August in Japan is a month for remembering war. Ceremonies marking the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (6 August) and Nagasaki (9 August) are followed by a commemoration of Japan’s surrender to the Allies on 15 August. More than three million Japanese were killed in what is variously called the Pacific War, the Fifteen-Year War or the Greater East Asia War, depending on one’s view of history. For liberals, the war of aggression began in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria and escalated into a wider war with China from 1937, eventually precipitating a clash with the US. For conservatives, the war of national self-defence began in December 1941 when Japan, suffering terribly under American sanctions, fought back by launching an attack on Pearl Harbor.
On 14 August, in a statement to mark the 70th anniversary of surrender, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe surprised nobody but disappointed many by failing to apologise for Japan’s wartime treatment of its Chinese and other foreign enemies, as well as of its own citizens and the mostly Korean ‘comfort women’ forcibly engaged in the service of Japanese troops. Since the early 1990s, it has become routine for Japanese leaders to apologise for Japan’s role in the Second World War, an act of contrition on the German model which has failed to smooth relations with China and South Korea but which annually reinforces Japan’s commitment to its postwar constitution, founded as it is on principles of non-aggression. This time, Abe dug in his heels. The ‘position articulated by previous cabinets’ – which had ‘repeatedly expressed feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology’ – would, he said, ‘remain unshakeable into the future’, but, he insisted, ‘we must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologise.’ Abe made no mention of the conclusion reached by the specialist panel he had convened to advise him on his statement: that it had been a ‘reckless war’ unleashed by irresponsible leaders. Instead he said that Japan had been cornered by ‘vast colonies possessed mainly by the Western powers’ and isolated internationally by a ‘diplomatic and economic deadlock’. The only route to self-determination had been a turn to force. The Japan we know today – peaceful, prosperous – exists only because of the great sacrifices of the wartime generation.
Emperor Akihito spoke for the majority when, on 15 August, the day after Abe’s statement, and in an implicit rebuttal of it, he talked of Japan’s continuing ‘deep remorse’ for its wartime actions. The people’s view has barely changed. At the end of 1945, according to Akiko Takenaka in Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory and Japan’s Unending Postwar (Hawaii, £66.70), only 4 per cent of Japanese ‘felt ashamed’ of the defeat or failed to support Akihito’s father Hirohito’s declaration of surrender. The war was viewed as an unmitigated catastrophe and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal charged a handful of senior leaders with Class A war crimes. It perhaps isn’t incidental that one of these was Abe’s own grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was held as a suspected Class A war criminal, though never charged, for his role in mobilising slave labour in wartime Manchuria, and who served as minister of munitions from 1941. Abe, the most unremittingly conservative leader Japan has had since the war, has committed himself to revising Article 9 of the US-imposed 1947 constitution, which ‘renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation’ and places constraints on Japan’s armed forces.
Abe – who has indicated that he hopes to remain in power until 2018, when Japan will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration and the beginning of rapid modernisation – seeks to loosen those constraints. Although the peace constitution is seen by many as a cornerstone of Japanese identity, Abe presides over a revisionist movement that over the past few years has made its presence strongly felt at all levels of Japanese society and has come to dominate the corridors of power. As Akiko Hashimoto shows in her excellent book The Long Defeat (Oxford, £16.99), the revisionists are waging an all-out offensive that extends from textbooks to demanding constitutional reform and restraints on the freedom of the press. Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) is an ultra-conservative organisation that seeks to rewrite what it sees as Japan’s masochistic view of history, end apology diplomacy and put the emperor back in the driver’s seat. It boasts a membership of nearly 40,000, including retired CEOs, military top brass, party heads, university presidents and prominent pundits. It circulates petitions that garner millions of signatures. Twenty years ago its views would have been condemned as extreme; now they’re mainstream. Most of Abe’s cabinet and more than half of the Diet are Nippon Kaigi members; Abe serves as its ‘special adviser’. It is the Tea Party with power.
A good example of the new revisionism is Hidemichi Tanaka’s The History of Japan: Really, What Is So Great about It? (Aracne, €15). It represents a popular genre in Japan, the expansive field of nihonjinron, or theories about the Japanese. Tanaka, an art historian, has a simple answer to the question in his title: everything is great about Japan. He gallops through two thousand years of cultural glory, from the ancient chronicles Kojiki and Nihon Shoki to Noh theatre, and ingeniously marshals his evidence to prove that the usual aspersions cast on Japanese motives are in every case wrong. A great deal of fanciful reinterpretation is involved in the process. A great deal of fanciful reinterpretation is involved in the process. He defends Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo as bringing peace and economic growth to the region. The subsequent war that raged from 1937 becomes the ‘China Incident’; the Nanjing Massacre is downsized to a raid; and the ‘Greater East Asian War’, which drove the Western powers out of the East, in Tanaka’s view allowed Japan to change the world and bring ‘the period of world wars to a close’. The attack on Pearl Harbor was orchestrated by Roosevelt. Cunning, this: the US was ‘stuck in the quagmire’ of the Great Depression and ‘the only possible way out was by waging a war’, so Washington issued Tokyo with an ultimatum so unacceptable that the Japanese were provoked into launching the attack. It’s a popular theory among the Nippon Kaigi diehards; in 2008, Toshio Tamogami, chief of staff of the Japanese air force, was forced to resign shortly after publicly repeating it and praising the consequences of Japanese imperial aggression.
Ground zero for the unrepentant view of Japan’s wartime past is Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo. In 1978, 14 Class A war criminals were enshrined there (their souls deified in a Shinto rite), ensuring that the controversy at home and abroad doesn’t go away. Abe has said that one of his greatest regrets during his first term as premier, from 2006 to 2007, was not visiting Yasukuni, as his colourful predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, had done six times. He put that right in 2013, and his visit was sharply criticised by Beijing, Seoul and Washington. For Japan’s neighbours, Yasukuni is emblematic of Japan’s infuriating blind spot about their shared history. Tourists, though, experience it as a pleasing photogenic oasis, with its traditional Japanese architecture and annual lantern festival; bus tours include it on their itineraries, even for Chinese groups. The priests and advisers who run the shrine have found ways to make it appeal in the 21st century. The adjacent military museum, the Yushukan, was renovated in 2002; it lends weight to the revisionist narrative by presenting the martyred Japanese dead as soldier-gods and the Chinese as terrorist bandits.
Yet the revisionist argument that the peace and prosperity Japan enjoys today owes everything to the soldiers’ wartime sacrifices is still something that most Japanese refuse to accept. The staggering loss of Japanese lives in the war is an indelible aspect of Japanese memory, passed down through families, popularised in manga, novels and films. According to the familiar narrative, the soldiers were cannon fodder, sacrificed for the vainglory of reckless leaders who operated without constraint, plunging the nation into a maelstrom that killed twenty million foreign Asians in the name of liberating them, and millions of Japanese. Abe will have a hard time rewriting that.