ESSAY – Japan’s controversial past: was it convenient to ‘forget’ its colonial and imperial past?

In Post-World War II Japan, it was convenient for the elites and the political leaders to forget or at least marginalize Japanese imperial and colonial wrongdoings as means to both “instruct” the masses and legitimize their power by forging a nationalistic myth to rebuild the nation. The entire process in the first years after the war was controlled and guided by the American occupational authorities, which carefully “selected” what was and was not convenient to forget and remember. On the other hand, it was useful for the rest of the population to believe in it and forget what they knew and what they were discovering about the wrongdoings of their nation, as a means to quickly reinvent themselves as Japanese in a climate of defeat and in vain losses. It was easier to ignore and forget. This paper will present and explore these two attitudes throughout Japan’s post-war history, but will not take into consideration the changes that occurred from the 1980s. Moreover, emphasis will be given to the interpretation of history in the formation of national memories and on the concepts of guilt and responsibility on a collective level.

The official end of the Second World War in Asia, on the 15th of August 1945, marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Japan: the American Occupation. At the time, Japanese had to come to terms with with defeat. Losing the war questioned every aspect of their life and exposed them to the difficult task of looking for a meaning for their human and military losses. In this sense, the postwar period in Japan was a “zero-hour”, an historical breech in which a society had to confront a traumatic experience.[1] One of the first concerns of the Japanese government at the time was the preservation of the imperial institution as a deterrent for a possible communist advance and as a means to maintain public order.[2] A “humanization” of the Emperor was promoted to put his figure more in contact with common people and to use the traditional appeal of the imperial institution to ease the democratic transition of Japan[3] and make him the symbol of “National Restoration” as it appeared on a Japanese newspaper.[4] The figure of the Emperor underwent a drastic change in the post war period: from being considered a living god commander of the imperial force to a human leader.[5] The leaders of the country decided to couple the transformation of the Emperor into the symbol of the new democratic state with the promulgation of a new constitution on the 3rd of November 1946.[6] These “democratic” reforms were carried out in an emotional reality in which different feelings about the recent war were creating social dismay. In this sense, the political leaders and the US occupational forces were trying to quickly and painlessly move to another political phase of Japanese history. In this process, there was no space to commemorate the victims of the atrocities committed during Japan’s colonial and imperial past, it was convenient to forget in order to rebuild the nation without dealing with an uncomfortable collective memory.

The Japanese newspaper Asahi reported that, on September 16, 1945, Higashikuni, who was the first prime minister after the war, told an American journalist if the Americans could forget about Pearl Harbor in exchange of the Japanese forgetting about the atomic bombs.[7] Clearly, forgetting was a central concern of the Japanese in the aftermath of war. The American occupation authorities, representing the glorious winners of the war, would have never permitted that part of the story to have been forgotten; on the contrary, they fashioned the war centered from the western perspective and created a convenient fertile ground for the Japanese to forget their imperial wrongdoings in Asia. American occupation authorities controlled national commemorations, to the extent that it was forbidden to publish articles about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb explosions.[8] The interpretation of the recent past was therefore oriented and influenced by the hegemonic presence of the United States, which emphasized some aspects of the war, such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of 1941, but completely ignored the long period of fighting in Asia and the Asian victims and atrocities, such as the 20 million Chinese deaths.[9] This undoubtedly contributed to the process of “forgetting and ignoring” that the leaders of the country were carrying out. In other words, a “De-Asianization” of the conflict and post-war discourse was promoted by the US authorities[10] and contributed to the formation of a collective memory of the war that excluded the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army in Asia.

The leaders of the government, moved by the intent to legitimize their power and quickly rebuild the nation, found it more than convenient to forget and deny a part of the story. The conservative elites, needed to clean up their reputation in order to dismantle the inevitable ties between them and the wartime political leaders; this process was carried out by the “creation” of three national myths.[11] First, they took advantage of the verdicts of the Tokyo Trial to blame “the military clique” for launching the war, whitewashing the complicity of many wartime political leaders, imperial court officials and civilian politicians, who ultimately regrouped after the war to form the new conservative party.[12] The second myth was the “Western-centric” view of the war, which evaded the atrocities committed in Asia by solely recognizing and emphasizing Japan’s responsibility for opening hostilities against the Allies.[13] The third myth was the commemoration of the heroic sacrifice of the Imperial Army, whose soldiers sacrificed themselves to honor their nation.[14] These three myths, which soon became stories accepted by the population, were a convenient “way out” for the political leaders of the country and ultimately created a useful opportunity for the ordinary Japanese (many of whom had supported the war) to forget.

