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Japan's Memory Lapses

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
December 1, 2003
Weekly Standard


Nine years ago, the Smithsonian Institution caused a furor by planning an Enola Gay exhibition that embraced revisionist views of the atomic bombing of Japan, which many scholars now depict as an act of racism and barbarism. After protests from veterans' groups, the museum amended its displays to make them more neutral. That decision was a good one, but even if the atomic bombing was justified (as I believe it was), it nevertheless does us credit that many Americans remain troubled by our military's incineration of hundreds of thousands of enemy civilians.

What does it say about the Japanese character, then, that their most prominent war museum expresses a total lack of repentance for the actions taken by their armed forces in what they call the "Greater East Asia War"?

On a recent visit to Tokyo, I stopped by the Yasukuni-jinja shrine located not far from the imperial palace. Its bland name, which translates as "for the repose of the country," conceals an incendiary content. Enshrined here are Japanese war heroes, including a number who were branded as Class A war criminals by the Allied occupation.

Every year Japanese cabinet ministers and members of the royal family make a pilgrimage here, which always causes a certain amount of international consternation. The unvarying defense of these visits— akin to a German politician visiting an SS cemetery— is that the dignitaries come in their individual capacity only, and, in any case, they come to celebrate valorous deeds, not to endorse the cause in which they were committed.

The adjoining Yushukan Military Museum shows how unconvincing these excuses are. It is, in essence, a two-story apologia for everything that Japan did between 1895 and 1945. During those years, Japan started at least four major wars and committed numerous atrocities as it attempted to annex Korea, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other parts of Asia. Tens of millions of people died as a result. Nothing the Japanese did compares to the systematic genocide carried out by the Nazis, but their crimes were bad enough, not the least being those carried out against helpless American, British, and Australian POWs, who were lucky if they survived captivity as emaciated shadows of their former selves.

There is no hint of any of this at Yushukan. The captions alongside tattered uniforms and rusting helmets are a study in amnesia. The museum all but blames the Chinese for the massacre carried out by Japanese troops in Nanking in 1938, though the actual atrocities (which killed more than 200,000 people) are never referred to. The caption, conveniently offered in both Japanese and English, merely mentions that the Chinese defenders were "soundly defeated, suffering heavy casualties." The result? "Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace." The ones who were still alive, that is.

Americans may think that Japan started World War II in the Pacific (remember Pearl Harbor?), but the museum has a different view: It was all FDR's fault. According to another caption, the crafty American president schemed to enter the war to end his country's economic malaise, "but was hampered by American public opinion, which was strongly antiwar. The only option open to Roosevelt, who had been moving forward with his 'Plan Victory,' was to use embargoes to force resource-poor Japan into war. The U.S. economy made a complete recovery once the Americans entered the war."

Unsettling as all this is, the creepiest exhibits are those highlighting Japan's suicidal resistance in the last days of the war. The museum proudly displays a human aerial bomb ("Oka") and a human torpedo ("Kaiten"), replicas of those employed in attacks on American ships. There is even a giant painting depicting the "Divine Thunderbolt Corps"— aka the kamikazes— "in final attack mode at Okinawa," framed against beautifully lighted clouds. There is no hint that this fanatical failure to accept defeat— which amounted to a national religion in Japan— consigned hundreds of thousands of civilians to an early grave, and for no good purpose.

One can understand, sort of, the glorification of men who willingly gave their lives in attacks on enemy military targets. But what about Japanese soldiers who raped Korean and Chinese women? What about those who killed liberal Japanese politicians in the 1930s? The Yasukuni's official website makes no distinction: "All the deities worshipped here at this shrine are those who . . . sacrificed themselves as the foundation stones for the making of modern Japan." That's like saying that Confederate soldiers were the foundation stones of modern America— which they were, but only because they were defeated. If they had won, modern America would have been unthinkable. Likewise, modern Japan— peaceful and rich— would never have come about if the militarists who dictated policy until 1945 had remained triumphant.

The views expressed at the Yasukuni are hardly universally held in Japan, but neither are they confined to a lunatic fringe. Just days before I visited the shrine, the popular governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who won reelection in a landslide this year, ignited a controversy by asserting that Korea had asked to be annexed by Japan in 1910— something that comes as news to Koreans, who still have bitter memories of the occupation that ended in 1945. Few Asians, indeed, would share the self-serving view expressed on the Yasukuni's website: "Japan's dream of building a Great East Asia was necessitated by history and it was sought after by the countries of Asia." Far from being sought, Japanese occupation was actively resisted by many Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese, Filipinos, and other patriots who had no desire to be part of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Is all this merely ancient history today? In a sense, yes. Not even the most artful romanticizers of Japan's past have any desire for a sequel. Japan remains one of the most pacifist places on the planet. It is starting to play a more active international role by participating in some international peacekeeping missions, and there is a growing movement to revise Article 9 of its Constitution, which "renounce[s] war as a sovereign right of the nation." But the Japanese are hardly embracing war; indeed, they are so wary of casualties that recent attacks in Iraq have caused them to pull back from sending support troops to help the coalition occupation.

Japan's seeming lack of repentance for its past (despite some carefully hedged expressions of "remorse" from its leaders) affects the current debate over its role in the world in two ways. First, it fosters a certain amount of unease among other Asians about a more assertive Japan. This sentiment has undoubtedly been manipulated for cynical ends by the Chinese and North Korean Communists, who have caused far more suffering to their own people than the Japanese ever did. But there nevertheless remains some genuine residual fear of Japan among its neighbors.

Second, and more important, the Japanese themselves seem rather ambivalent about their country's playing a more assertive role in the world. Polls show a slight majority in favor of rewriting the Constitution, but there is a lot of opposition. Several analysts I talked with suggested that it may not be possible to drop Article 9 altogether; the government may just have to "reinterpret" it, in order to allow Japan to build missile defenses and send combat troops abroad.

This foot-dragging is hard to figure, since Japan faces clear and present dangers like North Korea, which has roused considerable anger here by kidnapping Japanese citizens. One explanation offered by some Japanese professors is that their countrymen still fear what an unbridled military outside of effective political control might do. Such concerns might seem risible given Japan's more than half-century of democracy and pacifism. And yet, on second thought, perhaps they are not so outlandish after all: Some Japanese no doubt fear that letting the Self-Defense Forces off their leash might bring them under the control of the sort of unrepentant nationalists who worship at the Yasukuni shrine.

This is hardly an insoluble problem. The example of Germany, Japan's co-conspirator in the original "Axis of Evil," shows the answer. Germany has managed to erase pretty much all doubts about its character through a three-pronged strategy: First, making apologies, paying reparations, and banning all glorification of the Nazis. (You don't hear mainstream German politicians claiming that Poland asked to be invaded!) Second, subsuming its armed forces under NATO control. Third, merging its economy, and perhaps soon its polity, with its neighbors, via the European Union. Unfortunately, if Japan were to follow the third strategy (and there is some talk here along these lines), it might wind up becoming as beholden to China as Germany is to France today. A better prospect would be to create an Asian security structure, along the lines of NATO, that would have the United States in the lead.

Such a prospect seems unlikely now, when the Bush administration is focused on other, more urgent priorities, such as the war on terrorism. But the two are not unrelated: As we lose the support of traditional allies like France, we could use new friends willing to contribute to our larger struggle in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Japan, the world's No. 2 economy and a bastion of pro-American sentiment, remains an obvious candidate. It has, in fact, stepped forward to offer some help ($5 billion for rebuilding Iraq), but it could do even more if it could only put to rest the ghosts of World War II.

Max Boot, a Weekly Standard contributing editor, is Olin senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."

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