Monday, November 24, 2014

Sorry for Nothing

NEW YORK – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is once again stirring Asia’s cauldron of national rivalries and historical resentments. This time, he has instructed a committee of historians to reexamine the official apology delivered in 1993 to World War II-era sex slaves held in Japanese military brothels. It is clear from various recent statements that some of Abe’s closest advisers believe that the apology was not in order, so the committee might well conclude that Japan was never officially involved in prostitution, and that its “sincere remorse” should therefore be withdrawn.

What perverse reason could Abe have for pursuing such an outcome?

Glossing over, or denying, dark chapters of national history is not unique to Japan, of course. There is no room for Stalin’s mass murders in the kind of “patriotic” education favored by Russian President Vladimir Putin. And the Tiananmen Square Massacre, to name but one bloody event in China’s recent past, has been officially forgotten.

Still, Japan is a democracy, with freedom of expression. The official apology made in 1993 was prompted by a Japanese historian’s discovery of documents showing that the Imperial Japanese Army had been directly involved in setting up, though not necessarily in running, what were known as “comfort stations.” One of the official reasons was that widespread rape of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers was provoking too much resistance among the local population.

Various means were used to stock the brothels with young women. But, because there was no escape, the women, once ensnared in the system, were effectively slaves.

This has been officially admitted, so why reopen the ghastly business now, at a time when rescinding the apology would make Japan’s already-strained relations with China and South Korea many times worse?

If Abe and his allies were cosmopolitan in their outlook, with a deep understanding of, or concern for, other countries, the decision to revisit the 1993 apology would indeed be extraordinary. But, as is true of many political leaders, especially on the nationalistic right, they are chauvinistic provincials whose concerns are almost entirely domestic. In their efforts to revise the historical record, they are not really thinking of Koreans or Chinese, but of political adversaries at home.

The views of the Japanese on their country’s wartime history are deeply divided, reflecting political battle lines drawn in the immediate aftermath of the war, when Japan was under Allied occupation. The United States, which ran the occupation, was keen to reform Japanese society in such a way that another war would be unthinkable. Worship of the emperor was abolished, though Hirohito remained on his throne. Education was purged of all militaristic and “feudal” elements, including favorable references to the samurai spirit. A new pacifist constitution, written by the Americans, banned the use of armed force. And Japan’s wartime leaders were tried in Tokyo by Allied judges for “crimes against peace” and “crimes against humanity.”

Most Japanese, heartily sick of war and military bullying, were happy to go along with all of this. But there was always a right-wing minority that felt humiliated and resentful of the loss of national pride and, more important, national sovereignty, for Japan’s security would henceforth have to depend entirely on the protection offered by the US.

One of the main leaders of this group of disgruntled nationalists was Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather. Kishi’s aim was to regain Japanese pride and sovereignty by revising the constitution and reviving old-fashioned patriotism, thus undoing some of the American educational reforms. He failed, because most Japanese were still allergic to anything that smacked of militarism.

Until not long ago, there was a strong left-wing current in education and some of the media that used Japan’s horrendous wartime record as an argument against any kind of revisionism. But, as long as the Japanese left used history to make this political argument, the nationalists pushed back by claiming that stories of wartime atrocities had been greatly exaggerated.

Books about the infamous Nanking Massacre of 1937, or the enslavement of “comfort women” in military brothels, were denounced as “historical masochism” or dismissed as “the Tokyo Trial View of History.” The left was accused of being complicit in spreading foreign – Chinese, Korean, or American – propaganda.

This, then, is the modern Japanese version of populism: the “liberal elites,” by falsifying the history of Japan’s glorious war to “liberate Asia,” undermined the Japanese people’s moral fiber. Because the ideological collapse of left-wing politics in Japan has been as precipitous as in much of the Western world, the so-called liberal elites have lost much of their former influence. As a result, the voice of the nationalist right has grown louder in recent years.

That is why Abe can get away with appointing cronies to the board of NHK, the national broadcasting company, who openly claim that the military brothels were an entirely private enterprise and that the Nanking Massacre was a foreign fabrication. Historical truth is not the point; political mastery is.

Japan’s prime minister is playing a risky game. He is upsetting allies in Asia, embarrassing the US, and making bad relations with China even worse. Like Putin, he is driving himself and his country into further isolation for entirely domestic reasons. In a region increasingly dominated by Chinese power, he will be without Asian friends.

And that is where Abe’s behavior becomes truly perverse. After all, a Japan that is isolated in Asia will be even more dependent on the US, the wartime victor, which Abe and his nationalist allies hold responsible for the postwar order that they seek to revise.

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    1. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      If you look, in Japanese history, culture and society, for something Wagnerian, something Bismarckan, something Hegelian or something Martin Lutheran, you will find none even in the 1930s' militarist Japan.

    2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      I do not deny that the Japanese committed atrocities. For instance, as DC said, the case of Doctor Shiro Ishii was indeed horrible. This is one of the cruelest case. There will be no Japanese, I think, who dares to deny it though some Japanese minimize it. In Indonesia Dutch women were forced by Japanese servicemen to engage in prostitution.

      A group of South Koreans, all intellecutal and of a rather good social standing, were surprised to hear from Prof. James Auer of Vanderbilt University last year that there were Japanese confort women and far more of them than Korean comfort women. They accuse Japanese of no contrition without knowing the truth such as that Korean women were usually sold by their poor parents or that they had been seduced with lies by pimps. It is known at least in Japan that those Korean women had US soldiers after Japan was defeated and the comfort women was used to refer to them in South Korea until around 1990.

