Friday, December 5, 2008

Revisionist History in Japan

After many years of either teaching, studying or just reading history, I have become aware of the many views and contradictions in the narrative of historical events which depends on who is doing the writing. The same historical event will always be viewed differently and the historian will always find in his own biases the perceptions that shape his writings. Thus, events will be explained differently by those who belong to opposing countries, religions, cultures, political ideology or simply are anxious to be published in academia where “publish or perish” is the motto to follow, and the more controversial the writing, the better the chances of publication. The problems occur when the line is crossed between interpretation and denial. Historians can debate events within the Holocaust, however they cannot deny that Holocaust took place.

I decided to write about this after reading a report on the BBC dealing with firing of General Toshio Tamogami from his post as chief of the Japanese Air Force. This took place after he entered and won first prize in a history essay writing contest organized by the APA Group, a real estate company, where he promoted some very controversial revisionist ideas. Some of his most controversial statements were that Japan was entrapped by FDR, and Chiang Kai-shek into attacking Pearl Harbor, that the Comintern manipulated FDR and that failure to wage war would have made Japan into a white nation’s colony. He then proceeded to argue that the war ended up bringing prosperity to occupied China, Taiwan and Korea. Finally the essay argues that many Asian countries view the role of Japan positively. According to Tamogami the descriptions of Japanese brutality were mostly rumors spread by those who never witnessed it.

Revisionism in history is not a new phenomenon, and in some cases it even has a positive outcome, since it offers serious historians the intellectual exercise required to engage in the refutation of these theories. But in most cases the revisionist views remain in the peripheries of history. In the case of General Tamogami however, there are two differences, his position within the Japanese military hierarchy and the fact that the essay won first prize. This historical revisionism has gained support among many in Japan and especially in the Japanese military, where the glorious past with its samurais and bushido code are viewed through a nostalgic prism.

Now for a little bit of history. Leaving aside political and economic causation, I want to concentrate on the brutality of the Japanese during the period between the late 19the century and 1945. Tamogami denies the charges of brutality. But, like their Nazi allies, the Japanese forces were quite efficient in documenting their actions, and in many photographs one can actually see the pride exhibited by Japanese soldiers while performing the most despicable acts. For example, a bet between two officers as to which one of them will be the first one to kill one hundred Chinese with their samurai swords was used as a propaganda tool.

Starting in 1870, Japan emerged as a major power in Asia and began to flex its muscles demanding that Korea abandon the Chinese sphere of influence and move into the Japanese, and in China, territorial claims were soon followed by the invasion of Manchuria.

When Miura was appointed Japan’s resident minister extraordinary and plenipotentiary in Korea he ordered the assassination of Queen Min. The fact that Miura was found not guilty of this assassination while on trial in Japan, does not exculpate this action. In 1910, Korea was further humiliated when forced to sign the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty which kept Korea under Japanese occupation until 1945. By 1931 the invasion of Manchuria gave further evidence to the imperial ambition of Japan and their desire to rule over Greater Asia.

By 1939, five million Koreans were conscripted into forced labor, thousands of Koreans were forced to join the Japanese army and two hundred thousand Chinese and Korean women were forced to prostitute themselves by becoming what the Japanese euphemistically called comfort women. This is not historical conjecture, since many victims and witnesses are still alive, and Japanese officials admitted and apologized for these acts.

Unit 731 offers another example of Japanese behavior during the war. This unit was in charge of scientific experimentation, and their behavior was not different from the worst Nazi atrocities. Prisoners were subjected to vivisection, amputations and served as guinea pigs in the testing of biological weapons. All experiments were carried out without anesthesia, since it was believed that anesthetizing subjects would interfere with the results of the experiments.

The death toll in prisoners of war camps was 30%, 26% higher than in Nazi camps. Millions across Asia died of starvation when their rice was confiscated for shipment to Japan. The list continues and papers and books have been written documenting Japanese conduct during the war. General Tamogami has done an actual disservice to the cause he wants to promote, namely that Japan should rearm and become a military power not a dependant of the US for its security. With ideas such has his, I would take my time allowing the rearming of Japan. I am sure China, Korea, The Philippines, and the rest of Greater Asia feel the same way.

No comments: