The nationalism question, revisited yet again

Although the comfort women resolution appears to be on hold until after Japan holds Upper House elections next month, the waters have been roiled by a full-page advert in the Washington Post taken out by a bipartisan group of Japanese legislators, as well as journalists and commentators (including Abe confidante Okazaki Hisahiko) laying out “The Facts” on the comfort women issue. (The ad is available here, courtesy of Occidentalism.)

At the same time, a group of legislators led by former LDP member (and postal rebel) Hiranuma Takeo, who also signed the Wapo ad, has protested to China that it should remove photos from war museums that distort the past and defame Japan.

Ampontan has addressed both these acts of “assertiveness,” arguing that the comfort women issue reflects worse on Japan’s neighbors and the US Congress than on Japan, and that Japan is rightfully standing up to China in demanding changes to China’s war museums.

I have written about my unease about the US Congress demanding an apology on this issue from Japan before, but that should not be taken as an endorsement of the position that Japan has apologized enough and we should all start paying attention to China’s wrongs, instead of Japan’s. As I have written before, Japanese governments may have apologized before, but the contemporary Japanese right — the political and in some cases familial descendants of the figures who led Japan to war — has never apologized for the war. Through various indiscreet comments made by Japanese conservatives, including the current prime minister in his younger days, it is clear that to them the worst thing about the war was that Japan lost. How that is consistent with former Prime Minister Murayama’s apology is beyond me. The leaders who apologized before were those who thought that Japan was right to lose the war and were proud of Japan’s unique pacifist identity (or were otherwise insincerely repeating what their predecessors had said).

It does not take much effort to see why Chinese, Koreans, and certain sections of the public in Australia and the US might have a problem with a Japanese prime minister who has never properly expressed remorse for Japan’s colossal historical crimes and yet at the same time talks about abandoning Article 9 and the postwar regime built around it — abandoning the constitutional provision that has served as a mark of Cain, showing the world (and reminding Japan) of its bloody past.

The question is not a matter of resurgent militarism; as Benedict Anderson, author of Imagined Communities, said in an interview in the July issue of Ronza (my translation), “During the first phase of globalization, in the first half of the twentieth century, Japan’s response to globalization was to commence invasions, starting with Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, and Manchuria, and finally annexing the various countries of Asia. However, this kind of thing will likely not happen again. In theory, one can imagine war between Japan and China. However, now the act of a victorious country’s seizing a defeated country is nonsense. Until the Second World War, the two countries had mutual, violent animosity that could be expressed in war, but now that does not apply.”

Rather, it is a question of historical justice. Regardless of the questionable legitimacy of the Tokyo trials, regardless of what Japan suffered, regardless of what the other imperial powers did or did not do, Japan committed egregious acts of violence against its neighbors. It is not up to Japan to dictate when the wounds it inflicted upon its neighbors and their citizens have healed. And denying or relativizing Japan’s actions only rubs salt into the open wounds of its victims.

Yes, China has historical issues of its own with which to grapple. Mao’s crimes were monstrous, and that his visage can still be found all over China is deeply unsettling. But guess what? Mao’s crimes were against the Chinese people. The Chinese people will one day have a serious reckoning with their country’s history during the twentieth century, but that is a matter for the Chinese. And so with the Koreans. Between Japan, Korea, and China, it seems to me that only one has launched a massive war of aggression against the whole region in the past century — and has the responsibility to show sincere remorse for its crimes and to not make excuses for what happened.

The question of Japan’s making a proper account and atoning for its wartime behavior has nothing to do with placating the Chinese and Korean governments, who for reasons of their own will not be placated by Japanese apologies. Nationalism and the attendant historical sensitivities will be a part of the landscape of Northeast Asia for decades to come, because vigorous, rising powers shape their histories to flatter their contemporary aspirations. No bilateral or trilateral panel of historians is going to overcome the urge to present history in a light that flatters oneself and makes one’s rivals look bad.

No, Japan’s historical reckoning is for its own sake, to clean out its wartime closet once and for all.

So what Ampontan sees as Japan’s standing up for itself, I see a country for which pride and the redemption of honor take priority over historical justice — and I see a country that is, as of yet, unfit for the global leadership after which it lusts.

2 thoughts on “The nationalism question, revisited yet again

  1. Well put. The last paragraph opens a new can of worms, since I agree with you but maybe for different reasons.I see a country that is, as of yet, unfit for the global leadership after which it lusts.I think this is true. But, there are (I think) more pressing current issues that Japan has proved itself unable to be in a leadership position of that make me agree with that statement.


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