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.

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The Last Dictators? Kazakhstan and Algeria Enter New Eras

The reigns of two long-standing dictators are, in theory, at an end. Nursultan Nazarbayev has stepped down as President of Kazakhstan having led the country since the dying days of communism in the late 1980s. In Algeria, meanwhile, the ailing and reclusive Abdelaziz Bouteflika has abandoned attempts to serve a fifth term as president after protesters took to the street to oppose him.

Algeria has been rocked by street protests in recent weeks

Both departures – should they be realised – will mark a major turning point in each country’s history and, arguably, these two dictatorships were born out of a necessity that is no longer required.

Nazarbayev has overseen Kazakhstan’s development since the Soviet Union collapsed and, until his surprise resignation, was the only president his independent nation had known. Marshaling a vast, impoverished, country into the 21st century was no mean feat and relied as much on political repression and restriction of civil liberties as it did on profitable oil and gas exports.

Nazarbayev has been accused of fostering a personality cult

Bouteflika, on the other hand, was a seasoned campaigner in Algerian politics when he ascended to the premiership in 1999 in the latter stages of a bloody civil war. Having fought the French during their brutal final stand in the Algerian War (1954-1962) he negotiated an end to the most recent conflict – one that had killed more than 150,000 people – in 2002. Amending the constitution so that he would go on to serve an unprecedented four terms, Bouteflika has generally been successful at preserving a tenuous peace in a region plagued by domestic instability and transnational terrorist violence, aided too by vast natural gas reserves.

Both Kazakhstan and Algeria are deemed ‘not free’ by the Freedom House democracy index. In line with modernisation theory, political development is put on hold until economic prosperity creates a middle class eager for greater representation. For many people  in both nations, Nazarbayev and Bouteflika are the only political voices they have ever known.

Is the time for democratisation now? Kazakhstan’s economic growth rate has slumped from a +8% GDP increase in the years prior to 2013 to a comparatively measly 3.9% in 2017. Algeria was used to 4% growth rates in the post-civil war years but that has since decreased to just 1.4%.

With a younger generation struggling for jobs and perhaps less indebted to the enforced ‘stability’ provided by their dictatorial masters two to three decades ago, perhaps real political change is possible.

Even the tightly-policed Kazakhstan has seen popular protests in recent years as the economy has slumped

But – and there is always a but when it comes to authoritarian rule – slow degradation is far more likely than revolution. Nazarbayev, for instance, has not gone away. He has named his successor as president, elevated his eldest daughter to the second most powerful political position in the country, and been given the honorific ‘Leader of the Nation’. The capital Astana is even being renamed Nursultan! 

It is somewhat different in Algeria where Bouteflika has basically been incapacitated since suffering a stroke in 2013. He has barely been seen in public since and sends delegates to official meetings and international forums. That said, it is under Bouteflika’s watch that the shady ‘Le Pouvoir’ (‘The Power’) has gained increasing informal power. It is thought that a group of military officials, politicians from the ruling National Liberation Front, and wealthy businessmen influence all key government decisions. How much sway Bouteflika has, particularly in his fragile condition, is unclear.

Bouteflika has not spoken in public since 2014

Either way, the state in Kazakhstan and Algeria has been captured by nefarious elites that will persist beyond the reigns of their figureheads. How effective people power and civil society will be in drawing concessions from them remains to be seen.

In Kazakhstan, it will likely take the death of Nursultan Nazarbayev to see whether a challenge to his daughter,and by extension her father’s legacy, will materialise. In Algeria, Le Pouvoir is unlikely to let go whilst the true extent of its reach is unknown, or until a mobilised populace rises up to sweep it away.

In an era of seeming democratic retrenchment, don’t expect these hotbeds of authoritarianism to perish with their leaders.