William Underwood: War Responsibility in a Japanese College Classroom

Roundup: Talking About History

"August 6, 1945: Hiroshima. August 9, 1945: Nagasaki." I wrote the words on the classroom whiteboard in large letters. Then I crossed out both dates and places with a big red X. "Not true," I declared. "The atomic bombings never happened. A total fabrication."

My university students were dumbstruck. We stared at each other in silence for a long moment. All right, I conceded, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed by American warplanes 60 years ago. But only conventional bombs were used and only a few hundred people were killed. Another uncomfortable silence.

Then I admitted it was a ruse. The students seemed to collectively exhale in relief. The tragic reality, of course, is that hundreds of thousands of Japanese died as the result of the two atomic bombings.

The brief classroom exercise helped students imagine how citizens of Asian countries victimized by Japanese colonialism, invasion and atrocities during World War II feel when the Nanjing Massacre is labeled a fabrication, military sex slaves are portrayed as willing prostitutes, and forced laborers are claimed to have voluntarily toiled for Japan's former empire.

It also gave students additional insight into why Chinese and Koreans, in particular, continue to react so indignantly to revisionist Japanese history textbooks and prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted war criminals are among the Japanese war dead worshipped.

"Japan and America" is the name of the course. We began with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s black ships in 1853, ending Japan’s two centuries of national isolation and leading to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Despite the burden of “unequal treaties” imposed by Western nations, Japan modernized rapidly and avoided the fate of foreign domination or outright colonization that befell most of Asia. Enriching the country and strengthening the army (fukoku kyohei) became the overriding national goal.

Our class explored how Japanese immigrated first to Hawaii and then to the American West Coast in the late 1800s and early 1900s, seeking better lives and gradually forging new identities as Japanese Americans. The United States cemented its control over Hawaii during this period and, following victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898, took possession of the Philippines and harshly suppressed local movements for self-determination.

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