5 Books on Japan’s Role in World War II

August 15 this year marks the 71st anniversary of Japan’s surrender and the end of a war that had cost so many lives and continues to cast a long shadow over relations between Japan and its neighbors (particularly China and South Korea).

Last year, Emperor Akihito made a statement expressing “deep remorse” over the war. He said: “Reflecting on our past and bearing in mind the feelings of deep remorse over the last war, I earnestly hope that the ravages of war will never be repeated.”

The emperor’s call for deeper reflection has been generally well-received by the international media, which have sought to draw a contrast between the emperor’s obvious sincerity and longstanding efforts to improve relations between Japan and its neighbors, on the one hand, and the murkier, conflicted stance signified by Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s own 70th anniversary statement, on the other hand.

The Prime Minister stated: “I bow my head deeply before the souls of all those who perished both at home and abroad. I express my feelings of profound grief and my eternal, sincere condolences.” He also affirmed that Japan’s previous expressions of “deep remorse and heartfelt apologies” “will remain unshakeable into the future.” His statement included the keywords “colonial rule” and “aggression” already used in previous official statements.

In his balanced analysis of the Abe statement, Kawashima Shin noted that while Abe at least hewed closely to the language of past statements, he—unlike, for example, Prime Minister Murayama Tomiichi–failed to make clear his own personal perspective on the issue, a fudging that created the impression that Abe failed to offer a direct apology of his own. Moreover, while Abe said that Japan “took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war,” the Prime Minister dated this “wrong course” only to the late 1920s onwards and therefore (again unlike Prime Minister Murayama) failed to account for Japan’s earlier colonization of Taiwan and Korea.

Abe also raised hackles with his statement that “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past.” While the second sentence was laudable, the first raised questions of how Abe envisioned an endpoint to the apology issue when his own ambivalence remained very much evident in his statement.

This ambivalence was most likely the product of a policy tug-of-war that pitted Abe’s rightwing instincts and beliefs against pressure exerted by some of his advisors and cabinet members who were not only justifiably alarmed at the deteriorating relations between Japan and China and between Japan and Korea, but who also sought to correct the unfair blanket generalization propounded by the international press of the Japanese state and public’s supposedly unrepentant attitude towards Japan’s colonial and wartime history.

The crucial fact remains that the Abe statement represents the Cabinet’s position on this issue. A more pragmatic perspective views the Abe statement as an affirmation of past official statements, one that at the very least sets the discursive (as well as Cabinet-sanctioned) limits beyond which no Prime Minister, however divergent his personal views may be, can go. Given Abe’s rightwing leanings, his personal “sincerity” is likely to remain suspect in the eyes of his critics, given the problematic nature of his past statements on history, the comfort women, and other sensitive issues. But the most important implication of the Abe statement is not whether Abe is personally sincere or not, but the fact that his statement re-affirms Japan’s official government position on the country’s war and colonial past.

The only problem is that while discursive limits can be—and have been—set, such limits are not likely to prevent politicians (including future prime ministers) from flouting these words by their own (individual) words and actions, which include visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine where some of the war criminals are enshrined. No matter how often Japan apologizes for its wartime actions, so long as politicians who claim to represent the nation and its people undertake to go to Yasukuni, they in effect nullify this official apology, even if they disingenuously claim that they are doing so as “private individuals” rather than state officials.

Just as Abe’s statement creates a distinction between his affirmation as prime minister of Japan’s official position on the war and his personal, intransigent beliefs, Abe has similarly exploited this distinction in his decision to visit Yasukuni Shrine on a “personal” (rather than “official”) capacity, as though the prime minister were  some kind of TV talent (what Japanese call “tarento”) whose public performances can be safely divorced from his private actions.

This cynical, self-exculpatory behavior glosses over the fact that when one runs for public office, issues thought to be private can and do become a matter of public interest and concern, and choosing to become a public servant means putting the public’s and the country’s interest above one’s own.  And those politicians and segments of the public who insist this is purely a domestic issue (and therefore nobody else’s business) might conceivably entertain fantasies of modern-day Japan as a “sakoku” (closed country), but they cannot wish away the reality of Japan’s ever-increasing embeddedness in the economy and politics of the region and the world. The fate of Japan is deeply entangled with that of its neighbors and the world.

On this, the 71st anniversary of the end of the war, the emperor’s call for sober reflection on the past becomes even more urgent. A number of scholars (both Japanese and non-Japanese) have produced solidly researched work that deepens our understanding of the origins and rise of Japanese militarism and its disastrous consequences in the Pacific region. What follows is a short introductory reading list.

  1. Ben-Ami Shillony, Revolt in Japan: The Young Officers and the February 26, 1936 Incident (1973)

Shillony offers a concise account of the February 26 Incident (Niniroku Jiken), a failed coup attempt staged by one faction of the so-called “young officers” (seinen shoko) and their troops. Calling themselves the Righteous Army and adopting the slogan-password “Revere the Emperor, Destroy the Traitors,” these young officers targeted seven influential Japanese–including Prime Minister Okada Keisuke–for assassination (and succeeded in killing three, including the Finance Minister and the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal), seized the Ministry of War, attacked the offices of the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun, took over the the Tokyo Metropolitan Police headquarters, and attempted unsuccessfully to gain access to the Imperial Palace. Ironically, the biggest resistance to this “Imperial Way” advocacy came from Emperor Hirohito himself, who issued the imperial command authorizing the use of force to put down the rebellion. The February 26 Incident, along with the earlier precedent for “government by assassination” set by young navy officers (many of them no more than twenty years of age) in the May 15, 1932 Incident that resulted in the assassination of Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi (a friend of Sun Yat-Sen who played a role in helping Emilio Aguinaldo’s revolutionary government secure arms in its fight against the Spanish and later Americans at the turn of the century), is often seen as a harbinger, if not catalyst, of rising Japanese militarism and the military’s stranglehold on civilian-led politics. One of the most haunting exchanges in the May 15 Incident is also the most revealing: the mortally wounded Inukai’s last words, “If I could speak, you would understand” (話せば分かる hanaseba wakaru),  are cut off by his killers with the most dogmatic of replies, “Dialogue is useless” (問答無用 mondo muyo).

  1. Yamamuro Shin’ichi, Kimera: Manshukoku no shozo (Chimera: A Portrait of Manzhouguo, 1993). Translated into English by Joshua Fogel and published under the title Manchuria Under Japanese Dominion

Yamamuro Shin’ichi’s classic study of Manchukuo draws on the metaphor of the chimera (the Greek mythological monster with the head of a lion, the body of a sheep, and the tail of a dragon) to make sense of the “artificiality” of the “puppet regime” created in Manchuria. For Yamamuro, the lion is the Kwantung Army, the sheep the state of the emperor system, and the dragontail the Chinese emperor and modern China. Plowing through the myriad images and arguments concerning Manchukuo made by Japanese, Chinese, Koreans and other scholars, officials, public intellectuals, media, and publics, Yamamuro brings out the complexity of the (failed) attempt to create a multiethnic society by brute occupation and expropriation, and shows how a state conceived along the lines of the Kingly Way became in reality “a military garrison state without a citizenry,” one that institutionalized ethnic discrimination and superexploitation of the colonized, and thoroughly routinized violence. Yamamuro does not discount the utopian yearnings that made Manchukuo a “phantom country” (in the words of Ito Takeo) of Japanese modernity, but Yamamuro’s insistence that Manchukuo can only be understood by the Japanese public if, instead of dwelling only on its own suffering, it attends closely and empathetically to the voices and perspectives of the Chinese who suffered and who struggled to survive and overcome the destruction wrought by that particular monstrosity is an eloquent plea against the growing amnesia about Japan’s recent past. Can be read alongside  The Japanese Informal Empire in China, 1895-1937, edited by Peter Duus, Ramon H. Myers, and Mark R. Peattie (1989). Louise Young’s Japan’s Total War: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (1998) is a good study of how Manchukuo’s “empire building” intersected with everyday life, cultural production, and politics in Japan. (One major problem, though, lies in Young’s sweeping characterization of the Japanese-language scholarship on Manchukuo in terms of a dichotomy between the colonists-as-victims approach and the colonists-as-victimizers approach, a dichotomy that she argues is rooted in the basic assumption that the “colonists were controlled by the state,” a “narrative of victimization” that ultimately allows Japanese to skirt the question of responsibility. It is telling that, despite acknowledging her affiliation with Yamamuro and Kyoto University while she was doing the research that formed the kernel of her book, Young does not cite–let alone engage critically with the ideas in–Kimera, which does present a more nuanced view of the dynamic interaction between multiple levels of state and society across multiple spaces.)

  1. The Yomiuri Shimbun, Kensho: Senso Sekinin (Examining War Responsibility, 2006). Translated into English as From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor: Who was Responsible? and available online here

The Yomiuri Shimbun is often dismissed by Japan specialists writing in English as a “conservative”, if not “rightwing”, newspaper. And yet it was the Yomiuri Shimbun which took the initiative, in 2005, to form a War Responsibility Reexamination Committee that undertook fourteen months of intensive investigation to trace the policy process and political compromises and maneuverings behind such crucial events as the Manchurian Incident, the Sino-Japanese War, and the attack against Pearl Harbor, and to identify the specific political and military leaders who were responsible for making the series of decisions that enabled Japan to wage a series of wars over a fourteen-year period. Investigative reporting by the Yomiuri Shimbun resulted in a year-long series of articles that reached out to a readership of 10 million, far more people than any scholarly work can ever hope to address. Editor-in-Chief Watanabe Tsuneo wrote that the problem with the Tokyo War Crimes Trials was that “[u]njustifiably heavy penalties were meted out to some defendants, while not a few people who should have been held accountable for appalling war crimes escaped prosecution.” Moreover, the influx of former military personnel into the Health and Welfare Ministry’s Repatriation Relief Bureau was instrumental in this bureau’s conniving, with the head priest Tsukuba Fumimaro (formerly Prince Yamashina Fumimaro) and his successor Matsudaira Nagayoshi, to quietly (i.e., “avoid making it public”) enshrine the war criminals in the Yasukuni Shrine—a series of unilateral (one might even say “covert”) actions by a minority of rightist elements that have cynically free-rided on the Japanese people’s mourning of their war dead, taken Japan’s Asia/foreign policy hostage, and borne bitter fruit in repeated controversy (domestic and international) and imperiled relations between Japan and its neighbors. For a good overview of the Yasukuni Shrine issue, see the series of articles published by Nippon.com.

  1. Eri Hotta, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy (2013)

Hotta’s blow-by-blow account of the eight-month period of Japanese decision-making that led to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the Pacific War is a gripping narrative with sharply etched profiles of the military officials and the personnel working under them, civilian officials and government bureaucrats, diplomats, and even the Showa emperor himself. Hotta traces the confluence of discussions, decisions, missed opportunities, and unfolding events that led these people to make the fatal decision to attack Pearl Harbor and declare war on America, even against all evidence (presented by their own staff) as well as deep reservations (on some of these people’s part) that Japan did not have the military capability to win a war against the United States. Hotta is unsparing in her criticism of the egotism, vacillations, panderings, lack of leadership, and evasions of responsibility of high officials like Prince Konoe Fumimaro, who presided as prime minister over most of this period, and the kind of political system that allowed (and even condoned) insubordination by militant colonels and lower-echelon officers such as those in command of the Kwantung Army that instigated the Manchurian Incident and spearheaded the invasion of Manchuria; allowed high officials to ride the wave of jingoism among their own rank-and-file, while enacting measures to stoke public support and enthusiasm for a rising confrontation with the “west” (despite the courageous refusal of a segment of the Japanese people to abide by such ultranationalism); and allowed the military to report to both the civilian government and the emperor, a split structure that promoted factionalism and institutional rivalry within and between the army and the navy.

  1. Motoe Terami-Wada, Sakdalistas’ Struggle for Philippine Independence, 1930-1945 (2014)

This comprehensive study of the Sakdal Movement (whose political party later renamed itself Ganap Party) and the paramilitary Makapili contextualizes the fraught politics of “collaboration” by looking at the movement’s ideological appropriation of the discourse of the “unfinished revolution” which drew on historical memories and emotional resonances of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth-century Filipino struggle against Spanish and American colonialism.   Critical of American rule and the inequality and corruption of Quezon’s Commonwealth government, Sakdalistas (under their charistmatic leader Benigno Ramos), in their desire to secure Philippine independence at any cost, sought an alliance with the Japanese occupying forces, a decision that, much like the case of General Artemio Ricarte, would end up destroying both their reputation and their organization. Can be read alongside The Philippines Under Japan: Occupation Policy and Reaction, edited by Ikehata Setsuho and Ricardo Trota Jose (1999), which like Wada’s book, draws extensively on primary sources and interviews to examine the contradictions and failure of Japan’s occupation strategy in the Philippines, which relied on a policy mix of appeasement and conciliation to coopt the Filipino political and economic elites, while pursuing economic policies of extraction and exploitation that sought to mobilize Philippine resources for Japan’s war effort, policies that–compounded by the brutality of the occupation and the devastation wrought by the “Liberation” that brought it to an end– ultimately hindered Philippine economic development and left Filipinos with lingering, bitter memories of the war for many years.

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