Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Sunday, 2 November 2008

Japan struggles with WWII legacy

Japan's emperor and empress at a memorial service for the war dead of World War II
Remembering the war dead can be a controversial act in Japan

After Japan's air force chief was sacked over an essay in which he appeared to question his country's accepted role as an aggressor in World War II, the BBC's Andre Vornic reports from Tokyo on Japanese attitudes to the war.

Japan expressed remorse for its wartime actions in 1995, and followed with another apology a decade later.

But the entry that won General Toshio Tamogami an essay competition described Japan as a victim.

Gen Toshio Tamogami in an undated photo
Gen Tamogami's comments suggest revisionist readings of history persist

The essay said Japan had only occupied China to secure rights it had obtained under various treaties. It also portrayed Korea under Japanese rule as prosperous and safe.

Disputes over wartime history often stir tensions between Tokyo and Beijing, but his swift dismissal should ensure no lasting damage is done to relations between Japan and its neighbours.

Announcing the dismissal on Friday, Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada said it was improper for the general to publicly state a view clearly different from that of the government.

Black vans

Comments such as those made by Gen Tamogami suggest readings of history, widely seen as revisionist, persist in Japan.

Black vans known as gaisensha are a familiar, if fairly infrequent, presence on the streets of Japanese cities.

Operated by far-right groups and bedecked with imperial flags, they broadcast military songs and nationalist slogans as they crawl through traffic.

The gaisensha remain a fringe phenomenon, at the crossroads of extreme nationalism and organised crime.

Protest in Manila recalling victims of Japanese sex slavery in WWII
Many in the Asia-Pacific region still recall atrocities by Japanese forces
Most Tokyo residents see them as an inevitable nuisance - a case, as they would put it, of "shoganai" ("It can't be helped.")

They take no more notice of the black vans than of the vociferous crows plaguing the capital's skies.

The Yasukuni shrine, in the heart of the city, is an altogether more stately affair than the gaisensha.

Contrary to popular belief, the shrine only honours a handful of war criminals, among those millions of Japanese war dead.

But the museum there presents a strikingly different interpretation of history from that familiar to Westerners, Chinese, Koreans, or indeed most Japanese.

There is no mention of the Rape of Nanking - a rampage by Japanese troops through the city of Nanjing regarded in China as a genocidal orgy of violence.

The episode is instead described as a move by Japanese troops to protect the law-abiding Chinese population from bandits and terrorists.

Furthermore, it is said, far from being a colonial oppressor, Japan sought to free Asian nations from Western domination.


There is no doubt that a strand of thought remains active in Japan which rejects official versions of the nation's past as victor propaganda.

Prime Minister Aso wears a "Wings of Peace" wristband
Japan is a pacifist nation under its constitution

The new Prime Minister, Taro Aso, is himself a conservative nationalist.

He has praised Japan in the past as a unique example of a nation with one culture, one language, and one ethnic group.

He has also angered China by describing it as a considerable threat.

Yet that perception is common across the Far East and South-East Asia, where Beijing's sharply rising military spending is a cause for disquiet.

In fact, as prime minister, Mr Aso has courted both China and South Korea, offering to host a three-way summit in the southern city of Fukuoka.

"He is not anti-China - he just has a loose tongue," says Tsuneo Watanabe of the Tokyo Foundation think-tank.

Professor Watanabe confesses to being surprised that Mr Aso has not made a single faux pas since becoming prime minister a month ago.

"But in any case," he adds, "government policy in Japan is made by a core of pragmatists."


No Japanese administration, including Mr Aso's, has questioned a landmark 1995 official statement which said that through its colonial rule and aggression, Japan had inflicted tremendous damage and suffering on Asian and other countries.

Formally a pacifist nation under its American-written constitution, Japan is also at heart a passionately pacifist society - sometimes startlingly so.

People here can be heard wishing for world peace in a tone that to Western ears might carry a touch of naivety, like a leaf torn from the book of beauty pageant contestants.

A sign advocating peace - admittedly rusting at the edges - also greets tourists boarding the pleasure boats that ply the waters of Tokyo's Sumida river.

The very gestures that would be considered routinely patriotic elsewhere, such as flying the national flag or playing the national anthem, remain intensely controversial in Japan.

A significant left-liberal strand of public opinion holds both symbols to be inherently fascistic.

Earlier this year, a Tokyo court ordered the city government to compensate 13 school teachers who had been reprimanded for refusing to sing the anthem in class.

The capital's gaisensha vans continue to make occasional appearances, with their shrill loudspeakers extolling the nation, excoriating its critics, denouncing liberal thought.

But for every black van, or the odd headline-grabbing revisionist statement, a wealth of unobtrusive signs suggests militarism and aggression have been durably expelled from Japan's collective psyche.

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