Sorry, it’s been more than two weeks since I promised you a second installment to my fascinating (and utterly unqualified) ramblings on certain aspects of Japanese modern history… You see, I still haven’t received a positive answer from these senile bastards at Harvard or Yale about that Chair of Political Science, and therefore had to keep with plan B for the moment: something about convincing another bunch of senile bastards that I do know something about Applied Mathematics and Fluid Mechanics, which has left me very little time for this sort of rambling.
Do not worry: given the chances of failure for Plan B, I am already hard at work on the details for Plan C, which essentially involves robbing my local combini with a pair of sharpened chopsticks and running as far as I can in the overall direction of the nearest beach resort.
Anyway, yea, back to the topic at hand: these evil, evil Chinese demonstrators marching on Japanese embassies, armed with deadly eggs and rotten vegetables…
No wait. sorry. I think we were rather about the mass killing of civilian troops, systematic rape, biological warfare, and a whole lot of other very nasty things Japanese did during the war: OK, back on track.
Let’s start by reverting the course a bit and adding some much needed balance to all the negative stuff that’s been spewed about Japan in the past entry:
War and Patriotism in Modern Japan
From my remarks on Japan’s inability to face up to its past and accept the slightest responsibility for the atrocities comitted during WWII, one might get the impression that modern-day Japanese are bloodthirsty monsters eager to invade all their neighbours and start it all over again…
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, Japan is one of the most pacifist nation I have ever seen. One of the rare universal value shared across every generations of the population is a common aspiration to peace and a total absence of warmongering patriotism, unlike a few other countries I could name…
Of course, there will always be the odd middle-aged drunken guy in a bar, singing his love of the Empire, yearning for the days where the Yamato will once again proudly cruise the waters of the Korean peninsula… not to mention these ubiquitous black van guys, blaring their nationalist anthems… But as right-wingers go, these do not really have much popular support (political support and powerful ties to the underground is another matter…).
There was, of course, the popular 80s theory that Japanese imperialism had merely shifted from military to economic, pointing at Japanese acquisitions of foreign assets as a clear sign that they had not renounced on conquering the world, merely changed methods: I personally don’t buy it. This mostly served as a pseudo-justification for some very hypocritical protectionism at the time, and often went along with a good dose of flat-out racism in some western countries. If anything, the ensuing Asian crash of the late 90s solved the matter once and for all.
In short: Japanese are fairly conservative, somewhat patriotic, very racist (in the most literal acception of the word: I challenge you to find a single Japanese person who does not think that being Japanese comes down to your very blood and genes), but they are, by and large, pacifist.
So why quibble then?
I’m being serious here:
One can legitimately wonder what good there is in dwelling on a painful past when most, if not all, the perpetrators are now dead. Some were tried for Crimes Against Humanity, many of them were set free to go and ended up with cushy jobs in the higher ranks of post-war Japanese industries, but surely there is no reason to hold the descendants accountable for the crimes of their forefathers, whatever they may be.
There are two good reasons to quibble:
First, there is what Japanese revisionists have been working increasingly hard at erasing: Memory.
While a people should not have to bear any of the guilt or responsibility for the actions of previous generations, it does have the duty to honor the victims’ memory by keeping an unfaltering record of the actions that took place. Trying to alter these memories by any course of action is a total disgrace and a crime in itself.
Many post-war historians and philosophers have discussed the topic at length, Elie Wiesel and Hannah Arendt, among others, have gone over the role of memory and education in the aftermath of the Shoah. I believe that, even if they were addressing an entirely different chapter of History, their remarks still perfectly apply to what took place in China. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt points out the crucial difference between justice and history. One doesn’t preclude the other.
Then there is also another more complex, possibly more debatable reason: preserving an accurate perception of their own history in the mind of the Japanese people.
Complex, because there may be no such thing as accurate perception of History, when it comes to nations, each has its own slanted views, and if you just check out the average American textbook, you will realize that, indeed, young US schoolboys do not know much more about the darker aspects of their own history. Debatable, because there’s no telling that honesty is really the most productive method. After all, if a lie works better than the truth, why not go with a lie. Ironically, such a vision of politics is very trendy in the United States these days, even though it serves the exact opposite goal: Straussian fanatics of the New American Century have all bought into the idea of the “virtuous lie of state”, resting on the theory that people are just too dumb to handle the truth. If you need to start a war, official reasons are unimportant, as long as the goal is carefully thought out.
The end justifies the means, you know, all that stuff…
In the case of Japan, the end is getting a pacifist country, the mean is distorting history to present this country as a victim of war, rather than one of its perpetrator.
The general debate of truth vs. efficiency will be for another day, but on a more restricted scope, I think if we compare the type of anti-war sentiment present in Germany and Japan, while strong in both countries, I’d feel more comfortable about its preservation in Germany, which chose the path of a painful and difficult self-introspection, than Japan, which skipped that step altogether. Among other things, the conscience that such aggression exists and has been channeled by authoritarian rulers in the past, is seemingly non-existent in Japan. And there is a potential threat there, no matter how vague or distant.
But much more dangerous and less distant, I think, is the fact that much hostility toward Japan lingers throughout Asia, and makes for a convenient pretext to focus popular anger or perhaps at some point use as a political lever, propped this time by serious military threats, rather than weak diplomatic complaints.
The Japanese government’s answer to this is merely to push, ever so decidedly, for a revision of the constitution (more specifically, article 9, which prohibits keeping armed troops for any other purpose than defensive). For all practical purposes, the Self-Defense Force is a bona fide army with all that’s needed to stop a foreign aggression, well before it hits home. Yet, a large branch of the political class is hard at work curbing both domestic and international opinion on the necessity of an offensive force, ostensibly to respond to foreign threats coming from nearby Asian countries (staring hard in the direction of Pyongyang here), in some sort of preemptive strike or extra-territorial military operations (since purely defensive activities doesn’t mandate any change to the constitution). Do we see a pattern here?
Of course, we are still far, far away from the time a single bullet will be shot in such an hypothetical war. Ironically, the stronger resistance is now coming from within: the US has silently made its first step toward approval last year, by allowing Japanese involvement in the Iraqi War. Trading a 50-year long standing decision on foreign politics for 2 weeks of CNN propaganda certainly sounded like a good deal to Dubya “Coalition of the Willing” Bush, but it was interpreted to the full extent of its diplomatic consequences by a Japanese political class eager to jump-start the constitutional reform process.
Remains the Japanese people itself, still over 51% against such a change, but slowly changing its mind, according to the last Asahi Shimbun poll I read.
And where do you think the ongoing rewriting of history is trying to move this opinion…