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Sunday, Aug. 12, 2001

Victimhood in the national psyche

THE VICTIM AS HERO: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan, by James J. Orr. University of Hawaii Press, 2001, 271 pp., $22.95 (paperback).

August 15 approaches, and once again Japan's neighbors are up in arms over the prospect of a prime minister's visit to Yasukuni Shrine. In no other country do efforts to honor the victims of war arouse such controversy. But then, in no other country is such a visit shrouded with so many shades of meaning. If James Orr is right, though, Asian concerns are misplaced: The visits do not honor the deeds of the militarists. Rather, the Yasukuni Shrine ceremonies respond to a vital national psychological need to honor victimhood.

Putting an entire nation on the couch is always a hazardous enterprise. Nonetheless, Orr makes a powerful argument. Postwar history seems to bear out his claim that Japan honors its victims as much as it honors its heroes. Indeed, during the last half-century groups have competed to be labeled victims to ensure special political status. For Japan, the victim is a hero.

Orr is not the first to tread this ground. Takeo Doi's "The Anatomy of Dependence" is an essential foundation for Orr's theories. Ivan Morris' masterwork, "The Nobility of Failure," uses many of the same insights in a literary context. But "The Victim as Hero" is the first book to apply that framework to national politics.

Much of the world has problems with Japan's August celebrations. Asians protest the Yasukuni rituals, while others are uneasy about the annual memorial ceremonies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their chief criticism is that the atom bomb remembrances are stripped of context. There is little to explain why the atom bombings occurred -- it seems like the war started on Aug. 6 and ended on Aug. 15. As Orr explains, "The mythicizing of war victimhood within the peace movement manifested a tendency to privilege the facts of Japanese victimhood over considerations of what occasioned that victimhood."

Orr was prepared to endorse that view, but his research led him to conclude otherwise. "While some amnesia occurred, the ideology of Japanese war victimhood involved selective remembrance and reconstruction that often recognized the victimhood of others. . . . Asian suffering was a vital concern of both progressives and conservatives in many discursive fields, including war victimhood." Ironically, he credits the various disputes over Japanese textbooks for playing a critical role in raising Japan's consciousness of its wartime behavior. "While victim consciousness in textbooks blunted awareness of a Japanese people's war responsibility, it sharpened awareness of Japanese aggression overall and eventually, a people's complicity in those aggressions."

In fact, one of Orr's key insights is critical to the entire controversy over the past. He argues that throughout the postwar era, Japan has shown a desire to identify with Asian victimhood rather than deny it.

Why? Orr identifies two culturally specific causes. The first is the tradition of "hoganbiiki," the literary genre that serves as the basis of Morris's classic. It emphasizes nobility of sacrifice to a losing cause. The second is "amaeru," the dependence that Doi studies in his book. All cultures practice amaeru to some degree, but it is especially well honed in Japan.

Orr rejects the argument that victimhood is a conservative tactic to escape responsibility for the war. "First, a victim mind-set simply does not fit the style of proud, self-consciously virile conservatives, such as Yasuhiro Nakasone. And second, the focus on war victimhood seems more characteristic of the liberal view of war as evil."

However, this view seems overly charitable: It is only natural that conservative Japanese politicians would want to cast themselves as victims of militarists, as that allows them to avoid being forced to take responsibility for the war. For that matter, it is understandable that an entire nation would adopt that mentality. No one wants blood on his or her hands. Sure enough, "in many of the antiwar narratives that were asserted to represent the common war experience, issues of individual and collective responsibility for Japanese aggression were sidestepped. . . . In the typical victim narrative, this transference of aggressive subjectivity usually involved placing the now innocent Japanese people on the high ground of victimhood; the role of victimizer was assigned to the military, to the militarist state or the vaguely defined entity called simply 'the system.' "

