Richard Lloyd Parry, Tokyo Bureau Chief for The Times (London), kindly alerted me to an open letter recently published by a large number of academics nicely timed to follow on the heels of the various controversies which had been re-stirred by the Abe Shinzo visit to the United States.
The letter manages to delicately get around a frequently-encountered problem: The essentializing of “Japan” in discussions of how the nation is not living up to expectations in terms of how it remembers World War II, the Fifteen Year War, and empire generally. If there is one thing we hopefully have learned from the last few decades of scholarship it is that Japan was never a fully unified actor when it came to the project of empire. And we have also confirmed a more detailed understanding that the Americans themselves short-circuited the very idea of collective war responsibility through the emphasis on Class A war crimes prosecution, education reforms, and on and on — ideas which were published during the US occupation of Japan (1945-52) but which scholarship took some time to pick up on in earnest.
Certainly most of the people writing this letter (or signing it, rather) are quite sensitive to the idea that there are swathes within Japanese society, now and since 1945 generally, that have done their part to acknowledge the past in a way that looks more like Germany and less like China. I thought given the length (two pages without footnotes) and the intent that the letter did better than others I’ve seen on similar themes (scholars of Korea writing to the Park administration about free speech, that sort of thing).
Reception, of course, is another matter entirely: Scholars might be doing what we have always done, when allowed — writing something a bit whose tone borders on the sanctimonious which allows us to believe that we have “done something about the problem” when in fact the reception might be an absolute flatline. After all, is there truly a middle ground to be captured in this discussion, the proverbial hearts and minds? The “thought war” continues. But if one has published books and articles on the subject, engaging in a bit of public debate can be a good experience.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if the door opened, and the scholars got what they ostensibly wanted: The ouster or irrevocable moderation of the LDP, staunch support for and augmentation of Kono/Murayama statements, no more Yasukuni visits by PMs/cabinet members/active Diet members, a history education overhaul, no more intimidation of scholars who include the “comfort women” in their university textbooks in the US or Canada, a fall in sales of right-wing manga, all capped of by a sitting Japanese PM falling on his knees in front of a slew of photographers on the Marco Polo Bridge outside of Beijing / the Nanking Massacre Memorial, or sitting on those empty chairs next to the ‘comfort women’ statues — plus of course state compensation and an opening up for civil society lawsuits originating from outside of Japan for wartime labour, and on and on.
And to the instinctual response “they should criticize America first” (as most of the scholars signing the letter hail from North America), sure, and most of them have already. After all, when US Senators hold committee hearings with the Secretary of Defense about tasking the US military to carve/kill out new “safety zones” for Syrian refugees and need to leave in order to deal with martial law in Baltimore, it’s absolutely correct to state that America needs to clean itself up and have a stiff look in the mirror. Baltimore was indeed burning, if not nearly on the scale and savagery of the technocratic firebombs on Tokyo and Japanese cities of yore.