James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Japan

  • What Is a 'Class-A War Criminal'? More on the Yasukuni Controversy

    The complications of wartime memory, continued

    Westboro Church protestor, AP photo via NPR.

    If you are joining us late, background on why it matters so much in China -- and Japan -- that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, and whether it should in fact matter, is in previous installments one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Now, additional recent readers' views.

    1. "Imagine if the Westboro Baptist Church happened to own Arlington." From Noboru Akimoto:

    I've been watching your back and forth on Yasukuni with some interest, and I generally agree with the commentators that say the issue is more with the Yushukan than with the shrine itself.  [JF note: Yushukan is the "historical" museum near the shrine, with a very tendentious view of Japan being forced into the war by Allied encirclement.]

    I do think a part that's not been mentioned is that Yasukuni Jinja [Shrine], because of the separation of religion and state of the post-war constitution, is NOT a part of the Japanese government, nor does any of the Imperial family have control over its actions.

    We know from the Tomita Memorandum that the Showa Emperor [aka Hirohito] was furious about the chief priest's decision to include the Class A 14 into the shrine in 1979, but that as a matter of politics, neither the Emperor nor the government can actually compel Yasukuni, a private religious institution, from acknowledging the 14 Class A criminals nor force it to disinter their spirits.

    As a Japanese individual and Shintoist, I would like to see the priests separate the class A war criminals from the others, but I also understand that as a practical, constitutional matter, having the government force the issue would be a step in the wrong direction.

    If we had to have some sort of strange analogy, I would ask American readers to imagine if the Westboro Baptist Church happened to own Arlington.

    Also, I've put up a short primer on the subject.

    2. By the way, who are these "Class-A War Criminals" anyway? From a reader in Singapore, with a point I should have clarified earlier:

    In your recent posts about the Yasukuni shrine, the inclusion of WWII era Japanese Class-A war criminals is mentioned with no explanation of the term "Class-A". I've noticed that this is common in news articles about Yasukuni in recent decades, though in your article you do note that the war criminal trials in Japan held by the Allies were at least somewhat controversial as to their basis in law and morality.

    It is almost natural for the casual reader (or writer of articles) to assume that "Class-A" in this context simply means the worst kind of war criminal, a sort of Japanese equivalent of an Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler, Amon Goeth or some such.

    As you likely know, "Class-A War Criminal" had a very specific meaning in the context of the Tokyo trials. "Class-A" war crimes were defined as "crimes against peace". Crimes against humanity, such as genocide or the Nanking massacre were "Class-C" crimes while the more usual war crimes, such as shooting helpless prisoners, were "Class-B" war crimes.

    The 25 Japanese officials tried for Class-A war crimes were tried for plotting and waging war, i.e. crimes against peace. Some of them were tried additionally for Class-B and Class-C crimes, and all those multiply convicted were executed.

    But at least two of those charged with Class-A crimes resumed civilian life, in the Japanese cabinet in the 1950s and as the CEO of Nissan, respectively.

    In 1929, Japan signed (but did not ratify) the Kellogg-Briand Pact formally titled the "General Treaty for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy". The treaty made declaration of aggressive war illegal, but not prosecutable by other signatories to the treaty. "Declaration" was the weasel word in the treaty, which many nations, including Japan took full advantage of in the years to come.

    And it was on this basis that the Class-A charges were prosecuted in the 1946 Tokyo trials. Except for the Imperial Family and the Showa Emperor, Hirohito, who were protected by Douglas MacArthur, this meant that practically the entire Japanese cabinet that had anything to do with the conduct of war was thus indicted.

    I think it would help if a brief note were made in the article about the terminology. I'm not suggesting moral or legal exoneration of these individuals but context matters. The term "Class-A" plays straight into the hands of the Chinese Government which has its own questionable agenda in kicking up a protest about Yasukuni every year. I would have thought that it is the inclusion of the Class-C criminals that would be more morally disturbing to non-Japanese victims of the war, though in the case of China and Korea at least, the Buddhist value commonplace in Japan, of letting go of the grudge against the sinner (not the sin) after his death, is not exactly unknown or alien. Quite the opposite.

    3) An American equivalent? From a reader on the West Coast:

    In “Episode Six” your “American who lives in Japan…and has a Japanese spouse” observed that "The museum (Yushukan) is shocking in its mendacity (in its willingness to change or omit events entirely) and audacity … I struggle to think of a comparable hypothetical for US history - if the Vietnam memorial in Washington also had an exhibit attached that lauded the use of napalm and the actions at My Lai?”

    In fact, the same sort of mendacity and audacity did almost occur at the Vietnam Memorial. Then President Ronald Reagan, his Interior Secretary James Watt and their supporters were adamantly opposed to Maya Lin’s design for the memorial, precisely because it did not glorify an unjust lost war while memorializing the soldiers who fought it.

    After Lin won the competition and it became apparent they could do nothing to stop it, opponents of her design tried to have a much more mundane, representational sculpture (“The Three Soldiers”) placed at the apex of the memorial. While The Three Soldiers neither lauds the use of napalm nor glorifies My Lai, those opposed to Lin’s Wall knew full well that placing the statue at the apex would reduce her design to mere backdrop, negating it’s abstract emotional power and timelessness. If not for the courage of Maya Lin (then a 21 year old Yale undergraduate) The Wall would indeed have become mere background to one more forgettable representative sculpture lost in the expanse of the National Mall . One could argue that was the objective of the right-wing opponents of the Vietnam memorial all along.

    While recognizing the left is just as capable as the right at papering over history we should avoid false equivalency here. One regrettable quality of the right wing mind seems to be the unique skill it brings to the revision of history, the negation of fact and the power of forgetfulness. Unfortunately this is every bit as true here in America as it is in Japan.

    Vietnam Veterans Memorial, via this site.

    I well remember that the controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was bitter and intense. As it happens, I think the final outcome is the right one -- artistically, historically, culturally. Maya Lin's wall endures as a real work of genius, and it regularly has a larger crowd of up-close visitors than any other site on the Mall.  Usually families or friends looking at names of loved ones. (You can contrast this with the stupid, ugly vapidity of the recent World War II memorial, a subject for another time.) The addition of Frederick Hart's "The Three Soldiers" statue, nearby but not surmounting the wall, I think adds to rather than complicates the commemorative power of the memorial. The more recent addition of a realistic statue of combat nurses also is, in my view, a dignified plus.

    4) Self-identity as victim. From an American who recently visited Japan:

    Last year, when we visited the moving Atomic Bomb museum in Nagasaki, I was surprised to find that the timeline on the wall gave the name, "War of the Pacific", to WWII and explicitly blamed the U.S. for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which was shown only by a single photo on the wall.  Apparently, the Yasukuni representation is not isolated. 

    I had the same impression on my first visit to the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima back in the 1980s. Its historical account began with something like, "In the springtime of 1945, the U.S. Army Air Corps launched a campaign of firebombing against major cities in Japan..." with no mention of what might have happened beforehand.

    I no longer have a photo of that account and don't see one online. I do note that the online "Kids Peace Station" run by the Hiroshima museum has a very fair-seeming account of the origins of the war.

    The scholarship on how modern Japan does and does not remember its war history is vast and complex. The best single account remains John Dower's Embracing Defeat, but, for instance, you could check out a 2010 paper by Mindy Haverson, then of Stanford Law School which makes this point about Hiroshima:

    The dominant postwar messages that war, particularly nuclear war, is evil and destructive serve as universalized constructions in which the aggressor/enemy is neither the colonial, militaristic Japanese state nor the US [which dropped the bomb]  but "war" itself. As such, Japan can avoid both self-identification as an aggressor vis-a-vis the rest of Asia and the denigration of the U.S. as an enemy, a move that Japan's leaders have sought to avoid in light of the country's economic and security dependence on the US.

    In the absence of an entity "responsible" for wartime suffering, Japan has positioned itself as the ultimate victim and articulated a role for itself as international spokesperson for world peace.

    5) The power of "encirclement" thinking, and other dominant images. Another Westerner in Asia writes:

    In some future post or roundtable perhaps it's worth exploring the encirclement theme that has come up in the Yasakuni/Yushukan discussion.  It certainly drives behavior from China and Iran today, and perhaps Russia, Pakistan, and a few others.  

    I agree. Because it is geographically almost impossible for America to be "encircled," many Americans have a hard time even imagining the power of this threat/concept in many other countries -- including the Japan of the 1930s and the China of today. Even enormous China? Yes, given that its sea-lane access is subject to many choke points -- and that across many of its borders it sees concentrations of American or U.S.-allied troops. More on this later; for now, an example of the kind of map I've often been shown by Chinese strategic experts. (The black plane-symbols are US or allied bases):

    The same reader quoted above adds:

    I'm an American resident in Hong Kong doing business across Asia for 20 years, and I don't think most Americans have any concept of just how deep and state sponsored the Japanese vs Chinese racism goes.  It has ebbed somewhat in the younger generation through positive exposure - the nearest analogy I can think of is gay rights in the US - but the government uses mass media to perpetuate the most ugly stereotypes at every opportunity.

