David McNeill: How school textbooks defined a foreign policy

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

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.