Aug. 17, 2001
Editorial - Japanese introspection
Japan learns a lesson (Editorial)
They say history repeats itself and it seems to be doing so in
the strangest way right now in Japan. Junichiro Koizumi, that country's
popular new prime minister, is stirring the pot of pent-up old feelings
and suppressed nationalism.
Koizumi's government recently approved a new textbook for use in
Japanese schools. The book whitewashes aspects of Japanese history,
including the invasion of China in 1932 (never mentioned) and the
"comfort women" who were forced into sexual slavery for
Japanese soldiers (similarly ignored).
At the same time, there has been a controversy over the prime minister's
visit this week to the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to the war dead
from Japan's imperial age. No previous prime minister had ventured
into the shrine, which glorifies imperial aggression and apparently
reverts to the sort of emperor worship that seems to have fallen
out of favor elsewhere in modern Japan.
In response to this newly visible nationalism, Japanese critics
are stating what has often gone unsaid. The Japanese have a term
- kotonakareshugi - which means deliberately suppressing
unpleasant things. Journalists now are suggesting that the war years
have fallen victim to kotonakareshugi.
Post-war Germany went through varying degrees of catharsis in dealing
with its history during the Third Reich. It can hardly be said that
Germany has resolved the complex psycho-social results of Nazism,
but it must be noted that there have been efforts to acknowledge
it - to such an extent, in fact, that there is a backlash among
some members of the younger generation who complain that they are
being held responsible for events that occurred long before their
Japan has never gone through the same sort of self-examination,
perhaps because of the fundamentally different cultural norms of
that country, the sort that give rise to kotonakareshugi.
Where the media in Germany may have encouraged debate on its war
role, such independence is unusual in Japan.
Nevertheless, a few people have publicly expressed concerns about
the government's direction and it will be interesting to see if
the voices in the wilderness can overcome Japanese reticence and
confront the past.
Interestingly, in addition to the parallels with Germany, the brouhaha
over the textbooks has a direct parallel with Israel. Where Japan
is whitewashing its official history, Israel has gone through a
mirror-image debate recently, over the creation of a textbook that
upends the traditional Zionist-pioneer hero motif and dwells on
the dark blemishes of the Israeli experience.
These discussions, in diverse parts of the world, raise fundamental
issues of how we depict ourselves. Regardless of the emotional wounds
that are opened in doing so, a nation cannot ignore any part of
its past good or bad.