    I agree with this too -- and the whole Yasukuni/Yushukan controversy may have the virtue of giving the Western public an idea of how powerful and dangerous these emotions can become.

  • Yasukuni, Yūshūkan: Yes, There Is More

    "Love the sinner, hate the sin," as rendered into Japanese.

    Detail from the memorial to Confederate heroes Davis, Lee, and Jackson at Stone Mountain, Ga.

    The story goes on. For background see previous installments one, two, three, four, five, and six. But we may now be nearing the end.

    A Japanese view. I have received a lot of contumely from readers in Japan, without much explanation. Here is one from a reader in Japan making a point about its view of the past.

    Before turning it over to him, a linguistic note: it's always tricky to decide how much to alter quotes from non-native speakers. I have cleaned this up only where I thought it necessary to clarify the meaning. For another time, a discussion of the fairness and unfairness of English's emergence as a global language of discourse, with related benefits to native speakers. See Ta-Nehisi Coates on this theme from France. For now, my Japanese correspondent writes:

    I want to explain the Japanese Culture's views about  crime, punishment, and death.

    There is a saying that " hate the crime, forgive the offender". [JF Note: In English, this is of course "Love the sinner, hate the sin." Somehow I find myself thinking of the Japanese person who once asked if there was an English counterpart for the Japanese concept of ニュアンス, or nyuansu. This was of course the Japanese transliteration of the French->English word nuance.]

    Japanese people make an effort to forgive an offender  after his death or after he receives punishment. 

    It is the wisdom which  developed in long history in order to cut off the chain of hate.

    This is not only for Yasukuni but is generally true.
     
    Japan's prime minister sent funeral condolences on the occasion of the death of Roosevelt who was an enemy's president.

    Japanese people have not been blaming Americans about an atomic bomb in the past and the future...  

    Even with Osama bin Laden's dead body, probably it is treated carefully and desires a quiet mental rest...  

    From the world's perspective, it may seem weak not to retaliate.

    It may be difficult to be understood. There may be some persons who get angry. However, if seen from the Japanese people's perspective, the world is bound by the chain of hate and can be considered to be sad.

    Which may provide one answer to the question a reader in the U.S. raises:

    Here's something I've never understood about Japan and its continuing propaganda, as per Yūshūkan: why, if Japanese citizens are taught that the US forced Japan into WWII and then brutally attacked and humiliated her, are relations so good between our countries? Shouldn't there be enormous amounts of teeming resentment on their part? That would seem the natural reaction. And yet it doesn't seem to be the case. Why not?  

    On the different Japanese and Chinese uses of the past, from an American academic:

    You posted some interesting comments from readers about the appalling War Museum at the shrine site.  At least a couple of them suggested there was nothing equivalent in American life. 

    Well, there is.  Its the pernicious myth of the Lost Cause and the nobility of the Confederacy.  Go visit something like Stone Mountain in Georgia.  How do a group of people who attempted to destroy the United States in the cause of preserving slavery get to be lionized?  It can be objected that this is a primarily regional, Southern, phenomenon but that would be a significant underestimate of the historic pervasiveness of this myth.  This myth, with the accompanying myth of the horrors of Reconstruction, dominated American thinking about the Civil War era for decades.  Prominent academic historians propagated these myths, and there is an immense popular literature supporting these ideas. 

    While this aspect of Japanese life is deplorable, its also worth asking why the Chinese government makes such a big deal out of these episodes?  Its certainly not because Japan is any real sense a threat to China.  The Chinese leadership is propagating their own version of victimization, which is certainly much better justified by historical events, to boost domestic solidarity and their legitimacy. 

    This is a rather cynical use of the past.  It could even be argued that the Chinese misuse of the past is even worse than the abuse of the past by Japanese politicians.  The latter are functioning within the confines of a democratic political system and a constitution that forbids aggression.  The Chinese leadership, on the other hand, is attempting to use the past to perpetuate an authoritarian regime. 

    As I wrote repeatedly while living in China (and in my books), I basically agree with the reader's concluding point about the deliberate -- and dangerous -- way in which the Chinese government has ramped up anti-Japanese feelings. Often, as recently with Yasukuni, the Japanese government makes that job even easier.

    From another American:

    I’ve been following the Yasukuni thread from the beginning.

    As minimal background, I am now 75, have been married to a Japanese woman for 43 years, and have both lived in Japan several times and visited many times since 1960.

    My personal experience leads me to believe that in these times, the vast majority of Japanese do not think about, or care to think about WWII, per se. To most it is an embarrassment, not to be discussed, and best forgotten. I don’t know if there are studies which provide evidence of this, but I would bet on it.

    I think there was a time when the post-war pacifism, anti-war sentiment of many Japanese was more evident. One of the greatest anti-war films I have ever seen was a Japanese production released in 1959 - The Human Condition (Ningen no jôken). [Above] It is in three parts with a total running time of something like ten hours! (No doubt it is way too long and melodramatic for most of today’s audiences.) If I recall correctly, this was very popular in Japan at the time.

    Finally -- for this post, and I believe for this topic  -- a reader's note on one other historical angle:

    I've just got one significant gripe with the last excerpt you posted in this article: it calls Midway "the end of Japanese aspirations in the Pacific," but the real end of Japanese naval aspirations was the Battle of the Philippine Sea two years later, which was only made possible by an extremely dangerous top-secret intel delivery mission that was completed by the submarine on which my grandfather served as an officer, the USS Crevalle.

    The Crevalle was dispatched to the Philippines in order to secure documents containing the “Z Plan” which had been recovered from a crashed Japanese plane. The documents were in plain Japanese language without any code, resulting in a quick (although initially difficult due to the frequency of unknown naval terms) translation. This intel allowed the Americans to inflict a devastating blow on the Japanese fleet in June 1944, in which 3 Japanese carriers and somewhere in the neighborhood of 650 Japanese aircraft were destroyed while the Americans lost just over 100 aircraft.

    Crevalle crew snapshot, from the Navy site.

    The battle was so one-sided that it became known as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” It effectively eliminated Japan’s ability to wage carrier-based warfare for good.

    Even better, the same mission by the Crevalle also secured the safe rescue of 40 American refugees from [the Philippine island of] Negros. I will always be proud of that.

  • 'Stop Talking About Yasukuni; the Real Problem Is Yūshūkan'

    Why a museum matters more than a shrine.

    Yushukan, the Japanese military-history museum in Tokyo near Yasukuni Shrine. 

    The story goes on. For background see previous installments one, two, three, four, and five. Now, another angle: that the real object of attention should not be the famous Yasukuni Shrine, where millions of Japanese war dead and a handful of "Class A" war criminals, are honored. Instead, by this logic, it should be the nearby Yūshūkan, 遊就館, or war-history museum, that presents an incredibly tendentious "Japan as victim" interpretation of 20th century events. I mentioned my visit there in the first installment of the series. But let me now turn it over to the readers.  

    First, from an American who lives in Japan, is fluent in and works in Japanese language, and has a Japanese spouse: 

    Now that everyone is eating their osechi [holiday treats] and I am not getting any more emails on my blackberry, I would like to emphasize again something you pointed out in your original post:

        "As a bonus, Americans who visit the "historical" museum at the shrine (as I have done) will note its portrayal of Japan being "forced" into World War II by U.S. economic and military encirclement."

    I think that the discussion of Yasukuni by foreign media outlets presents the shrine itself in a far more anodyne way by just referring to it as a place housing the souls of Japanese war dead that also (almost incidentally) includes Class A war criminals. Thinking about Yasukuni this way makes comparisons to Arlington sound far more reasonable, particularly if one is sympathetic to the sort of "victor's justice" criticisms about the general legitimacy of some of the post-war trials for the crimes of starting the war (ignoring for the moment the crimes of how the war was subsequently fought or those crimes carried out against civilians, which were less the focus of the trials led by the US).

    I wish instead that every article about this issue would mention, as you did, the "historical" museum at the shrine, which I visited for the first time when I was studying abroad at [a leading] university here in Tokyo as an undergraduate. Aside from various military memorabilia (e.g., a Zero fighter plane), it portrays on exhibits along the walls of the museum a timeline of the entire war period (which for Japan includes, of course, the fighting in Manchuria and China before the US was involved).

    This amounts to a retelling of the war from the perspective of the ultra-right wing. The vast majority of the wall space is taken up with detailing Japan's military victories, with only the last few panels tying up how the US dropped the atomic bombs (causing the Emperor to make the judicious decision to end the war in the interest of the people). As I remember it, not only is there no mention at all of the atrocities committed in China and Korea by Japanese forces, but forces arriving in China are described as being welcomed by the people with open arms. [JF note: that is my recollection as well.]

