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

WW2-era Tokyo bombing propaganda poster

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.

Takashi Yamazaki’s“Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero, 2014)” is about a pilot hero joins a kamikaze suicide squadron in the closing days of World War II. It ranked No. 1 in box office earnings for more than eight weeks in a taking in more than ¥10 billion and was one of top-ten- grossing Japanese films of all time. [Source: Mark Schilling, Japan Times, February 20, 2014]

Mark Schilling wrote in the Japan Times: “Thousands of fans have been giving the film thumbs-up reviews in tweets and on Internet message boards, with one advising viewers to “take more than one handkerchief” to the theater. Even Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, weighed in after seeing the film with her husband and mother-in-law on Dec. 31: “I couldn’t stop crying,” Akie wrote on Facebook. “(The film) made me really think how we should never wage war again, and we should never, ever waste the precious lives that were lost for the sake of their country.” “The Eternal Zero,” however, has also inspired controversy. After Shinzo Abe described himself as “deeply moved” by the film, posters on Chinese microblogging and news websites blasted both him and the film (though it has yet to be released in China), with one commenter reportedly describing it as “propaganda for terrorism.”

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.

Japanese World War II enlisted fighter pilots

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

Hiroshima after the blast

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.

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 /*]

China's Victory Parade in 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. +++

Legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Some think Hiroshima has been so overplayed it has lost its meaning. Roland Kelts wrote in The New Yorker, “The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum maintains the bomb’s imagery, often admirably. But sixty-eight years later, the story of Hiroshima, its possible meanings and emotions, are fast becoming dead artifacts, especially in Japan, where the platitudes and memorials are broadcast live once every year, dominating the airwaves with about as much salient impact as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s the most photographed A-bomb site in the world. [Source: Roland Kelts, The New Yorker, August 6, 2013 ]

Sarah Stillman wrote in The New Yorker, “In the final pages of Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” he observed that many people he met there were often reticent to speak or even think about the ethics of the bomb; instead, they would offer approximations of “Shikata ga nai,” a Japanese expression that he translated as “It can’t be helped. Oh well. Too bad.” [Source: Sarah Stillman, The New Yorker, August 12, 2014 |~|]

Carol Gluck, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, told Slate: “ The atomic bomb narrative is extremely strong in every country I have studied. It is one of the few aspects or parts of the story of the Second World War that haven’t changed, while other parts have. The countries’ national nuclear narratives are very much locked in place. ..There is one other point. The atomic bombings were a continuation of civilian bombing, area bombing, carpet bombing, that every country did in World War II. It was universal. So if we are talking about the lessons of Hiroshima, we need to talk about the lessons of civilian bombings generally....What I am arguing is that” the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki “are often singled out but they are a subset. It is a new gadget to do the same horrific thing. It is not going to come up. This is what I mean about the bomb narrative being so solid.” [Source: Isaac Chotiner, Slate, May 16, 2016]

Hiroshima mushroom cloud

For American or Japanese-American children attending school n Japan, Hiroshima can be an uncomfortable topic. Linda Hoaglund made documentary film about Hiroshima called “Things Left Behind. Her relationship to Hiroshima, Kelts wrote: “is both more transcultural and more intimate. Born and raised in Japan as the child of American missionaries, she was startled one day when her Japanese teacher addressed Hiroshima and the atomic bomb in the classroom. Her Japanese classmates stared her down—a tall fourth grader with blond hair—and she never wanted to visit Hiroshima. “I wanted to dig a hole under my desk,” she says now. “Learning that you belong to a country that has blood on its hands. It disfigured my conscience.”

Debate Over the Use the Atomic Bomb on Japan

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “There is considerable debate among historians about the necessity of using the bomb to force Japan's surrender; there is perhaps even greater controversy concerning the moral principle involved in subjecting the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to this weapon. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu | ]

Was it necessary to use the atomic bomb to force Japan to surrender? This is a subject of heated debate among historians. Some point to the existence of a pro-peace faction in Japan, resisting the army and growing in strength. This faction had already tried to express Japan's interest in peace through the Russians, whom they believed were still neutral. In fact, the Russians had secretly agreed at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 to attack the Japanese. Moreover, Japanese offensive capabilities were exhausted. The navy and air force were almost totally destroyed by the summer of 1945, and the Japanese islands were completely cut off from the rest of the world. The Russian attack of August 8 on Manchuria met little or no resistance. |

Historians have actively debated whether the bombings were necessary, what effect they had on bringing the war in the Pacific to an expeditious end, and what other options were available to the United States. These very same questions were also contentious at the time, as American policymakers struggled with how to use a phenomenally powerful new technology and what the long-term impact of atomic weaponry might be, not just on the Japanese, but on domestic politics, America’s international relations, and the budding Cold War with the Soviet Union. In retrospect, it is clear that the reasons for dropping the atomic bombs on Japan, just like the later impact of nuclear technology on world politics, were complex and intertwined with a variety of issues that went far beyond the simple goal of bringing World War II to a rapid close.” |

Japanese Views Versus American Views of Hiroshima

Carol Gluck, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, told Slate: “ The Japanese national narrative is that the bomb gave Japan a mission for peace in the world. The bomb doesn’t end the war: It starts the postwar mission for peace....But then you have future generations that are not all the same. In Hiroshima they start with the bomb, although now they acknowledge there was a war that ended with the bomb. The Japanese ignore everything before Hiroshima and the Americans ignore everything after Nagasaki. Both of the stories are truncated.’” [Source: Isaac Chotiner, Slate, May 16, 2016]

Badly burned Hiroshima victim

“The American narrative is that the bomb ended the war and saved American lives. That’s the story... The larger story has changed but the bomb story hasn’t changed. Here, I don’t think the story has changed but the attitude is changing. The people who fought in WWII will not change their narrative. They tried to put it on a postage stamp saying, “Atomic Bomb Hastened War’s End.” But then you have future generations that are not all the same. In Hiroshima they start with the bomb, although now they acknowledge there was a war that ended with the bomb. But the Americans end the bomb story in 1945, and what wasn’t acknowledged was the arms race and radiation sickness. This was the subject of the Enola Gay controversy at the Smithsonian in 1995, where veterans did not want to acknowledge radiation sickness.The Japanese ignore everything before Hiroshima and the Americans ignore everything after Nagasaki. Both of the stories are truncated.”

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 2021

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