The Japanese people had an accomplice -- or a facilitator -- in this task: the U.S. Occupation forces. Even before the war ended, U.S. psychological-operations specialists tried to get the Japanese to fight their own government by encouraging them to see themselves of victims of the military. The split between the wartime government and people widened during the Occupation. SCAP decided that it could win loyalty -- and make it easier to govern -- by arguing that the government had been hijacked. Of course, those views were encouraged by Japanese leaders with whom the Americans worked and upon whom they relied. They had a stake in seeing themselves cast as victims. Orr notes the irony of contemporary liberals protesting attempts by Japanese conservatives to wash their hands of wartime responsibility; progressives set the entire process in motion by encouraging the Japanese people to see themselves as victims of the militarist war machine.

Central to the mythology is the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those horrific events gave Japan a special identity -- and a special mission -- in the postwar world. "Internationally recognized as the birthplace of a new epoch, Hiroshima validated both Japan's absolute rejection of war and its national rebirth as a cultural nation." As Orr says, "national history and world history intersected at Hiroshima," giving Japan a special status in a world obsessed with the possibility of nuclear war.

Orr identifies other critical events in the spread of victim consciousness, one of which was the Lucky Dragon incident. On March 1, 1954, a Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, got too close to a U.S. hydrogen bomb test and was dusted by the radioactive fallout. The boat's radio operator died of radiation sickness a few months later, and the discovery that its catch had been irradiated alerted the entire country -- if not the world -- to the danger of fallout in the food chain. Orr argues that that event allowed all Japanese "to experience hibakusha victimhood as their own."

As Japan was gripped by "ban the bomb" fever, political tactics encouraged the country to sidestep the question of war responsibility. Orr has previously written on Kaoru Yasui, director of the Suginami Ward Community Center, who spearheaded the Suginami Campaign. That movement collected 30 million signatures in an effort to ban the bomb. He recaps that tale here. But the critical point for Orr is Yasui's decision to make the movement as inclusive as possible. The need to let everyone unite under the banner of Hiroshima meant sidestepping critical questions of why the bombing occurred. As Orr explains, it was "self-indulgently silent on Japan's agency in the war."

Three specific political campaigns in the 1960s and '70s support Orr's thesis: the attempts to compensate landlords dispossessed by Occupation reforms, repatriates forced to return from wartime colonies who lost everything when Japan lost the war, and the hibakusha. In each case, members of the group were cast as victims, individuals who performed a special service to the nation and deserved compensation for that. The landlords' "sacrifice" staved off the threat of Communist takeover after the war; the repatriates had labored, blindly and in vain, for a government and were betrayed for their effort, and the hibakusha, well, they were the embodiment of Japanese victimhood during the war. In each case, "victims had to be situated, even if disingenuously, as contributors to a peace-loving and democratic as well as economically dynamic nation." It helped that the first two groups offered substantial political support for the Liberal Democratic Party. (As Orr tells it, additional assistance for hibakusha was the least forthcoming.)

It is a fascinating tale and well told. "The Victim as Hero" is an illuminating work. That does not mean that many, especially those individuals and countries that suffered under Japanese brutality during the war, will be pleased to see it or hear the argument. Some will complain that the atrocities are facts and the subsequent rationalizations are irrelevant. Others will argue that psychoanalyzing a nation is a futile endeavor. For them, the intellectual understanding of the deed is important; Japan's failure to clearly and directly acknowledge what it did is all that matters -- the fancy language of the various apologies being proof, not of taking responsibility, but of the readiness to continue dancing around (and avoiding) responsibility.

Passions run high, as has been proven by the escalating controversy with South Korea over textbooks. Nonetheless, "understanding," like an apology, has two sides: There is a role for victim and victimizer. Understanding Japan's psychosocial need to cast itself in the light it does is essential to solving the issues leftover from the war. That won't make real victims happy, but it begs the question: Do they want to look forward to resolving those questions and building a future together, or do they prefer to dwell on the past, mortgaging tomorrow's hopes for yesterday's hurts?

Brad Glosserman, a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.

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