The Holocaust Historiography Project

A postwar view of the Greater East Asia War

Michiko Hasegawa

In striking contrast to the situation in North America and Europe, historical revisionism enjoys widespread support and even official sanction in Japan. The growing willingness of the Japanese to reassess their nation’s role in the “Greater East Asia War” received worldwide attention during the so-called “textbook controversy” of 1962, when new Japanese high school history textbooks were introduced that portrayed Japan’s wartime role in a more positive light. Recent documentary films and “docudrama” television series about the war years have also contributed to the revisionist trend. And last August Yasuhiro Nakasone became the first postwar Prime Minister to make an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, a Shinto holy place in Tokyo honoring Japanese war dead, including wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and other leaders who were hanged by the Americans as war criminals.

The article that follows is reprinted from a special 1984 issue of the attractive quarterly magazine, Jupan Echo, which consisted entirely of revisionist essays. It was widely distributed by the Toyota Motor Company, Japan Air Lines and the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Hayao Shimizu of the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies introduced the special issue with an editorial essay entitled “The War and Japan: Revisionist Views.” Besides the various objective factors, he wrote, the subjective or psychological factor behind the remarkable recent growth of revisionism in Japan has been “the fervent enthusiasm ordinary people have shown for reconfirming their identity by means of a fresh look at history.” The impetus has not come from scholars, but is rather based on a growing desire “among the Japanese in general to re-establish their sense of national identity.” Shimizu went on to explain: “Perhaps we can say that at the root of such developments is a manifestation of the natural nationalism of the Japanese, which for most of the post war period was suppressed, sometimes openly and at other times in covert fashion.” Not surprisingly, leftists in Japan and abroad are not happy with this trend. “Clearly the direction being taken by the [historical] debate is not welcomed by those favorably inclined to the Marxist slant on history.”

— Mark Weber

From Darkness to Nothingness

Individuals in any era perceive a demarcation between the years preceding and following their own births. On a subconscious level, the years preceding one’s birth are bathed in darkness to a greater or lesser degree. Birth is the beginning of time for an individual; anything occurring before this precedes time itself.

To those of us born around 1945 or 1946, however, this perception of time is neither individualistic nor subconscious. Actual darkness surrounds the time of our birth, so this darkness is not only perceived by us but also admitted by the adults we grew up with. Those of us born in the immediate postwar years see ourselves as children born of darkness.

The shadows of that darkness still remained when we were children. At the foot of an ancient burial mound that we used as a playground was an air raid shelter with its two entrances forced open. We were sternly warned not to go inside, for accidents involving children trapped in abandoned air raid shelters were common at the time. Yet motivated by something stronger than simple curiosity — more of a yearning — we wanted very much just once to enter and experience an air raid.

Adult talk in those days always returned to memories of the war — to searchlights crisscrossing the sky and confirming the presence of B-29s as they flew serenely above the reach of anti-aircraft guns. To the incendiary bombs that fell by the gate of the house in front of ours. To mother trembling in fear, father rushing out with buckets to quench the fire, and mother’s resentment at his delayed return. They would say, “I never want to go through that again,” and yet on their faces we saw the intense excitement common to survivors of disaster, and we regretted not having shared the experience. Glimpsed in this way, the darkness of the past remained mysterious, half-frightening and half-enticing.

This childish curiosity gradually subsided as we reached school age, but now we were taught that the war years were a dark age in a totally different sense of the word. In addition to the period’s shortages of food, clothing, and fuel and the ever~present danger of bombardment from the skies, we learned that the very light of reason itself had been abandoned. The war years were said to resemble the Dark Ages, that label used until recently to characterize the early European Middle Ages. We were taught that for inexplicable reasons the entire country had gone mad, thinking it could achieve the impossible and convinced that wrong was right.

If darkness carries this latter meaning, then defining oneself as a product of darkness is not comforting. We imagined that those responsible for the creation of the dark age had been punished and that the rest had repented and exorcised the darkness from themselves. The period, in short, was obliterated. Instead of seeing ourselves as children of darkness, accordingly, we became accustomed to the idea that we were born of nothingness.

