The Nanjing Massacre. Changing Contours of History and Memory in Japan, China, and the U.S.

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December 2, 2006
Volume 4 | Issue 12 | Number 0

The Nanjing Massacre. Changing Contours of History and Memory in Japan, China, and the U.S.

By Takashi YOSHIDA

In Japan, China, the United States and beyond, arguably no Japanese wartime atrocity against China is more widely known than the Nanjing Massacre. [1] Whatever the significance of mere name recognition, however, the history and memory of the Nanjing Massacre are profoundly complex. Indeed, even the phrase “Nanjing Massacre” (hereafter NM) remains contested, and to this day there are circles within which the words cannot be spoken without stirring deep feeling and disagreement.

To make matters still more complicated, the definition and the meaning of the NM have continually changed over time. When the NM occurred in 1937, the duration of the atrocities considered was a week or less, and the scope of the atrocities was limited to the area inside and around the walled city. [2] In addition, the line between acts of war against combatants and unlawful acts of violence against civilians was not very clear.

Since 1937, however, commentators in Japan, China, and the United States have wrestled with the NM, and, in each country, every passing generation has offered new interpretations. Not altogether surprisingly, the accepted meanings of the NM have changed in accordance with the shifting international and domestic political climates of the times. From 1937 to 1945 the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War shaped the history and memory of Nanjing in the three nations. From 1945 to 1971 Japan’s defeat, the civil war in China, and the cold war triggered successive revisions of the understanding of the NM in Japan, China (both the People’s Republic and the Republic of China), and the United States. During the period between 1971 and 1989, the Vietnam War, U.S. and Japanese recognition of the People’s Republic of China, and the dispute over Japanese history textbooks provoked further revisions. From 1989 to the present, the end of the cold war, the death of Hirohito, and the rise of ethnocentrism not only in Japan, but also in China and the United States prompted yet more altering in international understandings of the NM. The present article focuses primarily on the changing perspectives and contentious debates over the NM in Japan.

In presenting this fourfold periodization of the history and memory of the NM, I do not wish to foster the impression that the changes have been linear or progressive. Nor do I wish to suggest that the changes in the interpretations of Nanjing within the three nations have always been consciously orchestrated. For example, the dispute over the NM was rather contained, the issues little discussed, in Japan prior to the early 1980s. Since the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989, however, the dispute over Nanjing has become vituperative across national boundaries as well as among Japanese intellectuals. In all three nations, numerous authors and commentators on the subject have emerged, ranging well beyond academe to include journalists, former soldiers and politicians. Frequently, the chief objective in the intensifying debate seems not to have been reaching consensus as to truth, but the assertion and preservation of national pride and a positive sense of ethnic identity. Given the insistence of Japanese revisionists that the NM is essentially a lie concocted to disparage Japan, it is impossible for Chinese or American participants in the debate to find significant common ground. Since the 1990s, accounts of NM that grossly simplify the history of the atrocities and tend to provoke animosity toward the perceived Other have flourished in all three nations.

Tracing the history and memory of the NM in Japan, China, and the United States not only reveals the impact of social and political contexts of the time on the accounts of Nanjing, but also reveals how these narratives have placed differing values on human lives according to nationality and perceived ethnicity. The contested history and memory of the NM in Japan from 1989 to the present illustrates how and why the dispute has become so passionate and poignant.

By the mid-1990s, awareness of wartime Japanese atrocities, including the NM, may have reached its peak. The sharp rise in interest was reflected in public discussions, politics, museums, textbook treatments, and court cases. Two historical events particularly amplified public consciousness regarding Japan’s wartime past: the illness and death of Emperor Showa (Hirohito) and the emergence of non-Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro. These events contributed to an unprecedented rift between those who hoped to include the sufferings of non-Japanese in Japan’s national history and those who believed that Imperial Japan fought for good and there was no basis for highlighting atrocities.

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Hosokawa Morihiro

The end of Hirohito’s reign offered an opportunity for many to reconsider Japan’s role during the Fifteen-Year War (1931-45) and the emperor’s responsibility for the war. As the emperor lay ill, citizen groups and academic institutions organized public meetings and lectures to examine Japanese wartime atrocities in Asia. In municipal assemblies in such cities as Tokyo and Nagasaki, critics raised questions concerning not only Japanese atrocities but also Hirohito’s war responsibility. When Hirohito died in January 1989, the public gatherings and debates over Japan’s responsibility for the war were far from over.

For example, in August 1993, when Hosokawa Morihiro became the first non-Liberal Democratic Party prime minister since 1955, he was asked about his view of the war. He responded by calling the conflict an aggressive war (shinryaku senso). In August 1995, Murayama Tomiichi, a Socialist prime minister, expressed his “deep remorse” (tsusetsu na hansei) and “heartfelt apology” (kokoro kara no owabi) for Japan’s colonial rule and wartime aggression. Lawmakers who believe that Imperial Japan liberated Asia and that postwar education unfairly demonized Imperial Japan fiercely attacked Hosokawa and Murayama, and the members of the Diet found themselves divided by their understandings of the past war. Yet Hosokawa’s and Murayama’s remarks probably expressed a large share of popular opinion, emblematic of the progressive tenor of the time.

Many public local museums as well as private museums, both large and small, were opened or renovated from the late 1980s on. They commemorate not only the sufferings of Japanese war victims, but also the losses and hardships of non-Japanese. These museums include the Okunoshima Poison Gas Museum in Hiroshima prefecture(1988), the Osaka International Peace Center (1991), the Kyoto Museum for World Peace at Ritsumeikan University (1992), the Kawasaki Peace Museum (1992), the Peace Museum of Saitama (1993), the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (1994), Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum (1995), and the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (1996). In addition, a number of “mobile peace museums” — that is, special exhibitions that underscore Japanese wartime atrocities—traveled across Japan and attracted tens of thousands of visitors.

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Okunoshima Poison Gas
Museum, site of poison gas
production during the Pacific War

These museum exhibits reflected the trend of the historical academy of the time. [3] Local historians and teachers examined the effects of the war on ordinary people in the region. They not only discussed the experience of American fire bombings and atomic bombings that took so heavy a toll on Japanese civilians, but also explored how ordinary Japanese cooperated with the state and military to victimize other Asians during the war. They published numerous studies which challenged through documentation the notion that ordinary Japanese were merely victims of the war. Studies of local sites relating to the war, such as abandoned underground tunnels and military factories and mines where Chinese and Korean laborers were enslaved, became common during this period. [4]

Meanwhile, lawyers filed actions on behalf of victims of Japan’s wartime atrocities. Between 1991 and 1995, more than twenty-seven such cases were brought in Japanese courts. Since the mid-1990s, more than 200 lawyers nationwide have participated in war-related lawsuits against the government and private companies, nearly all working without fees. Although these lawyers obviously hope to recover damages for their clients, they also wish the Japanese government to formally acknowledge the nation’s responsibility for the alleged crimes. Onodera Toshitaka, one of the leading members of the plaintiffs’ legal team, is one of many who believe that publicizing the suffering of the survivors of Japanese atrocities and securing long overdue payment of wages and reparations is a key to promoting reconciliation between Japan and its neighboring countries, bringing to an end the poisonous legacy of war and colonialism that continues to roil the waters of the diplomacy of East Asia. [5]

In the 1990s, history textbooks became more inclusive of sufferings of non-Japanese victims of the war and discussed Japan’s wartime atrocities in greater detail than previously. This is also true of the NM. Six out of seven junior history textbooks available in 1997 stated that the Japanese military killed between 100,000 and 200,000 Chinese during and after the Battle of Nanjing. Four of them also gave the Chinese official estimate of 300,000. Estimates of the victims of Nanjing, as well as the treatment of the event, in junior high and high school textbooks have fluctuated throughout the postwar era, but compared to the previous and later editions, the 1997 editions tended to provide the most detailed discussion of the event and present the highest death totals.

Some Japanese appreciated the openness of the social and political environment that produced such textbook descriptions in the 1990s. But others were far from welcoming it, indeed, they fiercely challenged the notion that Imperial Japan was an aggressor, still less that it perpetrated war crimes. In their eyes, Japan fought a just war and liberated Asia from Western imperialism. The proponents of this view have powerful allies in Japan, and even some abroad. Many of the representatives of the other Asian governments, who participated in “Celebration of Pan-Asian Unity” (Ajia kyosei no saiten), held in Tokyo in 1995 by the National Committee for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the End of World War II (Shusen gojusshunen kokumin iinkai) openly expressed gratitude for Japan’s contribution to Asian independence. They include the former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Thailand, Vice Chancellor of the National University of Malaya, and Ambassador at Large to Africa from Indonesia. These were social and political elites who did not remember Japanese wartime occupation as being particularly cruel. Between 1993 and 1995, the committee waged a nationwide campaign to protest Premier Hosokawa’s characterization of the war and prevent the Diet from issuing apologies for Japan’s aggression and colonialism.

This revisionist movement, whose evident goal was to challenge the negative characterization of Imperial Japan and to tone down, if not whitewash, Japan’s wartime atrocities and colonialism, was not new in the 1990s. It has existed throughout postwar Japanese society, but the magnitude and collaborations among different leading professionals was a new phenomenon in the 1990s. In 1995, Fujioka Nobukatsu, a professor at the University of Tokyo, and his supporters established the Association for the Advancement of the Liberal View of History. They soon founded the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (Atarashii rekishi kyokasho o tsukuru kai) in order to combat the junior and senior high school history textbooks that detailed Japan’s wartime colonialism and atrocities such as the NM. Fujioka staunchly resisted a view of the era that detailed such war crimes, considering it damaging to the self-esteem and patriotism of Japanese youth and producing a mindset that was masochistic and self-derogatory

Fujioka and some of his colleagues in the Society claimed that no ordinary citizen in Nanjing was killed illegally. They argued that the chaotic situation that occurred in Nanjing was not the fault of the Japanese army, but resulted from the fact that Chinese leaders deserted the city leaving chaos in their wake. He claimed that the NM—that is, the event defined as the killing of 200,000- 300,000 civilians—was a fabrication and lashed out at school textbooks that provided such baseless casualty estimates. To him, Japan was engaging in a battle, in which killings of the enemy were justified, and slaughtering prisoners of war was also acceptable as keeping them alive could have endangered lives of the Japanese troops. Therefore, in contrast to the conclusions drawn by many historians, including Japanese historians, Fujioka concluded Japanese troops had committed no “massacre.” In response to what Fujioka deemed the masochistic message of the educational mainstream, the Japanese Society for Textbook Reform proceeded to author their own alternative text, titled New History Textbook (Atarashii rekishi kyokasho). While the authors were required to include a brief statement regarding the Japanese killing of civilians in Nanjing in order to secure government approval of their textbook, they tried to offset this compromise by stressing that the dispute over the Nanjing incident is ongoing and that various views exist on the subject. [6]

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The New History

Both sides of the argument rightly regard the stakes in the debate as enormous for Japan’s future. The on-going battle over Nanjing can be seen not only in history textbooks, but also in films, courts, in the academy and in political debate. Don’t Cry, Nanjing (1995), made by Chinese and Hong Kong filmmakers, that depicted atrocities in Nanjing, traveled across Japan in 1997 and 1998. A Japanese response to Don’t Cry Nanjing was Pride: The Moment of Destiny (Puraido: unmei no toki; 1998), a film that suggested that the chief prosecutor of the Tokyo Trial fabricated the atrocities in Nanjing. Legal battles have also been waged by both sides. On the one hand, the Li Xiuying case was brought to recover the honor of a Chinese woman who was stabbed nearly forty times by three Japanese soldiers during the atrocities. Simultaneously, another action was filed to restore the reputations of two Japanese officers who, in 1937, were reported to have engaged in a contest to see who could kill more Chinese in what came to be known as the 100-man beheading contest. The divisions are not only those between nations. They are also played out within Japan. Since its foundation in 1984, the Research Committee on the Nanjing Incident (Nankin jiken chosa kenkyukai) has published in-depth studies documenting the atrocities in Nanjing. In contrast, the Japan Association for “Nanjing” Studies (Nihon “Nankin” gakkai) has zealously published revisionist accounts denying the NM since its founding in 2000.

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Yushukan war history exhibits at Yasukuni Shrine

While most revisionist accounts are available only in Japanese, some have also appeared in English since the 1990s. As the history and memory of the NM became internationalized, the Japanese revisionists have attempted to convince the world that what is known as the NM has been falsified. The spirit of these revisionist versions has much in common with some equally emotional, nationalistic, and ethnocentric statements about Nanjing that have emanated from China and the United States. Indeed, each has fed off the others. In China, many accounts and museum exhibits dealing with Nanjing have fostered a self-congratulatory nationalism, calculated to strengthen loyalty to the government while paying scant attention to the facts, as opposed to reiterating an iconic position such as the 300,000 deaths. The same may be said, from across the ideological barricades, of the Yasukuni Shrine’s museum presentation of the Pacific War with its complete lack of reference to Japanese atrocities. Moreover, some American works on Nanjing have ascribed the atrocities to an alleged Japanese racial character or unique cultural behavior, ignoring the widely shared racist thought that lay behind the war’s savagery. [7]

In my view, such approaches in their failure to engage the evidence, whether through denial or exaggeration, are every bit as harmful as the Japanese revisionist accounts. Grounded in xenophobic hatred and enduring suspicion, they are no less tendentious than the wartime propaganda that preceded them. It seems doubtful that any useful assessment of the NM will ever emerge from assumptions that begin and end with reifications of national stereotypes, an approach which makes it impossible to clarify why the NM occurred and how it fits into the larger pattern of Japanese military behavior in China. To the contrary, such responses serve only to marginalize carefully researched and more complex historical analyses of the NM. Because their definitions of “massacre,” “victim,” and “perpetrator” differ in fundamentals, it is unlikely that Japanese revisionists and their counterparts abroad can ever reach a consensus on what happened at Nanjing. In such an environment, the dispute over the NM will never achieve closure, and nationalistic and ethnocentric narratives will continue to attract a popular audience. The consequences of such an outcome can only be to further poison relations between China and Japan.

In my book, I portray the NM as an event that has been severely politicized and distorted from several directions. I show how the subsequent treatments of an historical event across national boundaries can reveal more about the anxieties, prejudices, and political agendas of its commentators than about the event itself. In exploring this ongoing instance of uses and abuses of history and memory, I hope to provide an antidote to the poisonous tendency of the NM literature to provoke hatred rather than reasoned analysis, understanding rather than mutual recrimination, and make it possible to approach a truer understanding of one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century.

Takashi Yoshida is assistant professor of history at Western Michigan University and author of The Making of the “Rape of Nanking”: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States. This article was written for Japan Focus. Posted on December 19, 2006.


[1] This essay summarizes Chapter 10 (“War Over History and Memory”) of my The Making of the “Rape of Nanking”: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 129-153.
[2] Tilman Durdin, for example, reported that at least 33,000 Chinese were killed during the Battle of Nanjing. See “Japanese Atrocities Marked Fall of Nanking After Chinese Command Fled,” New York Times, 9 January 1938, p. 38. In contrast, in The Nanjing Incident (Nankin jiken), published in 1997, Kasahara Tokushi defined the NM as the atrocities which occurred during both the Battle of Nanjing and the ensuing occupation, namely from December 4, 1937, until March 28, 1938. He estimated that the Japanese Army and Navy killed between 100,000 and 200,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians in Nanjing and its six counties. See Kasahara Tokushi, The Nanjing Incident (Nankin jiken), (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1997), pp. 214-28.
[3] These numerous “masochistic” museums provoked the neonationalist backlash in many spheres including the call for textbook revision and the decision by the Yasukuni Shrine to renovate its war museum, the Yushukan. Until the first national war museum, the Showakan was built, these museums highlighting Japanese atrocities had few competitors.
[4] Kasahara, The Nanjing Incident, p. 224, n46 and n47.
[5] Onodera Toshitaka, Sengo hosho saiban toso no kadai to tenbo (Problems and Prospects in Postwar Legal Struggles over Compensation), pp. 13-15.
[6] Nishio Kanji, et al., eds., New History Textbook (Atarashii rekishi kyokasho), (Tokyo: Fusosha, 2001), pp. 270, 296.
[7] See, particularly, Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York: Basic Books, 1997). For a more detailed analysis of Chang’s volume, see Takashi Yoshida “Refighting the Nanjing Massacre: The Continuing Struggle over Memory,” in Nanking 1937: Memory and Healing, eds. Fei Fei Li, Robert Sabella, and David Liu (M.E. Sharpe, 2002), pp. 166-71. On the role of racism in wartime Japan and the United States, see John Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986).

Refuting the Culture of War Amnesia or Denial in Japan

BradleyMay 13, 2017College Papers, Graduate Work0 Comments
Barbara Brooks Award 2017 City College of New York
Barbara Brooks Award 2017 City College of New York

This historiography on “war denial” or “war amnesia” in post-World War II Japan was recognized as an Outstanding Paper on East Asian History in May 2017 by the City College of New York History Department and received the Barbara Brooks Award.

Countries that suffered under the Japanese during World War II, like China and South Korea, have repeatedly called on the Japanese government to issue apologies for long-standing issues, like the Nanjing Massacre and the “comfort women” system.[1] These apologies have been forthcoming. For example, the Japanese government apologized to former comfort women in the 1993 Kono Statement. In 1995, Prime Minister Murayama expressed a general apology for Japanese war atrocities. In 2005, Prime Minister Koizumi reaffirmed the apology offered by Murayama in 1995. In 2010, Prime Minister Hatoyama visited Nanjing, China, and apologized for the atrocities committed there. Despite these consistent acknowledgments of and apologies for actions taken by the Japanese government during World War II, accusations that Japan has a “history problem” persist.
Does Japan have a problem with acknowledging its war history? This paper will examine the ways that scholars have addressed the issue of war memory in Japanese postwar culture. “War memory,” as a term, is somewhat vague and is applied to a variety of topics and ideas by the authors surveyed. It is sometimes used to refer to any situation, conflict or issue that stems from events or actions that occurred during the Asia-Pacific war. It may also imply a sense of guilt or responsibility, as well as the proper allocation of that guilt and responsibility to the deserving party or parties. It is in many ways a catch-all phrase, a broad term meant to associate a current problem with Japan’s actions during World War II, with the implication that Japan or a Japanese individual is acting in an improper way. Scholars have approached the topic of war memory from a variety of perspectives, but there is a clear thread linking their arguments: Japan does not, as China and South Korea claim, have a problem remembering their role in the war. Instead, the problem is how Japan’s role in the war has been remembered, why particular narratives have historically dominated the national consciousness, and how the Japanese people continue to choose to incorporate those memories into a national narrative.
In Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s) (2001), edited by Takashi Fujitani, Geoffrey M. White, and Lisa Yoneyama, the introduction (written by the above authors) looks at the way that memories of the war were constructed and how those memories were continually refigured to address contemporary issues. They believe that marginalized memories are in danger of being lost because they do not fit into existing narratives. They also feel that an examination of marginalized voices creates the possibility of a “positive” recovery and reinterpretation of events, experiences, and sentiments.[2] This statement comes across as rather vague, but most of their introduction deals with general outlines and larger ideas rather than specifics, which is reasonable considering they are introducing a volume of collected works.
The authors believe that the role of the U.S. in the postwar period had a major impact on the development of a national war memory narrative in Japan. First, the authors of the introduction are critical of the way that the Asia-Pacific War has been covered in previous scholarship as a binary clash between the U.S. and Japan. Framing the conflict in those terms ignores the longer wars in the region prior to December 7, 1941, as well as local perspectives. By moving the boundaries of the conversation beyond conventional binary diplomatic and military histories, they hope to illuminate the reasons why Asian nations, like China and South Korea, claim that Japan has a “history problem.” Specifically, the authors mention the legacy of the Cold War in dividing the world “along a single axis formed by the incommensurability of two utopian, ideological visions.”[3] They use Okinawa as an example, mentioning that the United States military presented itself as not only a conquering force but as a defender of freedom and democracy for Okinawa, Japan, and the entire world. Furthermore, the idea that the U.S. had saved Japan from Japanese military rule was emphasized throughout the occupation period, lasting from 1945-1952, and was included in the San Francisco Peace Treaty and U.S.-Japan Security Treaty that went into effect in 1952.[4] The authors do not present any conclusions about why the U.S. decided to commit to this course of action, but by placing blame for the war on the military, the U.S. allowed the Japanese public to deny personal responsibility.
Without going into details, the authors state that they believe the ongoing collapse of the Cold War order in East Asia has allowed for the development of new narratives and conflicts at the domestic and international level. This point could have been made more clearly if they had discussed the role the Cold War played in preventing the U.S.’s historical narrative in Japan from being challenged by China. The lack of details is a continuing issue with the introduction. It is written in an extremely general way that often does not include dates or other necessary information that would allow someone unfamiliar with the issues to easily understand their arguments. To their credit, they do mention that the development of new post-Cold War narratives is a process that results from the competition of multiple, competing voices within and across national boundaries, which acknowledges that there are scholars within Japan challenging the dominant narrative.[5]
The authors also examine counternarratives that attempt to romanticize or downplay the events of the past in order to create a Japanese historical narrative that is not “masochistic.” They note that there are “what if” novels and video games with simulated outcomes that aggrandize Japan’s role in the war and displace what they believe are actual memories of the events. They also note that manga artists, like Kobayashi Yoshinori, use manga as a medium to promote the view that the Japanese have been brainwashed into believing a critical history that deprives the Japanese of their national pride. Popular culture references that change or gloss over aspects of the war are discussed by the authors as though there is a clear, unified intent to misrepresent history. In some instances, that may be true, but “what if” novels may also be written wholly for entertainment value, or to be thought-provoking. The examples they choose to present in the introduction only support their point of view.
As an example, The Man in the High Castle, written by Philip K. Dick in 1963 is set in a fictional 1962 North America that is occupied by Japan and Germany. The book poses the question: “What if Japan and Germany won the war and divided the United States?” Granted, this is an American work of fiction, but it illustrates the question of whether only negative portrayals of Japan in World War II should be allowed in entertainment venues. The tone of the editors’ introduction leads one to believe that they feel no accurate detail (in their point of view) should be spared and that Japan should be seen in as negative a light as possible. Does Japanese history have to be masochistic? Is there no room to have a positive view of history that allows one to move forward without continuing to carry all of the baggage of World War II? Is there no room for entertainment?
Addressing the historiography on war memory, the editors discuss the role of the Liberal History Study Group, founded in 1995 by historian Fujioka Nobukatsu, in promoting a revisionist view of history. The authors feel that this revisionist trend is gaining ground, putting the marginalized memories represented in their volume at risk of being imperiled, or forgotten, which was the impetus for the title of the book. This does introduce a possibility of viewpoint bias. If they’re focused on not letting these imperiled memories disappear, the perspective presented in this volume will not be representative. Their goal is to promote specific agendas rather than balanced viewpoints. This same criticism was leveled against them when requesting funding for a conference that would have addressed the topics covered in this volume. Many of the authors included in the volume are activists rather than traditional historians. Ishihara Masaie was very active in protests against the Japanese and American domination of Okinawa. Chen Yingzhen was imprisoned for his critiques of the government in Taiwan. Utsumi Aiko collected oral histories of colonial experiences but was not trained as a historian. Lastly, Toyonaga Keisaburo was a high school teacher and principal who retired and engaged in grassroots political activism. So, it would be difficult to approach this volume without a fair degree of skepticism.
James J. Orr approaches war memory in Japan through the idea of victimhood and the mythologizing of victimhood in Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan (2001). Orr states that from the immediate postwar period to the 1960s, when Japan became a “mercantilist” success, the Japanese presented themselves as a cultured, peace-loving nation, with responsibility for the war placed on the military and government elites.[6] Orr presents the prevailing pacifist ideology as deriving from a feeling of victimization that developed among the Japanese public after the Asia-Pacific War ended. During the occupation period, U.S. authorities encouraged war victim consciousness to alienate the Japanese from the wartime state and its military. This built on psychological warfare efforts during the war that encouraged Japanese soldiers to allocate blame with their leaders, who led them into unwinnable situations. The goal of the U.S. Psychological Warfare Branch was to undermine morale, charge the military leadership with responsibility for the war, and encourage the surrender of Japanese troops. Shifting blame was a way to give the troops hope that they would not suffer if they surrendered.[7]
This policy was continued after the war, with MacArthur comparing the condition of the Japanese under their former government to a condition of slavery. This rhetoric was part of the process of converting the Japanese into a democratic nation. Because democracy places governing power in the people, the idea that the general Japanese population was not responsible for the acts of the country during the war was reinforced. Orr also points out that the focus on top leadership in the Tokyo War Crimes trials (1946-1948) encouraged people to disassociate themselves from personal responsibility. The purge of top government officials who might oppose occupation reforms also encouraged people to believe that it was the entrenched “system” that had caused the country to suffer.[8] This was problematic, considering that many of Japan’s postwar government leaders were also in positions of government power during the war, but Orr states that these conservative leaders were able to successfully adopt the language of Japanese war victimization in order to appeal to their electorates.[9]
The government’s opposition elements, the Communist and Socialist parties, became vocal opponents of the conservative government’s policy of remilitarization. To rally people to their cause, they utilized war memories of suffering, deprivation, and the victimhood that Japanese felt during World War II. They also consistently called on the conservative Japanese government to acknowledge Japan’s role as the aggressor in the Asia-Pacific War. This use of war memory as a political tool to protest rearmament reinforced the feeling that the wartime government, rather than the general populace, was responsible for the war.
Calls for acknowledgment of responsibility led what Orr identifies as “progressive activists” to take the lead in the formation of a peace movement to lobby against what they perceived to be the reversion of the postwar government to its prewar policy of militarism. The peace movement initially presented the role of the Japanese people collectively (as the masses, national citizenry, or ethnic nation, interchangeably) as being both victimizers and victims. However, because of the way the peace movement utilized personal Japanese accounts of war experiences to promote its agenda, Orr believes the vision of the Japanese as victims came to overshadow the Japanese role as victimizers. He writes that the role of victimizer was passed on to “the system,” the military, or to the militarist state.[10] This feeling of victimhood allowed members of the peace movement to sidestep the important issue of feeling responsible for Japan’s actions during the war. So, the idea that the Japanese as a whole were responsible for the actions of the government became a marginal narrative.
Orr notes that this mythology of victimhood reached its peak with the first postwar generation and then began to shift as people recognized themselves as past victimizers when they were faced with the realities of the U.S. role in the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1955-1975). The U.S. used bases built on Okinawa as a staging area for troops, as well as for launching bombing runs into Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Orr relates a trip made by members of a peace movement called Beheiren, founded in 1965 by Oda Makoto, to Hanoi in Vietnam. In 1966, Oda reflected on this trip in an essay, commenting that it was imperative that the Japanese people understand their role as victimizers if they were to avoid repeating the same errors in the future. Oda was specifically concerned that the U.S.-Japan Bilateral Security agreement would draw Japan into a war.[11] Orr indicates that there was a consistent narrative being pushed by social commentators that called on the Japanese to remember their role as aggressors in the war. This group included Okuma Nobuyuki and Nanbara Shigeru during the occupation, Kamei Katsuichiro and Maruyama Masao in the 1950s, and Shimizu Ikutaro and Sakamoto Yoshikazu in the years around the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Bilateral Security Agreement in 1960.[12] However, it is not clear how much impact they really had, because Orr also mentions that depictions of the Japanese as victims in popular media were prevalent throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It seems more likely that it wasn’t until after the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989 that debates about personal war responsibility became widespread in Japan as a public, rather than niche phenomenon.[13]
In War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2005 (2008), Franziska Seraphim argues that questions of war memory and postwar responsibility have been a part of public political life in Japan from immediately after the war through the 2000s. She argues that the way war memory was used depended on specific historical factors, including international circumstances, domestic politics, and a shifting public culture. She is very adamant that questions of postwar responsibility and memory have been a part of public political life in Japan since the end of the war and argues against the idea that the Japanese are politically immature, have no sense of guilt, or have a culture of amnesia. Seraphim also addresses the issue of the creation of a national public memory. On the one hand, she says there is an ideal of a unified memory, whether it promotes pacifism or nationalism, that is promoted by Kato Norihiro in his book Haisengoron, for example. On the other hand, there is the messy, complex, history built around special interest politics, which Seraphim holds to be more true to actual events.[14]
According to Seraphim, the Japanese people became accustomed to seeing war memory as part of special interest representative politics and because of this, they saw war memory as an issue that did not concern the individual as an individual or the public as a national public.[15] She contends that the making and negotiating of war memory took place at the middle level of the political process between organized groups of citizens, their constituents, the state, and the larger public.[16] This approach breaks war memory down into specific categories of interest that were pursued by different portions of the Japanese population. There was no feeling of general responsibility for the war as a whole, but rather a diverse set of interests. This is a much more realistic approach to the topic of what an entire population might feel about an event as complex as the Asia-Pacific War.
Seraphim draws on the histories of five prominent civic organizations from across the political spectrum to illustrate her point, including the Association of Shinto Shrines, Association of War-Bereaved Families, Teachers’ Union, Japan-China Friendship Association, and Memorial Society for the Student-Soldiers Killed in War (referenced by the organization’s Japanese name, Wadatsumikai, moving forward). These groups represent a wide range of special interests, including religion, military family issues, anti-militarism, reconciliation with China, and pacifism. They also represent different political leanings in Japan. Organized in the 1950s, these groups established and dominated the use of war memories in special interest politics. These groups are adequately diverse to prove Seraphim’s point and cover issues that are still being debated today, including textbook revisionism, fears of remilitarization, and acknowledgment and reconciliation with China.
Like the editors of Perilous Memories, Seraphim acknowledges that the prevalent discourse on war memory was initially imposed on the Japanese people by the American occupation, which positioned Japan as the sole aggressor in the war. She also agrees with James Orr’s view of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials as a matter of “victor’s justice” that skipped over major issues like comfort women and biological warfare testing in Manchuria.[17] She looks at the shift in war memory and responsibility from being primarily a domestic issue from the 1950s through the 1970s to one of international and broad public significance in Japan in the 1980s. What Seraphim is claiming is not that international, external events had no impact on Japanese war memory, but rather that these events did not change the competitive nature and utilization of war memory by the special interest groups she is reviewing.[18] She acknowledges the impact of the Vietnam War in forming groups like Beheiren. She also discusses normalization of government relations with South Korea in 1965 and China in 1972, as well as some of the associated problems that prevented an actual discourse of reconciliation. For example, the resumption of relations with South Korea was widely believed in both Japan and South Korea to be the result of business interests rather than a genuine concern for making amends for the past. In China, she cites the role of the government in suppressing the media as the reason there were no similar protests.[19]
