Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Who Is Responsible? the Yomiuri Project and the Legacy of the Asia-Pacific War in Japan*

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Who Is Responsible? the Yomiuri Project and the Legacy of the Asia-Pacific War in Japan*

Article excerpt

WHO IS RESPONSIBLE? THE YOMIURI PROJECT AND THE LEGACY OF THE ASIA-PACIFIC WAR IN JAPAN* James E. Auer ed., From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor: Who Was Responsible?, Tokyo, Yomiuri Shimbun, 2006, ISBN 4-643-06012-3.

Debating War History and Responsibility in Japan

When, in mid-2005, Japan's Yomiuri newspaper began to publish a series of articles on the question of "war responsibility," the event attracted nationwide and even international interest. Now the newspaper series has become a book, published in a two-volume version in Japanese and in a one-volume abridged English translation entitled From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor: Who Was Responsible? There can be no doubt that these publications mark an important moment in the long and vexed history of East Asia's "history wars"-the ongoing conflicts between Japan and its neighbors (particularly China and both Koreas) about memory of and responsibility for Japan's twentieth-century military expansion in Asia and the Pacific.

To assess the significance and impact of the Yomiuri project, though, it is important to see it in the context of history writing in Japan and of contemporary Northeast Asian international relations. Before beginning to assess the content of the Englishlanguage volume, therefore, it is worth emphasizing what is not new about this work. There is nothing novel or unusual in Japanese historians or journalists publicly debating the problem of war responsibility. They have been doing so, with much passion and soul-searching, for more than sixty years.

During a recent visit to Tokyo, a Japanese colleague showed me the cover of a journal he had unearthed from the early 1950s, published by a group affiliated with the Japanese Communist Party. The cover featured a striking cartoon of Emperor Hirohito standing atop a mountain of skulls. Such graphic imagery is certainly highly risqué in the Japanese political context, where a miasma of taboo still surrounds critical comment on the person of the emperor. It is almost impossible to imagine any major journal agreeing to publish such an image. But its presence on the cover of this long-forgotten small-circulation magazine provides a stark reminder of the fact that questions of war responsibility, including those of the responsibility of Emperor Hirohito himself, have been ongoing topics of heated discussion in Japan. Indeed, for historians of twentieth-century Japan, a key task has been the search for an understanding of the processes that led to the "Manchurian Incident," the war in China, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and Japan's disastrous defeat in war.

One of the most influential early attempts to address this conundrum was the best-selling paperback Shôwashi (A History of Showa-Showa being the reign of the Emperor Hirohito), published in 1955, which sold more than 100,000 copies in the six weeks following its publication. The book generated a prolonged public controversy now remembered in Japan as the "Shôwashi Debate." Written by the eminent Marxian historians Toyama Shigeki, Imai Seiichi, and Fujiwara Akira, Shôwashi's approach was very different from that of the current Yomiuri volume. It sought, not so much to judge personal war guilt, as to define the underlying social and economic forces that led to war.1

The popular success of Shôwashi is a reminder of the powerful influence that Marxism exerted on postwar Japanese intellectual (though not political) life. However, searching criticisms of war responsibility were of course not confined to Marxists. Critical liberal intellectuals such as Maruyama Masao made profound contributions to the debate-Maruyama's work focusing particularly on the aspects of Japanese social structure and patterns of thought that had created fertile ground for the rise of militarism.2 In the 1950s and 1960s, war responsibility was debated not only in academic works, but also in massively popular novels and films such as Gomikawa Jumpei's Ningen no Jôken (The Human Condition), which appeared in novel, movie, and manga form, and included graphic representations of acts of brutality committed by members of the Japanese armed forces in China. …

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