The Japanese anti-war group Zenko, whose 37th annual conference just closed in Tokyo, is a critical voice of dissent to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, where “Class A” war criminals like Hideki Tojo, as well as many hundreds of common soldiers, are honored. Not all of the survivors of those soldiers are happy that their loved ones are enshrined at Yasukuni, and Zenko has organized support for Koreans and Okinawans who have brought suit in the Japanese courts to have the names of their fathers or grandfathers removed from the shrine. Kinjo Minoru, an Okinawan sculptor and leading voice against the US military presence on the island, is one of the litigants. He said his father did not fight for Imperial Japan willingly, and that official Japanese history is trying to erase the memory of the “Okinawa massacre”—in which military authorities ordered the island’s inhabitants to commit mass suicide rather than surrender to the US in July 1945, leading to hundreds of deaths.
When this reporter visited Yasukuni on Hiroshima Day, the day after the Zenko conference ended, a Japanese nationalist was keeping vigil outside the entrance with a home-made sign (in both Japanese and English) decrying the “Fake of Nanking,” saying there is “no documentary evidence” to support the 1937 massacre and calling it propaganda of the “anti-Japan policy of China.” His hand-scrawled banner also accused China of “genocide” in Tibet, East Turkestan and Darfur.
The shrine is a magnet for such types, who seem to be multiplying rapidly in Japan. Many are better organized than this lone vigiler. Upon leaving the shrine, this reporter would see a minivan trailing a huge Japanese flag, with loudspeakers blaring pro-remilitarization propaganda. Sometimes they blare martial music, and fly the war-era flag, with rays emitted from the sun.
The shrine was first built after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, in which Japan entered the modern era, to honor warriors who fought for the emperor against recalcitrant shogunate loyalists unwilling to cede power. It is in an admittedly resplendent medieval style. Since access to the shrine’s interior is restricted to those who actually intend to pray, this reporter admired it from the outside and went to the accompanying museum, a modern affair assembled mostly over the past ten years. Those years have seen remilitarization become a major issue in Japan, and the Yasukuni museum is potent propaganda for the remilitarization drive. It is far more sophisticated and exacting in its attention to political, geographic and military detail than any museum in the United States. Most of the exhibits are in both Japanese and English.
One room is dedicated to the ancient and medieval periods, generally extolling those who fought for the emperors rather than the shoguns. The remaining 18 rooms are dedicated to the period since the Meiji Restoration, when the warrior system of the shoguns was rapidly transformed into a modern army. The first of these rooms documents the encroachment of European power and finally the United States in Asia, portraying Japan as the last bulwark of defense against the continent’s total submission to colonialism and neo-colonialism. Every one of Japan’s foreign wars is portrayed as a part of this struggle.
The distortions begin right away. The 1894 Sino-Japanese War is said to have secured Korean “independence.” In reality, it merely saw Korea move from the Chinese to the Japanese influence sphere (and saw the first Japanese troops permanently stationed in China). Such propaganda would not work with the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, which marked the beginning of 40 years of outright Japanese occupation of Korea. This is instead portrayed as an impetus to the anti-colonialist forces of Asia, who were encouraged by Japan’s victory over a European army.
Such little-known campaigns as Japan’s World War I expedition to the Mediterranean are documented, and it is noted with pride that Japan joined the intervention against Soviet Russia in 1917. Much is made of the fact that Japan’s 1919 proposal for amending a “racial equality clause” to the covenant of the League of Nations was rejected by the United States and Britain.
The propaganda rapidly gets uglier as the cataclysm of World War II approaches. Every incident of Chinese “terrorism” against the Japanese military in the 1930s is portrayed in lugubrious detail, in panel after panel. Never is the question raised of what right Japan had to be in China in the first place—an obvious lapse given that the European military presence there is portrayed as an affront against Asian dignity. In a nod to accuracy, one line of text does note that the 1931 sabotage of a Japanese-owned rail line at Mukden was actually instrumented by the Japanese military itself. This admission somehow does not upset the exhibit’s case that Chinese “terrorist” provocation forced a reluctant Japan to occupy Manchuria.
The 1937 Rape of Nanking is, predictably, refered to as the “Nanking Incident,” and gets short treatment in comparison to the several panels devoted to Chinese “terrorism.” The viewer is informed that Japanese troops behaved in China’s then-capital with “strict military discipline.” The only reference to atrocities reads: “Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes were severely prosecuted.”
In the lead-up to the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, several panels document Japan’s position of dependence on US imports of oil, minerals and other critical material—implicitly arguing that this left Japan with no alternative but to seize Southeast Asia, and that this necessitated destroying the US Pacific fleet. The imposition of oil sanctions by the US in response to the aggression in China is portrayed as forcing Japan’s hand. Several panels document Japanese diplomatic efforts to avoid sanctions. The text of a Japanese missive to US Secretary of State Cordell Hull praising Hitler for standing up against Soviet designs for the “socialization of the world” is presented with no sense of distance or irony.
The text of the Imperial Rescript of Dec. 8, 1941, ordering the Pearl Harbor attack, is presented in full. There is again not a shred of ironic distance from its Orwellian war-is-peace rhetoric. Excerpts:
To insure the stability of East Asia and to contribute to world peace is the far-sighted policy which was formulated by Our Great Illustrious Imperial Grandsire… To cultivate friendship among nations and to enjoy prosperity in common with all nations has always been the guiding principle of Our Empire’s foreign policy. It has been truly unavoidable and far from Our wishes that Our Empire has now been brought to cross swords with America and Britain. More than four years have passed since China, failing to comprehend the true intentions of Our Empire, and recklessly cultivating trouble, disturbed the peace of East Asia and compelled Our Empire to take up arms… Patiently we have waited and long we have endured in the hope that Our Government might retrieve the situation in peace. But our adversaries, showing not the least spirit of conciliation, have unduly delayed a settlement; and in the meantime, they have intensified the the economic and political pressure to compel thereby Our Empire to submission. This trend of affairs would, if left unchecked, not only nullify Our Empire’s efforts of many years for the sake of the stabilization of East Asia, but also endanger the very existence of Our Nation. The situation being such as it is, Our Empire for its existence and self-defense has no other recourse but to appeal to arms and crush every obstacle in its path.
Japan’s campaigns in the Pacific, Philippines, Southeast Asia and Burma are again portrayed in loving detail. The “turning point” of Midway and Guadalcanal is acknowledged briefly. The disaster of 1945 is dealt with in the following terse line: “By 1945, Japan had lost Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Its homeland had been reduced to ashes by air raids and atomic bombs, and for the first time in history, the nation experienced the agony of defeat.” The Imperial Rescript of Aug. 15, 1945, ordering Japan’s surrender, is noted—but not a word of it is quoted.
Even after this, the exhibit attempts to rehabilitate Japan’s aggression: “The colonizers who had been defeated by Japan early in World War II could not suppress the ideals that Japan had advanced after World War I and were subsequently rejected—racial equality and self-determination for the peoples of Asia—by military force. One after another, the nations of Southeast Asia won their independence, and their success inspired Africa and other areas as well.” This is really an admirable bit of chutzpah, given that Southeast Asia’s independence leadership (such as Ho Chi Minh, whose photo is presented along with this text) had also resisted the Japanese as a colonial power during the war.
The penultimate room shows the photos of all those honored at the shrine. Tanks, warplanes, torpedoes and artillery fill the final room. The 30-minute “documentary” film accompanying the exhibit (only in Japanese) is a relentless barrage of war footage and swelling military music.
The contemporary world situation shows these exhibits is a particularly terrifying light. George Bush, who needs partners for his Iraq adventure, is encouraging Japan’s remilitarization—which ultimately means complicity with the revisionism which is its necessary conmitant. This complicity is made even deeper by the obvious reality that Bush’s bogus justifications for the Iraq invasion closely mirror Hirohito’s for the Pearl Harbor attack—albeit sans the archaic flowery prose. Therefore, it is not surpising that (as we noted in our last report from Japan) some figures in Tokyo’s ruling political elite are now also embracing US revisionism about the war crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Zero-sum thinking continues to prevail on these issues. If China is complicit with genocide in Darfur, therefore the Rape of Nanking didn’t happen. If the Rape of Nanking did happen, then the atomic bombings were justified. The Japanese ultra-right (those who blare propaganda from megaphones outside Yasukuni) generally do not share in the Hiroshima apologism, and support both remilitarization and breaking the security pact with the US. Bush’s policy, paradoxically, strengthens their hand—just as US support for political Islam in Afghanistan in the 1980s strengthened the hands of bitterly anti-US forces who ultimately took power.
Consistent anti-militarist voices such as Zenko sorely need to be brought to bear. Zenko adherents this July held an International Peoples Tribunal on the Dropping of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Working with surviving hibakusha as plaintiffs, they convened a panel of jurists and international law scholars, including Prof. Lennox Hinds of Rutgers University, Prof. Carlos Vargas of Costa Rica University and Prof. IE Masaji of Japan’s Himeji Dokkyo University, and brought evidence that Harry Truman, James Byrnes, Henry Stimson and other defendants violated the Geneva Conventions in their decision to use the bomb on civilian population centers. This work gives Zenko unique legitimacy to challenge the official Japanese revisionism represented by Yasukuni.
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