Seraphim’s work covers a lot of ground, but it fails to address the public reaction to these special interest groups. The role of other nations in her work is slightly lacking, but her focus is on Japanese national politics and the development of war memory as a tool used by special interests leading up to the 1980s. In the 1980s and beyond, she discusses outside pressures, but only in terms of how the Japanese political body reacted to them. Perhaps her work could have benefited from giving more voice to these other countries, especially in her chapter on the issue of Japan offering apologies to Asian countries in the 1980s and beyond.
James Orr’s work, which presents all Japanese as experiencing a feeling of common victimhood with members of other Asian nations, presents a gap in public understanding of war responsibility that is contradicted by the other works surveyed in this paper, but especially by Takashi Yoshida in From Cultures of War to Cultures of Peace: War and Peace Museums in Japan, China, and South Korea (2014). Yoshida argues that the Japanese understood their role as aggressors in the war immediately after Japan’s defeat as a result of an American “war guilt program” initiated during the occupation period. A problem with his understanding of war guilt, however, is that while he notes that the Japanese rejected the values and conduct of wartime Japan, he fails to address the distinction between the assignation of blame to the military and government elites versus a feeling of personal responsibility among the Japanese public.[20] This nuance being lost does not seriously detract from his examination of early peace movements and museums, however. In his analysis, Yoshida disagrees that Japan, as a nation, has a “history problem,” and attempts to challenge the assumption that all Japanese are committed to forgetting about or denying their imperial past. Instead, Yoshida presents the wartime Japanese populace as having believed in their government as a result of media propaganda and indoctrination.[21] Subsequent to their defeat, they came to grips with their role in the war as aggressors and evidence of this can be found in the peace museums that were constructed.
Yoshida presents the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as the primary driving force behind the establishment of the first peace museum. He details the development of an annual Peace Festival at Hiroshima, that began one year after the bomb dropped, into a world recognized event that initially had support from Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan. Despite waning interest from the American government in the face of potential war with Korea and the onset of Cold War politics, Hiroshima’s mayor, Hamai Shinzo was able to secure funding from the Japanese Diet to help rebuild the city into a testament for peace. The Bikini Atoll / Lucky Dragon Five Incident in 1954 provided additional support from both the Japanese national public and international community.[22] In 1955, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was opened to display the effects of the atomic bomb on the city. As indicated in its name, the goal of the museum was to promote peace. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, originally established as the Nagasaki International Cultural Hall Atomic Bomb Museum in 1955, served the same purpose of promoting peace. These museums speak more to a feeling of victimhood and a commitment to pacifism than a real feeling of guilt for the war, however. It may be that Yoshido is conflating victimhood with a feeling of war responsibility.
Another set of museums included in Yoshida’s work have a more critical perspective. They include the Maruki Art Gallery (1967, Saitama), the Osaka Human Rights Museum (1985), the Korea Museum (2001, Tokyo) and the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace (2005, Tokyo). These museums attempt to show the results of Japanese aggression. For example, the Osaka Human Rights Museum discusses the fact that Japanese citizenship was stripped from colonial migrants, while the Women’s Active Museum primarily commemorates the women forced into sexual servitude in the Japanese military’s “comfort women” system. These museums, which are driven by a pacifist agenda, display the devastating effects of the war on people’s lives in Asia and the Pacific.[23] Yoshida does not make it clear that the people who constructed these museums felt a sense of war guilt or responsibility, but it can be inferred from the types of exhibitions they put on display. Additionally, there is a gap of almost twenty-five years between the end of the war and the opening of the first museum listed that condemns Japanese aggression, which contradicts the notion that the Japanese people felt themselves to be personally responsible immediately after the end of the war.
Like Seraphim, Yoshida acknowledges that there are competing narratives of war memory in Japan. He discusses revisionist attempts to influence public discourse on war responsibility by analyzing the reopening of the Battleship Mikasa Memorial Museum and by discussing the role of the Yushukan war museum at Yasukuni Shrine. Both of these museums were reestablished in 1961. The Mikasa museum did not perform well initially, as a result of poor facilities and a lack of interest due to antiwar sentiment. Ironically, the museum received funding from American Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who turned over royalties to both an essay he wrote for Bungei shunju, a monthly journal, as well as royalties from the Japanese translation of a book he had written titled The Great Sea War. Additional donations were made by American sailors in Japan. The museum was supported by both the conservative Japanese government and the American government, who hoped it would help overcome pacifist sentiment in postwar Japan.[24] The Yushukan museum at Yasukuni shrine was only able to reopen a small display hall, called the Museum of Treasures Left Behind, in 1961. Incremental improvements were made and the full Yushukan museum was reopened in 1986, but it did not gain in popularity until after an expansion in 2002. Yushukan’s stated purpose is to honor war martyrs and reveal the “truth” about Japan’s military history, which gives the museum a pro-militarism perspective.[25]
In Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Undending Postwar (2015), Akiko Takenaka takes a similar approach by using a site to analyze the way that the Japanese have engaged with war memory in the postwar period. The approaches that Yoshida and Takenaka take are slightly different. Yoshida uses a series of sites to show how different collections have been curated to present a specific historical narrative that visitors from both Japan and abroad then engage with. In Takenaka’s case, she is instead discussing how narratives have been applied to a specific site, Yasukuni Shrine.
Yasukuni Shrine, originally built in June 1869 to memorialize the spirits of 3,588 imperialist soldiers who died in the Boshin War, is a Shinto shrine and a war memorial in Tokyo where Japan’s 1868 – 1945 war casualties are collectively memorialized. In order to analyze the history of the shrine, Takenaka makes a distinction between the religious aspect of the site, the site itself as a physical location, and the war memory issues that have become tied up in the term “Yasukuni.” Enshrinement at Yasukuni was promoted as the greatest honor that a soldier could receive. Takenaka believes that this encouraged the devaluation of human life, leading to a greater loss of lives during the Asia-Pacific War. Because this idea of honorable sacrifice was promoted by the government, Japanese in the postwar period came to see it as another sign that they had been deceived by their government, further reinforcing the Japanese public’s notion of shared victimhood.[26]
When Class A war criminals were enshrined in Yasukuni in 1978, the site became a focal point for discussions related to Japan’s role as an aggressor in the Asia-Pacific War.[27] Because Japan is seen as the aggressor in the Asia-Pacific War by China and South Korea, it becomes problematic and controversial for state officials to visit the site and honor the war dead. Takenaka draws a comparison to the contradictions and problems inherent in the Vietnam War Memorial in the United States.[28] She states that many East Asian and Southeast Asian nations that suffered from Japan’s wartime aggression during the Asia-Pacific War have come to see official state visits to Yasukuni Shrine as a sign of Japan’s desire to rearm and engage in future military enterprises.[29] Takenaka argues that critics of Yasukuni have come to see the shrine itself as the source of postwar problems, rather than as a symbol of those problems and have proposed destroying the shrine or building a new shrine for Japan’s war dead, as if that will solve the underlying issues that exacerbate international tensions.
