Japan’s revisionist problem

In my critique of Tamogami Toshio’s essay, I asked, “Just how widespread are these views in the JSDF?”

Jun Okumura quickly provided some sort of answer: more than fifty SDF members submitted essays in the contest won by General Tamogami. Sankei reports that the number of ASDF members who submitted essays is actually seventy-eight by the ministry of defense’s reckoning. Asahi notes that this constitutes nearly one-third of the contest’s 235 entries. Asahi also breaks down the submissions by rank and finds that of those seventy-eight, none except General Tamogami were flag officers, ten were field officers, sixty-four were company-level officers, and four were cadets. Asahi also found that sixty-two had served under General Tamogami when he served as commander of Komatsu base, which Roy Berman of Mutantfrog found plays a central role in the story of the APA essay contest. (Berman did yeoman’s work teasing out the various links between the actors of this saga; it’s a must-read.) The contents of the Asahi article suggest that it’s possible that the ASDF officers who submitted did so after having been “encouraged” by their commander rather than out of conviction.

But that said, it’s possible that despite its efforts to project a warm and fuzzy image (cf. Prince Pickles), the JSDF attracts a disportionate number of people who look longingly to Japan’s past as a military power and subscribe to the conservative nationalist interpretation of Japan’s wartime past.

Does it matter what the members of Japan’s armed forces think about Japan’s wartime past? Does historical revisionism conflict with the SDF’s ethos of ensuring “the continued existence and security of a Japan that stands on the premise of democracy by protecting its peace and independence?” And if so, what can the government do about it?

I would argue that historical revisionism — as it exists in Japan — is incompatible with the SDF’s current mission and Japan’s security policy. Revisionism is not merely a matter of “historical understanding;” it is an ideology concerning Japan as it is today and how it should be. Go back and read General Tamogami’s essay. The problem for him isn’t just that the Japanese people don’t know the facts (revisionists love that word) of the war. They’ve been brainwashed for sixty years into believing that Japan’s wartime behavior was dishonorable, and this belief in turn has handcuffed the SDF and made Japan dependent on the US for its security. In short, General Tamogami and other revisionists are openly contempuous of Japanese democracy, because they view Japanese citizens as little better than sheep who have been systematically manipulated by Nikkyoso-dominated schools and the Japanese media. Does General Tamogami actually believe that he was serving Japanese democracy, whose institutions and officials have decided, with the support of the public, to constrain the SDF? Why does he think that the path to a more active security policy leads through greater appreciation of World War II? Arguably a stronger case for an active Japanese international security role would be premised on an appreciation of the folly of Japan’s war, of the criminality of Japan’s war, of a recognition that the acts committed during the war should never be allowed to happen again? This argument, grounded in the preamble of the constitution, has animated Ozawa Ichiro’s case for a “normal” Japanese security policy.

The key point here is, as William Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It is not accidental that the historical revisionists are also the most enthusiastic supporters of various schemes for a more active Japanese security policy, why they are the most vocal defenders of the US-Japan alliance (even as they curse the US for abandoning Japan in favor of China) and the most vocal advocates for Japanese participation in all possible foreign deployments. Reclaiming the past is their means of reclaiming the present and future — and perhaps reclaiming the present by “normalizing” the SDF is their way of making the public more sympathetic to their view of the wartime past.

The problem is that their view of the world is not of the twenty-first century. The conservative-revisionist view of international politics derives much from nineteenth-century Social Darwinism, viewing the world as a brutal, relentless struggle among nations, for which nations must steel their spirits if they are to survive. It’s not enough for nations to be prosperous materially. They must be spiritually, morally, and culturally sound. Part of this spiritual soundness is appreciating the struggles of the nation’s heroes. While the revisionists claim to be striving for objective truth, the value of history for them is that it’s instructive, strengthening Japan for international competition. This view also leaves little room for meaningful cooperation with one’s rivals.

As I’ve argued before, this ideology is actually abnormal in the twenty-first century and no less dangerous than Social Darwinism was in the late nineteenth, as it risks leading Japan and Asia down a path of confrontation, strife, and war. I am not suggesting that revisionists are prepared to go down the path of imperial conquest again. But I am suggesting that the mindset that produced that Japanese empire is alive and well. And don’t think that China or South Korea won’t mention the general’s essay the next time the Japanese government talks tough on a regional dispute (a fight over a disputed island, for example).

Japan is not unique in having elites prone to this view of the world. What sets them apart is that historical revisionism is part and parcel of their case for a new Japan.

