70 Years Later, Fighting for the Souls of the Future Generations

                                  by Philippe Valdois

On August 14, 2015, a day before the 70th anniversary of the Japanese defeat in WW2, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the nation. The stakes were high, as Japan needed to restore trust with its neighbors. It also needed to show it could face history, since it would hardly be possible to expect the future to be shared by equal Asian partners without a common understanding of history. This statement also came at a time when there is growing concern both inside and outside Japan that various recent government initiatives to revise the Constitution, reinforce the military or muzzle the media, among other things, are but the tip of the iceberg, and that maybe the real objectives of the government in recent years have been much more ideological in nature than the public might have been led to believe when the focus was on Abenomics.

 It is my understanding that there are concerted efforts to implement long-term societal changes under the leadership of Shinzo Abe and that behind the talk about making Japan a “normal” country lies, in fact, for some members of Japan’s elite, a deep dissatisfaction with post-war democratization, and a deep-seated nostalgia for the pre-war Imperial system. The latest statement by Shinzo Abe only confirms what many observers, scholars and journalists have recently pointed out.

 Are these efforts going to succeed or fail? Scholars and specialists have diverging opinions on the question. To decide if there really is a shift in society towards the right, if this shift is a new phenomenon or the emergence of deep-seated prejudice and xenophobia, we need to evaluate the relative influence of political and ideological forces, including public opinion. Also, there is no doubt that the media and the educators have to be reined in if ultraconservatives have a chance to see their long-term strategies and shaping of public opinion succeed. Education in particular is becoming the main stage where the fight for winning the souls of the future generations is taking place. Keeping in mind Shinzo Abe’s anniversary statement, we will start by going back in time to the San Francisco Treaty.

In a subsequent essay, we will introduce some of the counteracting forces we can find in the academic world, in grassroots movements, in the press and nowadays in a increasingly-vocal segment of the young population.

The San Francisco System Eight Major Problematic Legacies According to Dr. John W. Dower

The San Francisco Treaty, or Peace Treaty with Japan, was signed on September 8, 1951, along with the Security Treaty. Those treaties were to mark the beginning of what Prof. Dower calls the “San Francisco System.”

John W. Dower, MIT professor emeritus of Japanese history said:

 “The disputed islands, the containment-of-China accusations, even the bitter “history issue” involving recollection of imperial Japan’s militarism all have toxic roots in the early years of the Cold War. Together with other present-day controversies, they trace back to the San Francisco System under which Japan re-entered the post-war world as a sovereign nation after being occupied by U.S. forces for over six years, from August 1945 to the end of April 1952.” [1]

Communist China, the Chinese nationalists in Taiwan and South and North Korea were excluded from the Conference although their people had greatly suffered from Japanese aggression and occupation.

Washington had one major objective, and it was to use Japan in the context of the Cold War for strategic purposes as became clear later clear during the Vietnam War. In exchange for the end of occupation and the protection of the U.S. military, Japan was forced to accept the continuous presence of U.S. bases in Japan.

 As Prof. Dower points out:

 “The corrosive long-term consequences of this post-occupation estrangement between Japan on the one hand and China and Korea on the other are incalculable. Unlike West Germany in post-war Europe, Japan was inhibited from moving effectively toward reconciliation and reintegration with its nearest Asian neighbors. Peace making was delayed. The wounds and bitter legacies of imperialism, invasion, and exploitation were left to fester—unaddressed and largely unacknowledged in Japan. And ostensibly independent Japan was propelled into a posture of looking east across the Pacific to America for security and, indeed, for its very identity as a nation.” [2]

 Prof. Dower goes on identifying height problematic legacies:

 (1) Okinawa and the “two Japans”; (2) unresolved territorial issues; (3) U.S. bases in Japan; (4) rearmament; (5) “history issues”; (6) the “nuclear umbrella”; (7) containment of China and Japan’s deflection from Asia; and (8) “subordinate independence”[3]

I recommend Prof. Dower’s long essay[4] for more information about those issues, which have basically been left unresolved, successive administrations having failed to create a roadmap to address them. Interestingly, Prof. Dower is described indifferently as a Marxist, or liberal, etc. in a critical essay by Tanaka Hidemichi, of the revisionist group Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact[5]. This same group quotes the journalist Henry Scott-Stokes on WW2 various issues on its website, but it appears their methods are far from honest if we are to refer to the reaction of Henry Scott-Stokes[6]!

 Revisionism at work in Japan

 Shinzo Abe’s statement demands that we focus on “history issues,” which are at the center of Japan’s neighbors’ grievances. So far so good, but what was expected, as an apology in the statement, was more precisely the recognition of specific issues related to history, and this did not happen.

 We remember that the U.S. authorities, similarly to what had happened in occupied Germany with Operation Paperclip and Operation Osoaviakhim, had granted immunity to Japanese researchers involved in Unit 731 in exchange for their data on human experimentation.[7] It was much later that scholars, and writers like Shusaku Endo with 海と毒薬 (The Sea and Poison) published works on those experimentations. The role played by the United States in protecting their perpetrators and the silence observed by many parties willing to do so for economical reasons, both in Japan, the United States and the PRC (notably about the Rape of Nanking in the immediate post-war period,) explains in part why it took so long before this issue, forced labor, and the enslavement of women euphemistically called “comfort women” came under the spotlight and became public knowledge.

According to The Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group (IWG) at the United States National Archives:

 “Furthermore, there was more systematic destruction of Japanese records pertaining to war crimes in 1945 in response to specific directives to this effect from Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo than was the case in Germany. It should also be noted that vast quantities of Japanese records were returned to Japan without screening or microfilming.”[8]


We might ask ourselves at that point why Japan could not have dealt with its past the way Germany did, opening its records. One argument advanced by the previous Japanese administrations for their refusal to recognize even the veracity of witness accounts of crimes such as had been committed by Unit 731, is to flatly state that such matters had been dealt with between states and through the signing of various treaties. Doing otherwise would have in fact opened the way for financial claims, which was one major reason for not opening the debate about this and other issues, including slave labor[9]… until decades later, when the paucity of survivors would guarantee lesser payments.

Another reason is the nostalgia for the pre-war Imperial system mentioned in the introduction. It is not surprising to see words such as “masochistic view of history” being used by people like Fujioka Nobukatsu in An Analysis of Masochistic Historical Views in Japan (Tokyo, Bungeishunju, 1997) or Tanaka Masaaki in What Really Happened in Nanking (Tokyo, Sekai Shuppan, December 2000). They reflect a vision of Japan as the victim and the accent put on a romantic image of the country and its people.

Contributing to this particular reading of history is the idea that after General Douglas MacArthur absolved the Emperor and his family of any responsibility in WW2 events, he absolved the nation and its people, making it easier for many Japanese to consider those issues as having being resolved.

Moreover, the moral issue is rarely mentioned in Japan, officially or not, except by some grassroots movements, and most of those Japanese who are in favor of apologies are in fact expressing concern for Japan’s own trade and diplomatic relations. Morality is central to the German mind, not so, it seems, for the Japanese.

German racism in WW2 was based on the myth of the Untermensch, the sub-human, developed by the Nazis. By categorically rejecting Nazism as the ideology that had brought misery both to millions of people and its own population, Germany after WW2 also rejected racial discrimination and adopted strong laws against it.

However, regarding Japan, it is only recently that debates have started at the Upper House on an anti-racial discrimination bill[10]. This comes 30 years after Japan has signed the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination. The bill was introduced by the opposition and is opposed by the parties in power. It also has no punitive provisions. So far, the existing laws Shinzo Abe suggests using to fight discrimination do or will do little to dissuade the use of “No Foreigners” signs in front of various facilities, or hate speech directed at foreigners by various racist groups. Is this reluctance to act both regarding crimes of the past and discrimination of the present a symptom of deeply ingrained racism?

For the Japanese during WW2, their country was a divine Empire. We can look at French history and expressions such as “France, the eldest daughter of the Church” to find a similar fantastic (in the etymological sense) notion that a country is destined and mandated by divine right to rule and guide others. The analogy went farther in that such mandate became convenient for the power that be and in that both monarchy in France and the militarists in Japan did not always see eye to eye with the supposed provider of this divine right, as a comparison between Abe’s statement and the Emperor’s speech of August 15, 2015 shows in the case of Japan. Before WW2, Japan’s industrial and military accomplishments became another motive of pride and contributed to a sense of racial superiority. In addition, I would mention two other factors as having contributed to the sense of superiority demonstrated by the Japanese bureaucratic and military elites of that time. One was the rebuttal they had suffered when they tried proposing a statement of racial equality in the Covenant of the League of Nations in 1919. Their hope was to be considered the equals of the other powers of that time, but their proposal was vetoed by the United States and Great Britain. This was a great cause of resentment for Japan. More importantly, cultural differences and misunderstandings, based on a sense of honor contributed to many war crimes and the mistreatment of prisoners that Japanese soldiers considered as weak because of their unwillingness to consent to collective sacrifice, choosing instead to surrender. Strangely, those values had been inculcated quite recently, at the time of the Restoration of Emperor Meiji, concurrently with the establishment of Shinto as a state religion and an instrument of power. Many Japanese embraced this romantic idea of sacrifice and still consider as anathema the relation of dependence that had befallen them when, under the leadership of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, they were forced to accept the protection of their recent enemy and occupier, including the continuous presence of military bases and soldiers. This is one of the keys to understand the resentment we talked about. We see this resentment also transferred towards Japan’s neighbors. However victimized they might feel, it is difficult for them to reject Washington, an ally they grew to depend on not only for their security, as we saw with the San Francisco System, but also for best or worse, for their identity as we will see later.  

Shinzo Abe and Ultra-nationalism

There was no surprise in Shinzo Abe’s statement. It had been made clear by the Prime Minister himself, when he addressed a special joint-session of the U.S. Congress on April 29, 2015, that he would uphold the previous Prime Ministers’ statements, expressing deep remorse. He twice used the word “apology” but to refer to his predecessors’ statements, stating in effect that it had been done, that Japan and its neighbors should move on and that “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”

Shinzo Abe’s goal has long been to remove what he considers a burden of guilt for the next generation and a humiliation. His determination to escape from “masochistic history” and restore a sense of pride to Japan has its roots in his proximity to his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was the number two in the Manchukuo administration and had been imprisoned as Class A war criminal after the end of WW2. Shinzo Abe considered him as a mentor.

But if he expresses warm feeling towards his grandfather and thus naturally rejects the decisions of the Far-East Tribunal as unjust and illegal, he is also close to a number of revisionist organizations, the most famous, however discrete in its dealings, being the ultranationalist organization “Nippon Kaigi” (Japan’s Conference)[11] created in 1997. A great number of members of Parliament belong to this organization, which promotes a return to the Imperial system, focusing again on the education system, towards more discipline and the teaching of “traditional” values such as sacrifice for the nation (a scary proposition if Japan was to send his children to war under a revised Constitution.)

Identity Crisis

Roland Kelts wrote in 2013 an article entitled “The Identity Crisis That Lurks Behind Japan’s Right-Wing Rhetoric[12] reflecting my own ideas on the matter. What we see from the Japanese far-right movement in all its diversity is a mix of romantic ideas and nostalgia for the past, of reactions to feelings of inadequacies, and to Japan not being able to address other nations with its own voice. This of course is a legacy from the U.S. occupation of Japan, which has in a way never ended. As Roland Kelts says, “It’s hard to imagine another well-meaning nation with such bad options. If Japan renounces its U.S.-made constitution, it risks belligerent response. If it doesn’t, it has no sovereign identity.”

Having a man like Shinzo Abe in power, who exemplifies those confused feelings at a time of heightened tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, who talks about proactive peace but whose actions and decisions are more reactive than proactive except for his determination to revive the glory of Japan and erase the word guilt, is a motive of concern.

Although looking at the various right-wing groups Shinzo Abe and some of the members of his government are associated with, it would be easy to deduct that Japanese society is shifting to the right, as many commentators suggest, but as we will see in the next essay, the number of citizens participating in grassroots activities in favor of human rights, tolerance towards foreigners, etc., far exceeds, in fact, the membership of Nippon Kaigi or fringe groups such as Zaitokukai. In addition, Shinzo Abe’s approval rate is down, especially among the elder electorate who do not want to see a repeat of the militaristic years preceding WW2

 However, there is a particular phenomenon actually similar to what often happens on the web in general, but especially in the blogosphere and on social networks. It is difficult to anticipate to what extent it reflects the popularity of ultranationalist ideas or a simple fad.

