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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 10:01 07/23/2007
July 23, 2007

Toward Open Discussions of Japan's History Issues

Koichi MERA (Professor, University of Southern California)

This article is written, based on the "Book Reading Club" activities in Los Angeles from November 2006 through June 2007.

As I wrote in my previous article, "Managing Japan's Rising Nationalism" (2006), more and more Japanese have come to realize that they are not always treated as equal as other nationals in the world, because of the perception that people overseas have about what Japan did during the 20th century. The so-called "history issues" between Japan and other Asian countries such as China and Korea are some of those examples. Sometimes Japan is treated as if it were the land of "war criminals," and it is often argued that world peace could be achieved only by constantly denouncing the "sinful" act of war by Japan during the last century. Oddly enough, this trend is not declining but rather is being intensified by such recent events as the production and public showing of such films as "The Rape of Nanking" and the US Senate resolution regarding Japan's "sex slavery issue." Facing these problems, the Japanese government has been either silent or apologetic, but seldom assertive in presenting its own position and correcting any misunderstanding or misinformation about Japan's actions.

As a result of commonly held criticisms against Japan's past conducts on the international scene, not only older people but also younger generations in Japan somehow tend to possess some sense of guilt, even though they have little or nothing to do with what happened before and during the WWII. This is certainly not a healthy situation for Japan or for the world at large for that matter. What we need is to reexamine various "history issues" regarding Japan from the standpoint of fairness and objectivity, where all differing views are presented and discussed openly without being influenced by political or ideological powers. The following is a possible list of historical issues to be reexamined in this respect.

(1) Tokyo Trial: legal basis for the Trial, fairness in its legal conduct and verdicts, its implications for Japan and other countries, etc., (2) Occupation Policy in Japan: control of Occupation Forces over public speeches and activities, etc., (3) Japan's Asia Policy in the Pre-war Period: reasons for Japan's advance into Asia, competition with the US and other Western Powers, etc., (4) Alleged Misconducts and Brutality of Japanese Military: evidence of misconducts and brutality, sources of misinformation (e.g., Nanking incident and comfort women), comparison between Japan's military and other countries', etc., (5) Racial Prejudice and International Conflicts: white vs. non-white as a possible factor in the war, possible clash of civilizations, etc., (6) Causes and Consequences of the Pacific War: conflicts over Asia between Japan and the US, possibility of avoiding the war, US bombings in Japan, including atomic bombs, Soviet's role in diplomatic negotiations, etc.

It is well known that many of these issues have not been openly debated, especially in Japan, mainly because Japan would not offend the US, which is providing its nuclear umbrella and other defense measures to Japan against possible attacks from outside for many decades. Now military attacks by North Korea are becoming a real possibility. However, open discussions of these issues would not necessarily offend the US, but could rather help normalize Japan's relationship with the US on a more equal-footing basis. In a sense, now is the time to take up these issues openly from the Japanese viewpoint in order to reposition Japan in the post-Cold War and possibly the post-Iraq War era, where the US itself is bound to reexamine its history and ideology in a fundamental way. There is no reason to be afraid of critically discussing the possible injustice and unfairness of any country, whether it is Japan or the US.

What Japan should do is quite clear. The Japanese government needs to encourage open discussions of the issues listed above by supporting anyone who would be willing to speak up on Japan's behalf, especially in the international context. For example, there are some American scholars (e.g., Michael Bess) criticizing US policies in the Pacific War, and some Japanese film makers producing films and videos (see the reference) with opposing views to anti-Japanese materials like "The Rape of Nanking." In any case, Japan must be assertive, much more than Prime Minister Abe's "proactive diplomacy," to shed its sense of guilt and regain its national pride, while studying its own history during the last century, especially its first half, more seriously, and develop a better understanding of its own past for the sake of a healthier state of mind among Japanese. Such reexamination will become a basis for normalizing Japan's relationship among Asia Pacific countries including the US.

Michael Bess, "Choices under Fire" (2006):
YouTube, "The Fake of Nanking" (2007):

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