Takenaka does not believe that destroying the shrine is an effective solution. She believes that Yasukuni is being scapegoated by the Japanese public to avoid taking personal responsibility for the actions of the Japanese state during the war. Takenaka’s conception of the Japanese public’s sense of personal responsibility mirrors that of other authors reviewed in this paper. Because of the focus of the Tokyo War Crimes Trials on a select group of leaders, the transition to democracy, and the enshrinement of Class A war criminals in Yasukuni, the public was encouraged to disassociate themselves from any personal guilt. Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that as time passes there are fewer and fewer people left alive in Japan who served in the government during the war.[30] People no longer feel the need to take responsibility for something that occurred before they were born. Nor have any of the authors reviewed made a strong case for why the Japanese public should feel any responsibility for what the wartime government did in their name, either in the present or during the war. Takenaka reveals that many Japanese had no desire to be conscripted, that hardly any mentioned the emperor in letters sent home to parents, and many children mocked the emperor secretly.[31] There was some quiet dissent, but what mechanisms could the Japanese have used to halt the progress of Japanese imperialism? If elected officials were having trouble reigning in the Japanese military in Manchuria, would popular protest have accomplished anything?
In The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan (2015), Akiko Hashimoto uses three key war memory narratives – nationalism, pacifism, and reconciliation – to explore rising international tensions between Japan and China, Korea, and Russia because of unresolved issues leftover from the Asia-Pacific War, including territorial disputes, the Yasukuni issue, apologies and compensation for forced laborers and “comfort women,” and the treatment of POWs.[32] In her analysis, she attempts to understand why memories of national trauma have remained so relevant in Japanese culture so long after the actual event. She argues that war memory and defeat have become an indelible part of Japan’s culture. Like Seraphim, she identifies an increase in the intensity of war memory in public discourse after the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. Hashimoto focuses on the years between 1985 and 2015 and uses the narratives of the war that are circulated in families, popular media, and schools to examine how the Japanese public has come to terms with an inherited legacy of trauma, loss, guilt, and shame.[33]
Hashimoto argues that the trauma of defeat itself is the catalyst for revising historical narratives.[34] She positions the political debate about war memories as primarily concerned with national belonging and what it means to be Japanese. She calls this a “project of repairing the moral backbone of a broken society,” recalling the argument made by revisionists about not wanting to promote a masochistic historical narrative mentioned in Perilous Memories.[35] She also identifies the Japanese conflict over its history as part of a larger trend where remembering the past has become part of the experience of forging a collective identity.[36] She is referring to the creation of national narratives as a force to bind a community together. In Japan’s case, this attempt to create a new national narrative is frustrated by internal divisions and external pressures from countries, like China and South Korea, as well as individuals seeking acknowledgment of or reparations for Japan’s wartime acts.
Hashimoto uses oral history, popular media and schools to analyze how war memory continues to impact Japanese society. She concludes that war memories are deeply encoded in everyday Japanese culture and are much more varied than the stereotypical claim that Japan has historical amnesia or a “history problem.” She goes a step further by arguing that there is no collective memory in Japan that promotes a single point of view. There are multiple historical narratives based on war memories that compete for legitimacy. She places these competing narratives into three general categories. The first category of narratives is the “fortunate fall” group, which justify the war and the sacrifices made as a necessary foundation for the peace and prosperity that Japan experiences in the present.[37] Takenaka references this theory as well, in the sense that the soldiers entombed in Yasukuni, and Yasukuni itself, are thought of as the cornerstone that modern, successful Japan is built on.[38] This narrative elides responsibility for starting the war by emphasizing the heroism of the Japanese and the necessity of the war for Japan’s later successes. Examples of this narrative in popular culture are the story of the Yamato, which is continually retold in films, documentaries, textbooks, and speeches. There are also popular movies, like Eternal Zero (2013) and Moon Light Summer (1993). The next category of narratives is the “catastrophe” group, which views the war as an unmitigated disaster of epic proportions. These narratives position the Japanese public as fellow victims of the war. Nakazawa Keiji’s Barefoot Gen antiwar comic is a good example of this category, as well as the animated film Grave of the Fireflies (1988).[39] The third group of narratives is the “dark descent to hell,” which emphasize Japan’s role as the aggressor. This is the approach taken by Ienaga Saburo, a historian, and other scholars who promote a critical viewpoint of Japan as the aggressor in the war in textbooks, popular histories, novels, documentaries, and cartoons.[40]
Carol Gluck touches on the idea of competing narratives in an article titled “The Seventieth Anniversary of World War II’s End in Asia: Three Perspectives” (2015). In discussing how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might approach his speech at this then upcoming event, she reflects on Abe’s previous statement that he wanted to make the past “more forward looking,” which is an interesting statement because it implies revising the historical narrative. Gluck believes that this is indeed what Abe meant by the term. His government and supporters want to produce a positive national narrative that will emphasize patriotism and downplay or not mention wartime atrocities. She notes that this is a path that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry encouraged for both Japan and South Korea, bringing to mind the arguments of other authors in this paper that note the role of the U.S. in creating and maintaining war memory related tensions between Japan and its neighbors.
In reviewing the work of these authors it becomes apparent that war memory is a very complex topic and Japanese national life has been, and continues to be, deeply impacted by the events of the Asia-Pacific War. Because of the policies of the U.S. government, both prior to and after Japan’s surrender, the Japanese public was greatly encouraged to disassociate themselves from personal responsibility for the nation’s role in the war. While there were some elements within the population that attempted to promote a collective sense of responsibility, their narrative was marginal until after the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. With the development of national histories that have competing claims on truth, Japan is coming to grips with the need to form a coherent historical narrative. How Japan’s history will be represented remains to be seen, though it is unrealistic to believe that the country will unanimously back a single narrative. The three dominant categories of “fortunate fall,” “catastrophe,” and “dark descent to hell” are in competition with each other and will likely remain that way until the events of the Asia-Pacific War fade into the distant past.
It is also unlikely that the Japanese public will suddenly assume a feeling of personal responsibility for the events of the Japanese nation during World War II. It is not even clear why they should, or whether it would be beneficial in any meaningful way. This could be an important area for further study. The authors reviewed all discuss feelings of personal responsibility among the general population, but they did not make an argument as to why the general population should be held responsible. Even in a democracy, are the people really responsible for the actions their government commits in their name? How much control did the Japanese people have over elected officials once they were in office? How much control did they have over the selection of candidates or the election process? What avenues could they have used to try to stop their government from continuing along the path to war, had they wanted to? It would also be interesting to look at comparative studies, to see how other populations have reacted when their governments have engaged in wars that are widely held to be unjust wars of aggression, like the U.S. war in Vietnam and Iraq, for example.