Housewives and stay-at-home mothers spend a lot of time in front of their computers interacting with “netto-uyo” (rightwing activists on the web) sites. Japan Today, on March 6, 2014 mentioned an article of Shukan Gendai (March 8, 2014) where Licca Kayama, a clinical psychiatrist often quoted in the media said:

 “The housewives I’ve encountered who have been drawn to the ‘netto-uyo’ are serious types and hard workers. But they have the sentiment that ‘I do my best but am unappreciated.’ They feel their lives are boring. From thinking ‘There’s something wrong with society,’ this leads them to ‘The media’s not reporting the truth,’ and while these matters have no direct bearing on their lives, they become agitated.”[13]

 By focusing on perceived problems in society that have no direct impact on their lives and embracing a populist position, they can chat without having to exert critical thinking, putting for example the blame for many problems (crime, etc.) on foreigners in general. Xenophobia, which was not previously as pronounced as nationalism, is becoming more prevalent. This phenomenon is quite similar to what happened in the 50’s when women started supporting in mass new religions. One of them in particular was to produce the lay-Buddhist organization Sokka-Gakai behind the New Komei Party, now a member of the coalition in power in Japan! Women can become convenient propagandists as members of parent-teachers associations for example, for the conservative ideology of the Nippon Kaigi, a revisionist movement regrouping a great number of Diet members and government ministers. Such women are also expressing a feeling common among Japanese who are watching China overcoming Japan economically. People in their 50s have worked hard and now see Japan declining and the promises of life-long employment gone. They lay blame on the outside, an easier solution than trying analyzing the root causes of the problems Japan is facing, which include the Amakudari system (or revolving doors politics), and non-transparent archaic forms of management. As someone once said, they worked hard but not smart, not developing skills such as critical thinking, or adopting a more international perspective in the 21st Century digital age.

The second part of this essay will put the spotlight on many personalities, organizations or grassroots movements representing in fact a much larger segment of Japanese society than its more extreme and vocal elements such as those riding in black trucks, blaring military music in the center of the cities, or suit-wearing members of ultraconservative groups.

 We must concede that Shinzo Abe is sincere in his wish to improve relations with Japan’s neighbors, even if the exact nature of those relations as he see them, and apart from their “peaceful” and “productive” character, remains to be seen. He has shown this wish through his many trips to the Asia-Pacific countries. But on the other hand, he is representing the values of his conservative electorate and his attempts to satisfy both ambitions seem doomed to failure. His strategy to change the Constitution by first proposing a new interpretation of Article 9 and his insistence on upholding the Murayama statement of 1995 while eliminating apologies from his own statement but keeping the word remorse denotes a certain skill with words, but as Michael Cucek wrote in Shisaku[14], Shinzo Abe benefits from having no competition. Cucek suggests reassessing the Cabinet support ratings for Abe as being nominal support as opposed to real.

 Japan is going through a series of rapid changes and I do not see how ultraconservatism with its inherent inertia will be able to win the hearts of the youths who are more willing to embrace change and adopt progressive ideas such as multiculturalism and cultural diplomacy. Shinzo Abe might actually have to fight to stay in power in the months to come.


[1]  The San Francisco System: Past, Present, Future in U.S.-Japan-China Relations サンフランシスコ体制 米日中関係の過去、現在、そして未, John W. Dower, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 12, Issue 8, No. 2, February 24, 2014

[2] Idem

[3] Idem

[4] http://www.japanfocus.org/-John_W_-Dower/4079/article.html

[5] http://www.sdh-fact.com/essay-article/354

[6] http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/1508692/lost-translation-british-journalist-shocked-japanese-book-he-dictated

[7] The World: Revisiting World War II Atrocities; Comparing the Unspeakable to the Unthinkable, Ralph Blumenthal, The New York Times, March 7, 1999 (http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/07/weekinreview/world-revisiting-world-war-ii-atrocities-comparing-unspeakable-unthinkable.html)

[8] http://www.archives.gov/iwg/reports/japanese-interim-report-march-2002-1.html

[9] http://atimes.com/2015/08/ww-ii-japan-slave-labor-what-to-make-of-mitsubishi-materials-apology/

[10] http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/08/04/national/politics-diplomacy/debate-anti-discrimination-bill-begins-diet/

[11] http://www.nipponkaigi.org/

[12] http://world.time.com/2013/05/31/the-identity-crisis-that-lurks-behind-japans-right-wing-rhetoric/

[13] http://www.japantoday.com/category/kuchikomi/view/husbands-aghast-at-wives-infatuation-to-rightwing-causes

[14] http://shisaku.blogspot.jp/2015/07/what-has-been-abe-cabinets-real.html