> topics > International Studies

Japan remains unrepentant for war

By Tian Qingli | 2016-04-28 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend a press conference after their meeting in Tokyo. Merkel paid a visit to Japan in March 2015 and called on Japan to honestly face its history during her speech.


More than 70 years have passed since World War II, but the Japanese still have a selective memory when it comes to wartime atrocities. Claiming victimhood, they downplay their role as aggressors and are unwilling to engage in honest reflection on the shameful history of the nation.


Japan’s national character
Japan’s noncommittal attitude towards World War II history is inseparable from selective memory in its national character. Japanese scholar Urano Tatsuo compared the attitudes of Japan and China toward history to illustrate why the two countries differ in this regard.

When it comes to China-Japan relations, China cannot forget the past, always connecting the past with the present by reviewing history. After confirming the association, it seeks a common historical understanding and validates it. By contrast, Japan tends to throw the memory of the past to the winds and create a new situation by establishing new associations, Tatsuo said.

Tatsuo’s view was intended to explain why the Japanese pay more attention to the present and the future, which might be only one aspect of Japan’s national character. In fact, the Japanese are not oblivious to the whole past.

For example, they are proud of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and often regard it as a victory of Asians over white people. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even boasted about this in a speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Those aspects of history that affirm the confidence of the Japanese nation normally remain fresh in the national memory.

However, they are reluctant to squarely face the atrocities Japan committed before and during World War II in Asia because the crimes could dent Japan’s national image.

Japan attaches more importance to commemorations of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the anniversary of its surrender than it does to events that acknowledge its misdeeds.


The Japanese government usually guides its nationals on the history of the Pacific theater so that the general public concentrates on how Japan suffered, thereby covering up its responsibilities for brutalizing the peoples of its Asian neighbors.

Japanese history teaches that the suffering of Japanese people is all that is worthy of remembrance, while the calamities it brought to China and other Asian countries just slip from its memory.

The historical memory of Japanese nationals is consistent with the nation’s tendency to “identify with the West rather than Asia” since modern times. They consider Japan, their motherland, to be the top state in Asia and the vanguard in the confrontation with the West. Although Japan was defeated by the anti-fascist Allied Powers, including China, they will always have contempt for Asia.

In 1945, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications wrote in an internal survey on public opinion, “Even if we have to bow to the United States and the United Kingdom, we cannot bear bowing to China.” This is quite indicative of Japan’s will to surrender to the United States rather than China, so its bias when reflecting on the reasons for defeat is inevitable.

Through US diplomatic maneuvering, Emperor Hirohito (reigned 1926-89), the highest authority responsible for the war, escaped war crimes charges at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. This diluted the consciousness of and responsibility for wartime atrocities among all sectors of Japanese society.

In terms of school education in Japan, the textbooks examined and approved by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology give detailed accounts of the damages caused by the US army’s carpet bombing of Tokyo, the Battle of Okinawa and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki prior to its defeat in 1945. As a result, students, who have never experienced war, mistakenly believe that Japan was simply another victim.

The main problem in Japanese education is that it instills into students the brutality of war while emphasizing the suffering of Japanese nationals. Yet there is no explanation that it was Japan’s imperialist aggression against other countries that led to the bombing of Tokyo and the atomic bomb attacks.

One-sided education focusing only on the misery of Japanese nationals in the war misguides the younger generation, who are ignorant of the causes and effects of World War II.

Collective memory
The Japanese are indifferent to the history that could undermine their national identity and cohesion.
Japanese political scientist Takeshi Ishida said, “What we forget and retain from historical facts is not only an important mental process for people on an individual level. From a group perspective, the process is of great significance to shaping the group’s sense of value.”

Ishida said that a “community of memory” can be defined as “what supports the group’s memory.”

During the formation of group memory, the community of memory drops what is unfavorable and remembers by heart what is favorable. It takes shape by endowing the favorable aspects special historical meaning. The collective memory will be consolidated by institutional history education and symbolic ceremonies like routine national activities.

It can thus be seen that historical understanding is immediately concerned with ethnic and national identity. Whether one is talking about the so-called self-castration historical outlook slammed by the New History Textbook Compilation Commission or the frequent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese politicians—all of these actions aim to strengthen national identity and memories through social education and routine national activities.

Since the disgrace of Japan in the war poses a barrier to national cohesion, the Japanese are subject to selective amnesia, and the shameful past is purposefully erased.

Japan will not follow Germany’s example and apologize for its wartime atrocities mostly because it is unlikely to openly criticize the late Emperor Hirohito, who should assume the ultimate responsibility for waging war against China. Criticism of the emperor of Japan, the Mikado, is taboo in Japan’s political ecology. The Mikado system is undoubtedly another crucial explanation for this noncommittal attitude toward the aggression issue.

Emperor Hirohito was not held accountable for the war, thus perpetuating Japan’s consistent national and historical perspective. Accordingly, the concept of a “divine country” and the imperial historical outlook were rehabilitated after the war, which were taken by postwar conservatives as important basis for ridiculous historical views.

Especially in Japanese society and public opinion, it is argued that since the Mikado was not guilty for Japan’s aggression, the Japanese do not have to reflect seriously on the historical issues at all.

As Japanese scholar Atsushi Koketsu said, the problem with postwar Japan’s fuzzy recollection of history is that the one responsible for war was not brought to justice.

“The failure to affix war liabilities on Emperor Hirohito is the biggest reason for the failure to thoroughly account for Japan’s responsibility for the war,” Koketsu said.

It is noteworthy that different classes and interest groups in Japan vary greatly in their views. Some are conservative, clinging to the imperial view of history and unwilling to shoulder responsibility for the war. Nonetheless, there are also some progressive forces that are reflecting seriously and offering apologies, while fighting against conservatives.

If China and Japan are ever to achieve a long-standing friendship, the Japanese side must face history frankly and apologize sincerely to China. This is one of the vital premises for the smooth development of bilateral ties.

Tian Qingli is an associate research fellow from the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.