Forgotten Holocausts and Vicious Propaganda: Politicising History in Japan

Writing about war crimes is always a controversial task, especially when both victims and perpetrators are still living. Japanese history, like all others, suffers from bias and conflict, especially when it comes to allocating blame for or even acknowledging war crimes. Unlike countries such as Germany who have acknowledged war guilt consistently and at times zealously, the Japanese response to allegations of war crimes has been much more hesitant. This lingering doubt about the past has been used by politicians to promote nationalistic sentiment by rejecting what they argue to be history written by the winners.  The consequences for their relationships with their neighbours are severe as China and South Korea insist on Japan accepting full responsibility for their past actions.

Japan started the 20th century as one of the most powerful independent Asian countries.  Instead of being conquered by European powers at the height of their colonising frenzy, Japan chose to make alliances with the European powers, conducting their own imperial behaviour through the European legal constructs. Underlying Japanese society were two key ideas: hakko ichui which expresses Japanese ambitions to unite Asia under their Emperor and the idea of kokutai which portrays Japan as a familial group defined by their distinct ethnicity and nationalistic achievements. The culmination of these two ideological forces was the military campaign of 1936-1945 during which Japan conquered much of Asia.

Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in 1945 after the US dropped nuclear bombs on two of their cities, after an 8 year military campaign that caused enormous trauma to much of Asia. In the immediate aftermath, during the US occupation, Japan was pressured to take complete blame for the war and denounce their imperialist ambitions. The US did not want Japan to be crippled, especially when the Cold War set in and they needed strong allies in the region. Instead, they continued to promote kokutai and encouraged Japan to think of the war as a minor setback in a broadly positive national tradition. The preservation of these nationalistic sentiments at the core of the rebuilding process meant that the very ideas that caused the military campaign in the first place were preserved for the future, leading Japanese historians like Kimitada to reallocate blame usually by targeting Western colonisation as the ultimate trigger for the war.

Discussing Japan’s actions during this time has proved to be a controversial task for many historians. Basic dates and movements are agreed upon, but the extent of the impact on citizens of Asia is routinely called into question. Two major areas of contention demonstrate the political quagmire that is Japan’s past. Firstly, the occupation of the Chinese capital allegedly involved the slaughter of up to 200,000 civilians in an event known as the Nanjing Massacre or the Rape of Nanjing. The second area of debate surrounds the ‘comfort women,’ women from all over Asia who were reportedly coercively taken from their homes and forced to work at the Japanese military camps as prostitutes.

The facts of Nanjing Massacre were established in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the trials that immediately followed the war. Several Japanese leaders were executed as a result of these trials, which Japanese historians like Masaaki argue was little more than an attempt to lend legitimacy to occupation and the imposition of reparations on Japan. The comfort women controversy only emerged in the 1990’s, as the Cold War concluded and the US ceased placing pressure on South Korea to cooperate with Japan in their broader campaign against communism. South Korean women emerged, talking about their experiences of the war in Japanese military brothels.  Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, denies responsibility for the comfort women by defining ‘coercion’ in such a narrow way that would dramatically limit responsibility for these women. In a similar vein, the historian Masami changed the definition of ‘civilians’ in order to allege that the Nanjing Massacre numbers are grossly inflated.

In Japan, these debates are not just played out in the historical community but are often brought to national and regional attention by politicians. The Japanese government maintains the ability to monitor history textbooks, with decisions to omit the Nanjing Massacre causing protests in China. The lack of substantial social reform within the ruling elite has also shaped the resistance to Japanese war guilt. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s grandfather was a member of the World War Two Cabinet, and many other politicians and academics belong to the upper echelons of society that led Japan into war.

What is certain is that the debate surrounding wartime atrocities is not only incredibly distressing for those who survived the war but also damaging for Japan’s relations with neighbouring countries. As Japan has declined in importance within the region, China and South Korea have prospered and begin to assert their own versions of the war. Japanese politicians alleging that war crimes were exaggerated or fabricated are increasing, despite the geopolitical consequences. It appears ideology holds greater importance than facts in contemporary discussions of Japanese war campaigns.

Further Reading

Abe, Shinzo. “Address to the Budget Committee.” Speech given at House of Councillors, Tokyo, March 5, 2007.

