Japanese students studying history

History teachers in Japan often start the school year with the earliest Japanese emperors and run out of time at the end of the year before getting to World War II. Junji Banno, a history professor at Chiba University, told U.S. News and World Report, "Not many Japanese know about Pearl Harbor. For us, what we call the 15 Years War started in 1931 with the [annexation of Manchuria]. Pearl Harbor was just one incident."

In 2002, the study of history in middle schools was reduced to three hours a week from four hours a week. When a 17-year-old schoolgirl was asked by the Washington Post what she knew about Pearl Harbor she replied. "It was a surprise attack. Americans were breaking our codes. That's all I know."In the mid 2000s, Japanese began traveling to China on tours of sites where wartime atrocities and massacres occurred. Among the stops on a Manchuria tour was Unit 731, where gruesome experiments were performed by Japanese doctors on Chinese..

Mark Selden, a historian at Cornell University feels that the U.S. bears some responsibility for Japanese attitudes about the war. He said: the United States “didn’t abolish the Emperor system. It keep him on the throne. It didn’t prosecute him or ask him to testify at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. The consequence is that it’s very difficult for the Japanese people to come to terms with their war responsibility and war crimes in Asia, because the top guy is let off scot-free.” [Source: “Didi Kirsten Tatlow The Asia-Pacific Journal vol. 13, Issue. 44, No. 3, November 16, 2015]

Films About World War II in Japan

In 1998, a movie called Pride, the Fateful Moment was released in Japan. Described as a feel-good movie about wartime Japan, it portrayed Gen. Tojo as a gentle family man whose main passion was raising tomatoes.

The film Pearl Harbor premiered in Japan before an audience of 30,000 at the Tokyo Dome. Changes made in the Japanese version of the film included removing the epithet "Jap" from the dialogue and the omission of scene in which Maj. James Doolittle says that if something goes wrong with his plane over Japan he'll try to kill as many Japanese as he can.

Yasukuni is a film by Li Ying, a Chinese who lived in Japan for 19 years, Shown at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea and given an award at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2008, it is a documentary that covers 10 years and is about visitors to the shrine and bereaved families of those enshrined there. Funded partly by Japanese conservative groups, the film was described by some as propaganda. Some theaters in Japan refused to show it.

Japan Races to Collect Stories of World War II Veterans

In the mid 2010s the Japanese government began expediting efforts to gather firsthand accounts from war veterans who were injured or disabled in World War II before they died. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “About 56,000 war veterans who were injured or disabled during World War II were still alive in 2003, when the government started collecting their stories. But in the past 10 years, 75 percent of them, or about 40,000, have died. In addition, many survivors have become unable to provide verbal accounts due to illness. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 10, 2015 \~/]

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry aims to interview about 100 people in the next few years starting from fiscal 2015. The ministry started the project to have those who were injured or disabled in the war attest to the tragedy of war and leave their videotaped accounts for future generations to watch. The videotaping is being conducted by Shokeikan, an archive for injured or disabled war veterans in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. \~/

Japanese World War II enlisted fighter pilots

“The archive has asked those who donated wartime materials and other war injured to give their personal accounts. About 150 people, including some who miraculously survived after suffering gunshot wounds, were videotaped telling their stories. Cartoonist Shigeru Mizuki, who lost his left arm on New Britain Island (now Papua New Guinea) in the South Pacific, is one of the war survivors whose account is documented by the archive. \~/

In recent years, the archive has tried to contact war veterans to videotape their stories only to find out that many have died. Others were discovered to have dementia or to be bedridden. According to the ministry, the number of those injured or disabled in the war was about 14,000 as of the end of 2013. Many were in their 90s or 100s. Ten times the usual amount of funding was requested in the next fiscal year budget so that the ministry could “gather as many accounts as possible,” with a goal of covering 120 war veterans. But in the end, funds sufficient to interview about 20 people were approved.

Japanese Sentiments About the War

Japanese historians tend to fall into two camps on World War II: 1) those that lean towards the left and have investigated how Japan got sucked in such a disaster and 2) rightists who still tend to see the war as justifiable even noble albeit slightly misguided. For most Japanese the war is a subject that they avoid but get angry about when comparisons with Germany are made, saying the never engaged in anything as despicable as the Holocaust and add that the firebombing of Tokyo and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made Japan as much a victim as an instigator.

Conservative Japanese have depicted World War II as a war of “defense” in which the Japanese were the victims of American aggression. Kamikazes are praised as heros. Movies and manga glorifying Japanese soldiers and sailors have appeared. Hirohito’s name has appeared on calenders. There is less embarrassment that his birthday is a holiday.

WW2-era Tokyo bombing propaganda poster

Some Japanese revisionist historians claim that comfort women were fabrications and the Rape of Nanking was a justifiable act by the Japanese in war they didn’t want to fight but were forced to fight. They say the “Great East Asian War” was a war of liberation for Asia and the occupations of China and Korea brought roads, hospitals and infrastructure to otherwise backward countries. Some of these views have found their way into Japanese school textbooks. See Textbooks.

There are places in Japan such as the Anchor Bar in Fukuoka where Japanese can go and dress up on World War II uniforms and sing World War II patriotic songs in front of karaoke screens that display lyrics with dogfights and tank battles in the background. Patrons claim they are not right wing extremists. They say they do what they do because it is fun and helps relieve stress.

Yuko Tojo, granddaughter of Gen. Hideki Tojo, ran for the a seat in the Diet’s upper house in 2007. She has worked to make sure all Japanese war dead are enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine, fulfilling one of her grandfather’s last wishes---establishing a war memorial for Japan’s war dead, Yuko Tojo has strong nationalist beliefs. She wants to reform the constitution, telling the Times of London, “patriotism should not have to be taught. It should be rooted in all our DNAs from birth.”

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun poll taken in the mid 2000s, 81 percent of Japanese say that Japan apologies to the leaders of China and South Korean about World-War-II-related issues have been “sufficient.”

Explanation of Japanese Views of World War II

Carol Gluck, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, told Slate: “The politics of apology have gained more emphasis since the end of the Cold War. That’s interesting because the critique some people make is that Japan’s understanding of the war hasn’t changed at all, on any front, and that the country still sees itself as a victim rather than an aggressor. It has a victim narrative, but that is true with every country, including Germany, which saw itself as a victim of its leaders. But Japanese victims’ narratives lasted a lot longer than others. There are several reasons for that, but probably the most important was the United States, which conspired in creating that narrative in the first few months after the American occupation. [Source: Isaac Chotiner, Slate, May 16, 2016]

Civilans at the Battle of Okinawa

To achieve the goals of the American occupation, it was important to see the Japanese aggression and atrocities as something that was brought about by bad leaders, so that these leaders—but not the people—were held responsible. That was a good grounding for reforms. This narrative sat well with the Japanese but it was a co-created narrative. The bomb story hasn’t changed but the country has changed since 1989. When Hirohito died in 1989, the same year the Cold War ended, the United States stopped being the only country that mattered to Japan.

The country was [suddenly] facing Asia, and so you got the rise of issues like the comfort women and biological war crimes. [Japan exploited a vast number of sexual slaves—so-called “comfort women”—from the countries in Asia that it occupied.] These things, according to Japanese opinion polls, have had a tremendous impact on the Japanese public. That is why there is a conservative backlash. If you look at polls about the comfort women, the Japanese people think the comfort women should be compensated. You have to separate out the Japanese public from the right-wing politicians. Sadly, one of those politicians is the prime minster, who has visited a shrine that includes war criminals and appointed people to government positions who take a reactionary line on World War II...Not only sadly, but loudly. It isn’t just Prime Minister Abe. This nationalistic, conservative leadership that uses the rewriting of history to bolster its regime is something we see now with Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Modi, and in Poland and Hungary.”

Sentiments Towards Japan After the War

F. Sionil Jose wrote in the New York Times: When I first visited Japan in the early 1950s, the country was still poor. Streetcars still rumbled in the streets of Tokyo, and there were no skyscrapers.I was uneasy meeting with the Japanese and thought I would never be able to have a social relationship with them. Since then, however, I have made Japanese friends, including the late novelist Hirabayashi Taiko, who was imprisoned with her husband by the wartime government, for their opposition to the war. I also made friends with my translator Matsuyo Yamamoto, the late Yoshiko Wakayama of the Toyota Foundation, the art gallery owners Reiko and Akira Kanda, and so many others.[Source: F. Sionil Jose, New York Times, August 13, 2010 +++]

"Some 20 years ago, my wife and I were in Kawazaki near Tokyo for a writers’ conference. In the first plenary session, a delegate from Calcutta started excoriating the U.S. for incinerating Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I was incensed, I stood from the floor and shouted, “Mr. Singh, your country was never occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army!” +++