      School history textbooks of a few East Asian countries were compared by a group of people from Stanford University. The Japanese textbooks were most controlled and least nationalistic and received the highest ratint. The Chinese textbooks were simply the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party. The Korean textbooks were a aational fantasy story at least in my judgement. You can get to the short summary of the study at "Comaparative Study of School History Textbooks of Asian Countries by Stanford University, from where you can also read a long PDF report.
      I would like anyone interested more in these to read my four comments to YaleGlobal Online/ Alistair Burnett/War Drums in East Asia: Back to the European Future?/Feb. 11/2014 ( and my comment dated March 10, 2014 to's Democratic Drama by Prof. Lehmann.

      George F. Kennan was known for his policy of Soviet containment. If interested in his U.S. policy suggestion toward Japan in 1941 before the outbreak of the Pacific War, please read my comments to The Diplomat. com/Zachary Keck/Only Realists Spread Democracy ( Prof. Buruma said, "the history of Japan's glorious war to 'liberate Asia.' You will see that Japan did not the intention at all of liberating Asia. You will see that Japan wanted to avoid war with the United States. You will also see that it also wanted to get out of the bottomlessness of war with China. Japan's war first with China and then with the United States and Great Britain was not the result of strength but the result of weakness. If the Japanese civil government had contained the Army and put it under control, Japan would have averted escalation of the Sino-Japanese war which arose from a minor incident of July in 1937 and the so-called Japanese militarism would have die away. Prof. Buruma's view is that of a Japanese extreme left, though widely shared among many Japanese.
      There was and is a deep schism in Japanese politics in pre-war Japan and today as there will be in any country which came under the influence of Marxism. The influx of Marxism-Leninsm was tremendous in Japan after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It engulfed almost the whole of the academic world. Its effect has not died down yet.

      Prof. Buruma also said, "(Abe) is driving his country into further isolation... he will be without Asian friends." His view entirely falls in line with that of Japanese lefts.
      Abe's security policy has been welcomed not simply by the United States but also by most East Asian countries. These East Asian countries have long wanted Japan to strengthen its ties with the US. To add, they of course do not want to see Japan increase its defense effors all alone and on its own; they want to see Japan do it only in cooperation and coordination with Washington.

      It is often said that Germany was contrite enough while Japan is not. Though I do not want to make this long comment still longer, it is not Japan but Germany that stealthily got the bill of indulgence without anybody noticing it. I want to say a little bit about this some other time if occasion presents itself.

    3. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      It will come as no surprise, if the two revisionists - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Vladimir Putin - get along. Birds of a feather flock together.
      Abe does not have problems with his memory of his country's imperial past. No, he wants to rewrite his country's history. Japan's relations with its neighbours are still heavily troubled by the legacy of Japanese actions before and during World War II. Japan has found it difficult to come to terms with its wartime role and atone for its treatment of the citizens of countries it occupied.
      It is nothing new, that prominent politicians and public figures still frequently espouse absurd revisionist versions of history, denying Japan ever started the war, the Nanjing Massacre happened, and that tens of thousands of comfort women "volunteered" to become sex slaves for the Japanese military. At the same time they constructed their own chauvinistic narrative of victimhood, saying Japan had suffered an atomic attack and the ensuing devastation. When they talked about these grievances, they often forgot, how the war all began.
      Up to 200,000 comfort women from China, Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia etc. are estimated to have been forced to work in Japan's military brothels in World War Two. A Japanese court caused outrage by overturning a compensation order for Korean women forced to work as sex slaves. South Korea and China have also protested that Japanese history books gloss over atrocities committed by Japanese occupiers. This denial of facts has been a frequent source of tension with its neighbours, especially after Abe returned to politics.

    4. Commentedd c

      There is an unsettling disparity between the perception and treatment of wartime atrocities committed by Imperial Japan and those committed by Nazi Germany. Whereas anyone misguided enough to condone the actions of the Nazis would be rightfully condemned as a by proxy war criminal, supporters of Imperial Japan have been subtly dismissed as “conservatives” or “patriots.” This seemingly trivial issue of nomenclature actually gives rise to a frame of reference that can be quite destructive in an age of multilateralism.

      The Nazi’s killed over 12 million people in concentration camps alone. Almost half of those were rounded up and decimated for their Jewish heritage. Likewise the Japanese Imperial Army killed 30 million Chinese, 1 million Filipino’s, countless Koreans, Malays, and Vietnamese among others. The overwhelming majority of these casualties were civilian. The systematic sexual enslavement and human experimentation was also perpetrated on an overwhelmingly civilian population.

      While the war criminals of Nazi Germany were largely forced to face their crimes against humanity, the war criminals of Imperial Japan were largely amnestied or paroled in 1958 and rehabilitated. A perfect example of this is Shiro Ishi, who despite institutionalizing experimentation on civilians and prisoners of war, was granted complete amnesty.

      To label those who justify or whitewash cruelty of this magnitude as mere “patriots” or “nationalists” not only taxes one’s sense of decorum, it also obfuscates the Holocaust deniers from the true believers in the modern Japanese democracy.

      It is important to appreciate that the Holocaust of the Second World War spread beyond one regime in Germany. As we hold the Nazis accountable for their acts of depravity in contemporary society, so too should we hold the Imperial regime of that once ruled Japan and the politicians who attempt to justify it’s behavior today.

    5. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      We don"t know much about the Japanese traditions of face. Yet the spirit d'escalier is great. In fact, reopening makes it current business.