I definitely take his (and Walt’s) point about America’s historical amnesia, particularly in regard to Japan. Few Americans appreciate the extent of the damage inflicted upon the Japanese people, or if they do, their appreciation stops at the atomic bombings; in some way the indiscriminate bombing of cities with “conventional” weaponry was far worse. Czeslaw Milosz captured the failure of Americans to understand just how complicated, just how relative reality is in the second chapter of The Captive Mind.
“The man of the east [referring to the eastern bloc],” he wrote, “cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.
“Their resultant lack of imagination is appalling. Because they were born and raised in a given social order and in a given system of values, they believe that any other order must be ‘unnatural,’ and that it cannot last because it is incompatible with human nature. But even they may one day know fire, hunger, and the sword. In all probability this is what will occur; for it is hard to believe that when one half of the world is living through terrible disasters, the other half can continue a nineteenth-century mode of life, learning about the distress of its distant fellow-men only from movies and newspapers.” (29)
I hardly need to point out that Milosz’s observation remains relevant to the present day, 9/11 notwithstanding. (If anything 9/11 reinforced the tendency described by Milosz.)
But historical amnesia is not the same as historical revisionism.
Historical revisionism is, as I have argued, an ideology that is as much about the present and the future as it is about the past. It is an active process. And it involves the conscious and willful denial of generally accepted facts of history. Indeed, in the process of claiming to only be presenting “the facts,” the revisionists deny the very existence of facts as commonly understood. For them, the measure of whether something is truthful or not is that it serves political ends. They reject the idea of falsifiability or alternative explanations for events: look at the confidence with which General Tamogami asserted, with merely a whiff of evidence, that the Comintern was behind both the Second Sino-Japanese war and the Pacific war. Revisionists seem to care little about the credibility of the messenger or the method by which the message is produced — only the message matters. Stephen Colbert could have been describing the revisionists when he coined the term “truthiness.”
This differs greatly from “historical amnesia,” or the natural difference in historical interpretations between history’s winners and losers. Granted, Americans have a problem seeing history through the eyes of its “losers.” But that is considerably different from the revisionist project, which is a wide-reaching program that seeks to determine how Japanese citizens learn history (by infiltrating the national curriculum, which, unlike in the US, is determined by the central government), how Japanese citizens think about their own country, how Japan conducts its security policy, and how Japan conducts its foreign relations. The analogy to the US fails. Conservative hawks may downplay some of the uglier moments in American history and emphasize the triumphs, particularly international victories, but they are hard pressed to deny those moments and periods outright.
Again, Japanese revisionism is not only or even mainly about the past. By revising how Japanese looks at the war, they also want to revise how Japanese look at the postwar period. If the former was a period marked by glorious sacrifices for emperor and nation, the latter has been marked by selfishness, wanton prosperity, decadence, decay, and “Americanization.” The revisionists hope to reclaim the wartime and prewar periods as sources of value for contemporary Japan.
Of course, by working so hard to correct the historical consensus on Japan’s wartime behavior, the revisionists merely serve to call attention to the enormity of Japan’s behavior — and alarm Japan’s neighbors, who remember only too well what Japan did during the war. Revisionism amounts to calling those who suffered at Japan’s hands as prisoners of war, slave laborers, comfort women, or unwilling imperial subjects liars.
Revisionism is a problem for the region. It is a mistake to pretend otherwise. Sincere advocates of a more active Japanese security role should doing everything in their power not only to distance themselves from the revisionists, but categorically denounce their brazen denial of history.