Social Science Japan No.3 April 1995

Copyright Institute of Social Science, University of Tokyo. All rights reserved.

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Imagining the Past, Remembering the Future


JAPANESE politicians, it seems, will do anything but face their war crimes, and will even try to justify them. The Japanese Foreign Ministry has persuaded the American government not to invite Prime Minister Murayama to Pearl Harbor, arguing that it would "harm the relationship between the two nations." A member of the Hosokawa cabinet said the Nanking massacre was a myth. And a steady stream of cabinet ministers, Dietmembers, and leading journalists have claimed that Japan liberated Asia from the colonial powers.

These statements might suggest that the Japanese, unlike the Germans, have never confronted their past in an objective manner. However, such was not always the case. Japanese "amnesia" about the war, exemplified in the above comments, has emerged as a part of a revisionist literature which argues that mainstream Japanese historians, and intellectuals generally, were wrong in their postwar denunciation of the Japanese military and its actions. The revisionists, such as former Minister of Education Fujio and former Minister of Justice Nagano, are so zealous that they keep whitewashing Japan's role in the war even at the risk of losing office (in fact, their insistence that little killing took place in Nanking is correct: the worst massacres happened in the suburbs of Nanking). Justification of the war is a recent development in postwar intellectual history, although one may rightly argue that the arguments are logical extensions of the infamous prewar Ajiashugi, or "Asianism."

The new surge of nationalism has been in part fostered by the recent industrial development of East Asia. Pointing to the region's rapidly growing economies, nationalist-revisionists argue that the East has prevailed over the West, and that the Pacific War was only an initial step in this direction. By arguing this, they confirm something Namier once wrote:

"One would expect people to remember the past and to imagine the future, [b]ut in fact, when discoursing or writing about history, they imagine it in terms of their own experience ... they imagine the past and remember the future."(1)

The new nationalists are certainly imagining their past - in a manner that suits their egos.

Pacifism and Hypocrisy

Yet even as the revisionist-nationalists sought to invent a glorious war in the past, the pacifists (myself included) might have been remembering the future. The Peace Issue (heiwa mondai) was, after all, the cornerstone of postwar political thought in Japan. One has only to look at Maruyama's brilliant account of Japanese fascism to see how the postwar denunciation of wartime leaders was essential to the construction of a war-free Japan.(2)

Maruyama's critique of fascism led to his famous defense of the Constitution's Article 9, which bans the maintenance of armed forces in Japan, and has served as a guiding light for a whole generation of scholars, students, and citizens. The arguments of Japanese pacifism are simple: all wars betray noble purposes, militarism is the worst enemy of democracy, and we must struggle to eliminate any legacy of militarism from our soil in order to establish a full-fledged democracy. Moreover, the establishment of democracy is essential to avoid future wars; but a government enmeshed in Cold War institutions and US-dominated foreign policy is not a democracy, even though its formal political procedures may make it seem one. Hence the rebellion against the Security Treaty with the Americans and the widespread antinuclear movements.

I grew up in this pacifist intellectual environment, but now I am puzzled by its hypocrisies. It says little about the atrocities committed by the Japanese military abroad.(3) It also has little to say about the kind of foreign policy necessary to establish a war-free community of nations. As pacifists, we were supposed to defend our constitution against the Cold Warriors and the Americans; but it was the American Occupation forces who virtually dictated the draft of our Constitution. The Japanese almost always appeared as victims of war, victims of the irresponsible militarist government. We used Hiroshima as a symbol of antinuclear peace, but seldom referred to Nanking or, for that matter, Manila. While we proclaimed our victimization, outside Japan very few people cared to hear about Japanese suffering during the war.


Ian Buruma focuses on such hypocrisies, and dubs Hiroshima "the exclusive site of Japanese victimhood."(4) To Buruma, Hiroshima is a Japanese attempt to obfuscate war crimes by presenting themselves as victims. Much as I detest Buruma's naive belief in just wars, I can only agree with his assessment of the role Hiroshima has played in our minds.

There is something very moving, however, in the way the Japanese are horrified by memories of Hiroshima. Their passionate discussions of the atomic bombings call forth a vision of dusk and death, an age about to end, and a mankind foolish enough to exterminate itself. Perhaps this apocalyptic vision seems excessive, even bizarre. But substitute "Japanese people" for "mankind," and the meaning of the war for the Japanese becomes clear. The war put an end to everything. The bombing of Hiroshima quite literally wiped out a whole city. Aside from any political propaganda, this stark vision of total destruction was what Hiroshima has meant to most of us.

It is quite possible that few Japanese care about the atrocities Japan committed overseas. At the same time, many Japanese do care about the Japanese victims, and about the grotesque violence their militarist government brought down on their heads. Hiroshima signifies the ugliest dimension of all this. Those who emphasized Hiroshima during the Cold War were not necessarily making apologies for the Soviets or parading their anti-American nationalism; Hiroshima, to many Japanese, simply showed what you get when you start a foolish war.

Moreover, beneath the pacifism lies a fatalistic vision of a future war. This nightmare image is not confined to the intellectual argument of the sengo keimo, or "Postwar Enlightenment." A strange aspect of postwar Japanese mass culture is the prevalence of a vision of doomsday, of total annihilation in a world war. Dystopic scenarios are seen not only in the likes of Akira, Japan's decadent version of Blade Runner, but also in Doraemon, a popular TV cartoon series which caters to middle-class children (including my daughters).

Buruma is wrong in attributing the Japanese view of Hiroshima to simple hypocrisy. It is actually worse than that. Hiroshima is a lesson through which the Japanese learn a frozen, remembered version of the future. When the Americans started to reduce their military presence in Okinawa, Okinawans simply could not believe it, for a major military operation involving US forces in Okinawa was supposed to bring destruction to the whole island. When the Americans and the Soviets agreed on nuclear disarmament, pacifists (again, including myself) could not believe that either, as it threatened our remembered future, however dystopian it was. Confronting the specter of fascism and the nightmare of nuclear war were noble and necessary acts; but what future is left for a Japanese intellectual when the specters and nightmares are gone?

The nationalist-revisionists, with their ridiculous attempts to invent our past, are irrelevant. We should be busy constructing blueprints for a better world in the wake of the Cold War. But our ability to imagine such a world is weak, atrophied by our long past of remembering the future.




Lewis Namier, "Symmetry and Repetition," in his Conflicts. London: Macmillan, 1942.


Maruyama Masao, Thought and Behaviour in Modern Japanese Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963.


During the past decade, however, Japanese historians have produced an impressive range of documents and academic studies of Japanese colonial and/or military rule in Asia. See, for example:

Kindai nihon to shokuminchi (Modern Japan and the Colonies), 8 vols., Iwanami Shoten, 1992-93.

KURASAWA Aiko, Senryouka no Jawa nouson no henyou (Transformation of a Javanese Village under Japanese Occupation), Soushisha, 1992.

Nihon no senryouka ni kansuru shiryou chousa fooramu, ed., Nihon no Firipin senryou (The Japanese Occupation of the Philippines), Ryuukei Shosha, 1994, ISBN 4-8447-8370-X.


Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994, p.96.

FUJIWARA Kiichi is Associate Professor of International and Southeast Asian Politics at the Institute of Social Science.

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