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August 28, 2006

Six Decades after War, Japanese Intensify Search for Identity

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor of the Foreign Press Center/Japan)

Prime minister's visits to controversial shrine has Japanese asking what makes their country a nation and keeps it going

It has been said that post-World War II Japan has been so engrossed in building its economy that it has sidestepped other things that matter as a nation, such as history, and cultural and spiritual traditions.

From this viewpoint, Japan is seen as an economic giant and political dwarf. It is seen basking in complacent affluence and not facing up to its past.

But these perceptions are not true. At the bottom of the simmering domestic polemic over the Yasukuni Shrine issue - triggered by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's peremptory visits to the war shrine despite angry protests by Chinese and South Koreans and even by many Japanese - is the question of Japan's identity as a nation.

Six decades after their country's defeat, Japanese appear to have reached the point of searching for a new identity. They are asking themselves: "What makes Japan a nation and keeps it going? What do we stand for? In what do we trust?"

Why this debate so long after the war? The fact is that Japanese have yet to bridge the postwar period with the prewar days. The nation's continuity seems to have been left severed since the end of the war. The gulf between the two periods remains deep, and in the minds of Japanese, it eventually needs to be filled.

Among the issues in this context are the emperor system, the Shinto religion as a matter of national identity, and, more broadly, cultural tradition and time-honored social systems and morals.

With the defeat in World War II, which ended in an unconditional surrender, Japanese have forced themselves to think that they accepted a decisive break on these matters. By believing, or perhaps, pretending, actually, that they were "Embracing Defeat" (the title of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Japan's experience after World War II), they have thought and pronounced to the rest of the world that they made a clean break with the old Japan.

The postwar Constitution begins with the emperor, in Chapter 1 (Article 1-8), ahead of the stipulation of people's rights and duties (Chapter 3, Articles 10-40). This fact is interpreted as upholding the continuity of the emperor as a unifying power, if not in a political sense, for the Japanese nation, unchanged from the prewar Meiji Constitution - the Constitution of the Empire of Japan.

Considerable impact

The recent disclosure of a memo depicting the late Emperor Hirohito (posthumously Showa) as being displeased that Class-A war criminals were added to the 2.5 million war dead honored at Yasukuni Shrine is having a considerable impact on public opinion. It is testimony to the emperor's ultimate influence and authority over the nation. The question to be asked is how the emperor system squares with Japan's democracy.

Most Japanese agree is squares just fine; they do not view their country as founded on Western-type liberal democracy and the principle of human rights alone. They think there is more to the Japanese nation than that.

After the war, some influential liberal academics who were held in check by the prewar military government declared their support for the Emperor as an institution that expresses the ideals of the Japanese nation. Among them was Shigeru Nanbara, a Christian, who became president of the University of Tokyo in December 1945. He held Emperor Hirohito in high esteem for his moral authority over the Japanese race but called on the emperor to be dethroned to assume responsibility for the war.

In a revealing contrast, the late Masao Maruyama, the once revered champion of postwar liberal intellectuals, after considerable personal agony, came to deny the emperor system. He found in it what he thought was the root cause of the malaise of Japanese society - dependency on authority, which he said strips each citizen of the will for independence of mind.

But his was a minority view.

What complicates the Yasukuni issue is the convergence of Shinto, the emperor and the wars Japan has fought since the Meiji Restoration. Koizumi's turning it into a diplomatic dispute has added to the complexity. While Japanese find it difficult to fully understand the separation of church and state, as practiced in the U.S., they also do not have a clear idea about the relationship of Shinto and its deep level of national governance in Japan, either.

Shinto effect

Despite the general self-perception that Japanese are not piously religious, Shinto's position in the national psyche and in life is not something that can be easily brushed aside. This partly explains the persistent opposition to separating the honor accorded to the war dead from the religious role of Yasukuni Shrine.

All these ideas and actions in search of an identity associated with history and tradition may look ominous to neighboring countries because they may indicate a reversion to Japan's old hubris and in short nationalism.

Japan should be extremely careful about this for its own sake.

But Japanese cannot forever keep reeling from a past that, with unpleasant memories of the war, they dumped into the abyss of oblivion. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper with a daily circulation of 10 million and one that is known for its conservative bent, has run a year-long series of weekly articles on wars in the Showa period.

It spans the Manchurian Incident in 1931, the Sino-Japanese war, which started in 1937, and the Pacific war in an attempt to track down and identify political and military leaders who should be held accountable for atrocities, deaths and damage done on an unimaginable scale both to Japanese themselves and to people of neighboring countries.

It is a revealing example of an attempt at accountability and contriteness.

Only with this kind of attitude can Japanese confidently restore ties to their traditions, culture and history, which defy the simplistic notion that an abstract, vacuum-like world of democracy, capitalism or globalism offers a foundation for Japanese to live on.

(Originally appeared in the August 21, 2006 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications