Thursday 08 August 2002

Japanese remorse? Hardly.

Responding to Eric Olsen’s argument that “if the Armies of Allah are defeated, humiliated, crushed, scattered upon the four winds, then the whole philosophical house of cards collapses and you have a beaten, malleable people willing to accept a new way of life, such as Japan after WWII,” Burningbird wrote:

Eric bases his philisophical attitude about the importance of humiliation on his interpretation of Japan’s response to the atomic bombing, and how, in his opinion, they’ve become such good post-war partners because they believe that they deserved the atomic bomb. In reference to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Musem, he wrote:

The museum, the city, and the country emphasize peace and conflict resolution not because they don’t feel historical guilt for WWII, but because they do. The town and the museum almost revels in the details of the destruction wrought by the bomb, not out of self-pity, but out of a fundamental sense of sorrow and guilt FOR HAVING BROUGHT THIS DESTRUCTION UPON THEMSELVES.

The atomic bomb brought bitter remorse, not from those who dropped it, but from those whom it was dropped upon. Why remorse? Because they believe they deserved it.

I’m not going to respond to Eric’s assumptions about Japan, though I hope that Jonathon Delacour does. Jonathon, do you agree with this? Can this possibly be true?

No, I don’t agree with this. No, it can’t possibly be true.

Alan Cook has already responded to Shelley’s questions, lucidly exposing as ill-informed nonsense the “let’s humiliate the Arabs/Muslims just like we did the Japanese” position.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Eric posted in response to Paul Musgrave’s argument that:

The Japanese have long thought about World War II only in terms of the suffering they felt. Any sense of historical guilt for the actions of the wartime government (and remember, for Japan the “war” started in 1931) is, if there, entirely impossible to see. Contrast this attitude with Germany, where historical guilt has led to strong laws against Holocaust denial and the outright ban of the National Socialist Party. In Japan, the prewar parties are still extant, and are in fact in power; even more, the fate of the Showa Emperor (Hirohito) illustrates the continuity between pre- and postwar Japan.

Although Paul’s statement struck me as entirely reasonable, Eric was having none of it. Drawing on his visit to Hiroshima and “the conversations [he has] had with hundreds of Japanese from all walks of life about this subject,” Eric constructed a fantasy post-war Japan in which the Japanese “internalized the shame” of their humiliating defeat, embraced “the nobility of American ideals,” admitted that they had been entirely at fault in starting the war, and contritely accepted as well-deserved the destruction of most of their cities and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Nothing could be further from the truth. (And one can’t help noting the irony in the fact that Eric buttresses his argument with totally conventional, left-wing Japanese anti-war sentiment, which if it was uttered by Americans, would attract only his derision.)

The Japanese embraced democracy for a variety of reasons, not one of which was “the nobility of American ideals.” Rather they equated democracy with the American industrial and military might that had defeated their army and navy in the Pacific and created the B-29 which, in a matter of months, had reduced Japan to rubble:

Despite the havoc inflicted by the American bombers, the Japanese realized that the B-29 was a magnificent machine, one far beyond their own capabilities to produce… The sight of a glistening B-29 trailing white vapor high in the sky, or flying low over the land… not only inspire[d] hatred and fear in the people it threatened; strangely enough they could not resist admiring its beauty and its technological perfection. It came to symbolize the superior strength and higher civilization of the United States.

Masataka Kosaka and Masuo Kato,
quoted in Kenneth P. Werrell’s Blankets of Fire

In the aftermath of the war, the majority of Japanese were preoccupied with:

  • finding food and shelter for themselves, their children, and their parents;
  • tending to the survivors of the firebombing and the atomic bomb attacks;
  • repatriating their defeated servicemen from the Pacific and (over a much longer period) from Russian labor camps;
  • enduring the humiliation and hypocrisy of the War Crimes Tribunals;
  • setting to work to rebuild their country and lay the foundation for Japan’s economic recovery.

Eric Olsen attributes to the Japanese a capacity for remorse and a readiness to follow a higher ideal that is entirely at odds with their essential pragmatism. Not so long ago, I asked a Japanese friend why she believed that the Japanese had so readily embraced democracy in the post-war years. She thought for a long time and then replied, “I think it’s because we Japanese don’t really believe in anything.”

What she meant was not that the Japanese had no belief system but rather that beliefs are something you put on and take off like a set of clothes. They realized that militarism had led to a catastrophic defeat at the hands of democratic America and so they thought, “Let’s try democracy instead (particularly since the Americans are insisting that we do).” Or, more exactly, let’s run American-style democracy through the Japanese blender and see what comes out. Exactly as they had done during the Meiji Restoration when, within a couple of decades, they replaced over three hundred years of Tokugawa autocracy with a complete social system based on British, French, and German models.

The Japanese film director Tadashi Imai—whose career straddled the wartime years—provides a classic example of this peculiarly Japanese pragmatism. Imai made pro-Communist films before and after the war and pro-militarist films during it. As Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie explain in The Japanese Film:

One of the most arresting things about Imai’s early films, however, was not that they were poorly made but that a man of Imai’s convictions, and reputation, should have made them at all. From The Numazu Military Academy right through the war, Imai made films which were straight government propaganda, containing material which, one would think, any right-thinking young leftist would have avoided like the plague. The majority of Imai’s wartime films were purposely made to glorify those very ultra-rightist tendencies within the nation which, both before and after the war, Imai so often fought against.

It is always difficult—and usually foolish—to attempt to reconcile inconsistencies in character, even—or particularly—when they are so glaring as in the character of Tadashi Imai. One can, at any rate, be fairly safe in saying that there was no Machiavellism involved: Imai is idealistic to the point of embarrassment. Nor was there any simple opportunism: Imai’s integrity, no matter what the cause, is quite above reproach. Yet, having said this, one must then accept the fact that Imai was just as dedicated to the Imperial cause during the war as he was to the Communist cause both before and after it. In way of explanation one can only again call attention to the Japanese genius for the volte-face, and for the completely apolitical quality of the Japanese character. That this often approaches intellectual dishonesty no foreign observer of the Japanese can fail to appreciate. At the same time, however, it is equally apparent that the Japanese themselves do not appreciate the illogic of their position and, far from believing in their own dishonesty, are acting in the best faith of which they are capable.

In a very real sense, Tadashi Imai is the Japanese Everyman, swaying with the prevailing ideological breeze, blissfully free of either guilt or remorse. After the war he performed what Anderson and Richie describe as “a real ideological somersault, [landing] on his feet with An Enemy of the People, a vicious and almost personal attack on the Emperor-system.” One day a militarist, the next day a democrat, but not out of the idealism mixed with contrition that Eric Olsen would have us believe.

This moral flexibility underpins Paul Musgrave’s assertion that the Japanese lack “any sense of historical guilt for the actions of the wartime government.” In my next post, I’ll explain why I believe he is correct.

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I would add, in supporting your argument, Jonathan, the unrepentant attitude (exemplified by the deeply resented (by Koreans) depiction of WWII in Japanese highschool textbooks, for example) still displayed by Japan as a whole towards the atrocities committed upon Korea during the long occupation and WWII.

Posted by stavrosthewonderchicken on 9 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I'll get to that (sooner or later) Stavros but you're absolutely correct -- the Japanese are largely ignorant and indifferent to the atrocities they committed in China, Korea, and South East Asia.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 10 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (spam)]

Posted by nosa on 30 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour