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Tainted Legacy

Tainted Legacy

U. of Pittsburgh's Akiko Hashimoto examines the debate surrounding Japan's guilt over World War II.

By Ayub Khattak

A manga artist named Kobayashi Yoshinori wants to gives readers some of the "thrilling war stories that will make your blood boil with pride, with the Japanese just blasting away."

As Japan proceeds into this new century, it has come upon a crossroads. The Cold War is long over, the economic bubble has burst, and geopolitical issues in East Asia have evolved into a different animal. Japan's main ally, the United States, has dragged it into what many Japanese see as the United States' own dispute in Iraq.

So what direction should Japan take? As Japan searches for answers, its people must first agree on an "acceptable past to base the future on," said sociologist Akiko Hashimoto of the University of Pittsburg, speaking at a Feb. 28 colloquium sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. Specifically, she said, they must address the role of Japan in World War II and "how to emerge from the tainted legacy of the past."

Hashimoto showed that this question has insinuated itself into the country's current social controversies. She believes that the Japanese have fallen into two broad camps: those who say Japan's WWII actions were heroic and those who wonder how Japan could have been aggressive and foolish enough to take on much of world in an unjustified war. These two sides are fighting for control of the Japanese collective memory in all sorts of media, including publicized war-veteran testimony, the published thoughts of their sons and daughters, manga cartoons, and school textbooks.

The issues have also become part of linked debates about the Japanese constitution and the future of Japanese troops in Iraq. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has said that deployment of about 600 members of the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq in 2004 did not violate a constitutional prohibition on using Japanese troops to settle international disputes, because the soldiers are simply providing humanitarian aide. But many Japanese object to having combat-ready troops in a war zone.

The U.S.-drafted constitution's prohibitions on nuclear arms and a more robust army have also been subjects of debate.

Two Sides

In an edition of the Asahi newspaper commemorating the 60th anniversary of the war, one veteran expressed his guilt, "I've done some terrible things. A man like me can't possibly have children with all their limbs intact." But another, in a five-volume set of collected testimony declared, "I have no regrets….I risked my life for what I believed in….I am proud of having been a Japanese soldier."

And certainly these soldiers had adventures to tell. A manga artist named Kobayashi Yoshinori wants to gives readers some of the "thrilling war stories that will make your blood boil with pride, with the Japanese just blasting away." But other manga have taken to caricaturing political figures that sent Japan into the war, especially ridiculing war 'arch-villains' Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro and his War Minister Tojo Hideki. It is interesting to note, Hasimoto said, that there has been very little lampooning of the Emperor, who almost certainly had a political say, because of a taboo on criticism of the royal family.

The great-grandson of Konoe Fumimaro picks up the attack, saying Konoe's "mistakes in his pre-war political stewardship pushed Japan down the path of war." But the granddaughter of Tojo Hideki, Hashimoto said, wrote a book that "romanticized her grandfather as a gentle husband for her grandmother and a gentle father for her own mother."

Surveys have shown that about 80 percent of college level students understand that the Japanese committed atrocities in the Chinese capital of the time, events referred to in the West as the Rape of Nanking.

Hashimoto explained that the textbooks that come to dominate the market are those that supposedly have the answers to the questions on the extremely important college entrance exams. With interpretations of Japan's involvement in the war reduced to multiple choice questions with a definite right and wrong, it's clear that the board behind these tests has considerable influence on the collective memory and conscience of an emerging generation, she said.

Like every other medium of information, textbooks are split on the issues, portraying Japanese initiative in the war in very different lights. The Yamakawa history textbook emphasizes the American stubbornness that led to Japan's declaration of war, while the Jikkyo textbook shows Japan to have been the definite aggressor.

Whatever memories come to be the dominant ones, they will shape the debate over Japan's future. And if a Japanese soldier is killed in Iraq, Hashimoto said, some will ask an old question: "What did that soldier die for?"

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies