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.