The corrosive impact of extremism is evident in the culture wars being waged in the U.S. and Japan. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have failed the test of leadership by failing to denounce extremists, whether they are white supremacists and neo-Nazis or Japan’s revisionists and Net-uyoku (cyber-thugs), who promote an exculpatory narrative of war memory.
Why hasn’t Abe sacked Finance Minister Taro Aso, who recently expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler’s intentions? Aso is a repeat offender, having previously praised the Nazis’ stealthy revision of the German constitution in the context of overcoming contemporary Japanese opposition to constitutional revision.
Chris Nelson, an associate of Sasakawa USA and editor of the Nelson Report, the influential daily communique on Asian affairs, recently wrote, ” If ‘Charlottesville’ explains anything to the international audience, it’s the capacity of large segments of white America to ignore what ‘history’ means to the folks who didn’t get statues.”
He adds: “‘Deniers’ are universal, especially if a cherished national myth is imperiled by the truth. Just look at the convoluted agony of conservative Japanese, Abe especially, who have yet to reconcile the vicious, racist, Imperial era with the personal valor and tragedies of the soldiers killed in battle and the civilians burned alive under WWII bombs …including U.S. nukes.”
This is the great difficulty that defeated nations grapple with — how to honor the soldiers caught up in a war instigated by the ruling elite while also honoring the victims of those same soldiers. They were decent young men conscripted into a reckless, doomed war of aggression, and their relatives seek solace in commemorating their sacrifice for a state that betrayed them.
Akiko Hashimoto, author of “The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan,” asserts: “The era when one dominant voice would represent a tainted past ‘truthfully’ is long gone. We now live in an age of multi-vocal commemoration.” She sees the benefits of counter-memorials because “removing/displacing/deleting opposing voices (such as the comfort women statues) does not and cannot resolve controversies in this age of multi-vocal memory.”
This problem is manifest in ongoing battles over the “comfort women” within the country between liberals and revisionists, and between Japan and states where the Imperial Japanese military directly and indirectly rounded up women and operated “comfort stations” providing sexual services for its soldiers. The revisionists are the “deniers” — eager to minimize, mitigate or shift responsibility for this system of sexual servitude — while liberals understand that reconciliation and restoring dignity to Japan and its victims depends on coming clean about the sordid past.
Revisionists are escalating efforts to promote a vindicating and valorizing narrative of war. These extremists, including Abe, wish to rehabilitate Japan’s wartime conduct, and reject liberals’ efforts to see the country emulate Germany. It took Germany until the 1960s to take the path towards becoming the model penitent, while Japan delayed a forthright reckoning until the early 1990s. But in the 21st century, Japan’s revisionist political elite has backpedaled from contrition, while shirking the burdens of the past, assailing liberals and propagating a fake history.
Apologists and toadies are hijacking the media to promote an exculpatory wartime narrative. They have also orchestrated attacks on the liberal Asahi Shimbun that Abe publicly endorsed in 2014, hopefully unaware that Net-uyoku had issued death threats against a former reporter and his family, and threatened to harm students at the university where he then taught.
Nelson condemns such revisionists for their “hypocrisy of demanding ‘proof of coercion’ of South Korean ‘comfort women’ during a culturally genocidal, 40-year military occupation.” The proof is in the women’s testimony and archival evidence that the military did operate comfort stations across the region. A multinational dossier was submitted to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register seeking to ensure that this documented history is not forgotten, but Japan has mobilized against this effort.
On Sept. 26 in Tokyo, Japan’s “celebrity” revisionists will convene the “Special Urgent Symposium on UNESCO’s Listing of Comfort Women.” The headliner will be Shiro Takahashi, a close friend of Abe and Japan’s spokesman at UNESCO. Last year Japan withheld its dues to UNESCO to protest the organization’s decision to accept China’s dossier on the Nanking Massacre. The Abe administration has also targeted comfort women statues, most notably in South Korea and in the U.S., where consulate officials pressure towns to reject installation of such statues.
Martin Fackler, senior researcher at the Asia Pacific Initiative think tank and former New York Times Tokyo bureau chief, observes: “Japan has spent enormous time and energy trying to explain its opposition to the statues to U.S. academics, policymakers and anyone else who’ll listen, but you have to wonder what these efforts have actually achieved. The risk for the Japanese is that they end up looking petty and childish.” He adds: “The way Japan presents its arguments can also be tone deaf. Japan’s diplomats make these very legalistic arguments … while ignoring the bigger moral questions.” This approach is risky as “Americans outside the ethnic Korean community tend to see the comfort women as an issue of human rights and exploitation of women, not competing national historic narratives.” Fackler recalls a memorial to Korean forced laborers in Hokkaido that was blocked, although later erected, due to a Net-uyoku campaign.
War memory is also sanitized in commemorating the kamikaze. M.G. Sheftall, a Japanese cultural historian at Shizuoka University and author of the acclaimed “Blossoms In The Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze” (2005), says: “Just about every JSDF (Japan Self-Defense Force) base has some form of kamikaze memorial on it. Not just war dead, but specifically kamikaze dead, in a narrative that completely absolves the wartime establishment and Imperial high command of culpability in the pilots’ deaths by insinuating that the agency behind [these deaths] was exclusively the pilots’ individual will and patriotism (i.e., that doing kamikaze was their own idea, and done voluntarily — not ordered or otherwise coerced).” Images of glorious self-sacrifice confront a grim reality of young men pressured and duped.
Sheftall asserts that the archipelago is teeming with “Japanese lost cause” memorials “that are probably less than wholesome from a psychological viewpoint vis-a-vis Japan’s ability to someday ‘get over’ its 1945 defeat and cut its final heartstrings to the ideology that brought that defeat about.” Alas, Japan’s extremists have still not given up trying to find honor in that lost-cause conflagration and ideology.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.