General view of a reinvented past

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 November, 2008, 12:00am

Japan was not an aggressor that brought death to 20 million Asian neighbours and wholesale misery to countless others. It was a peaceful, peace-loving, international-law-abiding country that was a victim of other countries' manipulation and aggression. Nevertheless, Japan's bravery in fighting back helped create the modern world of peace and plenty. Even so, poor Japan today suffers under the yoke of US occupation and illegal Russian and Korean seizure of its lands. Japan's defence forces are 'bound hand and foot and immobilised'.

Advocating any of these views would be controversial, but, if you link them all, you get, as a modern political historian might say, a big overstretch. Indeed, if they had been presented by a teenager in such a mishmash essay, they might have earned a B-minus for fertile leaps of imagination and an immediate F for failures in historical fact, logic and argument.

But they are not the views of a teenager: they were awarded the top prize of 3 million yen (HK$239,000) in an adult history essay competition that cost the author his job. The author was General Toshio Tamogami, until last week the chief of staff of Japan's Air Self-Defence Force.

Japan's defence minister, Yasu-kazu Hamada, said it was 'highly improper' for the air force chief to express publicly views at odds with government policy. General Tamogami refused to resign and was dismissed, thus becoming Mr Tamogami, with a 60 million yen retirement allowance and a nice pension. Mr Hamada is about to ask parliament to demand the return of the allowance.

Far from being repentant, Mr Tamogami said he stood by his views and accused the government of 'North-Korea-like' attempts to control freedom of expression.

Lieutenant General Edward Rice, head of the US forces in Japan, tried to play down the potential damage, saying it would not affect the US-Japan security alliance. 'The government of Japan was very quick to underscore that [Mr Tamogami's views] were not the official views of the government of Japan or the Self-Defence Forces. I am personally satisfied that that is the case,' he said.

Uncomfortable questions remain. Far from burying the essay, the government and Japan itself should conduct a reality check and look at themselves and the world.

The essay competition was organised by a hotel and property group and its title was 'The true outlook for modern and contemporary history', which sounds innocuous until you remember that 'true' is a buzzword for revisionist historians who want to absolve Japan of wartime blame. The chairman of the judges was a leading revisionist.

There were 230 entries, with 78 submitted by serving members of the Self-Defence Forces. Moreover, Mr Tamogami had submitted a similar essay within the armed forces before entering the competition. And Prime Minister Taro Aso was seen buying a book espousing similar views about history after the storm over the essay.

The title of Mr Tamogami's own essay is 'Was Japan an aggressor nation?' It begins with the assertion: 'Under the terms of the US-Japan Security Treaty, American troops are stationed within Japan. Nobody calls this an American invasion of Japan. That is because it is based on a treaty between the two nations.'

Most of the next five pages are at the extreme right-wing end of revisionism, selectively using and stretching stray facts that suit while forgetting anything inconvenient. Thus, Japan's military presence in China and Korea was not an invasion but was obtained legally by treaty; the Japanese campaign of 1937 was a reaction to provocation after guerillas of 'the Communist Party of Comintern puppet Mao Zedong ' infiltrated the Kuomintang and committed atrocities; the second world war was provoked by the Comintern and really triggered by covert US air attacks against Japan on the Chinese mainland, so the attack on Pearl Harbour was just a response that Japan was trapped into making.

Of course, Japan - according to Mr Tamogami - was a benign colonial power 'laying out its vision for the five tribes - the Yamato [Japanese], Koreans, Chinese, Manchurians and Mongols - to intermix and live peacefully together'. The most he will admit is that, 'there were probably some [individual events] that would be called misdeeds'.

Some Japanese 'historians' swallow all of this, and forget Japanese invasions of China, the Philippines, French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya and Burma, and disregard sweeping atrocities.

The former general says he does not want to repudiate the US security treaty, but claims the Self-Defence Forces' hands are tied. 'Unless our country is released from this mind control, it will never have a system for protecting itself through its own power,' he writes. 'We have no choice but to be protected by America. If we are protected by America, then the Americanisation of Japan will be accelerated. Japan's economy, its finances, its business practices, its employment system, its judicial system will converge with the American system. Our country's traditional culture will be destroyed by the parade of reforms.'

The irony is that America wants Japan to play a bigger role in its own and US defences. But the rest of the world will never be comfortable unless Japan accepts the responsibility for its colonial occupation and war - which it has done officially but too often with words that seem formulaic rather than honest. The essay and the fact that so many other serving Self-Defence Forces officers also competed raises doubts about how far revisionists have infiltrated Japan Inc.

More than 60 years after the war, Japan remains more closed and self-absorbed than any other major country. In a week when an African-American, the son of a Kenyan visitor, was elected US president, Japan was still proposing laws to allow children born out of wedlock to Japanese men and foreign women to obtain Japanese citizenship, but only if the father recognises the paternity.

Kevin Rafferty is author of Inside Japan's Powerhouses, a study of Japan Inc and internationalisation