13 May 2005

Everything’s A-OK

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 am

sesame.jpgI’ve just come back from Japan, where I saw many strange and wondrous things. One was this subway poster, in which Sesame Street characters exhort commuters not to take up too much room with their newspapers. It’s a bilingual message, but the dominant English may indicate that it’s directed at the ill-mannered gaijin papering the carriages with their lifestyle sections. Also, the considerate Muppets’ broadsheets are all in English, though the only headline I can make out is A Big Fire Broke Out!!—whose excess of punctuation and dearth of detail suggests that the SESAME Times is probably a Murdoch paper.

The Times also omits any mention of the Sesame Street Muppets’ involvement in the Big Fire, which most historians agree was lit by furry war criminals (from left) Mojabo, Ernie, Teena, Elmo, Bert, Grover and Big Bird as part of an ongoing pattern of aggression against neighbouring streets such as Zhima Jie and Ulitsa Sezam. Violent demonstrations have broken out in those streets. Beneath the harmonious catchcries “Yiiip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip” and “Uh-huh, uh-huh” lies a deeper conflict.

No, wait—the demonstrations were mostly in China and Korea, and they were getting all worked up about the Japanese Ministry of Education’s approval of a new history textbook, the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform’s The New History Textbook. Critics (including Japan’s own Centre of Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility) have argued that the new textbook inadequately characterises Japan’s role in the lead-up to, and behaviour during, the Second World War. For example, the textbook is said to absolve Japan of responsibility for invading Manchuria, to gloss over the Nanjing Massacre (also called the Rape of Nanking or the Nanjing Incident, at opposite ends of the continuum), and to downplay Japanese war crimes including the exploitation of comfort women.

The textbook controversy has been smouldering for about as long as there have been textbooks: Saburo Ienaga spent about 40 years and many court cases trying to get his own textbook published as he’d written it—massacres and all—and not as the Textbook Authorisation System wanted it. He had some important victories but died in 2002; and now the New History Textbook is said to raise (or lower) the bar in minimising or excusing Japan’s role as aggressor in the war—indeed, its publishers are explicitly reacting against the “masochist” (some of us might say “black armband”) view of history and attempting to restore national pride in Japan’s military record.

This site compares the old and new textbooks and includes some interesting timelines. The 2005 edition does seem to apply another coat of whitewash to the 2001 version, which itself could hardly have been described as “masochist&#8221. Of course, the people in Japan’s neighbourhood aren’t shining examples of penitence, or of an encouraging attitude towards unflattering publications, either—and there’s a lot of appeal to the idea that China in particular wants to head off any talk of Japan joining it as a permanent member of the Security Council. The BBC News reports that the Chinese Press has explicitly linked the issues; for example, Shanghai’s Wenhui Bao argues:

How can a country which not only cannot correctly handle history, but falsifies history again and again, have the qualifications to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a responsible member of the international community?

Even though the makeup of the Security Council is patently ridiculous and the Chinese defence of it self-serving, it’s hard not to be a little surprised by the official accounts of Japan’s role in the war. I visited the museum attached to the Yasakuni Shrine—which houses the spirits of the Japanese war dead, including executed war criminals like Hideki Tojo and Iwane Matsui, said to be responsible for Nanjing; and which Junichiro Koizumi keeps raising international eyebrows by visiting—and found it gave a very different account of the war and its causes than I’d pieced together (admittedly, mostly from movies). Like: WWII was everyone’s fault but Japan’s; the US was itching to join in and forced Japan to make the first move at Pearl Harbor; and the Allies unnecessarily prolonged the war by insisting on Japan’s full surrender. Lots of Chinese soldiers died at Nanjing because they were ordered to defend it to the death; Japanese commanding officers issued explicit warnings that civilians were not to be mistreated.

I don’t know what happened. But it seems to me that any responsible history should as far as possible give all sides of the story, with proportionately more space to the more widely- or respectably-held views. Almost nobody adheres to this ideal, but the Japanese government seems to insist on a lower standard than many. On the other hand, at the end of April Koizumi had this to say:

In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility. And with feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology always engraved in mind, Japan has resolutely maintained, consistently since the end of World War II, to never turn into a military power but an economic power, and its principle of resolving all matters by peaceful means without recourse to use of force.

This is pretty much in line with other apologies issued in the past by Koizumi and other Japanese leaders. It’s not very specific, but it seems genuine enough. Perhaps that’s the Japanese way. I think specifics are important, but perhaps they’re not everything; perhaps actual conduct is more critical.

Brought to you by the letters E and F and the number 3.

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