    The museum is shocking in its mendacity (in its willingness to change or omit events entirely) and audacity (in that it is in both Japanese and English, and thus not just for Japanese consumption). It is entirely different to create a memorial to pay somber respect to those who died in a war -- irrespective of the justice of the particular cause the soldiers died for -- than it is to create a memorial that recasts an entire war in a glorified light, including over the widely recognized atrocities committed in that war.

    I struggle to think of a comparable hypothetical for US history - if the Vietnam memorial in Washington also had an exhibit attached that lauded the use of napalm and the actions at My Lai? Or maybe if there was a museum at Arlington that talked about how the slaves were better off under the Confederacy? I think it would be easy to see how the existence itself of any such museum would leave lots of people justifiably furious, let alone patronage of the museum or any associated place by a sitting head of state.

    I think any reasonably objective person who visited the museum would realize that, whatever it was intended to be or was in the past, Yasukuni itself has since deliberately and absolutely been made a political symbol of a very specific view of history by certain people in Japan, and is not at all a neutral place that incidentally is shouldering the blame for some past crimes of those interned therein. There is no way that any Japanese politician could visit the shrine without endorsing this same view of history, and be doing so deliberately. I don't think that this is clearly explained in most articles about this topic for international audiences, which I think muddles the issue and allows sympathy for the actions of Abe which is not at all merited.

    Similarly, from another Westerner with experience in Japan:

    I visited Yasukuni about 1998 I think. It was Golden Week and there were the usual ceremonial displays of old war vets in uniform. The Emperor's Nephew was visiting, I have a photo of the Imperial Police shoving me out of his path while I was trying to take his picture.

    I went into the Yuushuukan, the war museum, and was horrified at some of the things I saw. There were displays mapping out Japan's foreign military campaigns, but no mention of the hundreds of years of civil war inside Japan. Japan's naval battles in the Sino-Japanese wars were emphasized as the beginning of Japanese modern military power in Asia. This is a fact, but the display's assertion that this was right and proper, seemed propagandistic.

    So I went into the theater that shows a film on 20th Century Japanese military history. The film is pure propaganda dating back to before WWII. It clearly explains the "ABCD Theory," that the Americans, British, Dutch, and Chinese forced Japan into a war it didn't want, by colonizing Asia and monopolizing all the oil, rubber, and other products Japan needed. Japan is clearly laid out as the victim here, they would starve if they didn't fight for "what was rightfully theirs.".

    Oh but the war itself is portrayed as liberating the oppressed people from the ABCDs, there is actually a scene in the film of Japanese soldiers advancing into China, handing out rice balls to starving orphan children. What a civilized war! This propaganda absolutely enraged me, particularly when I realized this was exactly the same propaganda forced on the Japanese civilians during the war.

    When the film ended, I felt like I was an intruder, witnessing a conspiracy that everyone thought was dead. And the Japanese people who exited the theater were surprised to see a gaijin [literally "outside person," foreigner] had watched the film, some of them seemed embarrassed. One of them saw my angry scowl and asked me what I thought about the film. He talked to me about it at length, saying it was the crazy uyoku [right-wingers] that still promote these ideas, but that the mainstream of society has rejects them. But the uyoku still have influence.

    My experience of the presentations in the yuushuukan was entirely negative, even for a Japanese history student like me, although there was a single solitary moment I will never forget. In the display of military gear, there was a tarnished old clip of ammunition. It was a row of about 8 cartridges about 5 inches long, clipped together at the base, ready for insertion into a gun. But these bullets were hit by another bullet. The bullet penetrated through the middle of the first cartridge, then through the second with less power, going right finally coming to a stop at the very last cartridge. One bullet shot perfectly down the length of the clip, taking out the entire clip. I thought that was the perfect symbol for war, bullets being destroyed by a bullet.
     

    Similarly, from yet another Japan-observing gaijin:

    I've seen a couple of your commenters saying we should just let Japan mourn like any other country, and the world should not interpret Yasukuni as anything more provocative than shrines to war dead everywhere else.

    What they're missing is something that is obvious to anyone who visits the place: it is the Japanese who continue to make Yasukuni an offensive symbol. The approach to the shrine is thronged with militaristic right-wing groups and their banners and loudspeakers that glorify Japan's militaristic past. The shrine itself is beautiful and dignified, but next to it sits a well-funded war museum that's run by those right-wing groups. And that museum is as slanted as anything I've seen in a totalitarian country. The "US forced Japan into war" part is quite something -- but I actually found the stuff about the Japanese efforts to bring stability and development to Manchuria and Nanking (!) much worse.

    And, just to establish the point, from another outside observer of Japan:

    Hirohito, the Showa Emperor, on a horse in wartime.

    Japanese (right-wing) politicians often compare Yasukuni to Arlington National Cemetery, since they insist they are simply honoring Japan’s war dead, something that all nations do. I think they have a valid point. The vast majority of Japanese killed in WWII were unfortunate draftees and it is proper to honor and memorialize them, even if the war they fought in was wrong. (Iraq II and Vietnam are widely considered bad wars in the US, but no one would ever consider not honoring the soldiers who died fighting them.)

    The fact that war criminals are enshrined in Yasukuni is often cited as the reason why Japanese leaders shouldn’t visit it. I disagree with this. The Tokyo trials that convicted these “war criminals” are widely considered a joke (unlike Nuremberg) and while the people who were convicted were certainly bad, the trials were extremely arbitrary in who was targeted and many people who had been arrested were quickly given amnesty by the US when the Cold War heated up... 

    The main problem with Yasukuni as I see it is the fact that on the grounds of the shrine is a museum that offers an extremely revisionist view of WWII. The museum’s perspective would be extremely offensive to almost anyone, not just Chinese or Koreans, and does not represent the commonly held view of the war among Japanese. In this sense, the shrine is indeed a place that glorifies Japan’s actions in WWII.

    Yasukuni, therefore, is not an appropriate site for a national leader to visit. However, there is probably a catch-22, in that any Japanese leader who proposed building a memorial for war dead that could actually be compared to Arlington would at once be denounced by China and Korea (and probably the Japanese public) as promoting militarism.

    To end this on a more  constructive direction, consider this note from a well-known  pilot and writer, about one of the under-appreciated aspects of Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Tokyo in 1942, mentioned here.

    I too for decades and decades thought that the main benefit of the Doolittle Raid was the morale boost that it gave the U. S. public, but Winston Groom's new book "The Aviators" gives a fascinating new insight into the most important fallout from that mission.

    Yes, America was thrilled to read that we'd bombed "the Japs," and yes, it did cause the Japanese high command to shuffle troop and naval units around to protect against the eventuality of future raids, but the game-changer was that the Doolittle mission unleashed an absolute torrent of semi-hysterical Japanese radio comm while it was underway, some of it in the clear and some coded, and that all of this was read by the cipher geeks in Hawaii and Washington who were soon to break the Japanese Imperial Navy code.  And because of that trove of radio messages to work with, they broke the code in time for the Battle of Midway, when as a result we knew in advance what the Imperial Fleet's movement would be.

    As I'm sure you know, the critical 10 minutes of that battle, when the unexpected SBDs sank three Japanese carriers and crippled a fourth (later to be sunk) were the end of Japanese aspirations in the Pacific.  We can thank Doolittle for that, it seems.
     

  • But Wait, There's More: Yasukuni, Arlington, Doolittle, and LeMay

    More on "victors' justice" and the standards by which we judge the brutality of war.

    It turns out that there is more to say on the Yasukuni Shrine/ 靖国神社 / history's-burden theme. For background see previous installments onetwo, three, and four.

    Jimmy Doolittle, via Wikipedia.

    "I knew Jimmy Doolittle. Jimmy Doolittle was a friend of mine..." A very large proportion of the reading public wrote in to question or complain about this sentence in a previous reader's message:

    Yasukuni is like Arlington: it honors war dead, and U.S. presidents don’t avoid Arlington visits simply because characters like Jimmy Doolittle, a war criminal if ever there was one, is buried there.

    Here is a sample of the many WTF?? responses I received, this one from a Westerner who has lived and worked in both Japan and China:

    The person who wrote the above [about Doolittle] gained far more space in your column than he deserved. Curtis LeMay yes (by his own admission), Paul Tibbets [pilot of the Enola Gay, which dropped the world's first atomic bomb] maybe . . . but Doolittle?

    I should have flagged this to begin with. This reader is exactly right that the original sentence would have made sense with Curtis LeMay's name, but not so much with Jimmy Doolittle's. 

    Curtis LeMay, also Wikipedia pic.

    Sez who, about Curtis LeMay? Sez LeMay himself, along with Robert McNamara. As McNamara put it to Errol Morris in the wonderful film The Fog of War:

    I don't fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. [This is McNamara speaking, but my emphasis added below.] The U.S.—Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history ? kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to that time ? and today ? has not really grappled with what are, I'll call it, "the rules of war." Was there a rule then that said you shouldn't bomb, shouldn't kill, shouldn't burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night?

