Remember Pearl Harbor How?

Neither Japanese nor Americans know quite how to commemorate the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the Japanese spend much more time worrying about it

But something more must be involved. Japan has less to be apologetic about this month than it did, say, four years ago, during the fiftieth anniversary of the "Rape of Nanking." (At least 100,000 Chinese were killed in Nanking, as compared with fewer than 3,500 Americans at Pearl Harbor, and the Chinese were nearly all civilians. This anniversary passed almost unnoticed in Japan.) The way the Japanese Imperial Army fought was sometimes atrocious, and Japan's relations with China, in particular, are still colored by both sides' awareness of this record. Americans tend to lump the attack on Pearl Harbor with Japan's war crimes in Asia, and to equate Japan's aggression with Hitler's. Few people in Japan see it that way.

The U.S. complaint about Pearl Harbor involves one very specific and one sweeping charge. The specific complaint is that the attack began while Japanese emissaries in Washington were still purporting to negotiate in good faith. For this the Japanese government has freely apologized. The broader complaint is that Japan brought America into the war by striking first. The Japanese response to this charge is a much more complicated matter.

For provoking the United States to fight, Japanese officials have often expressed "regret. " The regret is understandable and sincere, since the consequence was a war that turned out, as Emperor Hirohito tactfully put it in his surrender message, "not necessarily to Japan's advantage." But there has been nothing like an outright "apology" for Pearl Harbor, and there is not likely to be one this month, because of the widespread Japanese view that the main thing to regret about the "Pacific War" is that the country unwisely took on a much more powerful foe.

Japan, of course, tried to occupy its neighbors by force in the 1930s, but it was hardly the first country to do so. As many Japanese writers emphasized at the time, the same countries the Japanese army was conquering had previously been conquered by armies from Britain, France, Holland, or, in the case of the Philippines, the United States. Japan's strategic ideal would have been to hold on to this empire without colliding head-on with the United States. Ben-Ami Shillony, an Israeli specialist in Japanese history, has said that if Japan had

taken the side of the Western Allies in World War II, as she had done in World War I, or had she remained neutral, as she had been before Pearl Harbor, her prewar attempts at establishing a regional hegemony and her wartime violations of human rights might have subsequently been condoned in the context of the Cold War, as was the case with many Asian countries.

Within the Japanese military government, the case for attacking Pearl Harbor was that America would sooner or later intervene to push Japan back in Asia. If war was inevitable, Japan's best chance lay with a first strike. Some Japanese strategists thought that even after Pearl Harbor the United States would lack the stomach for a long war, and would agree to a kind of demarcation line down the middle of the Pacific, separating Japanese and American zones of influence. For the Japanese, then, the tragedy of Pearl Harbor was that it indicated their inability to avoid a direct showdown with the United States, in addition to being a disastrous miscalculation of how America would respond to a sneak attack. Each of these was a failure for Japan; neither, in the general Japanese view, was an unpardonable sin. Even in the days of total humiliation immediately after the war, Emperor Hirohito expressed deep "regret" but declined to "apologize" to General Douglas MacArthur, saying, "It was not clear to me that our course was unjustified. Even now I am not sure how future historians will allocate the responsibility for the war."

Shortly after the United States finished pummeling Saddam Hussein's army, a magazine called Bungei Shunju, Japan's counterpart to, well, The Atlantic, published an article with the charming title "Victor Nation America, Do Not Be Arrogant: Japanese People Should Discard Their Blind Trust in White Man's Society." After the Second World War, it observed, the United States "passed judgment on Japan, saying that 'Whatever reason there may have been, the side which started the war is in the wrong.' Japan ... became stricken with shame."

A familiar chestnut holds that Japanese society is driven by shame more than by guilt—that people are more attuned to whether they are offending the sensitivities of others than to whether they are violating their inner "thou shalt not" rules. A sense that they are about to be subjected to a shaming ritual may account for the exaggerated countdown in Japan.

But perhaps the most powerful explanation lies in another Japanese instinct—the "victim consciousness," or higaisha ishiki, that governs many of Japan's relations with great powers from the outside world, which for the past century has meant the United States. Japanese leaders of the Tokugawa era felt victimized by Commodore Perry's arrival; the leaders of the 1930s felt victimized by American and British determination to deny Japan its place in the sun. Over the past twenty years the Japanese press has emphasized the country's victimization by American demands to open up the market. The preparation for Pearl Harbor is essentially a warning that Japan is about to be victimized again.

Presented by

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.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In