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To achieve peace, we must honestly confront history of war

Author  :  Zhang Jianli     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-08-28

Aug. 15 marks the 72nd anniversary of Japan’s declaration of an unconditional surrender in the World Anti-Fascist War. For both Japan and the countries harmed by the war of aggression, it is a special day.


For more than a decade, Japan’s major TV channels have produced annual programs about the war. Most of these series focus on battlefield scenes from the Pacific Theater, which tend to focus on the suffering of Japanese soldiers and their bravery fighting in defense against Allied invasion. The arrangement of the facts in this way subtly reinforces a false narrative of victimization.


However, the content of some Japanese programs this year is showing signs of progress toward public acknowledgement of Japan’s war crimes.


Japanese TV station NHK recently aired two feature programs. The first, titled A Comprehensive Record of Air Raids in Japan, is similar to past war documentaries that focused on the effects of large-scale American bombings on Japanese soldiers.


But it also balanced the narrative with information about the more than 200 bombings Japan executed against Chongqing Municipality in Southwest China as well as the history of the surprise military attack by Japan against the US naval base at Pearl Harbor.


The second documentary, The Truth about Unit 731, is about an infamous Japanese military division responsible for cruel and lethal human experiments, such as vivisection and weapons testing on prisoners of war and the ordinary people who were mostly Chinese but also included Mongolians, Koreans, Russians and other Allied forces.


The program for the first time released excerpts of 20 hours of audio recordings made during the war crime trials, during which Unit 731’s former officers formally acknowledged their guilt.


The unit tested the effect of chemical, biological and explosive weapons on live subjects, and it also forcibly impregnated female prisoners by rape.


The frenzy of nationalism in the 1930s was shattered at the moment of Japan’s defeat. For years after the war, many Japanese people still refused to use their country’s national flag or even to sing the national anthem.


In order to restore patriotism among its people, Japan has only two options: It can thoroughly reject the national strategy that history has proven wrong and reestablish a national identity based on a repudiation of the country’s militaristic history. Alternatively, it can resist the narrative of the victorious countries about the nature of its war crimes and reconstruct its national identity by hearkening back to the country’s “glorious past.”


In reality, Japanese society tends to vacillate between these two diametrically different historical views.


However, the course of history cannot be assumed. To this day, each time the question of why the Japanese embarked on the path of war is posed, some ask: What if Japan had stopped after it successfully occupied the northeastern Chinese territory of Manchuria in 1931. Such discussions always stir heated debate online among Japanese citizens.


After the September 18 Incident, a false-flag attack the Japanese used as a pretext for invasion, there emerged two factions: the expansionists and the anti-expansionists. The former, which favored a strategy of military aggression, won the upper hand, which showed militarism’s inability to press on the brakes of aggression.


The vacillation of historical views, in addition to political ambiguity and obscurity, objectively leads to right-wing deviation. Some Japanese literary works such as the Red Moon on the Face, Vacuum, Trail—either deliberately or inadvertently—absolve ordinary Japanese soldiers of moral culpability.


The characters’ physical and mental suffering, trauma and wounds are vastly exaggerated in these works to distract from the underlying truth that they are in fact invaders. Though these works do not embellish the facts of war, they nevertheless fail to honestly confront history.


Since the end of the war, many people of Japan have developed a sense of shame about their identity as citizens of an abnormal country. The way that some politicians resolve these feelings of abnormality only places the country in a more precarious situation. It should be noted that a correct and wholesome national identity, as well as sustainable peace, can only be achieved by an unflinching examination of one’s history—the good and the bad.


Zhang Jianli is a research fellow from the Institute of Japanese Studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Editor: Yu Hui

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