The Land of the Unsettling Sun: Japan’s Revisionist Slide under Abe
Japan has become tired of being asked to apologize by China, which due to its own human rights violations forfeits any moral high-ground in the eyes of the Japanese.
Chinese Premier Wen and Japanese PM Abe shake hands following the China-Japan joint declaration signing ceremony in Tokyo. Credit: Reuters
With the election of Shinzo Abe in 2012 the Japanese government has made a determined effort to reform the economy, as well as shift the nation’s political culture.
The government touts the image of a strong Japan, in the process downplaying the country’s wartime legacy and reinforcing the notion of Japan as a victim. Since 2012 far-right revisionist views, once the purview of fringe elements, have gained legitimacy as the government either tacitly consents to, or openly espouses similar ideas in public.
Recently the minister for national law enforcement—Eriko Yamatani—was photographed with a prominent member of the far-right online activist group, Zaitokukai. The government did not comment on the incident, yet such groups are often tolerated, undoubtedly because they act as proxies for the government, extolling similar revisionist views.
In recent weeks Net Right activists have harassed a small village in northern Hokkaido where residents have, after years of research, uncovered the graves of eighty Korean labourers press-ganged into constructing a military airport in the area. The village of Sarufutsu has been inundated by calls accusing locals of being traitors following village efforts to build a monument in honour of the Koreans. Far-right activists also threatened a boycott of the local shallot industry, prompting the mayor to halt construction of the memorial.
A similar backlash saw the local government in Nagasaki delay permission for the construction of a memorial to Korean labourers killed in the atomic bomb blast. Mainstream historians estimate that some 700,000 Koreans were press-ganged into service by the Imperial military, yet the far-right denies these claims, stating that the Koreans voluntarily aided Japan.
One of the chief impediments to Japanese-Korean accord is part of a larger Japanese refusal to officially apologize for its wartime activities in Asia. The cool state of bilateral relations is apparent in the fact that both Abe and his Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye have been office since 2012, but have yet to meet. In response to the Japanese government’s actions, Noh Kwang-il, spokesperson for the South Korean Foreign Ministry stated that “however hard the Japanese government tries to distort the true nature of the comfort women issue and play down or hide past wrongdoings, it will never be able to whitewash history.”
Abe’s efforts to “whitewash” Japan’s wartime history is not a new phenomenon, yet the prominence of such efforts within government policy is a new development. It is important to note that many Japanese are fully aware of their country’s misdeeds, and notable Japanese academics have called for official apologies. The key to understanding the government’s position on World War II is the fact that following the war, the United States took a very pragmatic stance vis-à-vis Japan.
The US did not abolish the monarchy, even retaining Hirohito has Emperor. Furthermore many wartime bureaucrats were pardoned in order to quickly rebuild Japan as an anti-communist bulwark. Interestingly, Abe’s grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, a class A war crimes suspect who has briefly detained, but later released, in large part due to his anti-communist sentiments. Kishi later served as prime minister from 1957-1960.
The Japanese legacy in World War II is split into two parts; that of Japan’s fight against the Americans, and Japan’s campaigns on the Asian mainland. Japan’s actions in China have become a vehicle for political manoeuvring, with Beijing playing the history card to discredit Japan. Over the years Japan has become tired of being asked to apologize by China, which due to its own human rights violations forfeits any moral high-ground in the eyes of the Japanese. Consequently the legitimate need for redress is buried and discredited by contemporary political machinations.
Conversely Japan’s war with the United States dominates the public consciousness, because only the US managed to defeat Japan: China may have eventually ousted Japan from the mainland, but could not have forced Japan to unconditional surrender. Japan remains the only nation to have been attacked by nuclear weapons, and it is this legacy that dominates the Japanese psyche. Japan is tired of being portrayed as the sole purveyor of evil in the war. Pearl Harbor is defining moment in American history and justification for all subsequent actions against Japan. The death toll from Pearl Harbor was (only) some 2,400 people, almost all military personnel.
Japan lost between 124,000-246,000 (overwhelmingly civilians) people in the two atomic bomb attacks alone; more than the US lost in the whole Pacific war (approx. 111,000). Victor’s justice sees these attacks written off as necessity and Japan’s actions as war crimes, something which Japan strongly disagrees with. The emphasis on its war with America, and de-emphasis on actions in Asia has led to Japan conflating its sense of victim-hood vis-à-vis the Americans and its memories of empire in Asia. This has resulted in an across-the-board resistance to accusations of Japanese war crimes by powerful countries which themselves do not adequately address their own actions.