The Blotted-out Word

Now that the postwar generation has reached maturity, for some reason I have been reading up on the war years. Records have been left by people of varying status and describe a multitude of experiences. They tell of soldiers burdened with cooking pots dragging their way across an endless plain in northern China, of engineers stifling in the polluted atmosphere of a submarine, of pilots in New Guinea taking off from Rabaul for an attack on Port Moresby, and of soldiers dying in the jungle of Guadalcanal. There are records of the officer at an operational headquarters who heard the report of the total annihilation of the Japanese on Attu Island and of families fleeing across Manchuria’s Greater Khingan Range under Russian fire. Totally immersed in that era, I would suddenly glance at the sky, breathing a sigh of relief that, miraculously, no enemy planes hovered overhead.

After several months thus spent, a single reality, a word, began to form in my mind. On first perceiving it faintly, I realized that I had previously understood nothing of war. Simultaneously I understood what it was that had been cast in the oblivion of darkness and that no one would mention. It was the word enemy.

This word itself produced the war years, and consequently in the postwar era even its mention was taboo. In descriptions of the war, victims killed by fires in the great incendiary bombings of Tokyo “died in the air raids.” Soldiers shot down by Chinese troops immediately upon disembarking from ships at Shanghai, and soldiers killed by hand grenades tossed into the underground tunnels on Iwo Jima, “died in the war.” Even those instantly incinerated in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “died when the atomic bombs fell,” as if God, by some slip of the hand, had let the bombs drop from heaven. This is not a question of phrasing. In reviewing the events of the war, the Japanese intentionally omit the word enemy.

Overlooking the existence of an enemy during wartime and describing only the deeds of one side cause such deeds to appear crazy and barbarous. And indeed we were taught that such was the nature of Japanese actions in the war. The extent to which the word enemy had been blotted out of contemporary society is extraordinary. The concept still exists in the world of crime, the sports world, and the Communist Party, but has been obliterated in the realm of international affairs.

This is a critical situation. Even in considering prevention of future wars, people seeing themselves as having no external enemies can conceive only of watching over their own country. Suppose the Soviet Union should decide to invade Japan. Ample grounds exist for supposing such an attack, so what steps should be taken? More fundamentally, how can an invasion be deterred? And yet in Japan, not even common-sense anti-war measures can be discussed without raising ideological hackles. (One segment of opinion holds that it is the United States that bears watching. The concern, however, is not that a Japanese-American military conflict will break out. It is that the United States, though a country much like Japan, is nonetheless a rival.)

In contemporary Japan, one comes across little of the humility that would admit to less than full understanding of the causes of war. Only with such humility will we gain the prudence to reevaluate potential sources of trouble in the complex world around us. Having determined that Imperial Japan’s militarism is the sole danger we must guard against, we have closed our eyes to the true dangers of war. The situation is much like the way in which a majority of the Japanese fought the last war, disregarding the size and strength of the enemy. To be sure, when an attack by a formidable power is so overwhelming that escape is impossible, perhaps the best tactic is blind and desperate struggle, and indeed this is exactly how Japan conducted the war. But in a situation requiring deterrence rather than battle, blindness is less than helpful.

We must first review the meaning of the war using the word enemy precisely and fearlessly so that the prewar generation can revise its understanding of those years and we of the postwar generation can appreciate the era that bore us. This is the minimum essential step.

Fusao Hayashi’s Dai Toa senso kotei ron (In Affirmation of the Great East Asia War) is an example of a review fulfilling this modest requirement. Contrary to what many people assume, this book. expounds no ideology and asserts no dogma. It simply reviews in candid fashion the war’s significance. In such a review, the reality of the enemy is immediately apparent. The enemies Japan actually faced — the groups of living human beings possessing power and will — are acknowledged.

The Reaction to the West

Hayashi interprets the war as the last phase of a “100-Year East Asia War” that began at the end of the Tokugawa period [in the 1860s]. To contemporary readers accustomed to the notion that each four or five years marks a “new age,” this 100-year span may appear unfashionably long. The long span may also appear to imply that Hayashi is not really making a serious analysis of the period. But his purpose is not frivolous. He uses the term because a war of 100 years' duration did indeed take place.

