Who Controls The Past

In recent news, we have learned that more than a hundred Japanese parliamentarians have again visited the infamous Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, a place dedicated to the memorial of Japanese war dead including some of the worst war criminals of World War II. This is meant, and understood throughout Asia, as a denial of the horrific Japanese war crimes during that time.

Furthermore, the newly elected Japanese prime minister Abe upped the aggressive nationalist rhetoric over the Diaoyu islands which are disputed between China and Japan. Imagine if the German government honored the SS and sparred with Poland over East Prussia! What is it that drives a seemingly modern society to such despicable revisionism and nationalism?

Maybe reading the excerpt from my yet unpublished book about my experiences in Japan answers some of these questions. I wrote this book at the end of my time in Japan (2006-2011), mainly to organize my thoughts about what was an interesting but not always positive time. It’s not a happy “Hello Kitty & cherry blossom” view of Japan, but instead a pretty realistic one, the way I prefer to look at the world.

History & present

Who controls the past, controls the future,
Who controls the present, controls the past.
– Rage Against the Machine

The scientist walks through the park with his Japanese girlfriend and their dog. It’s a nice park, but it would be a stretch to say that the people populating it are all that nice. They stare at the couple, and not in a curious way, but in a don’t-touch-our-women way. Now, the scientist could care less about what conservative, uneducated old Japanese geezers are thinking about him. A shower by nasty stares nevertheless makes going for a walk less of an enjoyable experience. Still, the couple has almost gotten used to it, and they and their dog need some exercise. And the dog, an energetic female miniature pincher, really enjoys to run and play. Sometimes there are other dogs in the park, how fun! She finds one dog about her own (small) size, and after the obligatory butt-sniffing, they take turns chasing each other in a playful manner. Then the owner of the other dog TRIES TO KICK the scientist’s dog. The middle aged dog-owner, with a sizable beer-belly and a bloated face aims his chubby leg at the playing little dog. Fortunately his clumsy kick is too slow to actually hit her. From one second to the next, the scientist went from enjoying to see his cute pet play to being outraged at the violent Japanese fatty. An afternoon in Japan wouldn’t be complete with some negative emotional reinforcement, would it? He regains his composure and asks “What are you doing? There is no need to kick it!” The fatty is unfazed and surprisingly answers in rather fluent English – it might not have been the first foreigner’s dog he had attempted to kick: “Ugh. It should leave my dog alone then!”.

Another island, another time. In the early morning hours, the scientist and three of his foreign friends sit on a boat ramp looking out into the Pacific Ocean. They are heading out for a day of diving, how exciting! They haven’t been to this part of the island, and they are thrilled by the anticipation of the marine life they hope to see. The boat captain, a friendly American guy, and his Japanese father in law are preparing the boat. They need to charge the battery powering the boat’s electrics, and have a cable running to a power outlet in the small marina their boat is tied up in.
An elderly Japanese fisherman walks by, coming from his own boat. The four divers are talking about the fish and corals and sea slugs they had spotted during the last month. One of them takes advantage of the extra time to catch up with some sleep, she had to get up quite early to be at the marina in time for the outing. But why is there extra time? They had been waiting for half an hour for the boat to be ready for launch, shouldn’t the battery be charged by now? The captain checks the power cord, and discovers to his amazement that it is unplugged. Not just that, the door to the room with the power outlet had been closed. The cable did not get unplugged by accident. The fisherman who had walked by a while ago had seen some foreigners and decided to pester them a little bit by making them wait a while longer. He had pulled the plug and shut the door. The scientist and his fellow foreign friends had not done anything nor said a single word to the xenophobic fisherman which could have provoked him in any way– they had just sat there, minding their own business. Them not being Japanese was enough to irritate him.

Again, a few weeks later. The scientist and his girlfriend go to see a boxing match in the town next to the one in which they live. That should be fun, some good action in the ring, and a good atmosphere outside of it. They find a spot for their car and walk a few blocks to the venue where the organized fistfight will take place. They haven’t been in this building before. To get to the site of the fight, they have to walk up three levels of stairs and there are bars on each level they pass. Maybe a good place to chill after the fight? No, clearly not. The scientist is not welcome here. Neither would the rest of his family be, or most of his many friends all over the world. The bar has a sign on its door reading:

In Berlin in 1939, Alabama in 1950 or in Johannesburg in 1970 you had to expect signs excluding fellow humans from a public place based on their genetic background. And in Japan you sometimes still have to expect such signs in 2012.

This is just a selection of the sizable number of episodes during which I got harassed or discriminated without the slightest provocation by random people in public. Why would anyone be so needlessly obnoxious to people they don’t even know, just because they are foreigners? Why would anyone exclude potential customers based only on their race in this day and age? Certainly, animosity towards foreigners exists in other countries as well. What was surprising me was the severity and blatant openness of these negative trends. Typically, in most countries, xenophobia would be directed against economically weak new immigrants perceived to “steal jobs” or “take advantage of the social safety net”. And, xenophobia typically comes from the lower fringes of society, the working classes and the unemployed, the undereducated and the losers of globalization. Not so in Japan, where I found xenophobia to be a middle-of-society phenomenon.

Now, it is not a bit worse to hate an upper middle class white guy with a PhD than to hate an uneducated poor African man for being themselves – but it is a sign how far the disdain for foreigners is going in Japan. To have a bouncer in a club in the US or Europe use some flimsy excuse to keep brown people out is bad – but a big sign announcing racism as the official policy of a bar is unbelievable. A negative experience once in a while when living abroad can be expected – but the frequency and crassness of unfriendly acts in Japan was mind-boggling. What fuels this rampant racism and xenophobia?

Japan was a completely closed society up to the mid-19th century. Foreigners were prohibited by the threat of death to enter the country. The only exception was a small Dutch trading post relegated to one island in the Yokohama harbor. Only in 1852 did an US admiral, Perry, force the Japanese to open up their ports to foreign trade. Backed by the big guns of his big boat, Admiral Perry made the Japanese government sign a contract forcing them to allow trade with the outside world. This obviously did not happen out of humanist concern for the betterment of the Japanese and their society, but it had strong societal repercussions. A people who had lived on island cut off from any outside influence for the better part of two centuries all of a sudden were confronted with people who looked, acted dressed and spoke unlike anyone they had witnessed for almost ten generations.

It is well beyond the scope of this book to give anything more than a very brief outline of the Japanese history of that time to put things into context. But it is easy to imagine and well documented how the new arrivals were seen by the islanders coming out of their two centuries of cultural isolation. Foreigners were not there because the Japanese were curious about them or because they had invited them in, hoping for economic gain. They were forced upon them. And, unsurprisingly the inflowing foreign traders who settled in the harbor towns were immediately the target of hate and attacks. Reports from these times describe how the locals hurled stones and insults at the foreign merchants.

And I have the strong impression that the fact that foreigners were forced upon them still lingers in the Japanese psyche. The year 1852 is not the distant past at all; People are alive now whose lifetimes still overlapped with humans alive back then. Somebody who threw a stone at a Dutch merchant as a young boy might, as an old man, have told his great grandson about this feat in the 1930s. That great grandson could still be alive, now as an old man himself. The chain of oral transmission from these times is still short, and I often got the impression that, unfortunately, values had not changed that much either. Western technology and pop music, bastardized English words, fast food and movies have since all made their way into Japan; the attitude towards foreigners often seemed rather unaltered to me. As I pointed out before, this book is not a sociological study of the dynamics in Japanese society; but I personally surely felt like being in a country which had only rather recently involuntarily emerged from a period of extreme national isolation. The signs pointing to that were everywhere: My Japanese girlfriend had seen a foreigner for the very first time in her life only at the age of 15, in 1994; The inability or unwillingness to speak English, even by people at the highest levels of education; The harassment by random people in public; the sign banning all none-Japanese from a bar; I believe that the significant racism and xenophobia I encountered in Japan are rooted in its recent history. Please note that I consider this an explanation, not an excuse!

