Japan's Creep toward the Right

The Japanese election results were worrisome. Turnout was poor, which reflected both the apathy of the public, and the short lead-up to the elections. The one bright note was that a few right-wingers like Ishihara lost their seats. However, Abe will be continuing in his position as Prime Minister and because of that, Japan will keep steadily shuffling toward rightist nationalism.

It remains to be seen how successful his economic policies will be, but we already know how Abe’s right-leaning orientation has affected the political sphere in Japan and Japan’s relations with the rest of Asia. In an article from 2012, “Abe sticks to 1995 statement on WWII apologies, may review ‘comfort women’ acknowledgements”, Abe and his cabinet did not go so far as to retract acknowledgement for Japan’s responsibility for all of its wartime acts, but he did say that he doubted some of the claims of Japanese war crimes; specifically the forced abduction of women from invaded territories for military brothels. Since then, he has reiterated that position and provided tacit support for conservative groups who are even more outspoken in their denialist beliefs.

In US-centric terms, having Abe in office as prime minister is like having a president who has expressed Holocaust denial beliefs in public and meets with KKK-friendly politicians. A guy like that wouldn’t come right out and say that the thing with the Jews [1] was just a big misunderstanding, but he just can’t believe that all of the camps were death camps. Some of them were just work camps, and heck, the kapos were even volunteers(!) so how bad could it have been?

This is why, despite multiple apologies over the decades, many Asians from countries that Japan invaded during WWII — particularly Koreans and Chinese — have been consistently critical of Japan. Official acknowledgements of responsibility for Japanese actions during the War have been consistently inconsistent. In contrast to the German approach in educating its youth about the Holocaust and Naziism, Japan wavers between glossing over and completely ignoring its misdeeds. Overall, Japanese education tends to emphasize Japan’s status as the victim of the atomic bombs that led to Japan’s eventual surrender.

I’ve written about some of these issues before, most extensively in a post about “comfort women”, and briefly concering texbook references to one of the disputed island territories about a month before that.

In the Japanese middle school and high school textbooks I’ve seen, the Nanking Massacre (more luridly, The Rape of Nanking) — or as it’s often bloodlessly known in Japanese, 南京事件, the “Nanking Incident” — is relegated to nearly footnote status — if it’s included at all — and the language is riddled with weasel-words. If you read Japanese, you can pick up a handful of history texts from the library or a bookstore to verify this. If you don’t read Japanese, you still don’t have to take just my word for it; the Japanese author of a BBC article talked about her experience of the education system’s lies of omission in “What Japanese history lessons leave out” published last year.

Japanese history texts are shallow on all topics. The layout of the texts that I’ve seen is similar to a magazine, with the exception that there simply are no in-depth multi-page pieces. Everything, everything is broken up into 200–500 word articles organized around a larger topic, covering perhaps a total of one page for each major topic. The whole of WWII — and I’m being generous by including the 1931 invasion of Manchuria as the beginning point — is covered in 14-and-a-half pages of the more extensive of the two texts I have at home. There is no room for analysis in the text, and there is very little (if any) analysis or explanation that takes place in class either. In context with history texts as a whole, the short blurb on Nanking is not atypical, it’s depressingly normal.

Contrast that shallow gloss with the full-chapter excerpt of tear-jerking pathos from “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” that I have seen in nearly every middle-school English textbook from the major publishers. Sadako’s story is so well-known that folding paper cranes became The Thing to Do when someone is in the hospital (I received a set in my first year in Japan when I was in the hospital due to an injury incurred at a school) and has made it into, of all things, an English-language Bathroom Reader.

In brief, this is how the Japanese education system addresses these three topics:

  • Girl dying of leukemia: a full chapter with 3–5 class hours dedicated to studying it in English over the course of a week or more, plus an extensive treatment of the atom bombings and aftermath in every history book I’ve ever seen.

  • Hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians shot and bayonetted to death, women gang-raped, children butchered: a 250 word blurb with non-committal language buried at the bottom of a page in only some history text books, that might be briefly mentioned in class, if the teacher isn’t too uncomfortable and doesn’t just ignore it.

  • Women from invaded territories captured and forced to whore for the military: whiplash-inducing statements from politicians over the decades, with “more study necessary” being the perennial favorite, as the numbers of the surviving women dwindle from old age and they still wait for unambiguous acknowledgement from Japan of what was done to them when they were still barely older than the girls who doubtlessly shed many tears over the plight of Sadako during their English class studies.

Expect Japan under Abe to move further right, even though some far-right members of minority opposition parties lost their seats. The overall tone of Japanese politics has already been shifting to the right (the increasing number of visits to Yasukuni shrine by politicians are an indication of this) and Abe provides an aegis for more open nationalism. Earlier last year, his cabinet already effectively abrogated the constitutional provision against war, Article 9.

You can expect an official-official, un-retracted acknowledgement of full responsibility for ianfu around the time the last of the grandkids (or maybe the great-grandkids) of the afflicted women’s generation die off. In other words, you’ll probably die of old age yourself before that happens. Assuming there isn’t another war with Japan in the meantime.


  1. … and the homosexuals, and the disabled, and the Roma, and the other estimated 5-million-plus “undesirables” who seem to get left out in the holocaust count.