When one considers that this 100-year period corresponds roughly with the heyday of colonialism in world history, it does not seem absurdly long. The interval from when the West began its serious conquest of Asia and Africa until a majority of the colonized countries regained their independence was slightly over 100 years. During that time, no Asian or African country was exempt from its own tragic 100-year war. The hopelessness of these struggles is seen in the fact that in only two cases, the Ethiopian victory over Italy in 1896 and the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905, did the underdog come out on top.

Japan’s own 100-year war was but a minor part of that larger struggle. Though Japan may be seen as having been one of the more victorious countries, it never succeeded in shaking off the enemy. Some Japanese argue that in the course of that long period only Japan of all the nations of Asia and Africa, managed to break free and brilliantly achieve a position on the “enemy side.” The world powers, however, neither acknowledged nor approved of this achievement. The deeply rooted white intolerance of other races is evident in the boycotts of Japanese goods conducted by the West in the 1930s. Japan was not allowed to be other than an Asian nation, and it never attempted to be anything else.

A tragedy is a struggle by a protagonist against destiny that is doomed to end in defeat. Japan’s very determination to make a stand as an Asian nation turned its struggle into a true tragedy. Hayashi makes precisely this point: “The 100-Year East Asia War was a hopeless struggle from the outset. Yet the fight had to be fought, and Japan fought it. What a reckless war we fought for 100 years!”

When a petty protagonist undertakes a gigantic task for the sake of petty gains, the drama may be seen as more of a farce than a tragedy, even if the outcome is disastrous. When most people speak of the tragedy of the war, what they really mean to say is that it was a farce with an unhappy ending. Hayashi, however, rejects this view. He refuses to call the war a farce, not to preserve the honor of the war dead but because he sees it as an erroneous view.

A perception of the 100-year war as a tragedy naturally must begin with a revised understanding of its roots in the last years of the Tokugawa regime. Hayashi dates the beginning of the war from the 1863 bombardment of Kagoshima by British ships and the 1864 bombardment of Shimonoseki by the vessels of several Western powers. In these two episodes of “Japanese history,” the Japanese became acquainted with several Western countries that fill the pages of “world history.” As the Japanese perceived this “world history,” the West was brimming with vitality and full of ambitious people who used great power and devious strategems to achieve their ends — and who sometimes failed, Interestingly, the other Japanese view — that from the vantage point of “Japanese history” -somehow managed to strip the West of this vitality. The Japanese paintings of foreigners in the early Meiji era are revealing. Westerners like Commodore Matthew Perry are depicted with strangely deformed features robbing them of their character as Westerners. “Japanese history” failed to portray the freshness of the West.

Like Hayashi, however, the Japanese leaders in those days no doubt saw the Westerners in the context of “world history.” They saw faces that, just over 10 years earlier, had stuffed Indians into cannons and blown them apart. They saw people who had made a national enterprise out of the forced sale of opium in China. With this smoking gun aimed directly at them, the Japanese rallied behind the slogans “Expel the Barbarians,” “Open the Nation,” and “Embark on Civilization and Enlightenment.” In Hayashi’s view, the “expel the barbarians” and “civilization and enlightenment” slogans were not the assertions of opposing ideologies. Both expressed awareness of the threat posed by the Western powers' eastward advance. In this threat was contained the essence of the tragic 100-Year East Asia War. And as I shall explain later, it contained an even deeper tragedy than that seen by Hayashi.

The commonplace perception of the movements toward “expelling the barbarians” and “civilization and enlightenment” as totally separate phenomena is an error made by later generations. Had the Meiji Japanese looked at the West solely as an excellent model, imitating it in dress, food, and creation of an army, a navy, and a constitution, they would eventually have come to regard a Japanese invasion of other Far Eastern countries as a logical conclusion. Modeling themselves after the West to this logical extreme would have been a laughable, grotesque farce. The so-called intellectuals apart, the ordinary Japanese never forgot that their century-long movement toward “civilization and enlightenment” was at the same time a century-long movement to “expel the barbarians.” The powers and circumstances surrounding Japan did not allow the Japanese to forget this fact even temporarily.

The Roots of the Pacific War

The Western powers' advance into Asia was not a temporary phenomenon of the years preceding the Meiji Restoration of 1868. As evidenced in the Triple Intervention, by which Russia, France, and Germany forced Japan to relinquish some of its gains from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, [1] Europe made a continuing issue of its expansionist interests in the Far East. Not long thereafter an additional threat appeared on the scene — that posed by the United States. Having acquired the Philippines in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the American forces suppressed an independence movement, killing, according to some, one-sixth of the Philippine population. The U.S annexation of Hawaii also occurred in 1898, and Secretary of State John Hay proposed the Open Door policy for China in 1899.

The drive to the west had brought Americans to their west coast. After a brief pause, they began moving farther west, this time across the pacific. The earlier European thrust into the Far East that had so frightened the Japanese of the late Tokugawa period exhausted its energies on India first and then Southeast Asia and China, so it had run out of steam by the time it reached Japan. Now, however, the United States was on the move, and its thrust seemed to be aimed directly at Japan. Eventually a direct U.S blow on Japan was to be struck with the July 1941 embargo on oil shipments to Japan and the so-called Hull Note from Secretary of State Cordell Hull in November, which demanded among other things that Japan withdraw from China.

Information on Japanese-American relations on the eve of Pearl Harbor was concealed after the war, and only recently have people begun to talk. It has been revealed, for instance, that Washington had no intention of seriously negotiating in the talks held immediately prior to the war. It has even been claimed that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had foreknowledge of and anticipated the Japanese navy’s supposedly secret attack. The essential point, however, is not to solve the mystery of whether or not Roosevelt laid a trap for Japan. A more important need is to comprehend the overall design of America’s Pacific maneuvering.

Hayashi pinpoints the beginnings of the Pacific War in the immediate aftermath of the 1905 Portsmouth conference concluding the Russo-Japanese War. “This may strike many readers as an arbitrary or forced interpretation,” he cautions, but a comprehensive view of world history shows his interpretation to be a logical, even conservative, conclusion. Going back further, we might even treat the Spanish-American War as the beginning of the Pacific War, since from that time onward two powers faced each other across the Pacific Ocean.

The next question is whether or not open conflict between these two powers was inevitable. The period after the Russo-Japanese War, some people argue, may have been the last point — at which the Pacific War could have been prevented. This interpretation holds that perhaps confrontation could have been avoided had Japan accepted railway baron Edward H. Harriman’s proposal to join American interests with Japanese interests in Manchuria. In a time of conflict, runs this theory, the small Japanese nation on the edge of the Pacific, facing the Eurasian continent, was forced to ally itself either with Britain and the United States or with Russia. Since an Anglo-American alliance seemed more stable and reliable than a Russian one, Japan’s strategy should have been to promote harmonious relations with Britain and the United States. By its rejection of Harriman’s proposal, however, Japan weakened these ties, thereby choosing the road that led to the Pacific War.

Certainly from the standpoint of a single country or from a present-day analysis of strategies, this view seems correct. Further support can be found in the fact that Britain and the United States in those days had no designs on Japan, their interest instead lying in China. But just because Japan then had the opportunity to conclude an Anglo-American alliance does not mean that Japan should have concluded such an alliance. Such a decision would have been too narrowly nationalistic.

Japan did not fight for 100 years merely to protect its own borders. Had this been the case, later generations would clearly understand the reasons for such a defensive war. But in the long war fought by Japan, protection of its own boundaries was a minor issue. (This may be one reason the dispute over the Soviet-occupied “northern territories” today also seems to lack urgency.) National boundaries have grave significance only between countries belonging to the same cultural sphere. Japan’s struggle was for something more urgent and essential than national boundaries; its cultural sphere was threatened.

Fighting the Wrong Enemy

Today, since the great cultural sphere of Asia is not directly threatened, we fail to appreciate just how crucial the sphere is to Japan. Thus, when confronted with such grand visions as that of Tenshin Okakura, who expatiated on a conflict between Asia and the West, we tend to regard them as outdated or too generalized. Listening to many of the recently popular theories of Japanese character, one might think that Japan constituted a cultural sphere in itself. In earlier time, however, facing an imminent crisis in the entire Asian cultural sphere, the Japanese must have strongly sensed that their own survival was endangered should that cultural sphere be destroyed. When immediately threatened, people have no difficulty identifying their true lifelines.

