Japan's Continuing Obsession with Militarism

News Abroad
tags: World War II, Japan, Pearl Harbor, militarism

Mr. Shenkman is the publisher of HNN. 


Editor: This piece was published in 2003.

Visiting the Japanese War Museum in Tokyo this spring brought to mind a line from Schopenhauer: "Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis."

The museum's exhibits, which went on display last year, tell the story of the military history of modern Japan. I was looking forward to seeing how the museum handles the controversial subjects like the Rape of Nanking that Japanese textbooks infamously ignore. But I was unprepared for the wholesale fabrication of history I found on display in room after room. Every few minutes as I strolled along I let out an audible gasp as I came upon yet another example of bias, omission or outright fraud.

Entering the museum visitors step into a cavernous white room, two stories high. The impression of sterility is overwhelming. It didn't help that on the day I arrived there were only four visitors in the entire museum, counting myself. It was raining. Perhaps that accounted for the light turnout.

Strangely, the tour begins on the second floor, which one reaches by a long, broad staircase. The first room predictably features old military uniforms, some quite extravagant. One suit of armor includes tasseled ear flaps on a helmet with a flying V-shaped turned-up metal mustache that reaches a foot high. It looked to me like the antenna coming out of the head of My Favorite Martian.

In the second room the museum features a series of placards, printed in both Japanese and English, that purportedly take one through the milestones of Japan's military history. The placards are ubiquitous; this is a museum where one reads a lot of text.

One of the first placards I came across deals with Commodore Matthew C. Perry's often-celebrated visit. The placard relates that Perry first arrived in 1853 demanding that Japan sign a treaty of peace and friendship with the United States. Turned down, he returned a year later and finally succeeded in winning a treaty after threatening to turn his guns on his hosts. As an American I felt taken aback. I hadn't remembered Perry's visit quite the same way as it was presented. Sure enough when I got home and consulted my high school textbook--Thomas Bailey's old American Pageant--I found that Perry's visit is more gingerly dealt with in the United States (or was at least 30 years ago when I was in school). "By a judicious display of force and tact," Bailey wrote, "Perry persuaded the Japanese in 1854 to sign a memorable treaty." The treaty was memorable all right, but on their side of the Pacific it was remembered differently.

I moved on thinking that it is always refreshing to see how our actions are viewed by foreigners. As my trip to Japan took place just after the Iraq War, I couldn't help but think how a future "Iraq War Museum" would memorialize our invasion in 2003. If the Japanese, whom we consider friends, see our efforts at engagement so differently than we do, how might the Iraqis feel down the road? The Japanese exhibit suggested that even if the occupation of Iraq goes well, Iraqis will not regard us as liberators in quite the same way as the Bush administration hopes.

Continuing on my way I came upon a vast screen depicting film clips from the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. Nothing unusual here, except that there was the strong aroma of triumphalism in the air. In American textbooks the war is remembered for the way it ended, in a peace treaty arranged by President Theodore Roosevelt, who won the Nobel Prize for his efforts. The Japanese regard the war as a proud success, though it actually marked the ominous beginning of a half century of regional aggression. This is only to be expected, but again it was a startlingly different view than the one to which I was accustomed. For a country believed to be at peace with its policy of pacifism, the Russo-Japanese exhibit gave me pause. Perhaps, I wondered, the Japanese are not quite as reconciled to the policy as we or even they assume. What pacifist would celebrate the beginning of a reign of aggression? (Memo to Paul Wolfowitz. Maybe you should think twice before encouraging the Japanese to beef up their military forces.)

The next few rooms left me aghast. Here were lies after lies. The Rape of Nanking, which left 300,000 Chinese dead and included the rape of 20,000 women, is depicted as a glorious battle in which heroic Japanese soldiers helped the suffering residents of Nanking "once again" "live their lives in peace."

The panels relating events leading up to Pearl Harbor indicate that Franklin Roosevelt was to blame for the outbreak of war. Predictably, the exhibit includes the complaint that the U.S. cut off exports to Japan in August 1941, strangling the Empire's economy. As one very large placard featuring a giant graph indicates, the Japanese relied on the United States for the import of 80 percent of its oil and depended even more on the U.S. for a long list of other important resources. But the museum fails to mention that FDR acted only after Japan invaded southern Indochina in July. In the view of the museum, the invasion of Indochina--of course the word "invasion" isn't used--was merely the "excuse" FDR employed when he decided to go to war, a decision he reportedly reached in the summer of '41, more than four months before Pearl Harbor.

