Fighting for the memories of a war

Praveen Swami

Japan has sacked its Air Self Defence Chief for an essay defending his country’s Second World War record. For Indians, the debate on history is familiar — and discomfiting.

Etched on metal, the simple plaque celebrates death: “Leaving behind their parents and loved ones, and abandoning their own promise of a glowing future, these young men carried out human-bomb attacks in the skies, on the seas and on the land, while they achieved outstanding military success at the cost of their precious lives. Their deaths total some 6,000 men. The suicide operations, incomparable in their tragic bravery, struck terror into their foes and engulfed the entire country in tears of gratitude.”

An elegy on al-Qaeda’s ranks? A song by a poet of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam? In fact, the plaque stands at the heart of Tokyo, at a national shrine commemorating its Second World War dead — a monument abhorred by many on the left of Japanese politics but venerated by the right.

Last month, the government sacked General Toshio Tamogami, chief of staff of the Air Self-Defence Force, for writing an essay repudiating Japan’s official acknowledgment of its role as an aggressor in the war. The essay, which won the first prize in a contest sponsored by a national real estate giant, provoked an international furore. Perhaps the strongest reactions came from Japan’s principal war victims. In a formal complaint, Chinese Foreign Ministry deputy spokesperson Jiang Yu said his country was “shocked and angry that a senior Japanese SDF officer publicly distorted history and glorified Japan’s invasion.” The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade condemned Gen. Tamogami for having “cheated [the] historical truths.”

Ever since he was sacked, the sentiments on the plaque in Tokyo — and their role in Japan’s history and national life — have taken centre stage in political debate. Gen. Tamogami’s essay opposes official Japan’s position on the Second World War — described as the Greater East Asian War in an effort to sunder it of connections with the battle against German fascism.

Japan’s legitimate military presence in China, Gen. Tamogami claims, faced terrorist attacks by the Kuomintang. This was because “Chiang Kai-shek was being manipulated by Comintern.” Despite that, “the Japanese government patiently tried to bring about peace, but at every turn it was betrayed by Chiang Kai-shek,” he argues. Eventually, its patience ran short. Later, “Japan was ensnared in a trap that was very carefully laid by the United States in order to draw Japan into a war. In fact, America was also being manipulated by Comintern.”

In the event, Gen. Tamogami proceeds to argue this was just as well. “After the Greater East Asia War, many countries in Asia and Africa were released from the control of white nations,” he notes. “If Japan had not fought the Greater East War at that time,” he posits, “it may have taken another one hundred or two hundred years before we could have experienced the world of racial equality.”

Gen. Tamogami’s essay ends with a call for a greater regional strategic role for Japan’s Self Defence Forces. “Compared to the militaries of other countries,” he laments, “the SDF is bound hand and foot and immobilised. Unless our country is released from this mind control, it will never have a system for protecting itself through its own power. We have no choice but to be protected by America. If we are protected by America, the Americanisation of Japan will be accelerated.” Although Japan has the fifth-highest military budget in the world and maintains a standing force of 2,46,000 troops, it is bound by treaties restricting its offensive capabilities.

Japan has long been engaged in a complex and nuanced national debate over enhancing the SDF’s operational role — a debate, inevitably, tied up with its war history. For much of Japan’s post-war past, right-wing figures have attempted to re-legitimise ultra-nationalist militarism. Novelist Kimitake Hiraoka, who wrote under the pseudonym Yukio Mishima, committed a ritualised suicide in 1970, after a speech delivered to provoke a coup d’etat at the SDF’s Eastern Command headquarters drew jeers from the assembled troops. Japan’s liberals and its Left have resisted this campaign with determination.

Deeply embedded

But the recent debate has made clear that Gen. Tamogami’s position is not as marginal as many might have hoped: in fact, his truths are deeply embedded in Japan’s popular historical institutions.

Gaggles of schoolchildren can be found most afternoons, at the Yasukuni museum in Tokyo. Beautifully designed, the sprawling museum stands next to a Shinto shrine which honours Japan’s war dead — including 14 A-class war criminals who were convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.

The curators appear to have wished to make the war scene clean. The blades of the ancient swords have been sharpened; even the buckles on the Japanese military uniforms gleam as if polished yesterday.

Among the first exhibits visitors see is a magnificently restored rail engine, which operated along the Burma-Siam railway during World War II. The plaque under the engine gives credit to imperial Japan for opening up the interiors of Myanmar and Thailand. There is no mention, though, of the estimated 16,000 prisoners of war, and up to 1,00,000 Myanmar and Thailand labourers who died to build the line — a project driven not by altruism but by Japan’s need for an alternative to the exposed sea route through the Strait of Malacca to Rangoon.

In December 1937, the imperial Japanese army captured the city of Nanking, capital of the Republic of China. For six weeks begun December 13, the Japanese troops staged one of the Second World War’s most horrific crimes, murdering hundreds of thousands civilians in an orgy of death.

Figures compiled by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East estimated that over 200,000 civilians and prisoners of war were murdered in Nanking in the six weeks after the city fell, a figure that does not include those whose bodies were destroyed by fire or thrown into the Yangtze. Independent organisations, including burial societies, counted over 1,55,000 buried bodies, most with their hands tied behind their back. Most Chinese estimates suggest that a total of 3,00,000 people were killed; the United States military documents declassified in December 2007 suggest that a further 5,00,000 were butchered in the area around Nanking before its fall.

The Yasukuni Museum curators describe the killings as “the Nanking incident.” “After the Japanese surrounded Nanking in December 1937,” a museum plaque records, repeating discredited official apologists for the imperial army, “General Matsui Iwane distributed maps to his men with foreign settlements and the Safety Zone marked in red ink. Matsui told them that they were to maintain strict military discipline and that anyone committing unlawful acts would be severely punished. The defeated Chinese rushed to Xiaguan and they were completely destroyed. The Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes were severely prosecuted.”

Not a word — nor an image — records the mass deaths, rapes or plunder. Indeed, death itself is conspicuous by its absence in the museum. Where the killings of civilians are addressed — such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the incendiary bombings which preceded them — the victims are always Japanese.

Celebratory tone

Far from seeing the war as a source of death and devastation, the curators celebrate it as a fountainhead of liberation. “Not until Japan won a stunning victory in the early stages of the Greater East Asia War,” an exhibit marked ‘Postwar Independence Movements’ asserts, “did the idea of independence enter the realm of reality. Once the desire for independence had been kindled under Japanese occupation, it did not fade away even though Japan was ultimately defeated. Asian nations fought for their independence, and achieved triumph.” Front and centre under the words “achieved triumph,” exhibited without a hint of irony, is an image of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

For Indians, Japan’s debate on history and the evident resurgence of far-right opinion within its armed forces are both familiar and discomfiting. Lieutenant Colonel Shrikant Purohit’s arrest on charges of participating in terrorist bombings directed at Muslims has provoked a painful but necessary discussion over the extent and potential consequence of Hindu nationalist penetration of the armed forces.

In a recent article in the armed forces-oriented magazine Salute, commentator Atul Bharadwaj notes: “The armed forces, too, were guided by the prevalent sentiments in the nation and therefore remained oblivious of the need to keep a sharp eye on officers sporting tilak while wearing their uniforms.” He says “majority religious symbols like rings and saffron threads started becoming visible on parade grounds.” “We just closed our eyes,” Bharadwaj concludes, “to the fact that both anti-nationalism and ultra-nationalism feed on each other.”

Japan’s prompt dismissal of Gen. Tamogami — which stands in stark contrast to India’s equivocation in the case of civilian and military officers who have flirted with right-wing political enterprises — holds out obvious lessons.

But the debate in Japan also points to a larger challenge. Like Japan, India is yet to come to terms, at the level of popular culture, with elements of its own tragic past. Until we do so, the foundations of our future will remain fragile.

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