, there is very little glory in hypocrisy. UNESCO also accepted two sets of archives compiled by Japan, including a submission about the mistreatment of Japanese detainees by the Soviet Union. Furthermore, UNESCO did not accept China’s dossier on the comfort women, a decision that further undermines Japan’s intemperate attack on UNESCO’s alleged bias. No complaints about lack of transparency there. And, to put it delicately, accusations that Beijing is politicizing UNESCO seem inconsistent. Is Japan alone allowed to position itself as a victim of World War II while nations victimized by Japanese imperialism are castigated for drawing attention to Japan’s misdeeds? Tokyo’s finger-pointing is just as petulant and diplomatically deplorable as Washington’s legendary UNESCO-bashing.
The Abe government has issued guidelines that require Japanese textbook publishers to present history that conforms to the government’s views, and compelled deletion of passages that don’t, but seems to have gotten carried away with its revisionist hubris in ways that tarnish Japan’s global image.
In July, the government also made a hash of the UNESCO designation of 23 Meiji Era (1868-1912) industrial sites after some very public wrangling with South Korea. Seoul had opposed the listing of seven sites honoring Japan’s modernization because they involved over 50,000 Korean forced laborers, but finally acquiesced to Japan’s proposal. This is because Japan agreed to establish an information center that would acknowledge the miserable conditions experienced by Koreans and because Kuni Sato, Japan’s ambassador to UNESCO, stipulated, “Japan is prepared to take measures that allow an understanding that there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought against their will and forced to work under harsh conditions in the 1940s at some of the sites.”
This meeting of minds was short lived as Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida soon thereafter asserted — quite wrongly — that “forced to work” does not mean “forced labor.” His remarks were probably aimed at smoothing the ruffled feathers of benighted LDP constituencies, but that does not make them any less fatuous and unbecoming of Japan’s top diplomat.
Earlier this year it was announced that Japan would treble its budget for public diplomacy to $500 million, apparently a response to perceptions that the governments of China and South Korea are embracing a more assertive diplomacy aimed at tarnishing Japan’s reputation. There is a worry that Japan’s diplomats have been ciphers on the world stage, adopting a reactive and ineffective approach to countering misinformation and misinterpretation of government policies and initiatives. Now they can’t complain about a lack of firepower in what is often likened to a public relations war. But based on Japan’s recent miscues, taxpayers have every right to complain that this gold-plated, brasher diplomacy is undermining Japan’s stature.
Actually, Japan’s reticent diplomacy over the years has paid dividends as polls show that Americans rate Japan more highly on history issues than Germany, a nation usually held up as the model penitent. It takes a quiet confidence for a government to acknowledge and atone for a shameful past, build a track record of peace and believe that, warts and all, global support will follow. Polls show that Japan’s self-effacing style over the years has won widespread admiration for Brand Japan, but this is now at risk from the Abe government’s swaggering public diplomacy, a shift in tone that reflects a fundamentally feeble self-esteem.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.