Nanjing Disappearing

By Anthony Head, May 26, 2015

Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

Japan is still performing its historical conjuring tricks, attempting to influence popular perceptions of history - particularly relating to Japanese wartime atrocities - through educational policy and fllms showing Japan as the victim.

Japan’s Education Ministry recently revealed it has approved new school textbooks that describe as Japanese territories two clusters of uninhabited islands disputed respectively with China and South Korea. The announcement sparked another predictable backlash from these nations, and equally predictable dismissals from Japan.

At issue in these tedious and intractable sagas are the Senkaku islands between Okinawa and Taiwan, administered by Japan but claimed by China as Diaoyu, and the South Korean-controlled Dokdo isles that Japan claims as Takeshima in the sea between the two countries (the English name of which – East Sea or Sea of Japan – is a matter of further argument). It was widely taken as a sign that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is tightening its grip on the nation’s classrooms that these 18 new social studies textbooks for use in Japanese junior high schools from April next year, along with all such texts approved for elementary schools from this April, assert Japan’s sovereignty over these rocky outcrops.

South Korea reacted swiftly, moving from a Foreign Ministry statement issued the same day rebuking Japan for its repeated “provocations” to a parliamentary resolution condemning the “distorted historical view” being taught “to a generation of Japanese who are growing up”. China’s state television said approval of the books shows the Japanese government’s “territorial mindset” is being “spread through the stage of compulsory education.” “No matter what Japan does to publicize its position,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying declared, “it cannot change the fact that the Diaoyu belong to China.”

Japan’s retorts were wearily familiar, and familiarly weary. “It is important that textbooks describe Japanese territories accurately so that children will have no misunderstandings,” government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said. “It’s only natural that we want to teach children correctly about their country’s territory,” echoed Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura.

There is little new in all this. Hardly a week passes without claim or counter-claim on these territorial rows making headlines in the region. But buried deeper in the Japanese media reports was a more significant revelation – the new school textbooks drop all reference to the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, one of the most infamous atrocities of modern times. Current history textbooks discuss it to some degree, but none of the new ones will mention it.

Despite the official statement issued 20 years ago by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologizing for Japanese wartime brutality, Japan’s perceived lack of genuine atonement continues to be a red flag to the Chinese bull. “History is history,” Hua said. “It cannot and should not be allowed to be willfully changed.”

It is common knowledge that the Japanese establishment has long been uncomfortable when faced with the country’s war record, and has done little, unlike Germany, to deal openly and sensibly with the shameful episodes of its recent history. Indeed, it has long been its practice, aided by a generally conservative and compliant media, to cast doubts on the validity of specific historical events or claims, a process that often involves the setting up a panel of “experts” to “investigate” the issue in question. When, unsurprisingly, opinions are found to be disparate, the lack of “consensus” – always a desirable condition in Japanese social affairs – can then be cited in legitimation.

The most salient example in recent years is the issue of wartime sex slaves – the condescendingly termed “comfort women”. Japan’s English-language media had generally had no problems in referring to the women of many nationalities, though mainly Korean, Chinese and Philippine, forcibly procured to provide sex for Japanese troops. In 1993 Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono offered an official apology over this issue. But the revisionists have been unable to let it rest and the process of historical reassessment under Abe’s government has recently seen an astonishing capitulation of editorial independence in the media. Late last year the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s most widely read and conservative newspaper, suddenly “apologized” to its readers for having used the term “sex slaves” (and “other inappropriate expressions”) a few dozen times in its stories over the past couple of decades, and announced that its English-language newspaper, The Japan News, will no longer use the phrase. Even the Asahi Shimbun, long a beacon of liberalism in Japan and thus a frequent target of Nationalist vitriol, has dumbed down on the issue, and the rest of the Japanese-run English media have largely elected to follow suit. The impression cannot now be given that such women were ever simply coerced into the military’s brothels.