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Keiichiro, Kobori. “Foreword.” In Masaaki, Tanaka. What Really Happened in Nanking: the Refutation of a Common Myth. Tokyo: Sekai Shuppan, 2000.

Kimitada, Miwa. “Pan-Asiansiam in modern Japan: nationalism, regionalism and universalism.” In Pan-Asianism in Modern Japanese History: Colonialism, regionalism and borders, edited by Sven Saaler and J. Victor Koschmann. Abingdon: Routledge, 2007, pp. 21-33.

Masami, Unemoto. Eyewitness Accounts of the Battle of Nanking. Tokyo: Keiko Publishing, 1985.

Mitani, Hiroshi. “Writing textbooks in Japan.” In History Textbooks and the Wars in Asia: divided memories, edited by Gi-Wook Shin and Daniel C. Sneider. Abingdon: Routledge, 2011, pp. 193-209.

Miyoshi Jager, Sheila and Rana Mitter. “Introduction.” In Ruptured Memories: War, Memory and the Post-Cold War in Asia, edited by Sheila Miyoshi Jager and Rana Mitter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007, pp. 1-14.

Yoko, Kato. “Pan-Asianism and national reorganisation: Japanese perceptions of China and the United States, 1914-19.” In Pan-Asianism in Modern Japanese History: Colonialism, regionalism and borders, edited by Sven Saaler and J. Victor Koschmann. Abingdon: Routledge, 2007, pp. 67-82.

Yoshida, Takashi. The Making of the Rape of Nanking: History and Memory in Japan, China and the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

“Discomfited Japan.” The  Economist, December 14, 2000.

4 comments on “Forgotten Holocausts and Vicious Propaganda: Politicising History in Japan

  1. emmabigham says:

    This was a great blog post Steph! What I found particularly interesting was the intermingling of US influence, continued nationalistic sentiment and traditional Japanese ideologies in creating a nation hesitant to accept any war guilt. That the ideas contributing to the Japanese military campaign survived and lingered for the future is a frightening idea that could have contributed to further military aggression. The attempts by Japanese politicians and historians to continue to downplay war crimes, as well as claim the accounts of them were fabricated or exaggerated, is saddening and worrying for Japans future relations with Korea and China in particular. I would like to hear more about the comfort women though- you chose such an interesting topic! –Emma

  2. domcaron says:

    It is interesting the way the Japanese have denied or played down their wrongdoings during the war. Just out of interest, beyond the textbooks did you look into what it was that was being taught in the Japanese education system regarding Japan’s role in WWII?
    The impression I get from friends who have studied in Japan is that most of the education deals with presenting Japan as a victim or if not that then the Japanese people as victims of military aggression. I would be interested to see if you had found anything relating to that.

  3. hughcrundwell says:

    Hi Stephanie, first off I would like to say well done on developing such an interesting topic, I can tell you have a great interest in Japan much like i do! I think the issue in Japan of the politicising of history is a tough one, with so many different, and forced views coming from all angles, and for you to look past the overwhelming political debates surrounding this topic and focus on the key events in history is very impressive.

    I like how you conclude as well, especially with reference to the monitoring of Japanese textbook but most of all how you state that relations with other countries. If you have been to the war museum in Hiroshima, you would have had very mixed feelings, it serves to remind the Japanese and everybody of what happened in 1945, yet the national government has not seemed to settle on the debate.

    I guess in a country of 100+ million, every view possible is going to be offered!

  4. Hi Steph – great piece you have here!
    Firstly, I have always been attracted to Asian politics, so this has proved incredibly interesting for me to read. It is certainly an extremely broad topic and your piece offers a good summary of Japan as a whole in the perspective of politicising the issue of war crimes. I’d be interested to read the rest of the paper!

    Upon a more focal level, I guess I would be very interested to know how things have gone with elections though – how texts and syllabuses have changed with the changing government, what debates have been discussed in government and what reasoning the conservatives may have against their opposition. I love reading about how war crimes have been portrayed in the media, and I remember your suggestions of things like how prostitution was portrayed – or denied. I thoroughly enjoyed the read! I believe it’s an issue which will plague the nation or a long time coming yet as with Britain and the Americas.

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