From the warped Japanese viewpoint--or at least the warped viewpoint on display in the Japanese War Museum--FDR is to blame for the war, conveniently getting them off the hook for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. In their view Pearl Harbor becomes a defensive move designed to save the Empire from a humanitarian catastrophe brought on by the dastardly-moves of the Americans. Why the Americans would want to make war on Japan is left out. Of course, the case can be made that FDR knew that by imposing an embargo he was likely triggering a series of events that would end in war. But that is different from blaming him for the war as the museum implies.

After I caught my breath--and by this time I was flabbergasted at what I was reading in a museum officially sponsored by the Japanese government--I realized that the exhibit never acknowledges Japan's history of 20th century aggression. Nowhere is there a hint that Japan started the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 in order to obtain control of Korea, which was annexed in 1910. Nor is there any acknowledgment that Japan invaded Manchuria, using the Mukden Incident in 1931--pardon me, but I can't resist--as an excuse for the attack. According to the official pamphlet distributed in conjunction with the exhibit, the invasion just sort of happened: "1931. September Bombing of Manchurian train near Lake Liutiao; Manchurian Incident erupts." And of course nowhere does the museum admit that Japan invaded China in 1937.

By now disillusioned, I wondered how Pearl Harbor would be handled. About Pearl Harbor surely the Japanese would have to be honest. But here again the museum embraces a strictly nationalistic perspective. Instead of admitting that Pearl Harbor was a mistake, the Japanese celebrate the attack as a great victory, bragging that their forces sank most of the United States Pacific fleet.

Americans to be sure do not acknowledge the complicated history that led up to war with Japan, barely acknowledging the psychological impact of FDR's ban on oil imports, which did indeed lead to the outbreak of war four months later. In the American view the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came out of the blue. It did not, though there were very good reasons for FDR to impose the ban on oil imports. Japan was an aggressor power and after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the spring of 1941 Roosevelt rightly worried that Hitler would triumph over Stalin, allowing the Japanese to become the unchallenged masters of East Asia, which in turn would leave the United States alone to face fascist hegemons in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

But Americans get the basic story line correct. It was Japanese behavior over half a century that created the circumstances that made war likely. Americans did not want war and tried to avoid it until events forced their hand.

What is most scary about the museum is not the spirit of militarism that permeates the place, though the spirit is evident in every nook and cranny. It is rather the attempt to humanize Japan's soldiers, as if it were possible to distinguish what they did from who they were. In one corner there's a television screen celebrating the virtuousness of Kamikaze pilots. On another screen soldiers can be seen feeding down-and-out refugees; there's even a friendly dog prancing in the foreground. Down the hall is a room lined with wall-to-wall pictures of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Japanese soldiers, featured in a way as to leave the impression that they were heroes. Given the awful history which they helped make, the displays are disconcerting.

One cannot help but think how differently Germany has handled the history of its rampaging armies. The conclusion is inescapable that Germany has more successfully come to terms with its past than Japan. A museum such as this in Berlin is inconceivable.

It should be inconceivable in Tokyo, too.

As I neared the end of the exhibit I could not help returning once again to the question that crossed my mind at the beginning about the purported parallels between our occupation of Japan and our occupation of Iraq presently. We expect the Iraqis to embrace us and salute us and leave their future uncomplainingly up to Paul Bremer. But not even the Japanese, whose occupation was an unqualified success, are willing even now to admit that our occupation and suzerainty was as wholesome as we like to think.

On the single wall related to postwar occupation Douglas MacArthur receives no credit for remaking Japanese society, although it is acknowledged that during the occupation religious freedom was established and land ownership was reformed. Indeed, he is reprimanded for imposing censorship when criticisms of the United States began surfacing. Obviously, MacArthur means a lot more to the Japanese than the brief reference to his 7 year stewardship suggests. On another panel, indeed, there's a MacArthur quotation praising the Japanese people's spirit of self-sacrifice, an indication that he is held in high regard even if his contribution can only be alluded to in a virtual whisper. But that the Japanese continue to struggle with the legacy of occupation is evident. That they are is a warning from history that we should probably not expect the Iraqis to view our rule benignly even if we perform our duty well, which up to now we have not.

The occupation of Japan came to a conclusion in 1951. The museum says the occupation came to an end when the United States, mired in the Korean War, suddenly woke up to the importance of a sovereign Japan in maintaining Asian stability.

Cynical? So it is. On this side of the Pacific our good intentions are apparently less easy to glean.

And we think the Iraqi people are going to thank us for democracy?