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War Guilt

Thursday, August 18, 2005 Posted: 05:28 PM JST

(by Chris Bunting) - There was a fascinating account on Japan's Kyodo newswire at the end of last week of a visit by a group of British school children to Japan to commemorate the end of the war. The children laid wreaths at the memorial of the Mitsushima camp in Nagano Prefecture, where 60 allied POWs died, and commemorated the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese people in the atomic bombings.

Not exactly the most spellbinding of events, you might say. Such wreath layings are commonplace. However, what was interesting was a description of some goings on at the ceremony tucked away at the bottom of the article.

"After hearing many views on the war along the way, the students encountered a tense moment in Tenryu, when Takashi Nagase, 87, a former military police interpreter for the Imperial Japanese Army, tried to force local Japanese youth to apologize to the British students for the abuse that the Japanese soldiers had inflicted on the POWs.
Nagase, a native of Okayama Prefecture, traveled to the village to speak about his own experience of helping interrogate POWs on the site of the Thailand-Burma Railway before the students. He tearfully apologized to them.
When Nagase told the Japanese youth to apologize as well, a 20-year-old man resisted, saying, ''This is not the problem of our generation.''
Jonathan Wild, 17, a Cheney student, cut in shortly after, saying, ''I don't think apologizing is what we should do. We just need to remember...and know we will not do it again.''
Wild said later that apologies ''can make people feel better but they don't solve problems all the time.''
''Mr. Nagase feels apologies are very important but that's for him and not for us. Our side of the war did terrific things as well...But I don't apologize,'' he said.

I have been thinking a lot over the past week or so about the vexed issue of Japan's war guilt, or rather its alleged lack of it. Articles about Japan's inability to acknowledge its past have become a staple of the Western media. My gut feeling when reading these accounts has always been that you have to be very careful when approaching the topic.

The first rider is that it is hardly unusual for countries to ignore uncomfortable facts about their past. To what extent does the average American acknowledge that their nation was built on a genocide? I remember a visit by the Queen to India some years ago. At one stage she was bombarded with demands from some Indian political groups for an apology for British imperial rule. I remember the most common reaction among my British friends was bemusement because a lack of familiarity with what on earth we had to be sorry for and a general feeling that it was a long time ago. The Japanese left Asia in 1945. The British left India in 1947, a year in which hundreds of thousands of people died in the Partition. Many of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in Asia are of a fundamentally different sort to the British blundering that was partially responsible for the Partition, but there are other episodes in British imperial history that are more comparable. Is your average British person properly aware of the horrors of the slave trade and the extent to which British economic power is built on it? Are the atrocities against the Aborigines in Australia an issue on which there has been much reflection?

It is also necessary to look closely at the impetus behind the current focus on Japan's war guilt. Much of this has come from protests from mainland Asia. These countries have good reason to be interested in a lack of contrition in Japan but it is worth bearing in mind that the Chinese government's recent pronouncements, in particular, have appeared to coincide with a rearguard action to preserve China's status as the only Asian Security Council member. We should also ask whether the kind of violent protests we have seen in China in recent years would have been permitted in any other cause. There is a suspicion that anti-Japanese feeling is being used by the authoritarian regime there as a lightning rod for popular currents in the country, a development that has a distinctly Fascist smell to it. Across Asia, anti-Japanese sentiment can sometimes seem very strident, even racist, and does sometimes seem to have more to do with domestic nationalist politics than a genuine concern with the real situation in Japan.

Is there a problem with Japan's acknowledgment of its wartime past? I think there may be but I think it is best understood by looking at the detail. It is certainly not the case that all Japanese people are a bunch of screaming holocaust deniers. It seems it has become almost compulsory in the Western media coverage of this issue to combine reports with images of strange looking fellows at the Yasukuni shrine, the national war memorial, dressed in military garb and carrying Japanese flags. What is not always made clear is that these people are extremists with a tiny constituency. I was in Tokyo yesterday and came across a group of these black van rightists screaming their denials and war apologies at the crowd waiting for the lights to change at one of the city''s main intersections. I stood directly in front of the van and took a photo of the audience.

There was not exactly rapt attention. These people are seen as nutters here and are usually ignored. There is a general sense in Japan that the war was a bad thing and a grudging if quiet acknowledgment very bad things were done in Asia. It is this climate that has made it politically possible for the Japanese government to officially apologize on 18 separate occasions for its wartime aggression.

