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Not Even in Fiction

October 14th, 2004

Japan has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to World War II and the decades of imperial expansion that preceded it. Although many of its citizens know about the time, look upon it with disapproval, and are not apologists, there is a distinct segment of society that is strongly against recognizing the sins of Japan’s past, and the majority of people in Japan seem to go along with it. Japan, like so many other countries, claims to follow Santayana’s warning: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And like so many other countries, it heeds the warning wrongly. Santayana was telling us that we should remember the bad things we have done so that we can learn not to do them again. But nations tend to greatly dislike remembering their own misdeeds, led by nationalists and self-proclaimed patriots who assert national pride, but just as often suffer from denial.

Instead, nations profess to follow Santayana by remembering the misdeeds done to them by others. We all do it. Americans remember Pearl Harbor, but many protest when too much attention is paid to Hiroshima–not to mention the uproar we see now when anyone talks about American atrocities in Vietnam. Israel remembers the Holocaust, China remembers Nanjing, and so on. We memorialize and even aggrandize our victimization, and whitewash or tone down the darker parts of our own past actions. It is my assertion that this interpretation of Santayana is not just mislaid, but is opposite to his warning and can lead to the very condemnation he foresaw. If a nation feels victimized, it feels the right to go beyond ordinary means to defend itself, to the extent of paranoia. If a nation forgets its misdeeds, it feels more certain that it can do no wrong because its people look at the past and see few or no wrongs. This is a dangerous combination that makes a country feel threatened and righteous in going to extreme ends to ‘defend’ itself–in short, it leads us to exactly the fate Santayana warned us against.

I have witnessed both elements of the equation a fair amount in Japan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are memorialized here far more than Pearl Harbor in America; survivors of the American invasion of the southern islands such as Iwo Jima describe the terrible experiences they suffered; and the primary mention of Japan’s incursion into mainland Asia tends to be about Japanese people left behind after the war who suffered for so many years in Soviet prison camps. So much of Japanese suffering is focused on to a great extent, even in children’s fiction–I remember early on in my Japanese language studies being made aware of a manga, a graphic novel written for children called “Barefoot Gen,” which relates in grotesque detail the suffering of people in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

But today, a similar manga is being censored because the storyline includes a reference to the Rape of Nanjing as an actual historical event. You see, a strident segment of Japanese society vehemently believes that the Rape of Nanjing was a false story created to put Japan down, to shame it after World War II ended. No amount of documentary evidence, including photographs, countless eyewitnesses and even the writings and admissions of Japanese soldiers themselves can dissuade these nationalists from their belief that it is all a hoax. But unlike those who deny the Holocaust, those who deny the Rape of Nanjing here in Japan are not scoffed at, dismissed, or censured, No, those people here tend to be the ones who hold public office.

This is why the publishers of the Weekly Young Jump, a widely read manga, have decided to cut the story, which is a serialized story of a bureaucrat during the 30’s, a serial carried by the publication for the past two years. This edition was to treat the Massacre as a historical fact, and would include a photograph. But that won’t come out, and it was not due to massive public protest, but rather by a group of 37 local politicians who claim that the massive killing spree never took place, and who protested at the publisher’s office last week. The publisher now calls the photo to be used a “fake” and says the story and the photo will be edited.

Those of you who have doubts might want to read Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanjing.” For those who want rebuttal, this Japanese site provides one.

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  1. October 15th, 2004 at 06:04 | #1

    Hm, interesting. I’ve never of an entire country that claims that actual historical events are nothing more than fiction. Odd. I’ve heard of governments that have at the very least covered up and/or refused to talk about their actions in the past. Governemtns refusing to even talk about their past wrong actions doesn’t surprise me, no one likes to talk about the skeletions in their closet, but never of an entire country.

  2. October 15th, 2004 at 17:53 | #2

    I do not think that “the majority of people in Japan seem to go along with” right-wingers on this issue. Maybe the majority is not interested, or does not know about it.

    I am a blogger, and have been thinking of writing about this for the past few days. Quite frankly, it takes some courage to do so, because I can almost see flaming comments from that racist segment of the society accumulating in my comment section.

  3. Tim
    December 11th, 2004 at 14:47 | #3

    For those of you who would like to know more about the Nanjing Massacre and how that particular incident has been treated in Japan, this master’s degree project would give you a great insight.


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