Despite the widespread attention given to this subject in many countries, none of Japan’s currently used textbooks discusses it, and only one of the new ones touches on it. Abe himself reportedly holds that there is no direct evidence of sexual slavery, but no reporter appears to have asked him bluntly whether this means he believes the several dozen surviving women are all lying or conspiring to falsify their testimonies – and if so, why – or what he would accept as direct evidence instead. When the newly appointed head of public broadcaster NHK, Katsuto Momii, gave his first press conference in January, he claimed that all nations at war had operated similar “comfort women” systems, sparking an outcry by human rights groups, and South Korea in particular, that saw him called to parliament to explain himself. He subsequently retracted his comments and apologised, albeit in typically evasive language, saying he had lacked “discretion” and not understood “various rules”. (Abe had been influential in securing the appointment of Momii, an old friend who hails from the same prefecture in western Japan.)

The linguistic legerdemain evident in this issue has many precedents in Japan, a country whose very military cannot technically be referred to as such, since Article 9 of the Constitution, which Abe aims to revise, declares that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Back in the 1980s, the dispute was over how textbooks should describe Japan’s incursions into Manchuria, with the revisionists seeking to replace the word “invaded” with “advanced”. One courageous historian, Saburo Ienaga, filed and won several high-profile lawsuits against the Ministry of Education for censoring his own textbook over what it claimed were factual errors and matters of opinion regarding Japanese war crimes. At that time the use of the word “massacre” itself was often disputed in relation to Nanjing, with the anodyne “incident” the preferred euphemism.

Panels of experts continue to ponder the extent of the tragedy at Nanjing, with China’s oft-cited figure of 300,000 casualties scorned by some Japanese historians, who put the figure at around 20,000. Still others continue to deny that such slaughter ever took place, dismissing it as a Chinese fabrication, an assertion made in the 2007 docu-drama Nankin no shinjitsu (The Truth about Nanjing) which presented as martyrs seven Japanese, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who were convicted as Class A war criminals by the International Military Tribunal and hanged in 1948.

The Tribunal itself is another favourite target of revisionists. The one dissenting jurist among the 11 international judges was the Indian Radhabinod Pal, subsequently honoured by Japan both in his lifetime and posthumously – most notably with a memorial at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, the focus of regular spats between Japan and its neighbours over visits and ritual offerings by government ministers (Abe sent such an offering again in April, and his wife Akie recently indicated on her Facebook page that she had visited the shrine “for the first time in a long while”, adding the oddly unilluminating comment that “I have again come to feel I should do what I can do for world peace.”). Pal is often celebrated too by Indian writers on Indo-Japanese relations, forgetful of the thousands of Indians who suffered appallingly in Japanese hands as prisoners of war or died fighting the Japanese invaders – the very military controlled by the convicts in question. Last September, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan, Indian newspapers proudly reported that Abe had told him “every Japanese” knows who Pal was. (Abe, of course, has good reason to see the war trials discredited: his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was munitions minister in Tojo’s war cabinet and spent three years in prison as a war crimes suspect before being released, returning to public life and going on to become prime minister himself.)

If every Japanese knows of Pal, most have surely heard of Nanjing and know that something unsavoury happened there. Many of the older generation know of the Burma Railway or have some idea of what went on in Japanese prison camps, if only from such films as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983). They may be familiar, too, with Ken Kumai’s compelling 1986 film Umi to dokuyaku (The Sea and Poison) based on Shusaku Endo’s novel of that name, recounting the vivisection of American airmen from a downed B-29 bomber in 1945 at Kyushu University, which only in April broke its in-house taboo on mentioning this atrocity by including two items referring to it in an exhibition at its new medical history museum. The foreign media were quick to seize on this story too, though the Daily Telegraph’s headline – “American POWs used for live experiments in Japan, according to new museum” – gave the impression this was a new revelation. It made no mention of Endo’s novel, or indeed that human vivisections in China by Japan’s notorious biological warfare Unit 731 have long been acknowledged.

