Monday, July 10, 2006

Japanese exceptionalism

A book review article appearing on the latest issue of The Economist (subscribers only) writes about Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. The main claim of the book seems to be that those kamikaze pilots - suicide bombers during the Second World War - were all forced to commit suicide under the order of their superiors (who themselves never wanted to do something like that). They were not brainwashed under Japan's fanatic militarism. As evidence for this, the diaries of these pilots are full of emotional dilemma, fear for death, and other feelings and thoughts understandable to Westerners.

Which is nothing surprising for us, Japanese people. We know - or are taught in school - that those kamikaze pilots were victims of the war.

And perhaps this accounts for our lack of understanding - especially among Japanese politicians - of the feelings of victims in Korea, China, and Southeast Asia. The majority of Japanese people would say, "We were victims as well."

A Japanese friend of mine told me that those class-A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni were also victims because these criminals actually didn't want to wage a war.

This view is somehow reflected in the exhibition of the Yushukan museum at Yasukuni: Japan was forced to wage a war by the United States (see this post on my visit at Yasukuni).

By looking closer at the war history of Japan, this sort of irresponsible perspective is actually understandable. Since the 1930s until the end of the war, Japan was de facto ruled by some factions in the military. These guys started a war on their own. The government in Tokyo couldn't do anything but follow the suit. But we are talking about elusive Japan. These military factions never claimed for executive power, which firmly remained in the hands of the Emperor, who was in turn never ever an absolute monarch. This sort of situation where no one knows who is ultimately responsible is still pervasive in today's Japan. As a result, everybody thinks that they are not responsible for anything. They did what they did because someone else started doing it.

This raises other mysteries, however. Why does no one try to be responsible in Japan? Why isn't there any social pressure on those responsible to recognize themselves as responsible?

Another book review article (on a different book on Japan) appearing in FT Magazine last weekend talks about "Japanese exceptionalism". The more you learn about Japan's involvement in the Second World War, the even more you don't understand it. I'm now in the middle of such a cycle.

1 comment:

Linus said...

its hard for me to fathom the view as
1. personal responsibility takes a back seat
2. the continued tacit support for the convicted war criminals
3. the myth that the war was conducted for the greater good of Asia
Until these views are reconciled - I find it hard to believe that people can simply blame events on being a victim.