    LeMay said, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

    The background here is that McNamara was part of the wartime civilian planning team, and LeMay was the bomber commander, for the horrific Allied fire-bombing campaign against Tokyo and other cities in the final year of the war.  More people are thought to have been burned to death during one of these raids on Tokyo in 1945 than were killed by either of the atomic bombs, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More details here.

    Jimmy Doolittle's famous raid against Tokyo in 1942, for which he won the Medal of Honor, was of strategic and symbolic importance as the first retaliatory strike against the Japanese home islands, just four months after World War II. But it did relatively little collateral (or direct) damage and in no way marked Doolittle for opprobrium. He was an impressive and accomplished figure in many other ways, including as a pioneer in the science, technology, and practice of instrument-guided flight. Sorry not to have caught this earlier. [Update: After his famous 1942 raid on Japan, Doolittle was commander for the much more morally questionable Dresden firebombing in 1945, as here.]


    Let's dig once more into the mail bag. Another reader writes in response to the original passage about Arlington and Doolittle, above:

    First, U.S. Presidents must walk on eggshells around the memory of the Civil War. We all know who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, but Grant’s Tomb is not in Arlington. Sherman is buried in St. Louis. You won't find Forrest, or Longstreet, or Hooker, or McClellan in Arlington. Nor Robert E. Lee, whose home it was, Kit Carson isn’t there, nor his superior James Carleton who ordered the Navajo internment.

    Why Jimmy Doolittle? He is remembered chiefly for his 1942 raid on Tokyo. This was, to be sure, a largely indiscriminate attack on a civilian target. It may have been ineffectual and unfortunate. But if this is a war crime, what of Curtis LeMay, or Arthur Harris, or Capt. Yossarian? (Yossarian comes to reject the war, you may recall, after Snowden spills his guts.)  

    The odd thing is that, for this rhetorical purpose, any arguable US War Crime — preferably WW2 and ideally against Japan — would serve. The assassination of Isoroku Yamamoto  in 1943 seems far more appropriate. This was authorized in a meeting between FDR and Frank Knox, and was recognized at the time as an act whose dubious morality could only be excused as an absolute necessity of war. I am surprised that this decision has not been more widely discussed in recent years, as it is the evident precedent for our current drone policy.

    But the point [this reader] misses, or deliberately ignores, is that postwar Japan is not a nation like any other. It is, or was, raised up as a city on a hill, a nation that was sovereign but that had, now and forever, abjured war.  This may have been imposed by the victors, just as abolition (and, a hundred years later, integration) was imposed upon the South. It was an acceptable solution. Others had been envisioned: a few years earlier, William Halsey has looked across Pearl Harbor and predicted that, by the war’s end, "the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell."

    Another view of Arlington:

    You can see the Japanese perspective that we are being a little selective.

    Arlington holds 482 confederates and has a big monument build by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  Let’s be clear: these people actively engaged in war against the United States, for the cause of slavery.  The number of war criminals at Yasukuni is less than 1/10 the number of Confederates in Arlington, and Yasukuni also holds many millions of regular soldiers, far more than Arlington.  Yet Presidents manage to visit Arlington to honor all the dead of all the wars without it being seen as a justifying slavery and its many horrors.

     If some African Americans made a visit to Arlington about slavery, you could see that some politicians would use visits to Arlington as a way to rile up white support.  Yet we all chose to make Arlington just about war dead.  I think this is good: it allows the fight to be over clearer symbols like the confederate flag and schools named after Klan leaders.   And, over the past few years, I think we have seen some notable successes against Southern revisionism. 

    Now, if we can stop making Yasukuni about war criminals, we can perhaps focus on issues that are much clearer, like the rape of Nanjing, the modern treatment of Koreans in Japan, and the like.

    Similarly:

    I cannot escape the feeling that atrocity is frankly a function of the State. The US and other liberal (in the proper sense, not the colloquial American sense) nations are no different. 

    Natives are still on the reservation. Blacks are still in the ghetto. Millions of families across mid Asia are mourning sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers devoured for the sin of geo proximity to "terror." Et cetera. 

    Finding an accurate analogy to Mr. Abe seems almost pointless. He is a smart, competent leader surrounded by smart, competent advisors and likely knew what China would think of his visit during a time of regional stress.

    And yet the sins of Japan are, tragically, par for the course.

    Finally, from another American living in China:

    I often wonder why comparisons are even needed for events that can be read as offensive, including Prime Minister Abe's visit to Yasukuni.

    Writers should reject the carelessness inherent in "as bad as Hitler in a KKK robe" sentiments. Hiding behind "not quite as bad as" probably rings hollow to some and not quite distancing enough for others.

    Crimes committed during war are horrific -- without comparison. Writers should name these horrors rather than rely on false comparisons that muddy truth.

    Slavery is as bad as the peculiar institution. The Holocaust is as bad as the Shoah.

    My original purpose in introducing these comparisons was simply explanatory. For the majority of Western readers who might never have heard of Yasukuni, analogies were a way to suggest what the visit meant within the Japanese domestic context, and how they might be read in other parts of Asia. For the underlying crimes, tragedies, and destruction, no comparison is possible, or needed -- as this reader says. 

  • Why Yasukuni Matters: The Snarls of Asian History

    The many layers of past, present, and future exposed by one minor-seeming episode.

    Million Vet March this year, via Yahoo.

    I hadn't expected to devote so much space to the ramifications of Shinzo Abe's recent visit to the Yasukuni shrine. For a catchup on previous discussion, see installments one, two, and three. But messages keep pouring in, and before turning back to American Futures and Redlands, Calif. this afternoon, here is one presumably final installment.

    Ambiguous -- like the Confederate flag. From a friend who is a professor of Chinese history:

    In terms of analogies, what’s struck me as the best one to convey the response that visits to the shrine elicits in East Asia isn’t a visit to a site located elsewhere, but rather displays of Confederate flags...

    An effort is made then, by those who use it that way, to assert that it is a complex symbol that can mean many things, including a form of local pride, and that those aspects of it should be separable from slavery and from racism. Yet there is no way for many of us in America to see it as separable from precisely those detestable things.

    From another student of Asian history, "a symbol of the modern Japanese nation-state":

    I don’t think that there is an analogue [to Yasukuni] in the United States, or perhaps even in Europe.

    Yasukuni, beyond enshrining those Japanese who fell during World War II, enshrines all of those who fell in the Emperor’s service. So all of those soldiers who died in the first Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and World War I are there as well.

    Beyond the issue of the war criminals there, the shrine is a symbol of the modern Japanese nation-state. When the large metal, rather than typical wood, torii gate was erected, it was the largest free-standing structure in Tokyo and towered over everything else in the city. It was a profound embodiment of the nation.

    It’s also worth noting that the modern Japanese nation-state largely defined itself in terms of “not China.” The Japanese modernization project was prompted by the desire to avoid being carved up into European cantonments like China. [JF note: Yes, and this was one of the big themes of my book Looking at the Sun.] And quite early the Japanese began playing the imperial game in Korean, Taiwan, and China proper. These led to the above-mentioned conflicts.

    Thus, Yasukuni is inextricably intertwined with Japanese modernity and cannot be separated from the often-brutal colonization efforts abroad. Of course, the scale of Japanese atrocities during World War II, and the war criminals, makes things a bit different, but in a sense, the shrine is a representation of what any modern nation-state does.

    Japanese conduct in the Pacific War was indeed particularly barbaric, but the overall gist of things wasn’t that far different from their earlier imperialism, for which they were often praised by European nations (during the Russo-Japanese War, for instance). And insofar as the Japanese nation-state colonized its neighbors, and thus was antithetical to their existence as independent states, Yasukuni can never be acceptable to them as it is a symbol of their oppression. The war criminals are just an intensifier.

    I think that the modern outcry against Columbus Day in the United States might be approaching a good analogy. For many Native Americans and American Indians, Columbus stands as the progenitor of European colonization; for this reason, any celebration of him would be offensive. There cannot be a “clean” celebration of Columbus.

    On the matter of the Japanese not being repentant enough for their actions during World War II, I think it is worth contextualizing that within US actions. The US desire to see a self-sustaining Japan that could serve as bulwark against Communism led to the US overseeing the completion of the Japanese economic expansion that had been aimed at during World War II by the Japanese, often using the same personnel and experts who had been movers and shakers during the Pacific War.

    As Andrew Gordon has argued in The Modern History of Japan, it makes sense to think of a “transwar” period. The end of World War II, rather than marking a radical divergence, instead marked a continuation, albeit by different means. The retention of personnel, and the Emperor himself, by MacArthur created a sense of continuity. The end goal of the Pacific War (ie, a robust, industrialized Japanese nation-state within a quasi-autarkic economic sphere) had not been wrong, only the means that the Japanese went about achieving it. It is somewhat startling how much US policy documents, such as NSC 48-2, echo the goals of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

    I think there are some parallels with this in Germany, too. But in the German case the Holocaust, card-carrying members of the Nazi Party and the SS in particular could serve as finite and concrete examples of bad acts to be repented. I don’t think the Japanese can separate their atrocities in the same way. 

