Abe Further Fuels the Flames: historical ‘revisionism’ becoming dangerous

Just days after the new head of Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, cast doubts upon the uniqueness of Japanese use of sex slaves (‘comfort women’) during WWII, the media corporation has been embroiled in another scandal relating to comments about history.

Its governor, Naoki Hyakuta, picked for his post by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last year, has denied that the 1937 Nanjing Massacre ever took place:

In 1938, Chiang Kai-shek tried to publicise Japan’s responsibility for the Nanking Massacre, but the nations of the world ignored him. Why? Because it never happened.

Mass graves resulting from the Nanjing Massacre
Mass graves resulting from the Nanjing Massacre

Hyakuta’s comments have not been condemned by the Japanese government, which is adopting an increasingly nationalistic and confrontational stance, particularly in its (non-existent) relations with China.

These latest comments follow on from Abe’s recent crass remarks comparing current Sino-Japanese relations with those of Germany and Britain prior to WWI, and his December visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

I have often wrote on this blog how unfair it is that today’s Japanese people should be made to feel guilty for their country’s aggressive militarism during the first half of the 20th century. China’s government has often been unreasonable in demanding an endless stream of apologies from Japan for events which, whilst horrific, have long since passed.

However the increasingly incendiary nature of the Abe government is beginning to destabilise regional security, which is already fragile amidst territorial disputes, the North Korean nuclear threat and terrorism.

A government panel is expected to announce shortly a recommendation for Japan overturning its ban on collective defence, thus allowing the Japanese military to intervene in the conflicts of its allies. Such a suggestion is likely to concern China that Japanese militarism is set to return, although the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to up its own defence spending with relentless energy.

The PLA is determined to become the preeminent military power in the Pacific
The PLA is determined to become the preeminent military power in the Pacific

Prior to the Nanjing Massacre, American journalist Edgar Snow (an admitted Sinophile) commented on the development being made under Chiang-Kai Shek:

Under Chiang’s personal urgence several hundred miles of new railway lines have been laid down, many thousand miles of new roads built, airlines opened and successfully operated, the modern capital of Nanking constructed, hundreds of new public buildings erected, the currency stabilized, China’s credit established abroad, education improved, the use of opium gradually reduced, and beginnings made in the country’s industrial development.  (Source: E. Snow, ‘China’s Fighting Generalissimo’)

This was stripped away by the ‘Rape of Nanjing’ at the end of 1937, for which there is abundant historical evidence. Whilst China’s claim of 300,000 fatalities is difficult to prove, the likely casualty figures were undoubtedly excessive.

Such attempts to manipulate history anger the ordinary population, whether it be in Japan, China or Korea. It further destabilises cross-cultural relations, giving greater credence to the pervasive anti-‘other’ sentiment of the respective governments.

Under such circumstances, with the potential security flashpoints that exist in Northeast Asia, the potential for disaster increases. A degree of reason and reconciliation is required on both sides. At the moment, the Japanese government under Abe is scuppering such hopes.

Ukraine’s Demonstrators: nationalists or anti-nationalists?

Violence within the demonstration movement in Ukraine has been blamed upon the Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), an ultra-nationalist splinter group that has broken away from the main Euromaidan movement. Their hero is Stepan Bandera, a WWII-era nationalist who initially welcomed the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union as a means of achieving Ukrainian independence.

Ukraine's protests have spread across the country, gaining in violence
Ukraine’s protests have spread across the country, gaining in violence

Bandera was ultimately imprisoned by the Nazis – who had no intention of fostering nascent independence movements – before being assassinated by KGB agents in 1959 for his continuing anti-Soviet stance. Former President Viktor Yushchenko made Bandera a posthumous Hero of the Ukraine in 2010, an honour revoked by the subsequent pro-Russian government.

Ukrainian nationalism was an influential factor in both World Wars, although it remains difficult to define. Nationalism is a notoriously tricky concept, very basically described as a devotion to one’s country. Writing in 1941, Harold Weinstein attempted to understand nationalism in Ukraine and its potential impact on World War Two:

The development of a distinctive Ukrainian nationalism has always been hampered by the historical, linguistic and religious affinity of the Ukrainians and the Russians. 

Noting that Russia and Ukraine had been united between the 9th and 13th centuries, and again during the 17th and 18th centuries, Weinstein suggested that many Ukrainians had been assimilated into a ‘Great-Russian nationality’. This was strengthened, he argued, by the fact that even during their centuries of political separation, Russia and Ukraine were aligned in their opposition to shared enemies, including the Tatars and Poles.

Prior to WWI, many observers failed to see Ukrainians as distinct to Russians (see legend)
Prior to WWI, many observers failed to see Ukrainians as distinct to Russians (see legend)

A definitive Ukrainian nationalism only truly developed during World War One, Weinstein argued. This was fostered both by the Bolshevik movement in Russia, the collapse of the Tsarist system and a massive decline in agricultural productivity. Stirred by a ‘nationalist intelligentsia’ in Austrian Galicia (where many ethnic Ukrainians resided), the peasantry began to agitate for a free and independent homeland. Having been forced to fight for the Tsar’s disastrous army at the beginning of the war, the majority of Ukrainians became increasingly disenchanted with their historic union.

In 1918, Ukrainian nationalists declared independence and invited a German invasion to further their aims. This they repeated in WWII. Weinstein was unsure what role the Ukrainian nationalists would play in the outcome of WWII:

Large sections of the Ukrainian population have been bound more firmly to the Russians by cultural assimilation, by industrialization and urbanization, by the inculcation of Communist doctrines and Soviet patriotism, and by the abandonment of forced Ukrainization…On the other hand, Soviet policy has heightened the cultural consciousness of many Ukrainians, which, together with opposition to Soviet political and economic policies, may provide many potential supporters for an anti-Soviet régime. 

Substitute Communist doctrine for ‘Putin’s Doctrine’ and Soviet with Russia and a similar situation to today can be seen.

Ukraine and Russia’s history is inextricably linked. Is it unnatural that they should share a common identity? Are the anti-government, and by extension anti-Russian sentiments, actually a sign of anti-nationalism? Or is the separateness and uniqueness of the Ukraine in danger of being eradicated by Yanukovych’s regime, requiring the modern nationalists to forge a new national identity and welcome new ties with the rest of Europe?

By no means do all Ukrainians favour a loosening of ties with Russia
By no means do all Ukrainians favour a loosening of ties with Russia

A majority will soon arise to make the decision clear.

Source: H.R. Weinstein, ‘New Factors in the Old Ukrainian Problem’, Foreign Affairs (October 1941)