Considering that Asia in those days was being choked by the West, one can easily imagine the Japanese people’s reluctance to be drawn into an Anglo-American alliance or to team up with Russia. This was literally unthinkable. Had Japan made such an alliance, there would have been no answer to the inevitable scathing criticism heaped on Japan from other Asian countries. The postwar strategy cannot be applied to the past. Even though the British and Americans were not directly attacking Japan at the time, as long as they continued to be oppressors in Asia, confrontation with Japan was inevitable.

We did not fight for Japan alone. Our aim was to fight a Greater East Asia War. For this reason, the war between Japan and China and Japan’s oppression of Korea were all the more profoundly regrettable, inexpressibly tragic events. Had Japan invaded China and Korea for its own benefit in thoughtless imitation of the West, this would not call for abject, prostrate apology. Japan merely would have been copying a normal mode of behavior in international society, where survival of the fittest is the law. Most countries would not even consider apology in such a case. Since Japan’s actions were not of this variety, however, today we can only face China, and especially Korea, with bitter regret.

To be sure, varying interpretations of Japanese activities are possible. For instance, the political ideals behind the actions and the realities of the actions may be branded inconsistent. In spite of the clearly anticolonialist ideals of the instigators of the takeover of Manchuria, the actual management of Manchuria was colonialist — an example of the gap between ideal and reality seen everywhere.

Another possible interpretation is that just as Japan’s vision was clouded by the prospect of immediate profit, so China and Korea newly awakened to the forces of nationalism, overreacted to the immediate Japanese threat in disregard of the major enemy. Those who tried to awaken their compatriots to the major enemy were branded traitors and died unrewarded. In any society those with unusual foresight and perception tend to be unappreciated. Yet we cannot but regret their treatment.

The American role must not be forgotten. Since nothing pleases war strategists more than division in enemy ranks, the United States supported the Chinese Nationalist government with loans and weapons in its war against Japan. That such aid was given on strictly humanitarian grounds is an interpretation straining belief.

After all is said and done, however, the reality remains that Japan went into the Asian continent to save it but ended up fighting against it. Hayashi does not evade this reality, nor does he attempt to rationalize or defend it, He simply grieves over it and sees in it the “coldheartedness of history.” Abjectly apologizing to neighboring countries without appreciating coldhearted history is sheer sycophancy. The kind of people who engage in such conduct are those most likely to repeat past mistakes.

Was 'Liberation of Asia' Mere Demagoguery?

In the face of coldhearted history, minor controversies like last summer’s uproar over the appropriateness of the word invasion in school textbooks seem petty. The essential point is an accurate understanding of the crisis that threatened all of Asia and the actions of Japan in response to that crisis. If we wish to accuse the Japanese of an invasion, then revision should begin with accounts of Columbus’s discovery of America in 1492, renaming it “the first step in the invasion of the New World.” After such changes, we would recognize how few movements in history are not invasions. We would also realize that labeling Japan’s engagements in China and Korea invasions is a gross oversimplification.

Japan’s actions in Southeast Asia are more easily understood. To these peoples, familiar with Western power through their direct experience as colonies under white domination, the mutual enemy appeared more clearly than it did to the Chinese and Koreans. The collaboration with Japan by Subhas Chandra Bose of India, Ba Maw of Burma, and Jose Laurel of the Philippines, as well as the Thai participation in the war, evidence a keen awareness of the need somehow to break free of white domination.

The Japanese troops were not dispatched southward as messengers of friendship and amity, however, but as combatants in a life-or-death struggle. Consequently, many Southeast Asians were alienated by the harsh Japanese actions. In addition, the Allied forces naturally drafted natives of their colonies into military service, so that Japanese and Southeast Asian soldiers often found themselves facing each other on the battlefield. Had Japan’s southern advance been less of a blitzkrieg (for Japan itself as well), there might have been time to lay ample foundations for a “war of Asian liberation.” Japan, however, was unable to control the timing and scale of the fighting, and even the question of war or peace was outside its control.

The decision to wage war made by the General Staff Office of the Imperial Headquarters was a reaction to the American embargo on oil shipments to Japan. Washington made this decision when its own war preparations had reached an advanced stage. In other words, the decision to fight was made neither by the Imperial Headquarters nor by the emperor but by the American government. As the United States advanced its pawns across the board, Japan was doing its best merely to keep up. Far from conducting the Greater East Asia War according to some blueprint, Japan was not even allowed time to draw up a blueprint. That Japan was forced into the fight with much of Asia still on the other side is a source of infinite regret.

Did our Greater East Asia War really result in total defeat? The former colonies that became battlegrounds all gained their independence during or after the war, and they have not fallen into white hands again. What are we to make of this fact? In the postwar years we were taught that this was an incidental byproduct of that detestable war. Yet as Japan’s official statements on war objectives make clear, the goal was to free East Asia from British and American domination and establish the area’s self-defense and independence. Again, if one asks Japanese war veterans why they fought, the reply comes that they believed they were fighting to liberate Asia. And indeed, Asia was liberated. It is a curious logic that denies any connection between this purpose and the war’s outcome. Is history so difficult that it can only be understood through such a strange logic?

Applying this logic to the American Civil War will illustrate its distortion. It is generally recognized that the Civil War was fought not merely over the slavery issue but also over fundamental economic differences between the North and the South. Northern soldiers objected to having to die for the “niggers,” but they fought nonetheless because other issues were involved. Even Lincoln’s renowned Emancipation Proclamation was motivated by a hope to stimulate domestic and foreign support for the embattled Northern troops and to enhance the Northern position. Yet nobody today, except possibly some people in isolated regions of the Deep South, would maintain that the Emancipation Proclamation was an empty farce and that the concept of freeing slaves was foisted on the common people by a prowar Yankee faction attempting to cover up its invasion of the South. Nobody would cry out against the loss of young lives as a result of such demagoguery and insist that militarism must never again be permitted. Why is this interpretation so unpopular? Because the North won the war.

But Japan lost, and defeat included denial of the ideals for which the losers fought as well as denial of their accomplishments. This was simply the inverse of “might makes right.”

Why is it that people do not look at history honestly? Such honesty is what Hayashi means by calling for “affirmation” of the Greater East Asia War. His sole contention throughout the book is that we should accept things for what they are. Underlying his hope that truth will prevail is his concern for the next generation. What will result if those responsible for building the postwar world do so in willful disregard of the realities of the past? Hayashi is pessimistic about a generation brought up to consider itself a product of “nothingness.” We ought not to deny the validity of his concern.

The Emergence of Japanese Supernationalism

We should ask one more simple question that Hayashi never addresses. Why, in this postwar period, do we so resolutely refuse to face obvious reality? This is not a rhetorical question. Contained in the answer is a mystery and paradox of Japanese thought. Without the answer to this question, we cannot theorize about the nature of the Japanese people.

Why for so long after the war have the Japanese insisted that, they alone were in the wrong, causing them to brand as peculiar all the arguments of people like Hayashi who see the fighting for what it was? One easy answer is that the seven years of occupation and censorship implanted this mindset. Another quick response is that communist propaganda is to blame. Throughout Japan’s long history, the Japanese may have appeared to accept foreign doctrines without protest, hut the truth is that they have never really accepted any way of thinking that threatened their traditional values. (The failure of Christianity to take root is a good example of this.) If the unreasonable condemnation of the Greater East Asia War posed a true threat to what we call Yamato damashii, or the Japanese spirit, then the Japanese would have soon dismissed whatever the U.S. occupation authorities or the Kremlin said about the war.

If now, 30 years after the occupation, the Japanese continue to reiterate assertions originally made by the occupation authorities, may not the reason be that on some unconscious level these assertions reflect a basically Japanese way of thought? Hayashi does not carry his argument this far. He simply laments the “dementia of the defeated.” However, he misses one small fact. He states, “I forget which politician coined the slogan '100 million people united in repentance,' but undoubtedly he was of the same lineage as the politicians who, during the war, used the slogan '100 million people united in outrage.'” The dementia of the defeated, he insisted, is evident in the former slogan. The author of the slogan, however, was none other than General Kanji Ishihara, one of the prewar figures like the nationalists Shumei Okawa and Ikki Kita whom Hayashi holds in high esteem in his book. Ishihara was not cringing before the Allies by using this expression. He was not apologizing for having helped cause the war. He was suggesting that the responsibility for defeat should be shared by the entire nation.