    As noted above, I agree about the messy legacy of the Occupation years -- messy within Asia, messy between the U.S. and Japan, and messy most of all within Japan itself. In contrast to the situation in Germany, the wartime symbol of the state -- the Emperor -- remained in place; for this and other reasons, the contrast between pre- and post-war regimes was not as clear-cut as in Germany. Because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's dominant imagery of the war emphasized its own status as wartime victim. And much more, about which there is a vast literature led in my view by John Dower's Embracing Defeat

    The point is: as with anything involving race in America, the layers of history, symbolism, emotion, and paradox here go very deep.

    Next, from a Westerner with experience in Asia, an argument that few outsiders really fear militarism from Japan, but they think differently about China:

    A quick note on my background.  I was an exchange student in Japan for a semester in college, spent two years in South Korea in the U.S. military, and have studied both the Japanese and Korean languages, as well as East Asian history and culture.

    My overall take is that this situation is being exacerbated on all sides, in part because it serves the interests of the leadership in each of the respective countries for various reasons.

    China’s leadership, for instance, has been quite active in trying to cultivate anti-Japanese resentment among China’s populace well before any of the present series of confrontations. [JF note: Yes, as I've noted repeatedly in my own reports from China.] Abe has clearly been interested in reversing or at least easing the restrictions imposed by the postwar constitution on Japanese military power, and I suspect that absent the current atmosphere of confrontation, he would have much less of an excuse for this or other steps... 

    One thing that stands out to me in all this, though, is that (at least as far as I’ve been able to tell) only China and South Korea have made any particular response. The lack of response from other countries that Japan conquered and occupied during World War II, who suffered as well from Japanese war crimes, is somewhat telling to me. These are predominantly Southeast Asian countries that border the South China Sea, and are involved in a dispute there with China — Vietnam, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Indonesia. I suspect it may indicate that they are much more concerned about China than they are a potentially re-militarized or active Japan.

    I find myself in much the same situation. My grandfather fought on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, my great-uncle died on Iwo Jima, and my great-grandmother (as an U.S. military nurse) witnessed firsthand the results of the horrific treatment of POWs by the Imperial Japanese military — and yet, the prospect of a rearmed Japan, even one with unrepentant conservatives like Abe in power, does not worry me to the same degree that the actions of China’s leaders, particularly its military leaders, do.

    I find it difficult to believe that modern Japan, and its culture, lend itself easily to open political acceptance of the use of military force to impose its will on other nations as it did during and before World War II.* I do not see significant support for it in the popular culture and attitudes. I cannot say the same for China, at least not with the same degree of certainty. (And in fairness, I’d say the same of the U.S. as I do China — our track record isn’t exactly great even as recently as Iraq.)

    *I was going to say that the U.S. Japan alliance acts as a check here as well, but then I thought better of it — if anything, our track record indicates we would probably press a remilitarized Japan to participate more in future actions such as Iraq or Afghanistan.
     

    Victors' justice. From another reader with a Western name:

    You stress the timing issue with the Yasukuni visit. I’m not sure why you think that now is such a critical time in its relations with China. It’s not like the countries are on the cusp of some sort of reconciliation.

    The Yasukuni visit is something that should happen every year, or rather three times a year, according to Japanese custom, near New Year, in the spring, and around the summer Obon period. Yasukuni is like Arlington: it honors war dead, and U.S. presidents don’t avoid Arlington visits simply because characters like Jimmy Doolittle, a war criminal if ever there was one, is buried there.

    Abe is just asserting Japan’s right to be a normal country, with the chief executive honoring the nation’s war dead, just like any other country. Japan has been infantilized since the end of the war, but those days are over....

    I don’t think it’s clear that forcing generations unborn during the war into guilt trips is effective, however morally necessary one might think it is. Japan has a remarkably non-nationalistic, peaceful population, who on the whole are more puzzled by Chinese and Korean hissy fits than angered by them. Perhaps if China’s geriatric leaders would end the country’s hate-inducing educational curriculum, and let its children grow up in the present day, without wallowing in the past, Chinese might be as mellow as most Japanese are, and everyone would get along.

    Let me also point out a particular bias on your part. The scare quotes and the use of the word “nationalist” here: “the power of the ‘victors’ justice’ concept among some Japanese nationalists.” Do you seriously think that any post-war war crimes trial could result in real justice? And in practice in the U.S. the word “nationalistic” implies hard right-wing, even fascistic politics.

    Any time you feel tempted to use it in reference to Japan, ask yourself, “How does this compare to the U.S? Is ‘uppity’ the word I’m really looking for?” For instance, is changing the Japanese constitution to be more similar to the U.S. constitution nationalistic? For the most part, politics in Japan that are labeled right-wing or nationalistic by U.S. commentators are closer to centrist politics in the U.S. There are no real right-wing political parties represented in the Diet, while there are many Diet members from socialist and communist parties. The entire Gaussian curve of Japanese politics is considerably more left-wing than the U.S.

    I agree that Japanese politics (like those in most democratic countries) are to the left of America's. I disagree that this invalidates terms like "nationalist," as useful distinguishers within the Japanese spectrum.

    What about American war crimes? Another reader:

    The only difference between this and Presidents visiting Arlington or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is that the Japanese not only lost the war, but were occupied and had their leaders tried for war crimes rather than hide behind victory or at least not total defeat.

    You could argue that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and certainly the military command under those Presidents, would likely have faced some sort of war crimes trials had Vietnam invaded and overtaken the US. Frankly, those responsible for the dropping of nuclear weapons on Japanese civilian targets, or drone strikes against civilians in another context, should have been prosecuted as well.

    "Don't give a damn about the outside world." From a foreigner living in Japan:

    One of the main issues I see with it all is that the Japanese do as they wish and don’t give a damn about the outside world and what they think. It seems that slowly they are trying to close their doors on the outside world but yet, want the benefits of trade. Abe is nothing but a sick right wing nut and many foreigners are packing up and going “home” because of his activities and our freedom slowly being threatened. 

    I am a [North American] female married to a Japanese man and we can’t discuss Abe,Yasukuni nor Abe’s government without it turning into an argument. And he’s one of the more open-minded and enlightened, needless to say. The Japanese see themselves as the victim of the Second World War and the rest of the world allows them to get away with it. Every year American politicians attend Nagasaki and Hiroshima memorial ceremonies. The same can’t be the same for the Japanese with regards to places like Nanking, Pearl Harbor and many other places Japan destroyed during the war. They don’t send anyone anywhere to try and atone for their past behaviour. 

    The public, and government, is very well aware of how visits to Yasukuni upsets China and Korea but they don’t care. They bleat on about Japanese victims but fail to understand that THEY caused the deaths of millions in Japan and abroad. They go on and on about how Japanese has apologized but fail to understand that apologies (and money) mean nothing if the current government makes inflammatory statements about the war, ‘comfort women’ and try to white wash history but changing their textbooks.

    I am a university professor here; my current students do not have a clue what Japan did during the war. They think they were solely the victims of the Americans and have no idea why China and Korea hate them. They do not understand why Yasukuni is an issue. They do however, know that China and Korea get upset but they don’t care. My students, at a very well known university, openly bash Chinese, Koreans and anyone who dares voice an opinion about how Japan was an aggressor. They simply do not know their history. It isn’t covered on entrance tests to high schools and universities here. 

    Actually, people in Japan are grappling with their history. From another Westerner:

    Your depiction of Japan’s attempt to grapple with its past elides a great deal of necessary detail. In defending the US and UK from charges that they have also attempted to whitewash their own histories, one of your readers seemed to imply that controversies like the one surrounding the statue of Arthur Harris don’t exist in Japan. 

    In fact, nothing is farther from the truth. Japan is deeply divided over the issue of apologies and reparations for misdeeds during the Second World War. Several well known Japanese historians, including Hirofumi Hayashi, have spent their lives exhaustively documenting Japanese atrocities during the war and many Japanese politicians, such as Yohei Kono, have lobbied for greater public demonstrations of contrition and regret.

    While I agree with many commentators that Japan has not done enough to come to terms with the crimes it committed, it also seems clear to me that Japan is being held to a double standard. After all, Japan’s failure to adequately apologize for its aggressive colonial past is hardly unique. The British have certainly never delivered an adequate apology to their former subjects in the Middle East or India. In fact, in Britain, the old British Empire still evokes a great deal of pride. The French, Dutch, Spanish, and Belgians are just as guilty of colonial abuses and have failed just as badly to come to terms with them. 

    As an American, I have first hand knowledge of the fact that the United States has never quite reconciled its “Manifest Destiny” with the near genocide of the continent’s Native American inhabitants. My middle school and high school history books very effectively championed the American “frontier spirit” while largely ignoring the impact our westward march had on the native peoples already living on the so called “frontier”.

    Despite this, none of these controversies have resulted in the type of geopoltical problems like those between Japan and China. I can’t help but conclude that the current diplomatic problems have less to do with a lack of Japanese contrition and more to do with nationalist manipulation. Japan is a convenient target of Chinese hatred for a regime in need of one.

    As an illustration of the kind of within-Japan debate this reader is referring to, consider this editorial, "Abe's Yasukuni Visit Isolates Japan," by the well-known diplomat and scholar Kazuhiko Togo, whose grandfather was the wartime foreign minister. It begins:

    To those who are general supporters of Abe’s economic, political and foreign policy initiatives, including myself, his visit to Yasukuni on 26 December was a bombshell of disappointment and helplessness.

    On the other hand, from a reader in Japan:

    You, Mr. Fallows, have made a lot of enemies here.

    OK. Thanks to all for views and for reminders of the complexities of this important topic, and that is enough for now. Next up, more on the pluses and minuses of our own country. 

  • Crowdsourcing the Yasukuni Question: From Tokyo to Philadelphia

    One American president, two possible analogies.

    Ronald Reagan kicks off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Photo found here.

    For those joining us late: two days ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a well-publicized visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Yasukuni is where more than two million of Japan's war dead, including a number of "Class A War Criminals" from World War II, are honored. To many people in China and South Korea, Yasukuni is a symbol of Imperial Japan's aggression and of pacifist post-war Japan's relative lack of interest its wartime record. ("Relative," compared with post-war Germany.) To some right-wing and nationalist groups within Japan, it is a symbol of national dignity and strength.

    The Yasukuni story is surprisingly tangled. For more on why Hirohito -- the wartime and post-war leader known in Japan as the Showa Emperor -- initially paid visits but stopped after war criminals were added to the list of enshrinees in 1978, you can start here or here. For the power of the "victors' justice" concept among some Japanese nationalists -- the argument that the main mistake Imperial Japan made was to lose the war -- see books like this and this, or academic articles like this and this or this. It is a deep and controversial theme.

    P.M. Shinzo Abe (center, in tailcoat) at Yasukuni this week, via CNN.

    But for practical purposes, the point right now is that visits to Yasukuni always fray tempers between Japan and (especially) China, and relations between Japan and China are already as dangerously frayed as they have been in decades.

    What's the right non-Asian analogy for the impact of such a visit at such a time? I offered a quick, flawed suggestion; readers pointed out why it was wrong. Herewith one final installment.

     Reagan in Mississippi. A reader writes in with the same suggestion that the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates came up with at just the same time:

    Wouldn't Ronald Reagan opening his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been slain sixteen years earlier, be a closer analogy?

    Yes, it would be. That's the moment shown above.

    Reagan in Germany. Many readers also wrote in with another Reagan suggestion:

    An American president at a Germany military cemetery, 1985.

    I am not sure why you are struggling so much for an analogy.  It seems that Bitburg (where Reagan had a shameful moment) is the best analogy – a cemetery which includes World War II war criminals visited controversially by heads of state.

    Another reader offered a refinement on Bitburg:

    Not so much Reagan visiting it, but any German chancellor visiting it, and honoring the Nazi dead. No?

    Reagan’s visiting it was insensitive enough, but a different kind of insensitive.

    What about Gitmo? We get more into thought-experiment territory here. But an expat living and working in Japan writes:

    How about this: an American president visiting Gitmo on 9/11 anniversary (maybe with special section still active ... in perpetuity)... 

    To give a slightly more nuanced response to the problem of Japan and its responsibility / lack of acknowledgement for the barbaric acts committed by the imperial army, I see Yasukuni as a symptom to a very messy cultural conundrum ... to be honest, let`s get some of the other, easier problems of the world taken care of first: such as the middle east and gun control in the US.

    Luckily, no sacred cows there. 

    I guess I should not revert to sarcasm but I really do not see any way to solve this problem that reoccurs like clockwork. The above started out as a sincere attempt to further the discussion in a positive manner but I have been down this road countless times ... our voices [those of outsiders] do not count. 

    That reader went on to say that he agreed with someone I had quoted previously, who argued "Perhaps if we joined the Japanese in peacefully honoring their war dead, and just make Yasukuni just about a tragic loss, we can all move on."

    Another reader writes to disagree specifically with the idea of "moving on" and offers a less sympathetic view:

    I'd like to provide a little push-back to your last quoted emailer:
    "Over time, however, I have grown to think that the rest of the world also needs to ask hard questions about itself, to give the Japanese the space to “move on.” ... 

    This sounds suspiciously to me like false equivalence. 

    Japan has had 70 years to "ask hard questions".  The result is that, almost 70 years after the end of World War II, Yasukuni has enshrined Class A, B, and C War Criminals (those guilty of starting the war, as well as those who committed atrocities), and members of the Japanese government regularly visit the shrine.

    Shinzo Abe, the current PM, rather than "asking hard questions" and "moving on" has actually *backtracked* by renouncing claims that Japan had done anything wrong to "comfort women," saying that Japan's Class A war criminals weren't really criminals, and questioning just how aggressive Japan's role in World War II was. Many ministers in his cabinet are just as bad, or worse. This is actively making things worse, not moving on.

    Yes, other nations have honor countrymen who are guilty of crimes. But in the case of the US and UK, two of the countries your emailer refers to (the People's Republic of China and Mao is a whole different ballgame), there are many public efforts to discuss and analyze the crimes of such people. The Arthur Harris Memorial *is* controversial [see this], for example, and has had to be under guard for periods of time. Let me know when Nathan Bedford Forrest is re-buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and when US presidents routinely visit his grave.

    The problem that your emailer fails to see is that Japan is quite happy to remember Japanese victims of World War II, but actively denies the existence of victims of Japanese forces in that war (and waffles over the role that Japanese authorities played in causing that war in the first place).

    Admittedly, this seems to be a very human trait (it's reminiscent of the Turkish government's prickliness over talk about the Armenian genocide), but just because other peoples and countries are guilty of this and have their own obstacles to overcome in facing their history does not mean that Japan is doing exceptionally poorly at the task. And the fact that Japanese inability to deal with its own recent history is aggravating tensions between it, South Korea and China (these three countries being some of the world's biggest economies and militaries) makes it worrisome for everyone.

    For the record, I also got several messages from people in Canada, Europe, and Japan saying it was pretty insensitive / offensive for any American, like me, to complain about militarism from any other source, given the modern U.S.'s record for sending troops everywhere and thinking about the consequences later. American hyper-militarism and related security-state mentality is indeed a problem, but it's a different one from what we're discussing here.  

  • Why Yasukuni Is Different From Auschwitz

    In symbolism, it's worse.

    Prison photos of Nobusuke Kishi, one-time
    Japanese prime minister and grandfather
    of current prime minister Abe, via Wikipedia.

    Last night I was so amazed/regusted by news that Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, had visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo that I batted out a quick item that used the wrong analogy. In the item I said:

    For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it's close.

    As many people have written in to report, Auschwitz and Buchenwald aren't the right comparisons. Those and other former Nazi concentration camps have become memorials to the suffering and sacrifice of their victims and, as anyone familiar with Germany knows, symbols of the country's introspection through 60+ postwar years. For some other time, more on the difference between Germany's (comparatively) unflinching awareness of the history of the 1930s and 1940s, and Japan's averted gaze from that era. For now, a sample message from a reader with a Chinese name:

    The "but it's close" implies that the Yasukuni visit is not as inflammatory as a Auschwitz or Buchenwald visit by a German chancellor.

    Arguably, it is more so. Auschwitz and Buchenwald are widely understood
    to be sites dedicated to the victims of Nazi Germany; when German chancellors visit Nazi concentration camps, as they often have, they are sending a message of contrition. Yasukuni, on the other hand, is dedicated to the memory of those who fought for Imperial Japan, and a visits by Japanese politicians send the opposite message....

    The rest of your blog post is, alas, all too accurate.

    And from a reader with a non-Asian name:

    I suspect many readers are writing to protest your attempt to create an analogy to Abe's visit to the shrine of war criminals.

    A German chancellor visiting Auschwitz is not glorifying Nazi atrocities, but more likely acknowledging the historical reality in the face of increasing denial.

    Likewise, an American politician visiting a lynching site (though this has room for more ambiguity, depending on the politics of the individual and other factors).

    But this rather than just bitch about this, it raises a more interesting question as to what a really good analogy would be. There are no doubt plenty of places in the American south that are unambiguously tied to Confederate  and Jim Crow history, making a visit there a clear statement about the Civil War  or civil rights. Maybe Jefferson Davis' tomb? Perhaps in Germany a visit to someplace significant in the life of Adolph Hitler?

    The difficulty of finding a good analogy points out the relative uniqueness of the Japan enshrining an event or people that is offensive to so much of the rest of the world.

