Japan’s Struggle With History

April 7, 2008

According to Washington Post reports out of Tokyo, the Clinton Administration promised in March that plans for commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II would be toned down in deference to Japanese sensitivities. “We have assured Japan that nobody in the US government or the military will use the term ‘V-J Day’ this year,” an unidentified official said. A neutral term like “the end of the war” would be used, avoiding any reference to victory over Japan.

Back in Washington, a damage control team swung into action. A State Department spokesman assured Air Force Magazine that the US government had “no policy to not use the phrase ‘V-J Day.'” The effort to set the record straight, however, was conspicuously limp until complaints by veterans’ groups forced the issue. Eventually, “administration underlings” were blamed.

This clumsy episode reminds us that World War II is still a sore subject in Japan and also that some people in this country are determined to make the memory of it as inoffensive as possible to the Japanese. Many in Japan believe their nation was a victim, not the aggressor. Conservative groups in the Japanese parliament, reflecting a position of considerable public popularity, are blocking a proposal by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama that Japan apologize for invading other Asian nations and killing millions of people.

• In May 1994, Justice Minister Shigeto Nagano was dismissed after saying that the 1937 “Rape of Nanking” — where the death toll of civilians killed by Japanese troops exceeded the combined total from Hiroshima and Nagasaki — was a hoax. In August, another cabinet minister, Shin Sakurai, Director-General of the Environment Agency, was forced to resign for saying that the subjugated nations of Asia had benefited from the Japanese occupation.

• In August 1994, Ryutaro Hashimoto, Minister of International Trade and Industry, declared, “I can’t think that the war with the United States, England, France, and Holland was aggression.”

• In January 1995, a Tokyo news magazine, Marco Polo, was shut down after denying, in an article titled “There Were No Nazi Gas Chambers,” that the Holocaust ever happened.

• Popular historian Noboru Kojima says that “Japan is too eager to nervously apologize when anyone complains about the war.” He questions whether, for example, the “comfort women” dragged away by Japanese soldiers were not just prostitutes.

Not everyone in Japan thinks this way. Otherwise, Ministers Nagano and Sakurai would not have been driven from office and Marco Polo might still be publishing. Recently, textbooks used in Japanese schools have begun to acknowledge that Japan waged a war of aggression, but the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor gets only passing mention.

On this and other aspects of the war, Japan remains in denial mode. Former Cabinet Minister Seisuke Okuno, who heads a group of 161 members of parliament opposing the resolution of apology, says that if anybody owes somebody an apology for World War II conduct, it is the United States. In March 1995, Nagasaki Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima declared the US use of the atomic bomb in 1945 to have been a war crime on a par with Germany’s program of genocide against the Jews. “I think that the atomic bombings were one of the two greatest crimes against humanity in the twentieth century, along with the Holocaust,” he said.

Mayor Motoshima has been upset ever since the Smithsonian Institution canceled an exhibition that would have used the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, as a prop in a political horror show. As originally planned, the exhibition portrayed the Japanese as defending their culture against Western imperialism in a war that culminated, needlessly, in the use of atomic weapons. Mayor Motoshima and his colleagues in Nagasaki want to bring an atomic bomb exhibit of their own to the United States to do the job that the Smithsonian has dropped. Such a program will be welcome, no doubt, as part of the “National Teach-In on Hiroshima” that academic activists are trying to organize at US colleges and universities.

The tragedy of the war did not begin when bombs fell on Japan. It started with Japan’s campaign of conquest and atrocity to establish a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” The US entered the war when attacked without warning at Pearl Harbor. Ultimately, the war Japan started spread devastation throughout Asia and most of the Pacific. By 1945, Japan had no hope of winning but refused to surrender. Between April 1 and June 30, the US took 48,000 casualties in the battle for Okinawa alone. To hold the home islands and preserve the imperial regime, Japan was prepared to expend a force of 3.5 million troops, thousands of kamikaze aircraft, and a mobilized population. In making his decision to use the atomic bomb, President Truman considered the probable losses if an invasion led to “an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other.” The mission of the Enola Gay on August 6 was a military action taken to bring the war to an end.

World War II does not call for neutral interpretation. There was a right side and a wrong side. The right side won. That is what we remember this anniversary year — no conciliatory adjustments are required — on V-E Day, May 9, and on V-J Day, August 15.