Dive deeper into Japan
with Japan correspondent
Kjeld Duits
Home » Archives » August 2005 » Will Japan Find Consensus on WWII?

Will Japan Find Consensus on WWII?

Saturday, August 27, 2005 Posted: 03:07 PM JST

Exactly 60 years ago the Japanese nation was anxiously awaiting what the allied occupation would bring them. All the large cities were in ruins. Their inhabitants were homeless and often rudderless. Japan had lost the war. On August 15th the Japanese had heard the emperor speak on the radio. He used incomprehensible court language that turned out to be Japan's surrender. Many were confused. Now, 60 years later, I feel that many Japanese are still confused.

During the past few months I researched a large number of articles and radio documentaries about Hiroshima, the fire bombings, the text book controversy, Japan's way of dealing with the memories of WWII, and so on. This comes on top of many years of conversations with Japanese about the war. Some were young, so young that even their grandparents sometimes hardly knew anything about WWII. Others had been active participants, like Saburo Sakai, a WWII ace pilot.

The more people I speak to, the more news accounts I see of statements by misguided politicians, the more I read about the war, the more I realize the huge empty space where there should be some kind of consensus. All the information about the war, about atrocities committed by the Japanese, about bad leadership at almost every level, about the enormous shortcomings of Japan's pre-war political structure, all that information is available. It is available in books in libraries all over Japan, it is available in peace centers, in documentaries, in excellent movies, in Japan's many newspapers, yet there seems to be little consensus.

Some say that Japanese treat life like a river. Once the water has washed away it needs no bothering about. The past is the past. To many of Japan's young this is certainly true. To them WWII is something from the history books, from another time, from another world. It does not affect them, it does not enter their experience of life. This is not something uniquely Japanese of course. Young people in the US, Canada, European countries don't stop to ponder WII either.

To me the biggest mystery is the great gap between politicians and bureaucrats on one side and the general population on the other. I find that the average Japanese is aware of Japan's guilt and the horrors that were committed, although they might not always know the details. "I don't understand why the country can't just compensate comfort women and former forced laborers directly," said a women in her thirties who was visiting an exposition about Japan's invasion of China at Osaka's International Peace Center. "It seems the right thing to do." "War is stupid," told former ace pilot Sakurai me repeatedly. He also strongly believed that Emperor Hirohito was responsible. So did many former kamikaze pilots I talked to, and Ryutaro Honda, a former soldier who killed a Chinese prisoner of war in Manchuria.

Yet, the emperor's responsibility is still a taboo at official levels. When Honda was interviewed by NHK, his interviewers could only use the tape if his comments about the emperor's responsibility were left out.

The anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and Korea earlier this year, the textbook controversy and the visits to Yasukuni Shrine by Prime Minister Koizumi seem to have started a domestic discussion about what happened during the early reign of Emperor Hirohito, the so called Showa Period. It is a discussion that for dozens of years was pushed to the sidelines because of Japan's position as a front-line country during the Cold War. Is it too late now? Is there still the will to take the discussion as far as it needs to go? Will the discussion lead to some kind of consensus?

It is impossible to say.
I am positive by nature, and hope it will.

Keywords: opinion_item

*   *   *

1 comments so far post your own

1 | At 01:31pm on Oct 15 2005, John Dougill wrote:
I like this article and agree with the viewpoint. But I'm afraid the situation is getting worse because of government policy. If you look through the translation of the latest textbook published by Japan Echo, for instance, you will find plenty of justification of Japan's actions but not a single word about the misery caused by Japan to Korea, for instance. How on earth can young Japanese understand Korean resentment when they are made so wilfully ignorant of the past?
Subscribe to newsletter:
First name:
Daily:   Biweekly:

(Unsubscribe or Update)

We Recommend:


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.
Stone Bridge Press

Syndicate iKjeld news

Powered By Greymatter

© 2001~ iKjeld.com/Kjeld Duits. All rights reserved.
To publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material, please contact us.