    Similarly:

    I would take issue with your comparison to "a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald" in any context. The central difference is that Auschwitz and Buchenwald are recognition of the wrongs committed by German troops, not a recognition of imagined heroism. It's difficult to imagine any German political figure visiting those places with an intention of honoring the perpetrators, which is what Mr. Abe seems to have done at Yasukuni. 

    It's difficult to construct a plausible analogy in Western Europe. Perhaps a French president visiting Napoleon's tomb before visiting Russia, but even that lacks the historic immediacy of Yasukuni. Perhaps if the Stalin museum were in Russia, rather than Georgia, there could be a comparison with Putin visiting there before going to Ukraine. 

    And, for a little twist: 

    Both of my grandparents fought against the Japanese during WWII and many of my mother’s relatives were imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese.  I used to agree that Japanese leaders should not visit Yasukuni.  

    Over time, however, I have grown to think that the rest of the world also needs to ask hard questions about itself, to give the Japanese the space to “move on.”  

    First, while Yasukuni holds war criminals alongside many regular service men and women, it is not some outlier.  Many war memorials not only include the names and graves that others regard as war criminals, but directly honor these figures.   The UK has a memorial to the man who ordered the fire-bombing of Dresden.  The Chinese still have a cult around Mao, who oversaw terrible slaughters.  In the USA, we still have high schools and monuments to Confederate generals 150 years later.  Entire cities and states are named after slave owners, more so than the early abolitionists.  (How many Washingtons and Jeffersons vs Adams and Hamiltons?)  

    Second, while the Japanese acted barbarously in the 1930s to 1945, they were also terrible victims at the end of the war, and they have been the model of peaceful world citizens for the past 70 years, even in the face of serious provocations, including from those who criticize Japan now.

    Finally, the East Asians of all people should be most sensitive to the issue of “face.”  The main East Asian nations still gripe loudly about each other’s sins and defects, but reserve special criticism about the Imperial Army.   The louder the Chinese and everyone else shout about the sins of the Imperial Army, the more that a Japanese leader has to do something to save face.  A visit to Yasukuni is less belligerent than many alternatives, like lobbing missiles or sinking boats.

    All in all we, the rest of the world, are the ones making a visit to Yasukuni about war crimes.   Perhaps if we joined the Japanese in peacefully honoring their war dead, and just make Yasukuni just about a tragic loss, we can all move on.  Better yet, we take the issue away from the neofascists and warmongers on all sides, just as East Asia heats up.

    Heating up indeed. I'm watching CCTV [China Central TV] right now, which is wall to wall about Yasukuni -- and P.M. Abe's comment that he is "sorry" he didn't make the visit earlier. Thanks to readers for the corrections. [Update: Please see additional item, with comparisons to similar gestures in U.S. history, here.] 

  • Our New Champion in Self-Defeating Soft Power: Japan

    Only one step could have made conditions worse among Japan, China, and South Korea, with spillover effects on America. That is the step Japan's prime minister has just taken.

    Main hall of Yasukuni Shrine, via Wikipedia.                 

    At first I didn't believe the news this evening that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. I didn't believe it, because such a move would be guaranteed to make a delicate situation in East Asia far, far worse. So Abe wouldn't actually do it, right? 

    It turns out that he has. For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it's close.

    Prime Minister Abe going to the shrine today,
    via Reuters and BBC.

    Yasukuni -- which simply as a structure is quite beautiful and reverence-evoking -- is the honored resting place of Japan's large number of fallen soldiers. Unfortunately these include a number of those officially classified as war criminals from WW II. Government leaders and members of the general public in China, and to an only slightly lesser degree South Korea, view Yasukuni as a symbol of Imperial Japan's aggressive cruelty. As a bonus, Americans who visit the "historical" museum at the shrine (as I have done) will note its portrayal of Japan being "forced" into World War II by U.S. economic and military encirclement.

    In short, there is almost nothing a Japanese prime minister could have done that would have inflamed tempers more along the Japan-China-South Korea-U.S. axis than to make this visit. And yet he went ahead. Last month, I said that China had taken a kind of anti-soft-power prize by needlessly creating its "ADIZ" and alarming many of its neighbors. It seems that I was wrong. The prize returns to Japan.

  • False Equivalence Watch: East Asia / Mea Culpa Edition

    It's not just for Americans any more.

    A reader with a Japanese family name writes:

    I know that false equivalence is a favourite topic of yours. Therefore, I'm going to suggest that when you wrote the following, you might have been indulging in a little false equivalence of your own:

    "Japanese leaders have made repeated inflammatory visits to the wartime Yasukuni shrine; Chinese state media have run nonstop anti-Japanese war dramas on TV; both sides have pushed the dispute over the Diaoyu / Senkaku islands. You can also think of officials in each country who would back off (and have, in the past few months) if the hostile attitudes threatened to provoke actual hostilities."

    I agree that visiting the Yasukuni shrine is not the most tactful thing one could do. I also agree that there's some ugly right-wing rhetoric coming out of Japan. But how is this at all equivalent to the venomous, wide-spread and officially-sanctioned anti-Japanese propaganda, the resulting, seething hatred and the subsequent, anti-Japanese riots that we have all seen? There's a marked difference in degree, as far as I can tell.

    Fair point. There is an asymmetry in Chinese-Japanese relations.

    Japanese politicians have frequently pandered to part of the Japanese nationalist right wing by visiting the Yasukuni shrine, above. (To oversimplify: this would be like a German leader going out of his or her way to visit Nazi-era shrines.) The Japanese educational and media systems, based on what I've observed and learned, so thoroughly downplay the history of the 1930s and 1940s that most Japanese citizens naturally view their country as the major victim of World War II, because of the atomic bomb. The result is genuine puzzlement and ignorance about why older Chinese, Singaporeans, Filipinos, but again mainly Chinese might bear a grudge.

    On the Chinese side, much as the reader says, the government tolerates and/or fosters flat-out hate-Japan propaganda. Ordinary Japanese people can be affected by passive lack of awareness of their country's history. Ordinary Chinese people can be affected by deliberate agitprop. 

    Both of these are unfortunate, but they're not really "equivalent." China's government is more culpable than Japan's in drumming up and maintaing ill-will. On the other hand, when it comes to the specific issue of the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands, I think it's fair to say that the governments have been roughly comparable in ramping up (and when needed damping down) hostilities. Thanks for the clarification.  

  • Today's Alarming Japan-China Charts

    World War II was a long time ago, but bad feelings are ever-refreshed.

    [Note: please see update below.] Let's take a break from matters American to look westward across the Pacific. When my wife and I moved to China now (gasp!) seven years ago, I wrote that one of the biggest surprises was how much more hostile prevailing Chinese attitudes toward Japan had become, compared with when we were living in Asia 20 years earlier. Just to spell out the surprise value here, the most obvious reasons for Chinese hostility -- Manchukuo, the Rape of Nanking, and so on -- were that much more distant, yet resentment about them was only going up. 

    Here's an unpleasant bit of new evidence, from a respectable Japanese think tank. The rising red line above shows Japanese people who don't like China. The rising purple line is Chinese people who don't like Japan. The plummeting blue and green lines are people in each country who like the other. 

    You can list explanations for these trends. Japanese leaders have made repeated inflammatory visits to the wartime Yasukuni shrine; Chinese state media have run nonstop anti-Japanese war dramas on TV; both sides have pushed the dispute over the Diaoyu / Senkaku islands. You can also think of officials in each country who would back off (and have, in the past few months) if the hostile attitudes threatened to provoke actual hostilities.

    Still, this is a nastier situation than most Americans realize -- and nastier than prevails between any other pair of countries with whom the U.S. has such important ties. Not to mention that they are the second and third largest economies in the world. There is a lot more in the study worth checking out, for what we hope turn out to be purely theoretical reasons. [UPDATE: There is something obviously wrong with the graphics of the pie chart immediately below. The numbers don't correspond to the sections of the pie. I have written to the organization to ask what's up; for now I will assume that it is a chart-drawing blunder. Thanks to a reader in Beijing for the heads-up.]

     

    And one more, which I find very interesting in what it suggests about each country:

  • Krugman, Fingleton, and Japan

    The "basket case" of the world economy looks stronger than many others do.

    When I was holed up in Beijing for several months last year finishing my China book, Eamonn Fingleton was part of a virtuoso team of guest bloggers who filled in for me in this space. One of his items drew a lot of attention and generated a lot of discussion. It was called "The Myth of Japan's Lost Decade," and it argued that the Western world had been all too self-congratulatory about the utter "collapse" of Japan's economy. In fact, he argued, Japan was still very rich -- and although its political system was terminally dysfunctional (sound familiar?), its companies in fact enjoyed ever-growing world market share in a wide range of high tech goods.

    This is a case I sympathize with, and have made various times -- for instance, in the Atlantic two years ago. I am sure that Fingleton has noticed that Paul Krugman, long a skeptic of the "Japan is stronger than it looks" view, now agrees. Or so a new interview with Martin Wolf in the FT suggests:

    The conversation turns to the Japanese crisis of the 1990s. In retrospect, I [Wolf] suggest, the Japanese seem to have managed the aftermath of their crisis quite well.