While the Japanese political leaders and the American occupation authorities, through the “creation” of a new historical truth, were building the new democratic Japan, “for the sake of survival”; a painful aspect of World War II (the atrocities committed by the Japanese in Asia), was being collectively repressed.[15] Arguably, it was both useful for the Japanese people to believe in what the media and the elites were telling them and to forget, as a way to “be released” and move on without rationally reflecting on ‘their share’ of responsibility. Furthermore, the myths that the elites created were successfully implemented and accepted by most ordinary Japanese because they were connected to “certain embedded perceptions and genuine emotions that already exist in family memories and folk culture”.[16] The myths of “self glorification and whitewashing won public resonance precisely because they captured the imagination of the general public in the aftermath of the war”[17], when it was useful for the Japanese to forget about Japan’s imperial and colonial wrongdoings to concentrate on their own sufferings.

The Emperor, after being “humanized” started a tour across the country to comfort his people. The Japanese, with tears in their eyes, greeted him and forgave him.[18] They ‘forget’ his role as chief of the imperial forces and did not quest his involvement and responsibility even if he was not accused at the Tokyo Trial. The Japanese people, in other words, found it useful and in a sense indispensable to rely on a figure who “provided comfort for the tragedy brought by the war”[19] and took the opportunity to forget. The number of Japanese in a position to perpetrate war crimines represented a small part of the population, the majority experienced the war form home and it meant desperation, hunger and defeat.[20] The prevailing mood in the post war period was, among the majority of Japanese, one of despair and loss.[21] War crimes committed by the Imperial Army were public and everyone started to be exposed to the truth. However, consciously dealing with it became extremely complicated. As stated previously, the government and the occupational authorities were controlling this process by creating myths to restore the nation and by emphasizing only some aspects of the recent past. As a result, in many cases, the guilt for was crimes was turned into “victim mentality”, by which the common Japanese could forget about the atrocities and move on.[22] For instance, the families of crime perpetrators who returned home after years in Siberia considered themselves as victims[23], and in their perception of reality, they probably were. The problem was indeed rooted in the first approach the Japanese adopted (or rather, were guided to adopt) when they first had the chance to choose between remembering or ignoring and forgetting.

At both the Tokyo Trial and the Nuremberg Trials responsibility for expansion and atrocities was given to military and political leaders and excluded the larger populations who had to “deal” with common responsibility outside the judicial and official punitions.[24] In Germany, this did not stop the Germans embarking on a painful and long journey towards collective responsibility. Above all, the main feature was ( and remains) is remembering: even the present generations feel the duty to do it, to “carry” the burden of Germany’s darkest time for the purpose of making those mistakes ‘eternal’ in the hope that they could serve as a lesson that must not be forgotten. Richard Von Weizsäcker made the most conclusive statement of apology in the German Parliament;[25] von Weizsäcker’s criticism emphasizes the nature and the scale of the specific crimes committed by Germany.[26]Probably, the most famous theme of von Weizsäcker’s speech was that although present-day Germans were not the perpetrators, they are in some way responsible for the crimes committed in the past by a limited number of individuals.[27] In Japan, on the other hand, this common struggle never took place. The two attitudes outlined in this essay, the one of the government and the one of the people both avoided the “walk of shame”. They preferred to forget and ignore for many years and they started to believe in the myths that the most traumatic period in their history generated.

Elites lie and they always have.[28] In the case of Japan, they gradually started to believe in their lies as a way, like the rest of the Japanese, to survive. In this sense, immediately after the end of the war they decided to forget, they decided not to question their responsibility outside the Tokyo Trial actions and to blame the “military clique”. Many Conservatives, began to see the idea of Japan’s possible apology to other Asian people as an offence to the Japanese deaths during the war.[29] Ordinary Japanese, were given the opportunity to forget and to move on to another chapter without dealing with collective responsibility. During the Tokyo Trial, “Although the revelation of widespread Japanese atrocities did make an impression on the general populace, many appear to have regarded these distant exercises in Allied Justice as little more than other example of how, in war and peace, individuals lower in the hierarchy of authority had to pay for the misdeeds of men with real power”.[30] Moreover, as one Japanese newspaper pointed out in November 1948 when the trial was coming to and end, “the general public’s interest focused not on the proceedings but on the single point of what the verdicts would be”.[31] In this sense, the trial remained the judicial response of the Allies, probably because the war criminals were not judged by Japanese, or for a matter of proud that was instigated and cultivated by national myths, but did not serve as a starting point for individuals to call into question their own guilt as Japanese.