Which makes it difficult to imagine what the government can do to correct for the politically incorrect (in the sense that the Murayama statement defines what is correct) views of JSDF officers. The government can prohibit publication, of course, or implement a system of vetting the public statements of officers. Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu suggested that more education is needed for officers. But are education — or bottling up politically unacceptable opinions — satisfactory answers? Not for me. Revisionism exists because the history problem has effectively been swept under the rug since the war ended, left to metatastize into a worldview that seeks to redefine Japanese identity by dismissing the postwar period as aberrant and harkening back to an earlier, purer time.

The government can impose all the safeguards it wants, but there is no safeguard or sanction that can change an individual’s ideas. With luck General Tamogami will get the debate he wants. But in the end it will just be another battle in the culture war that has raged since the end of the war.

7 thoughts on “Japan’s revisionist problem

  1. Anonymous

    What Americans should finally realize is that revisionist thinking in the SDF is not unusual, it is more likely the norm. Perhaps Americans will now understand why the Alliance with Japan remains underdeveloped and primitive. For that, we have Tamogami to thank.


  2. Anonymous

    Japan is not unique in having elites prone to this view of the world. What sets them apart is that historical revisionism is part and parcel of their case for a new Japan.日本は敗戦国であり、近代の歩みを全否定され、現在の平和国家・民主主義国家としての有り様も「仮の姿」であると揶揄されています。戦勝国の場合、偽善と欺瞞に満ちた恣意的な歴史観が正史とされています。右派にとって特段修正する必要性は感じられないのでしょう。


  3. Having trouble reading anonymous\’s post left me wondering something about the differences in perspective between Americans and Japanese. He says (I think) \”From the perspective of the Right, there is no need for special revisions of history.\” (I am assuming what he means by that is there is no need to revise our illustrious history to the view points of the Americans.)But in English we call people saying what he is saying revisionists, i.e. people who want to revise history. I was talking to a co-worker about what Anonymous meant by \”People on the right do not feel a need to revise history\” despite them being the ones trying to revise history and my co-work, who doesn\’t seem very rightwing, had trouble understanding what I was trying to say because he read the sentence from the perspective that the people on the right are trying to protect Japanese history and not revise it.I was wondering whether people in Japan consider people on the Japanese right revisionists like we would in America or if in Japan, people in general consider the rightists wrong but at the same time don\’t consider them \”revisionists\”?


  4. PnetQ

    Anonymousの言っていることは、、戦勝国の場合、右派の歴史観が、既に、政府や国民の歴史観となっているだろうから、特段修正する必要性がないだろう、ということです。つまり、この場合、右派は、revisionistではありません。revisionistである必要がないのです。Patomaruさんは、アメリカの現在の主流の歴史観を、「右派」とみなすことには、賛成されないかもしれませんが、anonymousの言っていることは、そういう意味です。日本では、右派の、revisionistの歴史観は、政府の公式の見解や、教科書で教えられる歴史とは、なっていません。したがって、右派は、revisionistにならざるを得ません。ただし、日本では、あまり、revisionist(修正主義者)、または、revisionist\’s view(修正史観)という言葉は、あまり、使わないと思います。ちなみに、英語の世界でも、revisionistが必ずthe Rightでは、ないのではないでしょうか。たとえば、Israelの歴史の中では、建国以来の歴史を見直そうとする歴史学者たちが、revisionistと呼ばれることがあると思います。彼らは、the Rightではないでしょう。


  5. I pretty much disagree with almost everything you\’ve said in this post. You\’re clearly very well-read on the history and current affairs of Japan, but when you stray into analysis, it seems pretty weak to me.You\’re basically saying that the General, and most of the Japanese military, because they want more power and because they want to \’normalise\’ the army and make it a more active part of Japanese influence abroad, are harkening back to Imperialist Japan as a guide for the future of Japanese politics, and that the trend of historical revisionism implies a real threat of a rejection of democracy in Japan.But that\’s very questionable. The American military, and indeed the militaries of most European powers have a much more prominent role in foreign policy than Japan\’s military does. You\’re neglecting the fact that \’normalising\’ the military is an essential part of basically every country\’s foreign policy, and that in most countries, this does not result in a jingoistic nostalgia for fascism. You say that \’Arguably a stronger case for an active Japanese international security role would be premised on an appreciation of the folly of Japan\’s war, of the criminality of Japan\’s war, of a recognition that the acts committed during the war should never be allowed to happen again\’. Yes, arguably. So argue it! Why would Japan in particular, above all other countries, benefit from an appreciation of the criminality of the wars in which they have participated? Every country that has engaged in war throughout the 20th century was committing atrocity. Surely your prescription stands for the UK, Italy, Spain, and most obviously, the US?My problem is your unexplainable tendency to single out Japan as a country of repressed fascists and imperialists. Every developed country today has a history of imperialism, yet you don\’t seem to have a problem with the strong institutional identity that military has in any other country.What you\’re saying about Social Darwinism is completely off the mark, Tobias. What you\’re referring to when you speak of a worldview of a \’brutal relentless struggle among nations\’ is political realism, the Cold War doctrine of international relations that the US ostensibly invented, promulgated and still largely adheres to, with a few neo-conservative adjustments. Firstly, there is no indication that Japan suffers from this mindset to a disproportionate degree with regards to the rest of the world. Secondly, your assertion that \’this view also leaves little room for meaningful cooperation with one\’s rivals\’ is completely unfounded. Realism is based on a doctrine of competition and zero sum relations, and this modifies the character of state interaction, but it by no means precludes meaningful cooperation.Overall, you\’ve said nothing in your analysis that would lead me to believe that Japan is any more given to military excesses than any other country. The military always wants to increase its power and expand its mandate, much like the foreign service, the police force, or any other corps of the government. I don\’t disagree that an emasculation of the military and a recognition of the criminality of war would lead to more meaningful cooperation between states, but I find your assertion that this applies especially to Japan rather weak.