    He [Krugman] agrees. "What we thought was that Japan was a cautionary tale. It has turned into Japan as almost a role model. They never had as big a slump as we have had. They managed to have growing per capita income through most of what we call their 'lost decade'. My running joke is that the group of us who were worried about Japan a dozen years ago ought to go to Tokyo and apologise to the emperor. We've done worse than they ever did. When people ask: might we become Japan? I say: I wish we could become Japan."

    Respects to Fingleton, who was one of the few making the case against exaggerated Japan-pessimism all along. (Bill Holstein is another.) And to Krugman, for acknowledging how things have evolved.

  • Eamonn Fingleton Makes a $10,000 Offer

    A guest-blogger puts his money where his mouth is

    Eamonn_Fingleton-150.jpg

    Earlier this year, Eamonn Fingleton (right), an economics writer based in Tokyo since the 1980s, got a lot of attention with a guest post in this space arguing that the image of Japan as an economic basket case was grossly at odds with the country's actual economic performance. For instance:

    >>[A]nyone who visits Japan these days is struck by the obvious affluence even among average citizens. The cars on the roads, for instance, are generally much larger and better equipped than in the 1980s (indeed state of the art navigation devices, for instance, are more or less standard on many models).  Overseas vacation travel has more than doubled since the 1980s. The Japanese boast the world's most advanced cell phones, and the biggest and best high-definition television screens. Japan's already long life expectancy has increased by nearly two years. Its Internet connections are some of the world's fastest -- something like ten times faster on average than American speeds. [JF note: I can attest to all these points.]

    True, not all of Japan's indicators are equally impressive. The Tokyo stock market, for instance, has never recovered from its 1990s slump. Neither has the real estate market....

    On the negative side, there is also the fact that Japan's economic growth rate, as least as calculated officially, has averaged little more than 1 percent a year in the last two decades. For those who propound the "stagnation" story, this is their strongest card. But it does not accord with the common observation --  undeniable to those who have known the country since the 1980s -- that the Japanese people have enjoyed one of the biggest improvements in living standards of any major First World nation in the interim.<<

    One more example, from the Asian Development Bank rather than Fingleton. Everyone sees "made in China" on an iPad or iPhone and naturally thinks the products reflect China's growing technological dominance and its eclipse of Japan. And in the trade statistics, the value of an iPhone or iPad is counted as an export "from China" to the United States. But in reality, nearly all of the value of what's being exported consists of components from Japan (also Germany, South Korea, etc) merely reassembled in China. For an iPhone, Japanese companies account for ten times as much value as Chinese companies do. Details here.

    Fingleton wrote his guest-post item shortly before the devastating earthquake / tsunami / meltdown sequence that has pummeled Japan so terribly. But the points about economic fundamentals remain, and are at odds with the conventional "oh, Japan, didn't we used to care about them?" attitude in the West.

    Fingleton is sure enough of his outlook to have made a public offer of a $10,000 donation to a charity, preferably one for Japanese earthquake victims, if proponents of the contrary view join him in a public debate. You can see his offer and accompanying manifesto at his site. Worth considering.

    Below, a study aid: a WSJ chart, from Asian Development Bank data, on the "value flow" in an imported iPhone.

    WSJSmileyCurve.jpg
  • The Zipper Streets of Ikebukuro

    Those tricky Dutch! Their secret to success in zipper-street operations.

    When showing a picture of the "zipper streets" of Amsterdam, I mentioned that Japan was the only other place where I'd seen such an effort to carry out "tidy" infrastructure improvements. Happily, a reader who has worked in Japan sent a picture taken on the west side of Tokyo several years ago that illustrates the point :

    Ikebukuru_2006A.jpg

    The reader says:

    >>The attached photo was taken on the Meiji Dori between Shinjuku and Ikebukuro in Tokyo, Japan while I lived there during a long term contract. It appeared to be a structure that allowed trucks and equipment to be lowered from street level down underground work areas, perhaps a new subway line. I marveled at how clever it was. There was little equipment noise and even less impediment to the traffic flow.

    I was trekking up to Ikebukuro because my Dad, who had served as an MP at Sugamo Prison in Ikebukuro after WWII, wanted me to make the last visit there he knew he would not be able to make. Of course, the prison is gone and there was little recognizable left for him in the photos I took, but he seemed satisfied. He guarded Tojo in his last days.<<
    And, to the previous question of why the Dutch are so good at "zipper street" skills, another reader explains:
    >>After spending a good chunk of the last five years in Rotterdam, I note that the Dutch have two big advantages over the rest of the world when it comes to digging up streets:  most of the country is built on sand, not dirt (a result of their ongoing reclamation of the North Sea as usable land), and it is easy to dig through.  And for the most part, their utilities are under the sidewalks, not the streets, so its usually just pedestrians and bike traffic who have to work around it, not cars and trucks.

    One more thought: the Dutch tradition of working hard at hand labor exceeds most countries: the culture really expects (and celebrates) hard work.  Their work crews put American equivalents to shame.  I'm always amazed at how hard they're working, and how quickly the work is done.<<

    After the jump, zipper streets in Italy, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.

    More »

  • Security Theater: The Ripple Effects (updated)

    The Japanese keep puzzling about how to cope with U.S. security rules

    [See UPDATE below] I mentioned recently that the Japanese postal and express-shipment authorities had decided that parcels weighing more than a pound and headed for the United States would have to go by sea mail, which means many weeks in transit. Big corporate shippers were exempted. The Japanese officials said they had imposed the rule to cope with U.S. security regulations -- and they appeared not to be applying it to shipments headed anywhere else.

    Dave Bull, a craftsman based in Japan (below, from his site Woodblock.com) writes about the effect this has had on his business.
     
     DavidBull.jpg

    He says:

    >>I am a woodblock printmaker living in Tokyo, and with exports making up about two thirds of my business, the Post Office restrictions are having a huge effect.

    The root cause seems to be a ban on the mix of cargo and _passengers_:
    http://www.impactpub.com.au/aircargo/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=6929&Itemid=60

    The post office here has been using cargo space booked from commercial airlines, and as that has been cut off, they are at a loss what to do:
    https://www.aacargo.com/content/news_article_10.jhtml?cargoID=article29

    As no such bans seem to be in place from other countries (at least according to a quick scan of various postal websites around the world), I would assume that other postal administrations are more nimble, and have arranged 'pure' cargo shipment alternatives. How long it will take the Japanese post office to wake up and work something out, remains to be seen ...

    In the meantime, the only option for a 'small shop' like myself is to make bulk seamail shipments to a friend in the US, who will hold the goods and then send them on at my instructions as/when orders come in.

    Just when - if ever - the US is going to work out how to co-exist with the rest of the world, is a question that seems as though it will provide endless 'entertainment' for quite some time yet to come ...<<

    Even handed as always, I add this Japan Times story suggesting that the Japanese authorities have done as much as the Americans to over-react in this case. (Eg, some private shippers have gone back to a more flexible approach, while Japan Post is taking a hard line.) The impulse toward security theater knows no national boundaries.

    UPDATE: Bull reports that the Japanese postal authorities have lifted the ban. They will resume shipments of over-one-pound parcels to the US, but say shippers should allow several extra days in transit, for screening and so on. Announcement of the change, in Japanese, here. When an English translation is ready, it will appear on their English site here. So, there are cases of security theater being undone. Encouraging in its modest way.

  • More on Chalmers Johnson

    A man who made a difference through force of mind

    (See update below.) When I got the news in the middle of last night that Chalmers Johnson had died, I put up a very brief commemoration, intending to do more later.

    It turns out that that will not be necessary. My friend Steve Clemons, who knew Chal very well and both agreed and (occasionally) disagreed with him, has done a wonderful and thorough appreciation on The Washington Note. A sample:

    >>In one of my fondest memories of Chalmers and Sheila Johnson at their home with their then Russian blue cats, MITI and MOF, named after the two engines of Japan's political economy -- Chal railed against the journal, Foreign Affairs, which he saw as a clap trap of statist conventionalism. He decided he had had enough of the journal and of the organization that published it, the Council on Foreign Relations. So, Chalmers called the CFR and told the young lady on the phone to cancel his membership.

    The lady said, "Professor Johnson, I'm sorry sir. No one cancels their membership in the Council in Foreign Relations. Membership is for life. People are canceled when they die."

    Chalmers Johnson, not missing a beat, said "Consider me dead."

    I never will.<<

    Steve's assessment is very much worth reading in full. And for another heartfelt appreciation of what Chalmers and Sheila Johnson have meant, see Tim Shorrock's testimony here. And a photo, from here, of Chal with one of his beloved cats.

    ChalWithCat.jpg

    UPDATE: Clyde Prestowitz also has an insightful and warm remembrance, here.

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