Mon, 22 Aug 1994

Distorting Japan's behavior a political crime

The Jakarta Post Asia Correspondent Harvey Stockwin explores why it is that Japanese cabinet ministers keep on resigning after they have distorted wartime history.

HONG KONG (JP): Once again, another Japanese cabinet minister has been forced to resign because he has offended Asian opinion by misrepresenting Japan's behavior in the first half of the twentieth century.

On Aug. 12, immediately prior to the commemoration of the ending of World War II, Environmental Agency director-general Shin Sakurai, spoke about Japan not intending to be the aggressor in Asia prior to World War II, and of Japan having been the liberator of peoples oppressed by European colonial rule.

"Literacy rates (in Asia) are far higher than in African countries (which were) controlled by Europe," Sakurai said, adding that Japan should publicize that its wartimes actions were both good and bad. Sakurai was clearly implying that whatever literacy rates former Asian colonies have achieved were primarily due to the three to four years of Japanese "liberation" which they enjoyed in 1941-1945, a beneficial experience which the African colonies missed.

The foreign ministries of South Korea and China quickly protested. Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama quickly admonished his minister, with Sakurai being a member of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. On Aug. 14, Sakurai resigned.

His departure raises a crucial question - why do Japanese ministers go on doing it?

The question naturally arises because he is the second minister to resign this summer for this reason. Several other ministers have resigned for the same reason in the past two decades. Others have misrepresented Japan's colonial and wartime record but have avoided having to resign as a consequence. All these incidents simply cannot be merely attributed to incompetence and a refusal to learn from other politician's mistakes.

First and last, these incidents keep occurring because many Japanese, not least its politicians, simply still do not know what that real record was. From 1931 onwards, when Japan began the march towards World War II by conquering northeastern China and turning it into its colony of Manchukuo, the Japanese people were only told about victories and achievements. The wartime governments were highly successful in brain-washing the Japanese people with a highly distorted view of history.

To say the very least, the Japanese Ministry of Education has not considered it a priority to rectify these distorted perceptions in the 49 years since Japan's surrender. Many would argue that, to the contrary, the ministry has worked hard, through its textbook policy, to sustain the distortions.

Secondly, there has been a postwar political incentive not to put the record straight. Aug. 15 is commemorated within Japan as the day on which Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender, saying that the Pacific War "had proceeded not necessarily to Japan's advantage". Had Gen. MacArthur subsequently forced Hirohito's abdication, (instead of allowing his reign to continue) Japan would have been much more likely to explore a harsher and more relevant verdict. Conversely, it is only since Hirohito's death that Japan has started to tentatively explore more relevant and accurate perceptions of what actually happened in the first half of the century.

Thirdly, Aug. 15 is commemorated in both South and North Korea as their Liberation Day from Japanese colonialism, even though troops from the Soviet Union and the United States did not actually do the liberating until a later date. Neither Koreas have any happy memories of Japan's attempts to eliminate their language, their names or their culture. In Korea, under Japanese colonialism, it was rather as if the British in India had forced Mahatma Gandhi to call himself John Smith.

When Sakurai, now 61, was a youth, official propaganda stressed Japan as a liberator of Asia from colonialism, a view which appealed to Japanese public idealism. Again, Japanese were never told that the British colonial rulers were welcomed back in Malaysia and Singapore after Japan's brief rule in those countries - or that Japanese "liberation" reduced Manila early in 1945 to a smoking ruin.

Fourth, Japanese politicians are typically parochial to an astonishing degree. Well-heeled Japanese members of parliament sometimes pay for their constituents to visit Southeast Asia but, unlike U.S. congressmen, they themselves seldom travel. In any case, when they do, the politicians are no different from Japanese tourists - they tend to mix with their own people rather than expanding their foreign acquaintances when abroad.

Fifth, being domestically preoccupied, Japanese politicians pay very careful attention to politically active groups of veterans and relatives of the war dead. Such activity reinforces the pressures to see the past in a favorable light. It seems impossible for Japanese to be happy concluding that their loved ones died courageously in an evil or morally dubious cause. The relatives of the deceased have to believe that both the cause and the deeds were good.

Sixth, the historical recollections of Sakurai and his predecessors are but an extreme manifestation of the Japanese nationalist tendency to believe that "my country is always right." This is in stark contrast to those countries where the ethos is rather "my country, right or wrong."

So, to put it simply, Japanese nationalism produced the fanaticism which was so often on view 50 years ago, just as Japanese nationalism produced a subsequent refusal to see precisely how and why the nation had gone wrong.

Given the enduring strength of that nationalism, and the relative weakness of anything approaching a truly international outlook within Japan, it is very unlikely that Sakurai will be the last minister who has to resign for justifying the unjustifiable.

Window 1: Japanese nationalism produced the fanaticism which was so often on view 50 years ago.

Window 2: It is very unlikely that Shin Sakurai will be the last minister who has to resign for justifying the unjustifiable.