However, what is not very much in evidence among Japanese people is a great mastery of the hard facts of what exactly was done in Asia, where it was done and how it was done. While the average Brit may not know the intimate details of the slave trade, most Germans by now do have an intimate understanding of the detail of the Holocaust: not only the fact that millions of Jewish people were slaughtered, but where they were killed, how they died and the precise technologies that were used. I feel that many Japanese people are not aware of the specifics of the Nanjing Massacre, Unit 731 or the other atrocities in Asia. While the receiving line at Auschwitz has been burned into the German psyche, the bayonet drills at Nanjing are unfamiliar here. I was surprised to find that Japanese television did not carry the kind of prime time documentaries, detailing what exactly happened, that one might have expected during these 60th year commemorations. The coverage was full of vague references to how terrible war is and even the need for apologies, but there was a distinct absence of factual information.

There is another troubling aspect to the problem. A Mainichi newspaper poll yesterday reported that, while 43 per cent of adults thought the war was "wrong", 29 per cent thought it was "inevitable" and 28 per cent didn't know or didn't answer. The opinion poll doesn't seem to have been particularly well constructed. The description of the war as "inevitable" might cover some relatively legitimate viewpoints as well as some unsavoury ones. However, the poll got more worrying as you dug into the detail. As might have been expected, people aged over 70, the only people who had any adult involvement in the war, tended towards denial, with only 37 per cent thinking the war had been "wrong". Middle aged people tended in the other direction. But the really worrying group were people in their 20s, who were down with the 70 year olds in the 30 per cent range. Why are young people thinking like this? Aren't they the generation with least vested interest in a discussion of past wrongs?

I think both the troubling attitudes of young people and the general scarcity of facts in the public discussion here have a lot to do with what I shall call the "nationalist pacifism" that has dominated public discourse about this issue in Japan since 1945. This "nationalist pacificism" is not a single ideology. In fact, it encompasses two often diametrically opposed viewpoints. From the Left, ever since the war, there has been an insistent line of rhetoric that the Japanese people share collective guilt for the war, that they must foreswear the use of arms forever and collectively apologize for their wrongs. From the Right, there has been an even more powerful line of rhetoric which also insists that Japan must never get involved in a war again but gets there by a different route. School children have been bombarded with stories of how the elder generation suffered terribly in the conflict. This is used to bang home the message that war must never be countenanced without having to look in detail at Japan's conduct in Asia. The stories of Japanese suffering in the war are so pervasive that my Japanese partner hates "Grave of the Fireflies", an animated film by Isao Takahata that I regard as a masterpiece, because she feels it is just another yarn by the older generation about how "we" suffered. As you can see, these two ways of dealing with the war, that I have characterized as left wing and right wing, are quite distinct (although, to complicate things a bit, I think Isao Takahata is from the left). However, they do share crucial characteristics:

1. They insist on dealing with the issue of Japan's actions in the war as a national question. They insist on a "we": either "we" suffered or "we" are all guilty.
2. They are both pacifist in their conclusions.
3. They are very emotional in their register. They are not strong on objective facts and very strong on emotional content, either collective guilt or collective suffering.

It is this kind of discourse, emotional and insisting on a collective experience, that I believe is largely responsible for Japan's fact-lite interaction with its wartime past. How on earth can young people be expected, as we drift further and further away from the immediate postwar experience in which this kind of rhetoric perhaps made some sense, to identify with the collective guilt or collective suffering being imposed upon them? (It is kind of the opposite problem to that in Germany, where I understand there is more tendency to talk about what "they", the Nazis, did and less ease with accepting the ordinary German's part in the war.)

The young Japanese man who caused the tension at the Nagano wreath laying had a point. Why should the young Japanese people apologize? Do they even have the right to apologize? These youngsters are not part of the "we" that older generations are trying to enforce upon them and I feel many of them feel alienated by the emotional propaganda imposed by both sides of the "nationalist pacificist" discourse. What they need are facts in order to carry out what is perhaps their responsibility: to know about and understand what was done by Japan in Asia in the past.

And maybe here lies the nub of the issue because proper access to the facts would lead younger people to start to talk, not about what "we" did, but what "you" did. And that, for some older people, is a very unsettling prospect. Better to keep on crying and covering your eyes.

Chris Bunting is a freelance journalist from London who moved to Japan in April 2005 to learn the language. This article was published on his private blog.

Keywords: opinion_item

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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