"That weekend, the entire foreign delegation was invited to Kyoto; only my wife and I were excluded from the trip. Five years ago, I visited the Yasukuni shrine honoring Japan’s war dead, including some who were war criminals. My wife and I drifted into the shrine’s museum and came across exhibits that were blatant propaganda.Outside, six Japanese war veterans, wearing their old uniforms, stood together. As the facility closed for the day, they grouped in formation, and the sound of their military commands hurtled me back to the past. Deep within me, I know I have forgiven the Japanese for what they did to my country. I pray, too, that the world is one day rid of atomic weapons and that my grandchildren will never know the bone-deep pain, fear, hunger and sorrow engendered by war." +++

China’s 'Victory Day' Event Marks the End of World War II

On September 3, 2015, China staged a huge Victory Day event in Beijing to mark the end of World War II. The military parade in Tiananmen Square, to commemorate the “war of resistance against Japanese aggression” included about 12,000 Chinese troops, 200 aircraft and an array of conventional and nuclear missiles. Among the world leaders in attendance were Russia’s Vladimir Putin and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye. September 3 is the day after Japan formally surrendered to the allies aboard the USS Missouri in 1945.

China's Victory Parade in 2015

Tom Phillips wrote in The Guardian, “All across China similar memorials are springing up in the countdown to the commemorations. Museums, art exhibitions and monuments linked to the “people’s war of resistance against Japanese aggression” have thrown their doors open to visitors from east to west. Publishing houses and studios are churning out books, documentaries and even cartoons on the period, with names such as Lies Written by Bayonet, Tunnel Warfare and Great Victory, Historic Contribution. A website is publishing daily confessions from Japanese war criminals who admit to ghoulish and barbaric acts, including torture sessions, rapes and garrotings. “Forgetting history is a betrayal,” the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, said in the run-up to the politically charged parade that western leaders, including Barack Obama and David Cameron, will shun. [Source: Tom Phillips, The Guardian, September 1, 2015 /*\]

Justin McCurry and Tom Phillips wrote in The Guardian: “Large swaths of Beijing went into shutdown at the weekend as tanks, missile launchers and thousands of troops poured into the city centre for a rehearsal. Photographs posted on social media sites showed military planes swooping over the heart of the capital and a helicopter formation spelling out the number 70 in the unusually blue skies above. “It was a feast for the eyes,” the state-run Global Times reported on Monday. “The populace is embracing the parade with excitement.”[Source: Justin McCurry in Tokyo and Tom Phillips in Beijing, The Guardian, August 24, 2015 +++]

“An opinion piece in the same newspaper downplayed suggestions the parade was solely intended as an attack on Japan. “The west tends to perceive the parade from the perspectives of realpolitik and international relations,” wrote Song Luzheng, a Chinese academic. “They also argue that China will use historical issues as a tool to contend with Japan. Some sinologists even say that China is taking advantage of history to consolidate the legitimacy of the ruling party.” In fact, “the first purpose of the parade is to remind the world of China’s status as a victorious nation, which came at a huge cost.” Almost daily reports about alleged Japanese atrocities during the second world war suggest otherwise. “Japanese soldiers fried the flesh of a Chinese civilian and ate it during [the second world war],” Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported last week. +++

Japanese and Other World Leaders Refuse to Take Part in China’s 'Victory Day' Event

In August 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said would not attend the Victory Day events in Beijing the following month to mark the end of World War II, war, partly in protest against China’s military build-up in regional waters, Japanese media said. Justin McCurry and Tom Phillips wrote in The Guardian: “The chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said Abe had decided against attending commemorative events so he could oversee the passage of controversial security legislation at home. But the Sankei newspaper quoted official sources as saying Abe was also concerned that his presence in Beijing could be interpreted as accepting China’s increasingly aggressive activity near disputed island territories in the region. [Source: Justin McCurry in Tokyo and Tom Phillips in Beijing, The Guardian, August 24, 2015]

Leaders of South Korea, Russia and China --- Park, Putin and Xi Jinping --- at China's Victory Parade in 2015

Abe and other world leaders had been invited to attend the anniversary events. But most western leaders, including the US president, Barack Obama, and the British prime minister, David Cameron, are expected to shun the event. The, will reportedly take part in a ceremony to mark the anniversary, but has not decided whether or not to attend the parade.

Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Students: Reuters

Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, The Good War An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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