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Monday, July 30, 2001


Is yellow journalism in vogue again?

Why do so many foreign commentators feel they can get away with anything they say about Japan?

The July 10 Washington Post editorial, "Awkward Japan," was particularly bewildering in its insouciant ability to ignore fact. To illustrate its assertion that Japan "punches below its weight on the world stage," it jammed together the news stories of the U.S. military's handing over of a rape suspect to the Japanese police and the protests of China and South Korea against Japanese history textbooks for junior high school.

What "common thread" did the editorialist see in the two news items? The answer: Japan's determination to "avoid disharmony at home." The editorialist then enlarged his point: "In order to suppress divisive arguments about the past, Japan has long avoided a painful reckoning with history." Suppress divisive arguments about the past?

As for the textbook question, protests in Japan have been never-ending since it became publicly known last year that the Japanese Society of Textbook Reform had submitted its version of Japanese history to the Ministry of Education for certification. In consequence, the society changed a total of 137 descriptions, although that still left two dozen points for South Korea and China to contest. Also, my Tokyo informant on such matters, Akira Ueda, tells me that a couple of books criticizing the textbook went on sale along with it. In addition, he has found for me one site "archiving" protests against it: www.jca.apc.org/~itagaki/history.

The question is: Why is it assumed that the Japanese government is not only able to "suppress divisive arguments" but also seeks to do so? My friend Scott Latham, who passed on to me the Washington Post editorial, thinks that anthropologist Ruth Benedict's 1946 book, "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture," is to blame. Benedict, who wrote the book to aid America's war effort, spoke no Japanese and never visited Japan, but managed to famously discern a clear dichotomy between Western and Japanese cultures: one is built on "guilt," the other on "shame."

I agree with Scott. Like Japanese anthropologist Chie Nakane's theory a quarter century later that posited a "vertical" Japanese society against a "horizontal" Western society, Benedict's facile categorization is easy to comprehend and convenient to apply.

For the immediate question of history, though, the matter seems to go beyond the influence of a particular book or a simple, diagrammatic cultural analysis. There is a pervasive and, if I may say, triumphant sense here that Japan is cheating on its past or that it has no right to argue certain historical issues. If South Korea protests how Japan describes the 1910 annexation of Korea in a textbook, Japan must be at fault, even though the description doesn't contain factual errors. If China protests the way the Nanjing Massacre is described in a textbook, Japan must be faulted, even though the description doesn't contain any outright factual errors.

The textbook in question does appear to strain to downplay the magnitude. Such straining may verge on dishonesty in a textbook, but the textbook is correct in noting that "controversy continues to this day."

The massacre attracted national attention in Japan when it was exposed during the Tokyo trials, and it has been a subject of heated controversy since the late 1960s when the issue was revived. In the United States, however, it has become a cause celebre only in recent years. And since it is a black mark Japan wants to downplay, the larger the numbers the more glaring Japan's "denial."

So Howard French, the New York Times Tokyo bureau chief, writing about the protests from South Korea and China on July 10, flatly states: "Japanese troops slaughtered 150,000 or more Chinese civilians in the weeks after the seizure of the city in 1937," while John Nathan, writing a profile of the "flamboyant nationalist" governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, for the New Yorker, on April 9, states: "Historians estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 people were slaughtered by Japanese soldiers when the city fell." After citing the estimate, Nathan corrects Ishihara's estimate of the casualties of the Hiroshima bombing.

I think the contemporary estimates of 40,000 to 45,000 should be closer to the mark, but mine is mere book knowledge and may be subject to accusations of nationalistic bias. The daily Asahi Shimbun seems to accept the figure of 300,000. (The biographer Naoki Inose, who is also a keen observer of social developments in modern Japan, characterizes the way the Asahi accepts such figures as a "skin-deep humanism.") The official Chinese figure, I take it, is 400,000.

There are, of course, more measured views, two of them from American scholars: Joshua Fogel in his article, "The Controversy over Iris Chang's 'Rape of Nanking,' " and Alvin Coox in his piece, "Waking Old Wounds." Both appear in the February 2000 issue of Japan Echo, which is available on the Internet.

In any event, the Post's editorial view that Japan "punches below its weight" leads to an odd observation as it comes from an American. In Japan, says the editorialist, "the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is emphasized more than the massacre at Nanking or the sexual enslavement of women."

That would be like a Japanese editorialist saying: "In the United States, Pearl Harbor is emphasized more than the U.S. suppression of the Filipino rebellion."

Similar attitudes spill over into other fields. For example, David Roche, president of the consulting firm Independent Strategy, had an Op-Ed article in the June 29 Wall Street Journal. His subject was Japan's economic difficulties, but Roche decided to seek the root cause of Japan's inability to deal with them in "Japan's failure to address its war guilt." His article was titled "Japan Must Confront Its Culture of Lies."

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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