Japan’s Historical Amnesia: the Uncomfortable Void of World War Two

There are numerous reasons to visit Japan; the culture, the temples, the food, the scenery, the people. Of course, there is also the fascinating history and, prior to travelling there, I was intrigued about how one particular period would be remembered.

The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

Japan’s role in World War Two (WWII) needs little introduction. An opportunistic aggressor, the Imperial Army rampaged through Southeast Asia, upsetting British colonial forces at every step. The attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour in December 1941 stunned the world and the invasion, and subsequent occupation, of China and Korea made the Japanese synonymous with barbarism.

Article 9 of Japan’s American-constructed post-WWII constitution renounces the right to wage war.  Despite some revisionist calls, it is still generally accepted by the vast majority of the population, perhaps a tacit understanding that this is a just punishment for wartime aggression.

Visit museums and other cultural centres in Japan itself, however, and there is little discussion of such painful memories. The pre-occupation is, somewhat understandably, with the devastation of the atomic bombs and their deadly aftermath. The peace museums at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively convey the numbing annihilation. It is hard to catch your breath walking past exhibits of fire-shredded clothing, molten glass and steel, the harrowing images of unimaginable injuries and the desolate moonscape of the razed cities.

No wonder that the Japanese are among the most pacifistic nations in the world. They have seen the worst of war. But unlike the Germans, who acknowledge the crimes of WWII with open public monuments such as the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, the Japanese internalise their shame.

Officially the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin

Even at Hiroshima and Nagasaki there is limited discussion of why the Allies decided to deploy the atomic bombs, even if there is no suggestion that it was an act of unprovoked aggression. At the Museum of History in Osaka, on the other hand, WWII is barely mentioned. This vitally-important industrial city was reduced to ruins by Allied bombings. Yet a single exhibit of an American incendiary bomb is the only indication that something happened between the years of 1931 and 1945, a period glossed over as ’15 years of war’.

Osaka after the bombing; reminiscent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Most astonishing, however, is the Yushukan Museum at the notorious Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Housing an impressive collection of personal possessions and paraphernalia relating to the country’s military past, the narrative (at least in English) absolves Japan of any responsibility for WWII (or other wars for that matter). The invasion of China was caused by local nationalists, the assault on the Pacific a few years later was necessary because of Britain and America’s monopolisation of the region’s natural resources. How could Japan survive without a patriotic assault on its ‘inferior’ neighbours?

Yasukuni Shrine was built in the 19th century to commemorate Japan’s war dead. In addition to thousands of ‘innocents’, it enshrines convicted war criminals, including Japan’s wartime leader Hideki Tojo. As such, it is a nationalist bastion amidst the traditional sea of pacifism. Whenever a Japanese politician visits the Shrine, China and Korea go up in arms. I had never previously understood this response from afar. Could they not let sleeping dogs lie? Well no…not if a museum of such prominence denies any complicity in these countries’ darkest hours.

Entrance to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo

I have never been an advocate for eternal shame. I do not believe that a country’s politicians should continually apologise for their predecessors’ actions. This does not allow progress.

But to not acknowledge misdeeds, to fail to offer any comprehensive statement of remorse, to engage in school textbook revisionism more reminiscent of a dictatorship than a leading democracy, naturally invites criticism. The Jewish Museum in Munich does not shy away from the Nazi-inspired Holocaust. I encountered no such open dialogue of the ‘Rape of Nanking’, the ‘Bataan Death March’ or Unit 731 in Japan.

Japanese propaganda vans driving through Ueno, Tokyo

It is often said that the Japanese people harbour a collective ‘war guilt’ that has dictated the country’s post-war development (i.e. a focus on economic development over international engagement). There is no reason why this sentiment should be maintained in perpetuity. Indeed, as very real threats emerge on Japan’s periphery, namely a rising China and a nuclearised North Korea, the country must change its outlook.

In order to satisfy its former enemies (and allies) that a Japanese re-engagement with the world is a positive development then surely a more public introspection of its wartime past is first necessary?  For all the horrors of the atomic bombings, Japan’s actions in the preceding years made this tragic conclusion almost inevitable. After decades of silence, it will now take a bold step to concede this reality.

