For Japan, the art of forgetting is first to remember

Blair's visit is not normal

Share
Related Topics
The boardroom at the Mitsubishi shipyard in Kobe is richly panelled. Across two walls are engraved the names, classes and tonnages of every ship launched there since the firm - no longer part of the giant conglomerate bearing the Mitsubishi name - got going at the turn of the century.

The list runs through the great build-up of Japanese mercantile strength in the early 20th century. And on, as Japan became a world naval power. In 1938 and 1939, during the count-down to Pearl Harbor, the launchings accelerated, with PT boats, destroyers, battleships. And on. The years 1942-45 are not blanked out; there is no gap in the record. The Second World War took place, there, unmistakably, in the expansion of shipping tonnage.

For Mitsubishi at least the past exists, and proudly. Yet the Japanese are selective in what they remember. The Rape of Nanking, the treatment of Allied prisoners of war, the abuse of Korean women, the complicity of Emperor Hirohito in decisions taken by the military junta ... the kind of things Japanese schoolchildren never read about in their government- approved textbooks, the kind of things Japanese historians do not debate for fear of right-wing boot boys.

Japan's post-war generations have never asked the question, what did you do in the war, daddy, for the simple reason that daddy has effectively denied the war ever took place. Perhaps all those Mitsubishi vessels were intended for cruising in Tokyo Bay.

This amnesia is the reason why, despite all the toasts and positive Foreign Office briefings, Tony Blair's visit to Japan is not and cannot be a normal event.

Economically the weather is fine, give or take the typhoon battering the Nikkei Index. The Prime Minister will return tomorrow with a new Toyota investment in Wales in his pocket; his arguments in Tokyo for financial sector liberalisation were applauded. Yet Blair's visit, like that of the Japanese emperor to Britain later this year, is tainted, discoloured by the Japanese refusal to remember.

The issue is not money for camp survivors. (Japan did make a compensation deal in the fifties but - we might ask - what kind of country is it that won't stump up the measly pounds 14,000 a head still being claimed by the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors' Association?)

The issue is acknowledgement of what took place. In their obliviousness, how can the Japanese ever know themselves as a nation and so in turn become knowable, and trustworthy? The reliability of Japanese technology is neither here nor there. In our relations with Japan the economic and the cultural- historical seem to go in opposing directions. Sushi bars and Sony PlayStations do not come anywhere near lessening the disparity between the enthusiasm with which we buy Japanese cars in such numbers (whether made in Yokohama or Derbyshire) and our lack of interest, suspicion even in Japanese thought, music, and world views.

Is that the result of our ethnocentrism? Not entirely. You do not have to dabble in psychotherapeutic banalities to see that an individual who ignores massive events - crimes - in his or her past is permanently suspect. The same applies to a country: what kind of diplomatic profile can Japan ever have when its wartime record remains suppressed?

All countries have historical skeletons, Britain included. Last year the Queen was in India and great play was made, at least by Hindu nationalists, of her visit to Amritsar, site of a massacre by colonial forces in 1919. Whether the British state owes anyone anything still for events three- quarters of a century ago is debatable; but no one can accuse British society of forgetting or, worse, trying to deny the facts of imperial rule.

There is, some would argue, a litany of British sins still to expiate from prison camps in East Africa to bombing Dresden. But leaving aside the contention that - insofar as these things are measurable - the sum total of British iniquity since the abolition of the slave trade is impressively small, no one is suggesting any line of the history ledger is being deliberately suppressed by British state or society. On the contrary there are still reputations to be made in the media, as in academe, by dishing the dirt in the manner of Count Tolstoy.

The test case for remembrance is Germany where hardly a day goes by without Germans mulling yet again over events and responsibilities during the Nazi period. The real point about the fuss over Daniel Goldhagen's book on German complicity in the Holocaust was that there was a reliable body of domestic German historical scholarship against which his (extravagant) claims could be set.

That is not yet so in Japan. Putting the record straight is not something the Japanese need to do for our but for their own sake. Recent adjustments of United Nations accounts have left the Japanese carrying the heaviest financial burden. That fact, if nothing else, bolsters Japan's strong claim on a seat in the Security Council and with that global recognition of Japan's clout. But what kind of diplomatic profile can a country have which refuses to remember and so cannot begin to ask the rest of the world to forget?

React Now

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

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in August  

Ferguson: The sad truth is that Michael Brown was killed because he was a black man

Bonnie Greer
A protestor poses for a  

Ferguson verdict: This isn't a 'tragedy'. This is part of a long-running genocide of black men in America

Otamere Guobadia
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital