Today I want to write about something that is, to put it mildly, not so cheerful. As I journey with people from various parts of the world through Japan, we naturally find time to discuss an array of topics. One of the reasons I like what I do is because it gives me lots of time to chat, think and theorize about these different faces of Japan. One question that I invariably receive from someone on the tour goes something like this. “The Japanese people are so nice! How could they have done all those horrible things in the war?” If that’s not a loaded question, I don’t know what is. Here is my attempt to interpret the question and explain some of the history that led up to the events of World War II. In no way am I qualified to justify or make unequivocal statements one way or another so some of this is necessarily opinion. The more I study history, the more I realize that black and white rarely exists in this world though. My American history lessons taught me that this was a battle between good and evil but I don’t believe that level of simplicity is possible in our complicated world.
First, I have a story of personal experience on this topic. In primary school, I remember reading a story about the war in which Tokyo is being bombed (most people don’t know that more people died in Tokyo than in Hiroshima or Nagasaki) and a little girl named Chii-Chan gets separated from her family. To read a strange, probably Google-translated summary of the story click here. Anyway, I am sitting in second grade Japanese elementary school in Tokyo and my teacher, who was older, starts discussing her memory of the air raids. She in no way allocated blame towards the Americans (a typical approach when Japanese discuss the war) or me, but all of a sudden my friends in class turn to me and go, “Aren’t you American? Weren’t they the ones that did the bombing?” There are so many weighty topics contained within that question that it would take a whole book to lay out. I just wanted to share this personal story that I remember so clearly. The war is over but it’s impact is certainly not.
Before discussing the question, I think it’s important to give a very brief overview of Japanese history leading up to the war. From the year 1600 to 1853, Japan for all intents and purposes isolated itself from the rest of the world and developed the culture we now think of as quintessentially Japanese. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry under the command of President Millard Fillmore forced Japan open by show of military strength so that Western powers could begin trading. Japan resisted initially, realized they couldn’t compete with modern weaponry, and opened up its borders. The Japanese became bitter at being forced to sign an unequal treaty that included exterritoriality (foreigners can get away with crimes they commit in Japan) and internationally set export/import controls but swallowed their pride and accepted the terms, not wanting to end up like their Asian neighbors around them, who were all being colonized by the very same West. They vowed to modernize/Westernize to compete on equal footing, beginning a consorted effort to bring in Western specialists, rewrite the constitution, modernize industry, and expand the military. The Meiji Emperor (Hirohito’s grandfather) was restored to power at this time (although still mostly nominally) and his government pursued the all-important ideals of Centralization, Westernization and Militarization. The latter two especially are crucial elements that led up to the world wars, at least in my opinion.
By the late 1800s/early 1900s the “100 million hearts beating as one” had accomplished the unimaginable, beating both of their giant neighbors China and Russia in military engagements, making Japan the first modern Asian nation and the first Asian nation to beat a Western power. The major global powers (besides Russia obviously) were pretty happy about this because no one liked them very much anyway, especially after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Japan was actually linked with the allies in World War I. Along the way, Japan annexed Korea, Taiwan, ports in China, half of a traditionally Russian island and eventually all of Manchuria in 1931. The justification essentially being, “Hey, everyone else is doing it”.
Japan’s government, until the late 1920s, functioned as a relatively democratic constitutional monarchy, having both elected and appointed positions and the Emperor the ultimate head of state. In the late 1920s however, military power began expanding. The military fabricated a series of international incidents (most famously the Mukden Incident of 1931) to justify taking more territory in Asia and assassinated dissenting members of the Japanese government (most famously the Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi in 1932). After this attempted coup d’etat the military was basically in control and continued taking more and more territory in Asia. The general population didn’t dissent because a) they weren’t told about the negative consequences, b) they were censored, c) Japan kept winning, and d) the economy remained strong, especially from the natural resources that flowed in from Korea and Manchuria. In 1937 the second Sino-Japanese War began and in 1940, Japan invaded Indo-China to cut off the flow of oil and resources flowing into China that were being used to fight the Japanese. The US became upset at Japanese expansionism and set an embargo on exports to Japan (eliminating Japan’s supply of oil), leading up to and culminating with the Pacific side of World War II, which killed an astonishing 75-80 million people globally.
So back to the question. How could the Japanese do such a thing?
First, I don’t think you can say “the Japanese” committed atrocities in World War II. I’m not denying that certain Japanese soldiers committed heinous acts including rape, murder, torture and probably genocide, but an entire race of people cannot be held responsible for the actions of some of its members. That is the very definition of racism and what leads people to justify committing horrible things against other people. When you see other people as monolithic faceless groups with no individual identity, it’s easier to define them by a single characteristic, deficiency or flaw and dehumanize them. I dislike it when people categorize other people in any one generalization because humanity is just not that simple (or boring).
Second, although horrible crimes were committed, a very small portion of the population took part in those crimes. This does not of course justify anything, but takes away from “the Japanese race commited these atrocities” argument. At the height of the Japanese Empire the Imperial Japanese Army encompassed around 6 million men, less than 10% of Japan’s population. Most were drafted into the military and all were indoctrinated with a heavy dose of propaganda surrounding the Emperor and the just cause of the Japanese Empire. Further, Japanese soldiers were encouraged to take and become addicted to Hiropon, a type of crystal meth. Hiropon was intended to dull their sense of hunger – and morality – when doing unspeakable things. When they returned home, about 10,000 were indicted for war crimes, around half of whom were convicted with jail terms and 1,000 of whom were executed in the famous International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which had its own set of problems including allegations of victor’s justice what to do about the Emperor.
Japan still seems be hated by Asia because of its lack of apology after World War II. I have a couple of comments on that. First, Japan has apologized unilaterally, both verbally (see list of apologies by decade) and monetarily (to 54 nations). The problem, however is a) they do not sufficiently teach the war in textbooks, periodically coming out with books that have something like one page on the entire Pacific War and b) the existence of Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japanese war dead, including Class A convicted and executed war criminals. I think Japan needs to be more forthright on those two important points. Changing their stance on just these two issues would go a long way toward their international image.
That brings me to my final point, just like Americans think they are hated around the world, people think that all Asians hate Japanese. Au contraire on both counts. I have lived in the Middle East: the world does not hate America. And I have been to Ginza on a Saturday (Tokyo’s upmarket shopping district): other Asians love Japan, even if they don’t agree fully with their policies or how they have dealt with the past. I guess that’s kind of my point. We have to separate people groups from the terrible things that individuals within that group or their governments commit.Everyone has their demons if you dig deep enough. If Donald Trump is elected president, so help us God, I don’t want to be identified with pretty much anything he does, just like Japanese shouldn’t be lumped together with the crimes their ancestors or leaders committed. Perhaps they watched as evil men took over their country, but I don’t think we can lump the Japanese race together and say collectively that they acted evilly during World War II. Like I said, they should be more forthright and honest about their past. In today’s world I see this oversimplification and fear mongering for personal gains a lot, and I think it’s extremely dangerous. I want to be a part of a world that seeks to understand individual people, regardless of their race, their past or their affiliations.