[1] Carol Gluck, et al., “The Seventieth Anniversary of World War II’s End in Asia: Three Perspectives,” The Journal of Asian Studies (2015): 3.
[2] Takashi Fujitani, et al., Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s) (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 4-5.
[3] Ibid., 5.
[4] Ibid., 12.
[5] Ibid., 8.
[6] James J. Orr, Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001), 2.
[7] Ibid., 17.
[8] Ibid., 19-20.
[9] Ibid., 7.
[10] Ibid., 3.
[11] Ibid., 4.
[12] Ibid., 5.
[13] Ibid., 6.
[14] Franziska Seraphim, War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2000 (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008), 316.
[15] Ibid., 5.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid., 6.
[18] Ibid., 194-195, 261.
[19] Ibid., 194, 196, 204.
[20] Takashi Yoshida, From Cultures of War to Cultures of Peace: War and Peace Museums in Japan, China, and South Korea (Portland: MerwinAsia, 2014), xiii, 14.
[21] Ibid., xiv.
[22] Ibid., 20-25.
[23] Ibid., 49, 100.
[24] Ibid., 145-148.
[25] Ibid., 148-151.
[26] Akiko Takenaka, Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwar (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015), 11.
[27] Ibid., 2.
[28] Ibid., 3.
[29] Ibid., 4-5.
[30] Ibid., 11-12.
[31] Ibid., 14.
[32] Akiko Hashimoto, The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 3.
[33] Ibid., 4.
[34] Ibid., 5.
[35] Ibid., 2.
[36] Ibid., 5.
[37] Ibid., 8.
[38] Akiko Takenaka, Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwar (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015), 17.
[39] Ibid., 13.
[40] Ibid., 14.


Fujitani, Takashi, Geoffrey M. White, and Lisa Yoneyama. 2001. Perilous Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s). Durham: Duke University Press.
Gluck, Carol, Rana Mitter, and Charles K. Armstrong. 2015. “The Seventieth Anniversary of World War II’s End in Asia: Three Perspectives.” The Journal of Asian Studies 1-7.
Hashimoto, Akiko. 2015. The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Japan. New York: Oxford University Press.
Orr, James J. 2001. Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Seraphim, Franziska. 2008. War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2005. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center.
Takenaka, Akiko. 2015. Yasukuni Shrine: History, Memory, and Japan’s Unending Postwar. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Yoshida, Takashi. 2014. From Cultures of War to Cultures of Peace: War and Peace Museums in Japan, China, and South Korea. Portland: MerwinAsia.