David McNeill: How school textbooks defined a foreign policy

The arguments of the nationalist right are bubbling back into the mainstream like untreated sewage

Share

As the spring sun baked the last of the cherry blossoms in Tokyo yesterday afternoon, you could walk off the streets into a scene straight out of a Second World War film: hundreds of super-patriots bowing to a rising-sun flag and pledging their lives to defend Japan from her "enemies".

As the spring sun baked the last of the cherry blossoms in Tokyo yesterday afternoon, you could walk off the streets into a scene straight out of a Second World War film: hundreds of super-patriots bowing to a rising-sun flag and pledging their lives to defend Japan from her "enemies".

"Japan faces its worst crisis for 60 years," said Kihachiro Minamioka, a speaker at a national ultra-rightist conference in Kudan Hall. "We are beset by foes in Asia who want to take our land. And look at our forces in Iraq: an army that cannot defend itself from an enemy attack. This is a shameful country."

Japan's ultra-rightists are despised by most ordinary people and rarely covered by the media, but there are striking similarities between their arguments and those of the academics and politicians behind the history textbooks that have caused so much anger across Asia.

Both groups say Japan was not the aggressor in the Second World War but the liberator, fighting to free Asia from the yoke of white colonialism; Japan played the imperial game in China, Korea and Taiwan because the alternative was to become a colony herself and when the US declared economic war by cutting off Japan's oil supplies, the inevitable result was Pearl Harbor.

These arguments have long been part of the language of the nationalist right in Japan, which has never accepted the hypocritical victor's justice it was forced to swallow after the Second World War. Today, they are bubbling back into the political mainstream like untreated sewage.

The ultra-right in Japan rose from the ashes of the Second World War thanks to sponsorship from powerful mainstream figures such as the minister of justice under the post-war prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida. That the nation's highest-ranking law official unshackled organised crime and the same ultra-nationalist forces that had helped propel Japan to disaster in 1931-1945 should provide some idea of how much political backing they enjoyed.

The midwife of this arrangement was the US occupation authorities who, in the interests of fighting Soviet and Chinese communism, co-operated with many of the leaders of wartime Japan and allowed the perpetrators of atrocities such as Unit 731, a bio-warfare unit that experimented on thousands of live Chinese prisoners, to walk free. Many of these leaders went on to exert a powerful influence on Japan's postwar media and educational institutions. The list of establishment politicians who have since huddled with nationalists and gangsters is long and undistinguished.

This history explains why ultra-rightist posturing, such as calls for the restoration of the Emperor's powers and denials of well-documented war crimes, finds echoes all the way up to the highest of Japan's dim political corridors. Just two months ago, Shinzo Abe, the deputy secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democrats, was involved in a censorship scandal when a producer from state broadcaster NHK alleged he intervened to block a program about the so-called comfort-women, or former military sex slaves.

Close, and often overt, ties between the political and criminal underworld enables one of the world's largest criminal organisations, the Yamaguchi-gumi, to flourish, and allows tens of thousands of ultra-right activists to openly organise and demonstrate across the country, threatening and intimidating journalists, trade unions, socialists and other ideological enemies.

My own baptism of fire into the world of ultra-nationalism in Japan came in 2000, when I was hosting a local radio show with my Japanese wife. After an on-air discussion about the Rape of Nanking, when imperial troops massacred thousands of Chinese civilians, ultra-nationalists forced the station management to make a public apology. Every large media institution in Japan has experienced similar political harassment, meaning that the opportunity for a full airing of wartime issues is still taboo.

While Germany enjoys its best ever relations with its former enemies, Japanese officials cower behind the walls of their embassies in Seoul and Beijing, dodging excrement hurled by rioting students, who are incensed by textbooks that soft-pedal Japan's colonial history. "What is it with Japan?" is the question behind much of the commentary filling the airwaves and newspapers abroad; why can it not leave the past behind?

Don't bother asking Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi who, like the stoned captain of a sinking ship, keeps trotting the blandest of platitudes to his sweating crew: "Japan-Korea, Japan-China relations are progressing smoothly," he said last week as relations with both approached meltdown. Far better, I always find, to turn for advice on the temper of the times to my neighbour, Mrs Kuno. "I've no idea what the dispute is about," she says. "But I hope it won't stop Korea from sending over those TV dramas. I love them."

Mrs Kuno's apathy is typical of many Japanese who rarely have strong political opinions. Support among ordinary people here for school textbooks that extol the benefits of Japan's imperial rule is miniscule; the last time this issue surfaced, in 2001, the textbooks ended up being used in just 0.01 per cent of Japanese schools. This apathy, however, has let nationalists who have never accepted Japan's postwar status make textbooks the defining issue of Japanese foreign policy in Asia.

davidaamcneill@hotmail.com

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Purchaser

£12000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: his is a unique opportunity to ...

Recruitment Genius: Accountant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Summarises financial status by ...

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Recruitment Genius: Salesforce Developer

£50000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued business growt...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Rachel Hollis posted a photo of herself in a bikini on holiday online with the caption 'I'm proud of this body and every mark on it'  

At last there’s a new ‘bikini body’ ideal – and it’s one with stretch marks

Victoria Richards
Ed Miliband contends with difficult questions from Jeremy Paxman  

Battle for Number 10: Miliband survives a rough ride but Cameron takes the edge in first TV battle

John Curtice
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss