Asia-Pacific, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines

POLITICS: War Memories ‘Nationalised’ in Asia’s Psyche

Tim Shorrock

WASHINGTON, May 22 2002 (IPS) - Nearly 60 years after Japan’s surrender brought an end to World War II, memories of that conflict and disputes over its significance still bedevil relations between Japan and the countries affected by its aggression in Asia.

Recent controversies in China and Korea about how the war is taught in Japanese textbooks, visits of Japanese leaders to Shinto shrines where Japanese war dead are buried, and attempts by Japanese rightists to intimidate groups seeking reparations for Japan’s war crimes illustrates the strength of World War II in the Asian public consciousness.

But according to Kiichi Fujiwara, a Japanese political scientist who has written a book about war memories, the focus for the debate about the twentieth century’s most destructive war has moved from the state to society at large.

This has in turn stirred up resentments between the Chinese, Korean and Japan public even as their governments press on with important diplomatic, military and economic discussions.

Using the example of China, Fujiwara argues that Beijing, while raising objections to visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese prime ministers, remains on good terms with Tokyo and is viewed by the Japanese public a friendly, “status quo” government.

But when Chinese citizens discuss Japan on Internet sites, “individual Japanese are blamed” for the atrocities of World War II, Fujiwara told a May 20 forum here sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

“We see the mirror image in Japan, including racist remarks about Koreans and Chinese” on the Internet, he added.

Fujiwara contends that this “nationalisation of history” has evolved as Chinese and South Korean society have become more open. “With more pluralism, there is more anger at Japan and Japanese individuals,” he said. The debate “has reached the intersocietal level with all its implications for Asian politics”.

One of the most troubling implications for Japan, he said, is a strengthening of right-wing groups seeking to glorify the country’s role in the war and move beyond the traditional view, held since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that Japanese soldiers and civilians who died in the war were victims.

“We are seeing the revival of a far more chauvinistic, crude kind of nationalism,” said Fujiwara, a professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo and author of Remembering the War’, a comparative study of Japan, Singapore and the United States.

Fujiwara said he first became interested in how different countries remember the war when he was living in Washington in 1995, during the controversy over the exhibit of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution’s American history museum.

The exhibit of the U.S. plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima caused a firestorm in Congress after veterans groups complained that the exhibit simply portrayed the Japanese as victims of the bomb and failed to address the causes of the war.

Under pressure, the museum added language to reflect the veterans’ concerns and forced out a Smithsonian official responsible for the exhibit.

When he visited the Enola Gay, Fujiwara recalled, he overheard an elderly veteran explain to his grandchildren that the bomb had forced Japan to surrender. That was the first time he realised that many Americans believed that the atomic bombs had ended the war and prevented more American soldiers from dying, he said.

That side of the story was never told in Japan, Fujiwara said, particularly in Hiroshima, which emerged in the post-war period as a Japanese symbol of “shared victimhood”.

Even today, at a Tokyo museum dedicated to families who lost loved ones in the war, there is no mention of battlefields or soldiers. Instead, the exhibit depicts how women and children suffered in the air raids over Tokyo, Osaka and other large cities.

But it “doesn’t even show who dropped the bombs,” said Fujiwara. “What remains is a very long story about suffering during the war.”

By Fujiwara’s account, war memories in Japan were politicised soon after Japan and China normalised relations in 1972.

With Japanese citizens free to roam China, the investigative journalist Katsuichi Honda travelled to Nanjing, where he gathered first-hand evidence from survivors of the atrocities committed in that city in 1937.

Honda’s stories of mass executions and rapes by Japanese soldiers were carried in the mass-circulation Asahi newspaper and shocked a populace that had never encountered the full horror of Japan’s invasion of China.

“Ever since then, war memories have become a much more divisive issue,” said Fujiwara. Fed by right-wing propaganda, many Japanese refused to believe Honda’s stories, or accused the Chinese government of using the Nanjing massacre to squeeze more aid from Japan.

At the same time, Japanese who tried to focus public attention on Japan’s role in the war were branded as leftists anxious to push their own agenda, he said.

Perceptions have also changed in China, where the government has long portrayed the war as a smashing victory by Mao Tse Tung’s Red Army.

At a museum dedicated to the Chinese resistance to Japan near Beijing’s Marco Polo Bridge, the civil war against Chiang Kai Shek and the Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces is “totally dismissed,” said Fujiwara, while the nationalists are included as part of the broad anti-Japanese movement. “That’s something new,” he said.

“A war memory problem is not something Japan has a monopoly on,” said Steven Clemons, an expert on U.S.-Japan relations and executive vice president of the New America Foundation, an independent think-tank in Washington.

Clemons has been critical of the U.S. legal support for Japan’s refusal to pay reparations to U.S. soldiers who were used as slave labourers by Japanese corporations during the war. The basis for the U.S. stand, he said, is an obscure 1951 provision to a U.N. document signed by Japan and the United Nations at the urging of the American government.

The U.S. occupation of Japan, Clemons argued, was “designed in many ways to give Japan a lobotomy” and keep ordinary Japanese from knowing the truth about post-war leaders who had served the militarist and imperialist cause during the war.

The best thing for Japan, he said, would be to develop a “better sense of nationalism” that would help the country break away from its Cold War dependence on the United States and face up to its past.

Clemons described a forum on tolerance he recently attended in Germany, where the country’s crimes during the Nazi period and the Holocaust were openly discussed and debated.

“What if Mitsubishi” — one of the Japanese companies that has been sued by former forced labourers — “did that in Japan?” he asked. “The longer this box is closed, the more irreparable the damage. That can only drive the chauvinistic and anti-foreign feelings in Japan still further.”

Fujiwara responded that the majority of Japanese believe in facing the truth about Japan’s war crimes. In 1993, he recalled, former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa issued a statement on Japan’s war responsibility that included an apology for its actions during the war.

“The public endorsed it and his popularity rose,” Fujiwara said. But compensation, he added, “is another issue.”

“Maybe the Japanese public is not as nationalistic as some think,” Fujiwara said. “Body politics is much more middle of the road.”

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