Stories form memory and together with culture and traditions, create the identity of a people. These “stories of peoplehood must be positive stories”, because “Individuals need to maintain a high opinion of themselves, as sense of their probity and righteousness; and similarly the members of any society (especially the leading members) need to believe that their . . . policies are just”.[32] In postwar Japan, both the leaders and the population needed to believe and to create good stories to shape their memory. For different reasons, both practical and moral, they needed to find positive aspects of their recent past to be remembered. “Remembering and forgetting are the means through which nations confront their respective pasts. At the same time, nations appear as the products of memory – forged into imagined communities through a series of memorial days, public speeches and visits to memorial sites”.[33]

[1] Sebastian Conrad, “Entangled Memories: Versions of the Past in Germany and Japan, 1945-2001”, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol.38, No.1, p.85.

[2] Reiko Abe Auestad, “Nakano Shigeharu’s “Goshaku No Sake””, Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol.28, No.1, (2002), p.86.

[3] Ibid, p.87

[4] Yoichi Funashabi, Media, Propaganda and Politics in 20th Century Japan, (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), p.137.

[5] Ibid, p.137

[6] Auestad, “Nakano Shigeharu’s “Gishaku No Sake””, p.87.

[7] Funashabi, Media, Propaganda and Politics, p.134

[8] Conrad, “Entangled Memories”, p.88.

[9] Ibid, p.91.

[10] Ibid, p.92; He Yinan, “Remembering and Forgetting the War: Elite Mythmaking, Mass Reaction, and Sino-Japanese Relations, 1950-2006”, in History and Memory, Vol.19, No.2, (2007), p.46.

[11] Yinan, “Remembering and Forgetting”, p.46.

[12] ibid, p.46.

[13] ibid, p.46.

[14] ibid, p.46.

[15] Auestad, “Nakano Shigeharu’s “Gshaku No Sake””, p.83

[16] He, “Remembering and Forgetting the War”, p.48

[17] Ibid, 48.

[18] Funabashi, Media, Propaganda and Politics, p.144

[19] Ibid, p.144.

[20] Philip A. Seaton, Japan’s Contested War Memories: The “memory rifts” in Historical Cosciousness of World War II, (London: Routledge, 2007), p.34.

[21] Ibid, p.35.

[22] Ibid, p.35.

[23] Ibid, p.36.

[24] Conrad, “Entrangled Memories”, p.88.

[25] Kazuhiko Togo, Japan and Reconciliation in Post-war Asia: The Murayama Statement and its implication, (New York: Palgrave Macmilan), p.6.

[26]Ibid, p.7.

[27]Ibid, p.8.

[28] Martin O. Heisler, “Challenged histories and collective self-cocepts: Politcs in History, Memory, and time”, in The ANNALS of the American Acadamy of Political and Social Science, Vol.617, No.1, (2008), p.206.

[29] K. Tsutsui, “Trajectory of Perpretators’ Trauma: Mnemonic Politics around the Asia-Pacific War in Japan”, in Social Forces, Vol.87, No.3, (2009), p.1401.

[30] John W. Downer, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II, (London: Allen Lane, 1999), p. 449.

[31] Ibid, p.449.

[32] Ibid, p.200.

[33] Conrad, “Entangled Memories”, p.85.


  • Auestad, Reiko Abe. “Nakano Shigeharu’s “Goshaku No Sake”” Journal of Japanese Studies 1 (2002): 79-107.
  • Conrad, Sebastian. “Entangled Memories: Versions of the Past in Germany and Japan, 1945-2001.” Journal of Contemporary History1, Redesigning the Past (2003): 85-99.
  • Dower, John W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II. London: Allen Lane, 1999.
  • Funabashi, Yoichi. Media, Propaganda and Politics in 20th Century Japan. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
  • Heisler, Martin O. “Challenged histories and collective self-concepts: Politics in history, memory, and time.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science1 (2008): 199-211.
  • Seaton, Philip A. Japan’s Contested War Memories: The ‘memory Rifts’ in Historical Consciousness of World War II. London: Routledge, 2007.
  • Togo, Kazuhiko, ed. Japan and Reconciliation in Post-war Asia: The Murayama Statement and Its Implications. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
  • Tsutsui, K. “The Trajectory of Perpetrators’ Trauma: Mnemonic Politics around the Asia-Pacific War in Japan.” Social Forces3 (2009): 1389-422.
  • Zwingenberg, Ran. “Never Again: Hiroshima, Auschwitz and the Politics of Commemoration” The Asia-Pacific Journal1 (2015).
  • Yinan He. “Remembering and Forgetting the War: Elite Mythmaking, Mass Reaction, and Sino-Japanese Relations, 1950-2006” History and Memory2 (2007): 43-74.

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