Ian Buruma: Why he Japanese Are Now Receptive to Patriotic History

Roundup: Talking About History

Ian Buruma, in the Financial Times of London (5-28-05):

... Asked what he thought was wrong with most Japanese textbooks, one well-known Tsukurukai member, Nobukatsu Fujioka of Tokyo University, said that "they are not written with Japanese people in mind. They present a history that is hostile to Japan." He attributes this to "Japanese socialists, communists and liberal media", as well as foreigners who see "Japan as nothing but an evil aggressor during the war". This kind of masochism, he believes, must be stopped.

Neither Fujioka, who is an expert on education, nor Kobayashi, nor most of their colleagues who are concerned about Japanese masochism, are professional historians. But their views, reflected in the latest textbook that sparked protests in China, have a growing appeal among young Japanese who are tired of being told that their country was uniquely wicked in the war and should apologise for it all the time. A similar weariness concerns the postwar constitution, drawn up by Americans in 1946, which deprives Japan of its right to use military force. This is not just irksome to a few rightwing diehards. The pop art guru of contemporary Tokyo, Takashi Murakami, an affable man in a modish pigtail, explained the fascination of his generation for childlike cartoons and violent comic-strip fantasies by claiming that the US-imposed, pacifist postwar order had turned Japan into a nation of irresponsible children - which is pretty much what Kobayashi and his colleagues think too.

There are several reasons why even pop art has soaked up some of the gripes of grumpy rightwing professors. One is the collapse of the left, which had dominated many educational institutions for decades. This phenomenon is not of course limited to Japan, nor is the effect of this political shift on the way people look at the past. But the shift has been particularly dramatic in Japan because the presentation of history is not just an academic problem but a festering sore running through mainstream Japanese politics. When the US-led Allies occupied Japan after dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of the first things General MacArthur's administration did was to tackle Japanese education. Japanese were ordered "to eliminate from the educational system of Japan those militaristic and ultranationalistic influences which in the past have contributed to the defeat, war guilt, suffering, privation, and present deplorable state of the Japanese people".

Since patriotic education, which included emperor worship and the idea that the Japanese were a superior race with divine roots, had played an important role in mobilising the Japanese for war, this was not a spurious measure. Henceforth, the production of history textbooks would be privatised and no longer be subject to government control. But before new textbooks could be published, "ultranationalistic" and "militaristic" passages in the old ones were blocked out in black ink. Teachers who had extolled the unique virtues of the divine Japanese race until the surrender in August, 1945, now taught the unique virtues of American-style demokurashi. Moral education (shushin), with its stress on sacrifice and discipline, was a particular target of the occupation authorities since this was regarded, not without reason, as the main obstacle to the new spirit of individualism. Cultural re-education was not just limited to school books but to the arts as well. Samurai dramas were banned for a short while, in movies and even in the Kabuki theatre. And generally, Japanese were encouraged to believe that their brutal wartime behaviour was rooted in deep cultural flaws.

Those who stood on the left of the political spectrum, which included much of the Japanese intelligentsia, had no problem with these policies. Like most Japanese they were glad to be rid of the oppressive wartime regime and embraced democratic change. Marxists had their own ideological reasons for seeing the dark past in terms of "feudalism" and "capitalist imperialism" and it was not uncommon in the 1950s and 1960s for Marxist school teachers to praise Chairman Mao's China while denouncing imperialist Japanese history in the most lurid manner. Such teachers had a strong influence on the Japan Teachers Union, whose institutional power only began to crumble in the 1980s. Many school textbooks reflected their views, even though leftist biases were almost invariably watered down by conservative education ministry bureaucrats.

Cultural conservatives, not unnaturally, took a very different view of the US occupation. They felt robbed of their national identity. Even though American censorship was minimal compared with Japanese wartime censorship, some writers and thinkers felt deeply humiliated by foreigners telling them what to think. And conservatives, who deplored the "moral vacuum" that replaced emperor-worshipping nationalism, have tried to fill this vacuum with the old patriotic spirit ever since. A rosier view of the wartime past is part of this effort, which has found support among many conservative politicians, including prime ministers.

The issue of moral education and patriotic history is closely linked to the postwar constitution. To leftists and liberals, official pacifism has always been seen as a way to atone for the militarism of the past - something that is not pointed out in the Chinese media. Teachers associated with the Japan Teachers Union discussed Japanese war crimes as an integral part of what came to be called "peace education". Pacifism was not only the answer to Hiroshima but also to the Nanking Massacre. More has been written in Japan about Japanese war crimes than anywhere else, albeit often with an ideological slant.

With the waning of Marxism, however, and the waxing of resentment over the idealistic but somewhat unrealistic pacifist constitution, the terms of the historical debate in Japan have changed. In fact, this already began in the early 1950s when China had "gone Communist", the Korean War was under way, Japanese war criminals were released from prison and reds were purged from public life with American connivance. Men who had never endorsed the pacifist constitution, postwar education or war guilt entered the mainstream of Japanese politics.

As long as the majority of the Japanese people still held on to the pacifist ideal and resisted a revival of old-style moral education, rightwing nationalists had little room for manoeuvre. Prime- ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of imperial soldiers including quite a few war criminals are enshrined, are symbolic gestures that please Japanese veterans and other conservative voters at the cost of irritating Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese liberals, but they cannot restore Japan's right to go to war again. And neither can public remarks about the justness of Japan's war, the moral decadence of the young or the negative effects of masochistic history teaching.

What has shifted, though, in the wake of the Cold War (which is not really quite over in East Asia), is the public consensus that official pacifism is a realistic or even desirable option in the long run. It was humiliating for Japan to write cheques for the Gulf War in 1991 while being forced to be a passive bystander. Since Japan is so dependent on the US for its security, most foreign policy simply follows the dictates of Washington DC. Many Japanese people who hold no brief for wartime imperialism feel that it is time for a change. Not a few also feel that the time for apologising is over.

This is why Kobayashi's comic strips have found a ready audience. Not because militarism is on the rise in Japan, but because the old leftwing shibboleths are losing their persuasive power. And this owes a lot to the dogmatism of pacifist intellectuals, who can be as inflexible as rightwing patriots. If one adds the cynical manipulation of popular sentiment in China, one can see why this has stoked up a kind of rebelliousness or at least irritation which the patriots can exploit. Since young Japanese, like young people everywhere, are becoming more ignorant of the facts as the war slips into the past, they also lack the critical sense to challenge some of the more outrageous claims of the historical revisionists.

Denial, then, is not the whole story in Japan. And neither is the lack of official remorse. The problem is that history was politicised from the moment the American victors chose to remake Japan in their own image. This turned out to be successful in many respects: Japan has a flawed but functioning democracy; militarism is pretty much dead; and most Japanese lead secure, prosperous lives. But when constitutional law, military defence, foreign policy and history education become hopelessly entangled, the last thing people care about is the honest truth.

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