Written by Sarah Hyde.
The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 have left the country with a legacy of victimhood unique in human history – and uniquely codified in law. In early 1946, US General Douglas MacArthur brought in his staff to write the country’s new Constitution and sanctioned on May 3 1947, stating amongst it that the Japanese “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation”.
Seven years later, Japan took its first step towards remilitarisation by creating the Self Defence Forces – but they were not deployed outside a Japanese crisis until the International Peace Cooperation Law was passed in 1992, allowing Japanese troops to participate in UN peacekeeping operations. Japan has since sent troops to assist the US army both in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This slow crawl towards militarisation has gathered pace, with Shinzō Abe pushing through new security laws and potentially rewriting sections of the Constitution that outlaw the use of force.
There’s been plenty of coverage of these moves and their ominous overtones – but much of it has missed the point. Japan’s preferred memories of its own conduct in the war are very selective, and still major bone of contention in east Asia.
Unlike certain other axis belligerents, Japan has shown no intention of apologising for its acts in World War II and its pre-war aggression into neighbouring countries. And most worryingly of all, in contrast with Germany, Japan has historically offered postwar generations of students very little education on its conduct in the war.
The Japanese school curriculum largely glosses over the occupations of Taiwan, China, Korea and various Russian islands before the attack on Pearl Harbor; it essentially doesn’t teach the detail of the war in the Pacific and South East Asia until Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
China and South Korea are of course particularly angry at this, especially given the lack of an apology for the assorted war crimes Japanese troops committed in their countries from 1910. That list includes torture, mass slaughter, and the abduction of women to serve as sex slaves for soldiers (“comfort women”).
Certain Japanese prime ministers have stirred up protests among their former wartime enemies by publicly visiting the highly contentious Yasukuni Shrine, a religious Shinto monument to the Japanese war dead that’s closely associated with the imperial era.
In 1985 the then prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, drew condemnation for visiting it for the 40th anniversary of the bombings at a ceremony also attended by the Emperor Hirohito. Junichiro Koizumi, a popular right-wing prime minister, made a similarly controversial visit 20 years later.
Today, there is just as much controversy around the war’s legacy, and no new effort to defuse the old tension. Despite widespread public rancour over the war across the rest of east Asia, the Abe government is making no effort to improve Japanese war education 70 years on, or to flesh out the radically stripped-down memory of Japan’s actions.
While Germany has managed to build holocaust education into its curriculum and is now at the centre of the European project, Abe and his predecessors have never acknowledged that relations with Korea and China would be greatly improved if there were a push for education and discussion about this terrible history.
As things stand, no matter how the militaristic and nationalistic Abe handles the memory of the war in this anniversary year, Japan’s relations with its former adversaries are set to keep festering.