Japan is working hard at forgetting. Its prime minister, Shinzo Abe, suggests in code-talk that Japan was the victim of World War II — no war criminals at all, thank you — and its influential conservative press, with a wink from the government, is determined to whitewash the country’s use of sex slaves during the war. This sort of thing can be catching. Maybe others will forget why they consider Japan a friend.
Certainly the task will be harder when Angelina Jolie’s film, “Unbroken,” hits the theaters on Christmas Day. The movie, like the book by Laura Hillenbrand, is the story of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic runner whose plane crashed in the Pacific during World War II and who wound up spending two and half years as a prisoner of the Japanese. He was horribly brutalized by his captors — starved, tortured both physically and psychologically, worked nearly to death, and so often beaten viciously and capriciously that the sickening thud of a kendo stick on a human skull will trail you for days.
Men died from such abuse, but not Zamperini. He lived long enough to cooperate with both the book and the movie, dying just this year (July 2) at the age of 97. He reconciled with the Japanese. That’s more than what Japan has done with its past.
The country has much to atone for. Japan mistreated prisoners of war and even established a medical research team — the infamous Unit 731 — which conducted experiments on captured enemy soldiers, most of them Chinese. Among other atrocities, the unit performed hideous vivisections without anesthetic on living men, removing organs or limbs for some concocted medical purpose. Dr. Mengele might have turned away in horror.
It is not my purpose here to revive anti-Japanese sentiment, which in war-time America comingled with racism to produce the unjust incarceration of Japanese-Americans in internment camps. But certain important Japanese seem intent on reviving the past by revising it. With an implied nod from Abe, they have put enormous pressure on the Asahi Shimbun newspaper to retract stories exposing Japan’s conscription of thousands of women to serve as sex slaves for the military during the war. Increasingly, this historic fact is being denounced as a fiction. Too many witnesses — not to mention victims — insist otherwise.
This is a serious matter. First, it is unspeakably ugly to once again deny these women their humanity by saying they were volunteers — prostitutes — and not sex slaves. Second, the attempt to erase the whole sordid “comfort women” episode is part of a ferocious attempt to rewrite history. Before becoming prime minister and at least once since assuming office, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine where many World War II figures, including war criminals, are memorialized. To the Chinese, the Koreans and other Asians who fought and were brutally occupied by Japan (the so-called Rape of Nanking is a particularly gruesome chapter), the honor accorded the Yasukuni dead is horrendously offensive.
One of the most startling parts of Hillenbrand’s book is her recounting of what happened to the POWs once Japan surrendered. Some were executed, but the liberated ones were allowed to amble out of their camps and into nearby towns and cities. The Japanese police who, just moments earlier, might have shot a POW on sight, were soon engaged in the hunt for American-designated war criminals. Japan did an instant 180; the Emperor Hirohito had ordered surrender and cooperation. Japan surrendered and cooperated.
These sudden reversals have been a feature of Japanese culture ever since Adm. Matthew Perry forcibly opened the country to American trade in 1854. The nation, both humbled and instructed, swiftly modernized and by 1905 had beaten mighty Russia in a war that Western conventional wisdom thought it would lose. Japan similarly adopted American-style democracy after World War II and literally rose from the ashes (Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the often-overlooked incineration of Tokyo) to become so substantial an economic power that China supplanted it as No. 2 only recently. These were breathtaking achievements.
Now, though, a more ominous reversal may be underway. With its economy once again showing weakness — it has recently fallen into recession — the mythologizing of the past may well accelerate. This would only aggravate the insult to Japan’s victims and further unsettle its neighbors, China and South Korea in particular. Japan’s revisionists have their eye on the past. Others wonder what this means for the future.
Richard Cohen is a writer with the Washington Post Writers Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.