Did everyone simply misunderstand what Ishihara was proposing? Let us consider the thinking that led to his view. Underlying his concept of national repentance was regret over the uncharacteristic behavior that the Japanese were forced into during the century beginning with the demise of the Tokugawa regime [1868]. The true tragedy of the 100-Year East Asia War was that “expulsion of the barbarians” was possible only through deliberate westernization. Asian nations like the Indian Mogul Empire and the Chinese Ch'ing Empire that proudly maintained their own cultures were toppled by Western power. Japan realized that only through discarding traditional Japanese qualities could it preserve its independence and culture. In other words, Japan chose to preserve bushido, “the way of the warrior,” by shearing the samurai’s topknot.

Even more fundamental and less apparent in this process of westernization, the Japanese began to subscribe to the characteristically Western world view of dividing nations into friends and foes, of recognizing foes as enemies, and of behaving antagonistically toward enemies. By accepting this confrontational world view, Japan barely managed to sustain itself through several crises. This may have been an inevitable way for Japan to proceed, but it was nonetheless regrettable. Thinking in this way, Ishihara made the following declaration concerning Japan’s new Constitution: “When either the Americans or the Soviets press for Japan’s rearmament sometime in the future, we must never submit to this request no matter how powerful the pressure.”

After the war, sensing the passing of a crisis, the Japanese felt that they could finally be themselves. They did not misinterpret Ishihara’s slogan. Instead they took to heart the message that underlay it.

The Japanese determined never again to take up residence in the violent Western-style international community. No matter how much power was being brandished or what enemy was making threats, they decided, they would turn a blind eye. Should a dispute occur, they would attribute it to their negligence or handle it as a misunderstanding. They refused to view the world in any other way. This “peaceful world view” adopted by each individual Japanese is the heart of a characteristically Japanese way of thought. It is a true form of supernationalism. Based on this philosophy, postwar Japan’s energy was wholly directed toward reconstruction rather than toward revenge.

Japanese Folk Wisdom

What Hayashi sees as the dementia of the defeated is actually the natural sagacity of the Japanese. One aspect of this folk wisdom lies in the fact that its possessors are themselves unaware of it. The Japanese fail to realize that when trade friction occurs or a textbook controversy breaks out, their policy of simply offering apologies left and right amounts to a firm expressiop of Japanese nationalism.

Perhaps the unconscious quality of this folk wisdom is even its salient characteristic. The moment that we become aware that it is a form of nationalism, it will lose its folk quality. This is because the “peaceful world view” is based not on assertiveness but on acceptance of outside views. The view would not hold up were it to become an ideological creed. That is, the quality of the peaceful world view would be substantially altered were Japan to turn this view into an ideology and announce it as an article of public faith. Yet the Japanese cannot abandon the peaceful world view and docilely accept one of the confrontational views popular in other countries, which see the world as an area of powers balanced against and clashing with other powers, for these views run contrary to the Japanese spirit.

In the postwar period, the Japanese have managed to sustain this precarious outlook that the rest of the world shares our peaceful world view and that Japan is simply drifting safely within the confines of such a view. So convinced, we can espouse the peaceful world view not as a Japanese assertion but as an article of universal faith. This is indeed an elegant answer to the predicament posed to the Japanese outlook.

The preamble to the Constitution provides the classic statement of this ideal state subscribed to by the Japanese. “We, the Japanese people, desire peace for all time and are deeply conscious of the high ideals controlling human relationship, and we have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world. We desire to occupy an honored place in an international society striving for the presevation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance for all time from the earth … We believe that no nation is responsible to itself alone, but that laws of political morality are universal; and that obedience to such laws is incumbent upon all nations… “

What is expressed here is precisely Japan’s peaceful world view. International society is supposedly founded upon sympathy for others and mutual friendly relations. It is not the bloody arena directly experienced by Japan throughout the 100-year war. Nor is it the world today, where battles still rage to banish “tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance.” Japan withdrew from such a world, redefined the meaning of international society so that it would not conflict with the Japanese spirit, and declared its intention to dwell peacefully in the community thus created.

