When I came to Japan the emperor Hirohito was still here, somehow transformed into a harmless marine biologist, but the same warlord who had presided over the Japanese empire of the 1930s and ’40s. It seemed a vaguely amusing curiosity at the time – we Europeans tended not to know so much about what happened in the Asian war, and my impression was “Yes, the Japanese did some bad things, like mistreatment of British and Australian POWs, maybe bombed some cities, but nothing to compare with the evils of Nazi Germany”.
I was wrong.
It was only fairly recently that I figured I’d better know what the Chinese and Koreans were complaining about, checked out the Wikipedia on Japanese War Crimes and followed up some of the references there. It’s not easy reading let me tell you and I felt thoroughly shaken by some of the content. For example, if you don’t already know about Unit 731 have a look and see if you still feel exactly the same way about this country. Try to imagine the feelings of someone, probably Chinese, whose grandfather or aunt had been murdered there. Bear in mind that Chinese, unlike most Japanese, have been taught all about the atrocities committed in their country by the Japanese, and the anti-Japanese riots of a couple of years ago become a little easier to understand. There may be scope to argue about how many tens of thousands of people died in some incident or other, but there seems no doubt whatsoever that many horrible things were done on a vast scale by the Imperial Japanese Army, mostly under the direct orders of those at the top of the chain of command.
Many countries have right-wing extremists with outlandish beliefs – my own UK, the US, France, Germany and Russia come to mind – and here there have long been “uyoku” who drive around on the odd Sunday afternoon in vaguely military-looking trucks blasting patriotic music from high-powered speakers. There are also some politicians, mostly in the LDP, who have very strange ideas about the past. Like the White Queen, they have no trouble believing six impossible things before breakfast, for example:
- The Nanking Massacre never happened.
- The “comfort women” issue has been blown up out of the kind of prostitution that follows any army.
- China, Korea and all the countries invaded by Japan welcomed their occupation and benefited from it.
- The Tokyo trials of war criminals were distorted “victors justice” and an unfair imposition of alien Western values.
- Asperger’s syndrome is caused by “leftist influenced” parenting. (“Parents and Education” at the bottom of this page.)
- and… Japan should have nuclear weapons.
1 and 2 are easily dealt with by referring to any historian. No-one seriously doubts those things took place. 3 is a gross insult to those who suffered occupation. Ask an older Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indonesian… 4 does have an element of truth. The trials were distorted; every effort was made by McArthur to hide the emperor’s involvement in war crimes, and the despicable Ishii, who ran Unit 731, was able to rejoin Japanese society as a respected researcher – because the Americans wanted his data.
I used to think that these beliefs were limited to a small fringe element generally rejected by society, and that in another few years we would all be over the war and its aftermath, ready for a new era of peace and co-operation in Asia and in the world.
I might have been wrong there too.
In the last couple of weeks, several unpleasant creatures have emerged from where they had been hiding and started saying in public what they had long been thinking in private. It started with Katsuto Momii, the new chairman of NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, who, at his inaugural press conference, compared “comfort women” with brothels in Amsterdam, defended the controversial State Secrets Law and said NHK International should promote government policies. Shortly after, a member of the NHK governors, Naoki Hyakuta, went campaigning for one of the candidates in the Tokyo gubernatorial election, a guy called Toshio Tamogami. If that sounds inappropriate enough, on the stump he said the Nanking Massacre had been made up and added that the three leading candidates (a former prime minister, a former minister of health and a former chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations) were “human trash”. OK, it gets better. It turns out that another newly appointed NHK governor, a lady called Michiko Hasegawa, had written an essay last October about an ultranationalist, Shusuke Nomura. This guy didn’t like something the Asahi newspaper had written about him in 1993, pulled out a couple of guns and shot himself in the stomach three times in their office, dying shortly after. Rather than condemning the illegal use of firearms in an attempt to intimidate the media, Hasegawa said this was a wonderful thing that made the emperor a living god in spite of what it said in the constitution. Pretty weird people on the NHK board of governors, right? Hyakuta and Hasegawa were both appointed by Abe along with two others close to him, and the freshly adjusted board subsequently chose Momii as NHK chairman.
More, the surprise in last Sunday’s election for Tokyo governor was not “establishment” candidate Masuzoe winning, as expected, but this weirdo Tamogami who came fourth, but with 600,000 votes. (24% support among voters in their 20’s, tapering off to 6% for over-70’s) Tamogami used to be a Self Defence Force general but he had to resign after writing an essay full of the kind of nonsense referred to above. Tamogami’s essay won a contest run by the Apa company. The English translation is still available from the Apa website, and a fairly careful deconstruction by Tobias Samuel Harris here. I don’t know if you remember the scandal about apartments and hotels that didn’t meet earthquake standards a few years ago, but the hotels belonged to Apa, whose president Toshio Motoya is another right-winger close to Abe. Abe himself might be a hopeless idealist but many of the people around him are thoroughly unpleasant characters whose prime motivation seems not to be the protection of the Japanese people but how best to exploit them.
So it looks as if Abe is trying to put NHK under pressure not to publish content inconvenient for him, and is already succeeding. It took them three days to mention the Momii controversy and I still haven’t heard anything from them about Hyakuta or Hasegawa. The relatively high support for Tamogami among the young suggests the LDP’s proposed editing of school textbooks might not be needed. The young already have no grasp of how outrageous the things Tamogami and co. are saying really are.
The english-speaking web is full of articles about Japan’s “swing to the right” at the moment, but I’m adding my small voice to all this because I think it’s important, and very dangerous for Japan. As a friend put it the other day, the country may be “sleepwalking into disaster”. Now it’s true that the rulers of China have been instilling anti-Japanese feeling in their people for years, and this is helping to promote nationalism in Japan, along with genuine fear of the growing Chinese army. In return, the Abe government’s hawkishness is a convenient distraction from China’s many domestic problems. Even so, no good is being served by this attitude on the Japanese, Chinese and to some extent Korean sides. The example of Germany is often held up as a way for Japan to make peace with its neighbours, but I’d like to offer another one: South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission may not have been perfect, but the attitude of honestly facing up to what happened in the past is surely a necessary foundation for a healthy future relationship?
Abe thinks that his years of zen and carrot juice in the wilderness have made him into a Great Leader who will Save Japan. I think he’s an arrogant prick. He’s just so full of himself it’s impossible to watch without wanting to throw up. Japan is a beautiful country with a wonderful culture and sincere, good-hearted people. I like to think that sooner rather than later they will see through the idiotic nonsense he and his cohorts have been peddling and throw him off, as America finally rejected George Bush. I like to think that Japan will return to the sort of sensible path briefly hinted at by the DPJ in their short turn at power. I like to think that Japan could set a good example of how mankind can deal with some of the huge problems on the near horizon.
Please, Japan, don’t let me be wrong this time.