Geopolitical Ranting: Japan and Asia, pt. 1

Last week-end was the start of a string of holidays known as Golden Week in Japan. All the happy wage-slave masses left Tokyo for a week-long exodus to some exotic location. And because I was stupid enough not to pick Medieval German Poetry, Sociology or some equally bulshittable major, back in the days, I was stuck meditating and doing equations in my garden, fighting with the cats over the few sunbeams that could make it through Tokyo’s many layers of pollution…

Seeing no reason I’d be the only one having an awful time, I figured I would use some time on the side to bring you my thoughts on the heaviest and most uninviting topic possible: Sino-Japanese Relations Through the Twentieth Century to our Days.

Sounds fun, innit?

Actually, this is kind of a trendy topic these days.

To be fair, the “trendy” part is rather limited, and even more so, depending on which side of the Japanese Sea you live on. But around here, this was most definitely the talk of the month, in Japanese news and all over the English-speaking nipponoblogosphere… Hell, even this guy stopped staring at his dick long enough to write a reasonably thoughtful entry on the topic.
Another very interesting read is Michael Panda’s transcription of the incriminated textbooks (you need to scroll way down to the end).

I figured I would just add my own two yens, and if possible extend it past the perspective of personal-level anecdotes: not that they do not have their place in the debate, but there should be a little more to it than the usual “oh yea, here is what the few Japanese I know say about it”…

If you are looking for a fun and entertaining read to kill the next 20 minutes, this most definitely is not it…

The Story so Far

Before we go any further into the discussion, and for the benefit of our beloved US readers and anybody else without the faintest bit of knowledge about the state of the world past the limits of their local county, here is a quick recap of the matter at hand:

  • Back in the days (1931 to 1945), in the wake of its modernization and newfound industrial might, the Japanese Empire figured it was time to get on with the imperialist part of the program, and set its view on a chunk of the Asian Colonial Cake theretofore known as “Manchukuo“, a puppet state comprised of most of Northeastern China. To be fair, they were only following the glorious example set by their European counterparts, who had been going gaily at most of the continent (and the rest of the world altogether)…
  • Problem arose when they started following a certain example in particular. That of Nazi Germany and its Lebensraum ideology. Basically, Japan increasingly considered the land it occupied as mere estate in need of proper use, with total disregard for its existing population, a technical inconvenience if anything.
  • This policy culminated in the late 1930’s and during WWII, when Japanese troops carried over a methodical policy of “ethnical cleansing” and extermination of civillian populations in occupied territories (China, Korea, Singapore etc.).
  • The end of WWII and US-Japan treaties somewhat put a conclusion to Japan’s expansionist adventures and supposedly brought closure to this whole chapter of Asian history.
  • Except it brought zero closure. Concerned as they were with not repeating certain mistakes made in post-WWI negotiations (namely: putting an exaggerated burden on the losers, and entrusting weak political institutions with the mission of preventing further bouts of aggression), US occupants took a very different approach with post-war Japan…
  • After conducting very brief and rather botched post-war trials, mostly focusing on US-Japan’s combats in the Pacific, the US, in the person of MacArthur, basically gave Japan what amounted to a clean slate: conquered lands were re-distributed to whoever happened to be on the right side of the war when it ended (segueing into a string of civil wars for most of what was left of the century, but that’s another story), all mentions of Japan’s pre-1945 behaviour, and particularly its actions in Eastern Asia during the first half of the century, were conveniently swept under the rug. In exchange for this lenience, the US only demanded a complete reworking of Japan’s political institutions.
  • MacArthur was, in essence, a totalitarian: he believed that the way to prevent relapse, lied in keeping the people out of politics, provided the politics themselves were appropriately restrained by a US-drafted constitution. For such a constitution to work in the long-run, it needed to be perceived by the people as one issued of their free will. This could only be accomplished by creating the myth of a victimized Japanese people, merely liberated from its own ruling class by well-meaning foreign powers, rather than the more accurate picture of an imperialistic nation stopped short in its expansion by means of a violent and merciless war.
  • As a result, and long after the US rule over Japan had faded away, Japan’s official stand on its own Asian past has remained an aggregate of half-hearted apologies, monetary bargains and flat-out denials. The Japanese government claiming that all necessary apologies were given at the end of the war, while Asian countries contend that these were only ever issued to Western victors, and never to the populations that actually suffered Japanese repression.
  • Flash-forward fifty years later: some of the former poor cousins of the Asian continent are now emerging as the leaders of tomorrow’s world. In fact, not only do they have the clear advantage of their population and sky-rocketing economy, they also hold the alleged “Leader of the Free World”, tightly by the balls of its sinking economy. What better time to flex some diplomatic muscles around, changing the tone in the process, from past underdog pleas for historical justice, to more demanding threats of actual revenge. Beside, it’s Propaganda 101 that your people’s anger is always best, directed at some foreign country’s government rather than your own.
  • Lucky for them, Japanese politicians, far from correcting the course, have only intensified their attempts at rewriting history, as of late. From the now perennial visits of Prime Ministers in exercise to Yasukuni shrine, notorious for hosting the remains of many a Japanese war criminals, to their more recently publicized endorsements of History textbooks that take a very liberal approach to Japan’s actions during the first half of the century… Japan, through its different institutions, has done nothing to avert the kind of antagonism slowly taking momentum through the Asian continent…

Which takes us to now… A stage where Japan no longer even considers itself somewhat responsible for the state of its relationships with other Asian countries, but fully present itself as the victim of unfair resentment, the mere result of dictatorial manipulations and unfounded claims.

