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Japan's struggle with history

August 15, 2017

As the nation marks the 72nd anniversary of its surrender at the end of World War II, there are still many here who insist that Japan acted honorably throughout the conflict. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

Japan Schüler Mittelstufe
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Pana

The latest edition of a history text book used in more than 50 junior high schools across Japan makes no mention of the over 300,000 deaths in the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, skips allegations that as many as 400,000 girls and women were press-ganged into serving as prostitutes for the Japanese military during World War II and hints that the 1941 attack on US forces at Pearl Harbor was justified as the US embargo on Japan was a form of undeclared war. 

The book is just one way in which nationalists here are trying to whitewash the worst excesses of Japan's brutal invasion and annexation of large swathes of Asia in the early decades of the last century and promote national pride, critics charge. And it is all the more alarming, they say, because the far right here is attempting to indoctrinate children with their beliefs.

The fourth edition of the text book was introduced in schools here last year and The Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, a rightwing group, is already working on a new edition that will be issued in time for the start of the 2018 academic year.

'Biased view of history'

Hiromichi Moteki, the group's acting chairman and a former history teacher, claims the text books are "free from a biased view of history" that is being aggressively pushed by Japan's neighbors, primarily China and both North and South Korea.

"After Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula [in 1910], we spent a lot of money on infrastructure and education there to raise the living standard of people there to that of Japan," said Moteki. "Japan spent so much money that you could say it was the Koreans that exploited us."

He dismisses claims from hundreds of Korean women, a handful of whom survive to this day, that the military abducted them and forced them to work in frontline brothels.

Similarly, historic accounts of the events that unfolded in Nanjing are batted away as "communist propaganda."

And more than 70 years after the end of the war, Moteki professes to be at a loss as to why its former colonial conquests harbor ill-feeling toward Japan.

"For our part, we were not responsible for any wrongdoing and we cannot understand why China and Korea refuse to accept that," he said. He adds that Japan's relations with its neighbors have been difficult for many years, due to differing interpretations of history, but the growing military power of China and North Korea are now a physical threat to Japan's security.

And that, he believes, is driving support for Shinzo Abe, a deeply conservative prime minister who is pushing through a number of new laws that have horrified liberals here.

Controversial laws

That legislation includes a controversial anti-conspiracy law, which generated sufficient concern to prompt the UN to claim that it could "lead to undue restrictions on the rights to privacy and the freedom of expression." Earlier this year, Japan's education ministry approved the return of "jukendo" to junior high school physical education classes; the mock combat sport uses wooden representations of a rifle with a bayonet attached and has its roots in the military drills that used to be carried out in the 1930s.

Other factions within the far right of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party are calling for the emperor to once again be perceived as a living god. Abe's primary aim, however, is to rewrite the nation's pacifist constitution that many conservatives in Japan insist was imposed on a defeated country by the vengeful Allies at the end of World War II.

Abe - whose grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, was known as the "Showa Era Devil" for his brutal repression of local people in occupied Manchuria and held for three years as a Class-A war criminal before becoming prime minister - has announced that he intends to rewrite parts of the constitution that deal with the nation's security and defense postures.

The prime minister believes that the section most in need of revision is Article 9, which stipulates that the Japanese people "forever renounce war" and that "land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained."

Attending a rally in May, Abe said it was time "to show the people, with confidence, our vision for the future of our country and what an ideal constitution should look like."

That, in turn, has provoked concern in Beijing, Seoul and Pyongyang - although North Korean propaganda claiming that Japan is preparing to once again invade and enslave mainland Asia are more than slightly alarmist.

'Reinterpreting history'

"A decade ago, the far right said it was going to 'reinterpret' Japanese history, essentially allowing them to put a positive spin on everything," said Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University.

"But now they are simply trying to erase things like the Nanjing Massacre and the comfort women from history books," he told DW. "To delete anything that is seen as negative from our history means that young people are ignorant about their own nation's past. And not knowing about Nanjing or other uncomfortable facts means that they are not able to make appropriate decisions on the future of our country."

Abe's support, according to public opinion polls, has dipped in recent weeks, although rightwing groups still see him as the champion of their growing national pride. "Every country has the right to consider its own history in its own way," Moteki said. "There was a war but Japan was defeated, so the victors say all the causes were Japan's fault. It is our policy to dispute this. If we look at specific events or issues it is easy to see where conventional thinking has been wrong."

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea