Roger Pulvers: The Japanese Have Never Taken Responsibility for Their History

Roundup: Talking About History

Roger Pulvers, in Japan Times (12-19-04):

[Roger Pulvers -- who translated all the Japanese writings quoted in this article -- is an American-born Australian author, playwright and theater director, and a professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology. A collection of his fiction and nonfiction writings,"Half and More," will be published by Shinchosha in March 2005. His website is:]

In many senses the Japanese people have been in denial since the end of World War II.

With the Tokyo War Crimes Trials they blamed their leaders for the catastrophes of war, so allowing themselves to believe that the atrocities were committed by their soldiers, politicians, bureaucrats and entrepreneurs in their name. They themselves could be carefully let off the hook.

The postwar thinking of the vast majority of Japanese was: It may have been "us," but it wasn't "me" who did those awful things. "We" were forced to do those things by underhanded politicians and cruel military men. "I" was a kind of victim, too, a victim of sweeping historical circumstances beyond my control; and now all "I" want to do is buckle down and look after my little personalized circle.

Emperor Hirohito, announcing on Aug. 15, 1945 Japan's capitulation to the Allied Forces, asked his people, in his first-ever broadcast to the nation, "taegataki wo tae (to endure the unendurable)." The unendurable was, of course, defeat and surrender, not the awful pangs of conscience that all Japanese should have felt and redressed individually, for their nation's crimes.

This, in one way, is what is behind the controversy today over the prime minister's visits to Yasukuni Shrine. If some of the soldiers whose souls are revered at the shrine are among those held responsible for Japanese atrocities in World War II, then the prime minister may be seen to be paying homage to the perpetrators of crimes. The fact that the question of personal guilt and acknowledged responsibility was left ambiguous and never clarified after the war makes this an issue that affects Japan's position in Asia to this day. Asians may well ask: What have individual Japanese people done to acknowledge their complicity in their nation's as yet unresolved past?

But as long ago as the 1940s there was a single voice, loud and unequivocal, that rang out, as if to warn the Japanese people that there was no all-clear signal now for a smooth sailing on a calm postwar sea. That voice came from Ango Sakaguchi, who wrote, in his essay "Zoku Darakuron (Decadence Revisited)" in December 1946:

Endure the unendurable? Who are they kidding? By giving ourselves over to historical fakery we have lost all semblance of humanity. What is the proper precondition of humanity? In short, it is to frankly express the desire for that which you desire and to declare offensive that which you find offensive. It's that simple.

What was Ango telling his people? He was telling them that their personal wants and predilections are what should motivate them in life, not some dictum from an emperor that turns them into meek and pliable followers.

According to Ango, the Japanese people could move on from their self-imposed tragedy only if they came to terms with the truth of their misdeeds. He labeled the blinkered view of history by the state Lies, lies, lies! He saw as reprehensible the cynical whitewashing of the past. For Ango, the only way to honestly re-create the Japanese nation after the war was for Japanese people to come out and express their real opinions and act upon them, even if it meant risking polemical confrontation....

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