  6. JoJo,That\’s the problem with \”basically saying.\”Perhaps you missed the part where I said, \”I am not suggesting that revisionists are prepared to go down the path of imperial conquest again.\”But really, I reject your argument entirely. You claim that I\’m \”singling out\” Japan for criticism. Surprise! This is a blog about Japan. I am not suggesting that Japan is a nation of repressed fascists. Far from it! I would argue that the vast majority of Japanese do not share the revisionist agenda. My point is simple. There is a group of people in government, business, academia, the media, and yes, the JSDF, who have ideas that Japan\’s neighbors should know. It is important for others to know that when certain Japanese argue in favor of revising the constitution, for example, as General Tamogami did at the Diet on Tuesday, there is a lot of baggage that goes with it. Furthermore, I would suggest that you learn your terminology. You tell me that Social Darwinism is no different from realism, which is no different from neo-conservatism. I would suggest you get your terms straight. I do not intend to write a primer on the difference between these distinct schools of thought, but I will say that each has its own pedigree, each makes different assumptions about the world, each has different policy recommendations. Yes, I suppose you could argue that they all see the world as a competitive, violent place, but there\’s substantially more to it than that.In any case, I\’m pleased that I\’ve \”said nothing in your analysis that would lead me to believe that Japan is any more given to military excesses than any other country.\” Because I certainly wasn\’t trying to argue that. You\’ve read one post of mine, not too carefully it seems, and decided that I\’m someone intent on marking Japan with scarlet \”A\” (for aggressor) and singling it out for criticism. Perhaps if you bothered to read more carefully and more than a single post you would see that I can be a bit more nuanced than that.Next time you come to rant at my blog, at least have some idea what you\’re talking about.


  7. My post wasn\’t intended as a rant, and I\’m sorry if it came across this way. Let me try to clarify and respond to your criticisms of my post. I don\’t have a problem with you writing a blog specifically about Japan. My problem with your post was that you implied that the military\’s institutional identity was a problem in Japan, without making reference to the fact that this is a common problem, not one specific to Japan. This may not be a blog about all militaries, but if you simply say that this is a problem in Japan, it necessarily comes across as being a problem specific to Japan. If this was not your intention, then you would have benefited from a bit more expansion on the topic of military institutional identity.Concerning Social Darwinism, Realism, and neo-conservatism, I was not implying that they\’re all the same. Quite the opposite. I was implying that you were mistaking realism for Social Darwinism. Neo-conservatism was completely besides the point, it was a comment about the evolution of American foreign policy. Not the issue. I wasn\’t arguing that they all have the same pedigree, worldview or policy prescriptions. What I was arguing was that there is no reason to believe that Japanese foreign policy, or Japanese military ideology, is based on precepts of social Darwinism rather than realism. If you do believe that social Darwinism is a persuasive trend in Japanese political discourse, then I\’d love for you to enlighten me on the instances where this comes up, because as far as I have read, it has not been a substantive factor.I\’m glad that you\’re not arguing that Japan is more prone to military excess than other countries, though I do believe that your post does come across saying as much. As I said, the militaries of pretty much every developed country have imperialist histories, and their institutional identity almost necessarily asserts either a tendency to expand their power and mandate (as is the case in the USA), or a revanchist tendency of elegiac with regards to their lost golden age (as is the case in all of Western Europe and, of course, Japan). If all you were saying is that Japan\’s military also has these characteristics present in every other military, then that\’s a fine, if unambitious statement.


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