But cinema can be both a useful and devious tool in the teaching of history. A war film deploying the Hollywood big guns – Tom Hanks in the 1998 epic Saving Private Ryan or Brad Pitt in last year’s Fury – will have a far greater audience in Japan for that reason alone, especially if set in the European theatre, than something closer to the bone, such as The Railway Man (2013) with Colin Firth. This film had some limited screening in Japan, and the odd review in the English press, but not even the presence of Japanese star Hiroyuki Sanada could ensure it the wider coverage it deserved, despite its message of forgiveness and reconciliation. More to the popular taste than ill-treatment of POWs is the genre of home-grown movies portraying Japan as victim, such as the mawkish Ore-kimi (For Those We Love, 2007), written by former Tokyo governor and renowned Nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, and Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero, 2013), both of which glorify kamikaze pilots as heroes.

The kamikaze theme emerged again recently when the city government of Minamikyushu in southern Japan attempted last year to have a collection of letters by kamikaze pilots listed on the UNESCO world memory list, a register of cultural artefacts and documents that includes Anne Frank’s diary and the Warsaw Ghetto archives. China immediately blasted this attempt “to beautify Japan’s history of militaristic aggression” and the U.N. body declined the request in June, but it is characteristic of Japan’s recurring efforts to influence perceptions of its wartime behaviour (not to mention its obsession with UNESCO designations) that the city is currently making another attempt to have the collection listed.

All of these topics mentioned hitherto can be researched in some depth on the Internet, at least in English. But it is increasingly difficult for the younger generations in Japan – especially those lacking in English ability or simply wedded to a culture of television games shows and celebrity trivia – to grasp the enormity and significance of recent historical events and therefore to appreciate the continuing antagonism of countries such as China and South Korea. Ask young Japanese, or even the middle-aged, if they know what happened in Manila, in Bataan and Cabanatuan, or Palawan or Kalagong or Laha, among numerous other well-documented tragedies, or even if they know about ketsugo sakusen (Operation Decisive), Japan’s strategy for defending itself against the expected American invasion, and a blank expression will be the likely response.

As the 70th anniversary of the end of the war approaches, Japan’s neighbours in particular will be scrutinizing Abe’s expected statement to see to what extent he may reiterate the admissions of responsibility and expressions of remorse in previous Japanese government statements. His recent address to the U.S. Congress offered sentiments of repentance and conciliation but failed to deliver the outright apology and frank recognition of Japanese wartime atrocities that critics are still demanding after all these years. Japan’s own attention will, as ever, be more focused on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Despite advances in information technology, in travel and tourism, in intercultural exchanges, and the internationalization of universities, Japanese governments continue to drag the country into the future backwards – forever gazing into the past and trying to sanitize it, the better perhaps to shake it off, but finding it to be a ball and chain that cannot be unshackled. Abe may be hoping that with the West more concerned about an expansionist and aggressive China, Japan’s revisionist measures will largely slip beneath the radar. This will serve no purpose. China’s own brutalities and oppression in Tibet, and its increasing assertiveness in its other disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam, are unlikely to be taken as any exoneration of Japan’s attitude towards its own behavior within living memory.

In February this year, three musical giants from a more rebellious era played to a packed auditorium of 5,000 Japanese at Tokyo’s International Forum – a generation perhaps more attuned to the sort of political protest and free expression that Crosby, Stills and Nash made into a trademark. But Japan is rapidly ageing now and knowledge is being denied to the young by erasure from the history books. Although Japan is not the only country that likes to rewrite history, its persistence and obstinacy have given it a damaging reputation in this regard, even amongst its allies. Many Japanese are unaware of this too. If Japan’s leaders wish to win “understanding” – a word beloved of politicians here intent on imposing their own viewpoints – they need to stop undermining the goodwill the country gains from the activities of many of its people in other fields. Someone should sit Abe down and play him “Teach Your Children” for a start.


Anthony Head is a writer and editor living in Tokyo. His articles have appeared in various journals, including History Today, The Edinburgh Review, The London Magazine and the TLS. He is also the editor of three volumes of letters and diaries of John Cowper Powys and most recently a collection of essays by Llewelyn Powys titled A Struggle for Life (Oneworld Classics).


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