I have absolutely no illusions that the forces at work on either side have very little to do with a quest for truth or justice, and much more with dark economico-political agendas, whose goals and intricacies far outreach the level of understanding of my modest person. However, even at the lower levels of these ramifications, I find there are interesting points to be looked at. Namely: how this historical rewriting has been very successful in Japan, how even reasonably educated Japanese manage to hold incredibly skewed views of their own history, what sort of relationship these Japanese have with their past, what sort of risk there is for future foreign relations… These are all points easy enough to focus on, without requiring a knowledge (that I don’t have) of what Beijing or Tokyo might have in mind for the future of their relations.

Perception of History in Japan

Far from shying away from the topic, Japanese media haven’t been short of reports on recent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China. Except that, when discussing the “reasons” of such spontaneous hatred, the media gladly went over every superficial aspects of the problem (previous diplomatic incidents over government official visits to Yasukuni, economic relations, textbook controversies etc.), but carefully left out the root of this contention: not a single mention was made of historical events, such as Nanjing and Sook Ching and the countless other Japanese War Crimes… Any remote mention of these were, as usual, buried deeply within countless layers of allusive figure of speech and innuendo so typical of the Japanese language.

The coverage resulted in a mixed array of reactions within the population, ranging from complete incomprehension, all the way to nationalistic pride and angry demands of revenge among the already prejudiced right-wing groups (a faction that most definitely didn’t need the boost).

One single attitude was utterly missing from the gamut of reactions: trying to understand present events by taking a deep hard look at the past and finally conducting the bit of introspection that never happened.

No surprise, really, since even the most well-meaning of Japanese have always been fed, at best, a much edulcorated version of 20th century history. One were Japan’s role in Asia was nothing more than that of a benevolent older brother, in the fashion of other Western powers… Sure, some “bad stuff” happened… but lots of “good stuff” was done too… And it was war time… War is never pretty. [yadda, yadda, yadda] Nothing like what the Germans did… [yadda, yadda, yadda.] Atomic bomb.

And I am hardly caricaturing here: most, if not all, discussions with reasonable people on the topic will invariably end on the mention that either 1) Japanese did nothing comparable to what the Germans did during the war. 2) Japan was a bona fide victim in this war, since, after all, the US coldly killed many hundred thousands civilians when they deliberately dropped The Bomb. Basically, it all comes down to a re-appropriation of the moral high-ground by invocation of mostly irrelevant historical data, used retrospectively to justify ignoring essential historical aspects in the first place. Of course, most younger Japanese are in good faith when they pull the macabre argument of comparison between Japan’s actions in Korea and China and Nazi’s atrocities during the same period. Then again, most younger Japanese (and many of their elder as well) will draw a blank when you mention the Nanjing Massacre. For Japanese textbooks, there is no such thing as a Nanjing Massacre, there only ever was a Nanjing Incident (南京事件, Nankin Jiken). However, with the most conservative estimate for the death toll reaching above 200,000 civilians and the systematic raping of over 80,000 women of all ages, this episode of Japanese occupation of China cannot be overlooked.

Auschwitz, maybe it was not, but neither was it, in any way, a mere “incident”… not even in the way that Mai Lai was an “incident”. This extermination (and many other cases of ethnically-driven atrocities committed by Japanese all over the Asian continent) was not the result of troops gone out of hand and disobeying orders: they were ordered, methodically organized and conducted with clear political intents.

As a darkly ironical aside, one of the first eyewitness report on the atrocities that took place in Nanjing came through the horrified testimony of a card-carrying member of the German National Socialist party, stationed there for business (John Rabe, who committed suicide a few years later in 1941): yea, a Nazi was horrified at what he saw the Japanese do in Nanjing.

Aside from the purely numerical of these exactions, many other military operations, such as human experiments conducted by Unit 731 in Manchuria (bearing strong similitudes with the activities of Josef Mengele during the same period) and an overt disdain for the most basic human rights, should be enough to prompt more than a mention in passing in history textbooks (actually, many Japanese history books flatly deny the well-documented existence of Unit 731 and similar activities).

The fact that all these historical truths are routinely trampled by the people in charge of education in Japan, making it easier for each generation to go further along the path of historical revisionism, goes a long way to explain how incredibly out of touch most Japanese are, when faced with the anger of the rest of Asia.

And the rest next time here, when I have a few hours to divert from the fascinating world of Bose-Einstein condensates…
Likely we will go over the question of whether the Japanese position can be explained by the unacceptable but nonetheless interesting argument of moral relativism, 日本人論 and other similar crap…


  1. Ha, coherency, yes… stopping vodka in the morning has done miracles for that…
    Otherwise, to be fair, I know you aren’t always staring at your own, err, anatomy… I mean, there are other things to stare at…

  2. I fail to see anything besides having several days off golden in golden week. The traffic is just awful. Travelling is a major no-no in my list of things to do during golden week.

    Alas, it’s over.

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