A warship in port at Nagasaki: the Japanese military still retains a muted role in global affairs

P.S. I should add that the above does not detract from the unbounded pleasure of visiting Japan and meeting its people.


Jakarta Sinks as Jokowi Ascends: Will President Desert the Fortress of Batavia?

Jakarta is rapidly sinking and, in theory, soon being displaced as the capital city of Indonesia.  After his re-election as President, Joko Widodo and his cabinet have announced something that has often been mooted.  The Javanese metropolis – the most traffic-congested city on the planet – is no longer suitable as the seat of state.

Some experts believe parts of the city will be submerged by 2050, sinking as it is at up to 15cm every year. Built on marshland, the dubious stability of which is further compromised by the extraction of groundwater for civilian use, Jakarta’s fate looks doomed.

Scenes such as this flood are likely to become increasingly familiar for Jakarta’s citizens

It was the Dutch who set the scene for the leviathan of today.  In 1619 the Dutch East India Company established Batavia on the ruins of Jayakarta, having wrestled it from native control in their bid for a mercantile empire. Batavia became the seat of that empire, elegant Dutch buildings constructed on reclaimed marsh in an engineering feat reminiscent of the homeland.

For more than two centuries this was a purely commercial settlement.  Dutch traders used Batavia as their storehouse and trading hub for the luxurious goods of the Indies, the local population kept in check by force of arms and compliant Chinese immigrants.

City plan of elegant Batavia, 1780

Canals were dug and city walls raised.  But before long the call of the swampy hinterland grew stronger, the Dutch desperate to seize ever more control over the cash crops of the interior.  Batavia expanded and the environment suffered with it.

By the time the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt and was dissolved in 1800, Batavia had many of the characteristics of other colonial cities of the era.  The Dutch East Indies was duly proclaimed and, whilst trade still proliferated, the territory gradually became more of a Dutch settler state.

Dutch-built canal through Batavia

Gas works and street lighting appeared in the mid-19th century, telephone lines and electric trams soon to follow.  All the while the population expanded; native Javanese, Chinese immigrants, Dutch settlers and the mestizo offspring of colonial copulation. Batavia’s numbers had swelled to over 2 million by the start of the 20th century.

The Supreme Court building in colonial Batavia

Many rural Javanese migrated to Batavia as economic opportunities grew. With a rapidly increasing population and an infrastructure ill-equipped to deal with the influx of new settlers, poverty soared.  Unsanitary living conditions closer to the exposed marshland bred plague and other disease, cramped living quarters became the norm and crime rose.  These are issues that persist in modern Jakarta.

Whilst not without their faults, the Dutch colonial authorities did not enact the same sort of civilian co-option and repression seen in other European colonies.  An independence movement emerged in earnest through the 1920s – led by youth groups – which the Dutch did try to suppress.  However, the onset of the Second World War would be required to deliver the death knell to the Dutch Empire and allow subsequent Indonesian independence, by which time the megacity of Jakarta was already well-established.

Japan’s invasion of Indonesia in 1942 (Batavia fell in March) was, like most of its military actions, carried out in the divine name of Hirohito, their Emperor. Whilst the politicians and military leaders exercised real power in Tokyo, they invoked the Emperor’s godliness as a rallying call for their troops and the civilians forced to sacrifice so much at home.

Emperor Hirohito

It was only after Japan’s humiliating defeat at the end of the war that Hirohito publicly renounced his divine status and this week his son, Emperor Akihito, abdicated in an unprecedented public display.

Things have changed in Japan.  The Emperor is revered for his humility not his divine aloofness.

In Jakarta – the capital of the free and independent Indonesian people – the change is one of alarming consistency.  Over-populated, under-resourced, subsiding into oblivion.  The disparate people of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands have often grumbled at the disproportionate influence wielded by the Javanese, resting as it is on the symbolism and economic might of its former Dutch citadel.

President Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi

If ever there was an apt moment to change this – and Palangkaraya on Borneo is the favoured location for the new capital – it surely must be now.  Whether Jokowi’s government feel they have the political will at the start of a new five year term to take this prodigious step will soon be determined.