Today marks the 85th anniversary of the 1931 Mukden Incident (also known as the Manchurian Incident), when Japanese troops staged a bombing of their own railway by placing explosives near the train tracks. Even though the explosion did minimal damage and a train managed to pass the damaged section soon thereafter, this “attack” was blamed on the Chinese and used as a pretext to invade and pacify Manchuria. This was the beginning of the Fifteen Year War (1931-45), a Japanese-instigated conflagration that caused widespread regional devastation. China suffered the brunt of that mayhem, which is why this day has become engraved in the collective memory as a trauma inflicted by Japan.
The Manchuria-based Kwantung Army assassinated Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin in 1928, but the plotters were not disciplined, thus encouraging extremism. Some of these conspirators subsequently staged the 1931 incident that precipitated wider hostilities, hijacking Japan down a path that lead to the Nanking Massacre in 1937 and Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The League of Nations sent the Lytton Commission to investigate Japan’s seizure of Manchuria. It did not implicate Japan as the aggressor and accepted at face value that Chinese were responsible for the train bombing. However, the commission found that Japan’s subsequent military pacification of the region was not justified and questioned the legitimacy of Manchukuo, the puppet state Japan established in 1932 in Manchuria.
When the League of Nations met to discuss the findings in February 1933, a motion was tabled to condemn Japanese aggression, prompting Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka to storm out. A month later, Japan withdrew from the League, marking the end of its exemplary commitment to working within the international order during the 1920s, one that Matsuoka saw as racist and unwilling to accommodate Japan’s legitimate aspirations.
Matsuoka had a point, but Japan’s aspirations became grandiose and unquenchable. Moreover, the nation brimmed with racist condescension toward fellow Asians and slaughtered millions in the name of liberating them from the yoke of Western colonialism in what was dubbed a holy war, fought on the Emperor’s behalf.
Sept. 18 remains a sensitive day in China. Around this date in 2003, Chinese police detained 400 Japanese tourists engaged in what was characterized as an orgy with 500 prostitutes, arranged by the hotel staff. Apparently the Japanese were unaware that their tawdry escapades were badly timed. Speculation that the orgy was a calculated insult overestimates what these tourists knew about their nation’s history. Overall, in terms of war memory, there is more attention accorded in textbooks to the traumas Japan endured than those it inflicted.
Emperor Akihito has frequently weighed in on this history. In 2015, for example, a year marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender, he used his New Year’s message to urge Japan’s citizens to learn from history. He specifically referred to the Mukden Incident of 1931 as the start of the war, which was a not-so-veiled swipe at revisionists who have tried to diminish Japan’s responsibility for initiating the hostilities that precipitated an Asian inferno.
The key passage in the Emperor’s message was: “I think it is most important for us to take this opportunity to study and learn from the history of this war, starting with the Manchurian Incident of 1931, as we consider the future direction of our country.”
Akihito was rejecting two revisionist conceits about WWII: that it was a defensive war forced on Japan by Western powers and that it was motivated by the noble goal of pan-Asian liberation. Invoking the Mukden Incident positions Japan as the aggressor in its subjugation of China, highlighting a gambit that led to escalating Japanese aggression in China and to a decision in 1940 to widen the war to Southeast Asia in order to secure the resources needed to vanquish China.
The pan-Asian thesis is appealing to contemporary conservatives because it positions Japan as selfless and sacrificing for the benefit of others. By contrast, the Manchurian thesis makes Japan look like a predator, invading nations to secure resources and markets just like other imperial nations.
The Emperor’s explicit reference to Manchuria was not accidental — he was targeting contemporary revisionists, such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seek to assert an exculpatory and valorous narrative. Akihito’s view represents the long-standing mainstream consensus in Japan (and globally). But revisionists have bristled at this “masochistic” view of history, which they believe inculpates Japan while overlooking Allied war crimes. They argue that this view is an example of victor’s justice, based on the biased judgments of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) — the Tokyo Trials.
Judicial process at the IMTFE was indeed flawed: it was inconsistent with international law and the guilty verdicts were preordained. But this doesn’t mean that Japan’s military forces, or those deemed Class A war criminals, were innocent of war crimes. Revisionists often cite the dissenting opinion of IMTFE jurist Radhabinod Pal as exonerating Japan from the war crimes charges — but he argued no such thing. He repudiated the IMTFE because it was packed with judges from Allied nations and for prosecuting the accused through retroactive application of laws that did not exist at the time the alleged crimes took place. Pal, however, condemned Japanese war crimes, while lamenting that the Allies were not in the dock alongside them.
Akihito and most Japanese feel that Japan’s exemplary record in the second half of the 20th century brought redemption, and thus this postwar order serves as the basis for national pride. He gives voice to the anxieties of many Japanese about Abe steering Japan rightward, and where that might lead. His remarks carry a great deal of weight because he speaks with unimpeachable moral authority and is widely respected. By highlighting the horrors of war, taking responsibility for instigating the aggression and reaching out to victims and former foes, the Emperor has shown the way forward and restored dignity to Japan and its victims, thus healing the traumas that divide.
Ironically, the political right finds itself in the awkward position of opposing the views of an Emperor in whose name they claim to act.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.