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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Putin & Abe Unlikely to Resolve Kuril Dispute: sovereignty, nationalism and history combine for toxic mix

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi last Friday, with the ongoing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands set to dominate proceedings...at least from the media’s point of view.

The Kremlin claimed that Putin and Abe discussed the Kuril dispute very 'constructively'
The Kremlin claimed that Putin and Abe discussed the Kuril dispute very ‘constructively’

No agreement over the islands was expected to arise from the summit, hampering the potential for the signing of a peace treaty to formally end hostilities between the two nations, an issue left unresolved since World War Two (WWII).

Stretching some 750 miles between the southern tip of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the north-eastern coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the Kurils are thought to have first been settled by the indigenous Ainu people. Coming under semi-administrative control of the Japanese during the Edo period, the only economic activity of note relating to the islands was fishing and, later, whaling.

The changing borders of the Kuril Islands
The changing borders of the Kuril Islands

In the 19th century, Russia lay claim to the Kurils and in 1855 the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation was signed giving Japan control over the southernmost islands and Russia over the northern ones. In 1875 this was overwritten by the Treaty of St Petersburg which gave full control to the Japanese in return for their relinquishing of any claims to Sakhalin, which came under sole Russian authority.

The Japanese retained control over the Kuril Islands until towards the end of WWII when, with their defeat almost secured, the Soviet Union finally entered the war in the Pacific Theater. Stalin had avoided opening up a second major front during the preceding years due to the ferocity of the fighting during the repulsion of the Nazi invasion. Despite frequent attempts by the Allied forces – particularly the Chinese whose very existence was threatened by Tokyo’s expansionist foreign policy – Stalin had no intention of spreading his forces too widely. He was, however, a ruthless opportunist and Japan’s capitulation offered the prospect of new territory in the Far East.

In 1946, the Soviet authorities expelled the approximately 17,000 Japanese citizens from the Kurils and resettled them with Russians. Despite vociferous protests ever since, the Tokyo administration has never regained any of the islands, which continue to give Russia a strategic foothold on the very threshold of Japanese territory.

Long-term inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, the Ainu people were progressively assimilated and/or expelled by the both the Japanese and the Russians
Long-term inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, the Ainu people were progressively assimilated and/or expelled by the both the Japanese and the Russians

Commensurate with his rather assertive foreign policy, Putin has in recent years ordered the strengthening of Russia’s military presence on the Kurils, including the construction of new operations bases and missile defence sites. This has understandably not been received with fanfare in Tokyo, particularly given the nationalist tendencies of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and of Abe himself. With the Prime Minister intent on creating a more ‘normal’ Japanese foreign policy – essentially allowing Japan to take part in more than just self-defence operations, as prescribed by its post-WWII constitution – territorial disputes such as this remain a potential flashpoint.

Both the East China Sea and, more significantly, the South China Sea have received extensive press attention for the myriad arguments over sovereignty and economic rights, with the Chinese effectively seizing control of the latter with their land reclamation projects and military re-alignment. The Kuril Islands receive less coverage, yet the failure to reach any long-term resolution on the dispute means that it too is a potential cause for inadvertent conflict between the some of the world’s superpowers.

America naturally comes into the equation. It was Roosevelt whose determination to encourage the Soviets to enter the Pacific War led to a promise at the Yalta Conference that Stalin would receive the Kuril Islands. However, when it came to signing the Treaty of San Francisco to secure a lasting peace between Japan and the wartime Allies, Stalin accused the Americans of reneging on their promise at Yalta to recognise Soviet sovereignty over the Kurils. For their part, the Americans stated that the agreement at Yalta only related to the northern Kuril Islands, not the four large southern islands that the Japanese continue to claim. The lasting historical enmity over this supposed duplicity – in addition to Cold War antagonisms – has only increased Soviet obstinacy on the Kuril issue.

With Russia and China both militarising some of the most contentious territorial disputes in the Pacific, and refusing to even acknowledge any counter-arguments to their stated positions, the prospect for an ‘incident’ to occur between two major powers cannot be overlooked. Given the nature of geostrategic power politics in the region, such an incident would likely involve more than the two belligerents.

The Kuril Islands are strategically located, although they appear to have limited economic potential
The Kuril Islands are strategically located, although they appear to have limited economic potential

Nationalist tension is undoubtedly high and it is fuelled by history. It would be comforting to think that a meeting between two of the most powerful heads of state may lead to an easing of diplomatic anxiety, yet the reality is more sombre.

Analysts continue to assess the most likely source of a future war between great powers. They would do well to start by looking at the Pacific, a region often overshadowed by the disasters of the Middle East but with a history of violence that is almost comparable.