The hyper-nationalist spring offensive continues

Following pronouncements against Chinese war museums and the congressional comfort women resolution, Japan’s hyper-nationalists have turned their attention once again to the Nanjing Massacre, arguing as before that “only” 20,000 people were killed in Nanjing, as opposed to the generally accepted range of 150,000-200,000 (IHT here; Japan Times here).

The quibbling over numbers is one of the more insidious tools used by Japan’s revisionists to press their case. It seems that they have concluded that outright denial leads to arguments being dismissed entirely, so better to undermine the historical consensus by disputing smaller details — the number killed, what does coercion mean, etc. — and sow doubt about historians of good faith.

But let’s step back for a moment. Let’s say it was “only” 20,000. What does that change? Does that somehow make the Nanjing Massacre less of a crime? So what is their point? Is Japan somehow less responsible if the death toll turns out to be a tenth of what others argue it was?


There are, however, Japanese who acknowledge their country’s need to get beyond the highly charged politics of Japan’s history, embrace the unvarnished truth, and make amends for Japan’s actions.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki brilliantly documents how Japan has and hasn’t faced up to its wartime acts in a review of the English translation of part of Yomiuri’s project on war responsibility. In her review, she notes a point that I’ve made before: Prime Minister Murayama’s apology in 1995 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war, rather than serving as an expression of the guilt of all the Japanese people and the beginning of a new era of relations with Asia based upon that feeling, has actually been used by those who feel no guilt whatsoever as an excuse to practice revisionism while being able to claim that Japan has already apologized. She writes: “…If the mid-1990s marked a turning point, it proved to be a turn in the opposite direction: away from efforts to acknowledge war responsibility and towards a nationalistic reassertion of pride in Japan’s past (including significant aspects of its wartime past). The years immediately following the fiftieth anniversary witnessed an upsurge of revisionist writings by scholars and journalists seeking to justify Japan’s prewar expansion and wartime policies.”

There are Japanese interested in the historical truth, it’s just the hyper-nationalists who grab the headlines. But why can’t confronting the dark past be a matter of national pride too? Just as Germans should be proud of the extent to which their country has confronted its past, so too should Japanese make it a point of pride to face up to their country’s failings.

In some way the Yomiuri project, an inspiration of Yomiuri Editor-in-Chief Watanabe Tsuneo, is a step in that direction, because, as Morris-Suzuki notes, Watanabe and Yomiuri are, of course, of the right. Watanabe’s attitude is a far cry from that of Nakayama Nariaki and his ilk: “If things are left as they are, a skewed perception of history – without knowledge of the horrors of the war – will be handed down to future generations.”

Now if only that attitude were to reverberate and drown out the noise produced by the revisionists.

6 thoughts on “The hyper-nationalist spring offensive continues

  1. I would argue that nationalism in Japan is hardly the unique property of the right. Look back a few decades and you\’ll find the left grounding its arguments in nationalism — especially in security matters. I think the Japanese are, in general, instinctual nationalists.The nationalists who seek to revise Japanese history, who take offense at every criticism, justified or not, who are obsessed with Japan\’s pride are arguably something beyond run-of-the-mill Japanese nationalists, hence hyper-nationalists.


  2. Is hyper-nationalism thus a uniquely Japanese phenomenon in your view? Is it different to that strong sort of nationalism one sometimes sees within the US? Or is that just ardent patriotism? If so, again, what\’s the difference?I know I\’m being a bit unfair on you, but just want to draw you out on this a bit.


  3. Don\’t worry about being unfair; good questions.Do I think it\’s uniquely Japanese?No.What\’s unique is how it expresses itself.And Japanese nationalism and US patriotism/nationalism — even in their extreme forms — are hard to compare, because Japanese nationalism tends to have more in common with European-style blood-and-soil nationalism than with American civic nationalism.


  4. Is the expression of this hyper-nationalism similar, in your mind, to Turkish denials about the Armenian genocide? Although what I know about that can barely fill this text box.Are the denials/refutations the prime means of expression? Or is it the clubbing together and soundtrucks of the uyoku? Or is it the violence responses that sometimes go with the uyoku? Or is completely unrelated to the uyoku?What is the ultimate goal here? Are they simply attempting to maintain/defend Japanese prestige to the extent they quibble over numbers and ignore their real meaning? Or is it even more malevolent than that?


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