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.

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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