Writer Yukio Wani battles Japan's denial of wartime brutality

Yukio Wani's writing gave voice to Hongkongers' suffering under occupation; he continues to fight moves to play down Japan's wartime brutality

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 9:21am

History is written by the victors, or so the saying goes.

But in Japan, where right-wing pressure to erase the country's past aggression from school textbooks and popular history has grown in recent years, the opposite could be said.

The ugly side of the country's second world war history has been played down and the voices of its victims have been silenced.

But the threat of censorship isn't putting off author Yukio Wani, who is determined to give a voice to Hongkongers who lived under Japanese rule for three years and eight months.

He has spent more than a decade interviewing eyewitnesses and studying documents to shed light on the city's darkest era for his book Silent Years.

Last month, he launched the Chinese-language translation of the book, extensively updated from the 1996 Japanese version, at the Hong Kong Book Fair.

The publication could not have come at a more significant time. It was just before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party won a decisive victory in upper house elections.

The result raised the spectre of more moves to sanitise history books by a party that has hinted at pulling back from the country's pacifist post-war constitution.

A true patriot should not turn a blind eye to the ugly moments in the nation's history
Yukio Wani

"A true patriot should not turn a blind eye to the ugly moments in the nation's history," said Wani, the grandson of a Japanese colonel who was stationed in Guangdong during the war.

He devoted a new chapter for the Chinese edition of Silent Years to looking at the right-wing influence on Japan's school textbooks, a phenomenon that has been on the rise since the 1990s.

Wani said that when he started his career as a history teacher in the 1980s, there were no attempts to sugarcoat Japan's aggression towards its neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region.

Indeed, in 1982 the Ministry of Education, which screens all textbooks for use in schools in Japan, made an addition to the screening mechanism known as the neighbouring countries clause.

The clause banned textbook publishers from replacing the word "aggression" with a less charged term or from dismissing the Nanking Massacre as the result of anything other than the actions of Japanese soldiers.

Like many Japanese after the second world war, Wani studied history from a particular textbook written by prominent scholars from the University of Tokyo, which offered a fair and balanced view of Japan's wartime history.

The book, published by Yamakawa, was used in about 80 per cent of Japanese schools and was used as a reference by the country's exam board.

Wani said it was from the textbook that he first learned about the occupation of Hong Kong. By the time he left his school job in the early 90s, the warts-and-all teaching of Japan's wartime history remained in vogue.

He was inspired to write his book by his work with an organisation fighting for compensation for Hongkongers who lost their savings when they were forced to exchange their Hong Kong dollars for Japanese military currency that later proved worthless.

It brought him into contact with people who lived through the occupation.

"Hong Kong was one of the most popular tourist destinations for Japanese people, but they didn't really know the story behind the city," he recalled.

His research showed many of the sights popular with Japanese tourists had a grim wartime history. Wan Chai, for example, was home to many brothels staffed by "comfort women" - wartime sex slaves - while Stanley was the location of an internment camp and wartime hospital where many civilians died.

As he completed the first draft in 1995, Wani expected a rise in interest and intense media coverage to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. But to his surprise, most mainstream media stayed silent.

"Half a century had passed and there were fewer and fewer journalists who had experienced the war and understood its cruelty," he wrote in the postscript to his book.

A year later, as his book was being published, Japanese right-wingers turned their fire on the popular Yamakawa textbook.

They accused it of being "masochistic" for its criticism of the country's wartime behaviour.

"They [right-wing history scholars] criticised the textbook for teaching the young generation about the Nanking Massacre and comfort women - the ugliest side of the nation, as they defined it," he said.

A group of history scholars, led by the University of Tokyo's Professor Fujioka Nobukatsu, called for the removal of the "masochistic" content from the history textbook.

Later that year, the professor established the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which aimed to write a new history textbook inspiring pupils to "revitalise the nation".

The group's rewriting of history went as far as to redefine the the war not as one of invasion or colonisation, but of self-defence.

"Boasting of the glorious victories in the past shows nothing but a nation's lack of self-confidence," Wani said. "Indulging in the booming bubble economy, Japanese people forgot to reflect on its past and think of the civilians who were suffering under their combat boots."

Unfortunately, the objections of people like Wani drew little attention from mainstream media. Soon, the pressure from the radicals forced Tokyo schools to stop using one textbook, published by Jikkyo Shuppan, which was known for detailing Japan's wartime activities.

The new textbook published by the right-wing scholars in 2002 ended up with a surprisingly low market share. The book contained so many inaccuracies that the screening council required the authors to make more than 100 corrections.

Yet the public attitude to the country's wartime atrocities has continued to change. "It was a collective effort of the media, popular culture, right-wing politicians and even the internet," Wani said.

Self-censorship by educators under pressure from the hard right remains one of his key concerns. History textbooks with large market share have either cut out references to sexual slavery or kept a brief explanation without using the controversial term "comfort women".

The college exam board has steered away from setting questions about the second world war to avoid controversy, Wani says.

"The rise of the right-wing is leading the Japanese society to a dead end," Wani said. "It will be dangerous if people who have lost confidence in the present look back to the country's powerful army during the wartime for comfort."

Despite the changing attitude, Wani's books on Hong Kong have been well received at home, with both the first and second editions selling out.

Since then, more witnesses have written to him and offered valuable historical documents.

"The more I wrote, the more pieces of the history [of the occupation] I found," Wani said.

After his short visit to Hong Kong, Wani turned his attention to researching the history of Zhuhai Airport, which was the hub of Japan's airborne operations in the Pearl River Delta during the war.

He plans to publish a new research paper on the occupation by the end of the year.