The supernationalist ideology outlined in the Constitution is a key national principle in addition to the emperor system. Anyone questioning this ideology is considered unpatriotic. Nevertheless, the actual circumstances under which the Constitution was written were far from the “international society” it presupposes. The overriding purpose in its drafting was to prevent the defeated country from ever again rising to threaten the victor. In short, the hope was to subjugate the Japanese. Japan’s desperate, all-out struggle to fend off subjugation finally succeeded in reducing the threat to Japan to the form taken by the Constitution. Yet we not only fail to pay proper respect to our predecessor’s struggle; we are not allowed even to remember that it occurred. People subconsciously fear that recognition of this reality may somehow rupture their dream of a peace-loving world.

There is one major and critical difficulty in this adept evasion of reality. This is that regardless of Japan’s own slant on the nature of the international society in which it sees itself as living, a majority of the world’s people have adopted a different slant. They still view international society entirely in terms of power and treat Japan as just one more player in the power game. Japan’s plight is that it must live as if it were completely unaware that others calculate all their moves on the basis of power — in fact, it must work actively to remain ignorant of such calculations. And when Japan unintentionally creates power or a power vacuum by its own actions, the Japanese can only wait in anxious suspension for the repercussions in the power equations of other countries. Recent cases of trade friction are one small example of this.

Understanding Ourselves

“We, the Japanese people have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice. and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world,” runs the preamble to the Japanese Constitution. Yet in other countries, justice, faith, and love of peace are perceived to be conditions that move to the fore or recede depending on the results of calculations of power. Without understanding these calculations, we stake our own security and existence on them. Even the boldest gambler would pale and tremble at a gamble of this magnitude. Japan, however is accepting this gamble without so much as the twitch of an eyebrow.

We should not simply dismiss the peace-loving world view of the Constitution as illusion and affirm that the only realistic world view sees power in conflict with power. If our international society is an illusion, the confrontational world is no less so. Like our premise, the premise of inevitable antagonism between opposing forces cannot be proven. The only certainty is that we live in a world in which Japan has its characteristic illusions and other countries have theirs. We can no longer close our eyes to this truth, for to do so is fraught with danger.

The day when we could protect our identity by closing our eyes is ending. It is time that we opened our eyes, learned about ourselves, and grappled in earnest with the problem of preserving our identity. The popularity over the last dozen years of various theories of Japanese character is evidence that people have begun to sense that this problem is an important one. As yet. however, people are not certain what they should be looking for. Theories of Japanese character are being bandied about in the fashion of children playing with building blocks — tossing and chewing the blocks without creating any structure.

Who are we? How can we be ourselves? In order to make these simple questions meaningful, we must once more review the significance of the war. In Japan’s long history, only during this 100-year period was it necessary to wage war to preserve our identity. In order to wage this war, inevitably we were made increasingly aware of this identity. The climactic and concluding phase of that struggle in particular must be candidly reassessed. Only when we fully understand what lay at its depths will we be able to deny that “holy war,” the Greater East Asia War, and truly begin anew.

This article first appeared in Chuo Koren, April 1983, and then, in translation, in Japan Echo, Vol. XI, Special Issue, 1984. Reprinted with permission of Japan Echo, Moto Akasaka Bldg., 1-7-10 Moto Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107, Japan.


[1] The treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in April 1895, ended the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. The treaty recognized Korea’s independence of China and ceded Formosa (Taiwan) and the Liaotung peninsula to Japan. But later that month Russia, France, and Germany informed Japan of their concern over the prospect of the Liaotung peninsula’s being transferred to Japan and “advised” its return to China. Japan, exhausted by the war with China and faced with the threat of forcible resistance by at least one of the powers, Russia, was forced to yield to this demand. — Ed., Japan Echo.

Bibliographic information
Author: Michiko Hasegawa
Title: A postwar view of the Greater East Asia War
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: Winter 1985-6
Issue: Volume 6 number 4
Location: p. 451
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: “Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.