What do Japanese people themselves think about their history and the political situation stemming from it? Very hard to tell. I had more discussions about sexual preferences (and not that many either!) than about politics with Japanese citizens. The Great Wall of Japan is up to full height when it comes to this topic. When I attempted to initiate a political discussion in the most un-combative way possible, mostly the answers to my questions were “It’s difficult” or “I don’t know”. Other than a few careful comments about the issue of the contested US military bases, I got very little opinion out of anyone. In terms of passionate, emotionally charged debate about politics, I was engaged only in one debate of sorts:

A work-party. It’s a pleasant late-summer evening. The usual semi-pleasant, if quite uninteresting small-talk. The scientist came by car and is stuck with sucking soft-drinks. He goes inside to fetch another one. Two kids run around with very realistic looking toy-guns. The guns are scaled replicas of military assault-riffles. “Bam bam bam” they shoot at him. The scientist, as a pacifist, does not particularly enjoy being shot at, even in play. What makes the whole action a bit of a wired spectacle is that they are having a fun time with guns on an island which was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Only a few kilometers from where they were enjoying themselves with their fake-assault rifles, hundreds of thousands of Japanese and American soldiers fought an incredibly bitter and bloody battle using the originals. In general, toy guns don’t seem like a very pedagogically valuable tool, and the boys seem to be already 10 or 11 years old, old enough for some reasoning to that end, one would think. The scientist makes a careful remark to that end.
“Hm, I am not sure what values these toy guns transport?”
He didn’t tell anyone what to do, or requested that someone take the guns away from the kids, or anything like that. He was making a politely formulated point about the political values carried by toys. And it’s not a bad point, really, is it? But that was already too much too sharp criticism to bear for one of his colleagues who is also attending the party. He is a short, narrow-shouldered man, but nationalist pride beats heavily in his chest. The remark about the toy guns, seeming harmless to the scientist, had insulted his national feelings. Disinhibited by an amount of alcohol which had also turned his face bright red, he starts to yell:
“This is Japan! This is Japan!”
Hm. Not much of an argument, is it? But, the scientist gets the idea: In Japan, everything is great and exactly how it should be. Because, if that is how it is in Japan, that is how it should be. It is very impolite to criticize anything. As a foreigner he has to shut up.
The scientist doesn’t want to be confrontational, but he also is wireded out by the reaction to his comment. What had gotten the guy soooo excited?
“You don’t think there is anything wrong with giving kids toy weapons?”
Maybe the little red faced Japanese nationalist can explain why he thinks such toys are unproblematic, or why they are unproblematic in Japan? But while he has no argument to offer in return, he certainly does not let up with his proclamation of where we are:
“This is Japan! This is Japan!”
“Yes, I have noticed THAT!”

The early to mid 20th century was not a liberal or open-minded period in Japan either. The Japanese military took over large parts of East Asia and Oceania and ruthlessly raped and killed its way through Korea, China, the Philippines and Malaysia. The attempt to build a railway through the Malay Peninsula killed countless natives and allied prisoners of war, abused as slave laborers by the Japanese. Incredibly cruel experiments were performed on living humans. In the Chinese city of Nanking, the Japanese military went on a six-week binge of killings and mass rapes, often followed by the bayoneting of the rape victims into their genitals.

Now, I myself come from a country in Europe with an extremely sad period of history during the 20th century. For the better part of a decade Austrians, then a part of the German empire, participated in unspeakable crimes fueled by a murderous ideology based on racial hatred. Millions of people were starved, beaten or gassed to their horrific deaths in industrial death camps. It’s exactly because I also come from a country with a dark past that I am particularly sensitive to matters of unresolved history.

How do people in Germany and Austria talk about this period? There is a great German noun for this debate, “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”. Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the act of successfully coping with the – shameful – historical past. The idea is that only those who learn from the past can avoid repeating it. Now, not everything went well with the Vergangenheitsbewältigung. It worked better in Germany than in Austria, and especially early on, major Nazi-criminals slipped through the nets of justice. But definitely since the 1960s, there is a broad anti-fascist consensus in all parties but the fringe right in these countries. Vergangenheitsbewältigung is seen as an ongoing process: The younger generation is taught about the Nazi crimes in schools, and many school classes visit a former concentration camp. The public is educated through the media about the atrocities committed, and about the political and societal path that lead to these crimes. People have become quite careful when it comes to German nationalism. And we certainly don’t yell “This is Germany! This is Germany!” at foreigners making political comments at university parties!

In the city centers of Berlin and Vienna there are sobering monuments commemorating the holocaust. The holocaust memorial in Berlin is built on top of the Nazi chief’s, Hitler’s, last stand, the Führerbunker. The last major battle in the Pacific theater in World War II was fought in Okinawa. There are some peace monuments in the South of Okinawa. But what can you see from the Shuri castle, on top of the command bunker during that battle? When visiting that castle with a Chinese student a few years ago, she complained about a big banner with anti-Chinese propaganda opposite the castle! I don’t think you would be able to have an anti-Polish propaganda poster up in view of the site of the former Führerbunker for more than a few minutes before the police would take it down.

And, in Tokyo you will also search in vain for a major site commemorating the victims of Japanese aggression in the mid-20th century.  Instead, they have the Yasukuni Shrine in a central location. This shrine commemorates the Japanese war dead, including over a thousand convicted war criminals. It’s the infamous shrine which always causes, rightfully, irritations with all of Japan’s Asian neighbors when the Japanese prime minister visits it. Next to this lovely shrine there is a disturbingly revisionist war museum which barely mentions the Japanese war crimes. It talks of the imperial Japanese occupation of large parts of Asia in the language of imperial Japan: the murderous occupation is termed “The greater Asia co-prosperity zone”. And outside of the Museum is, still in 2010, a statue of a proud kamikaze pilot. That’s like it having a statue of an SS Panzerdivision Obersturmbandführer in Berlin central. Disgusting.

I am not an academic expert on the topic of the Japanese society’s relationship to its recent past. But as a historically interested and educated layman, I have to come to the conclusion that they have done a very, very poor job in that regard. Looking at the most positive perspective, I can point to some seemingly sincere apologies to Japan’s victims during world war two by a series of prime ministers. Some other ministerial apologies were followed by the prime minister’s visit to the aforementioned Yasukuni Shrine, which makes these apologies seem a bit insincere, doesn’t it? Looking at the even less positive aspects of Japanese  non-Vergangenheitsbewältigung, you will find a population who doesn’t want to talk about any of this, a revisionist museum, and a monument to the suicide-bombers who gave their lives for the emperor by plunging themselves into enemy ships with their airplanes.

Is all of that some ivory-tower-esque question I am pondering here, interesting only to historians? Definitely not. I am convinced that racism and xenophobia are so strikingly prevalent in modern Japan due to the completely insufficient public acceptance of the dark periods in Japanese history. If the rape of Nanking (typically referred to as the “Nanking incident” in Japan) is not worth discussing, and is downplayed by the previous (2011) governor of Tokyo, something is afoul. If the atrocities committed during the construction of the trans-Malayan railway are not worth teaching to the younger generation in any detail, that sends a powerful message: suffering by foreigners is not worth mentioning. We only care about what happens to other Japanese! I of course did not witness any mas-rapes and bayonet stabbings 60 years after world war two, but certainly episodes in which Japanese acted according to the aforementioned motto. In no way do I want to belittle the suffering of the victims of Japanese imperialism by comparing what they experienced to the non-lethal, in comparison completely minor harassment my friends and I were subjected to. We lived to tell the tales; these were not happy tales nonetheless. While nobody got maimed, in my opinion it is still the same Japanese feeling of superiority over foreigners which makes such blatant acts of xenophobia possible to this day. Probably the peak achievement of Japanese “hospitality” to foreigners I witnessed were the circumstances of how one of my friends lost her job.

The scientist’s friend is a teacher with heart and soul. She is the type of person everyone would hope their children would encounter in the school they are going to. She loves children and loves to teach. Some of the kids she was teaching were really young, and she did her best to keep them entertained. She would sing English songs with them, which probably will really help them with the pronunciation of English sounds later in life. She was employed part time at two different schools. With the low level of English proficiency in Japan, teaching English is a real service to Japanese society. Her salary clearly didn’t reflect the value of this service, but she loved the kids, so that was ok.
Some time in the spring, she felt really really sick one evening. Way more sick than “take an aspirin and sleep over it”-sick. Unfortunately, she was home alone that day since her boyfriend was traveling for his job. She thus asked a friend to drive her to the hospital. Before they took off, while already in considerable pain, she emailed the schools she was employed at that she would not be able to come to work due to a serious medical condition.
It turned out that she was in some major trouble and needed to undergo an emergency surgery the next morning. The surgery was a success, but her condition had been serious enough that it took her a week to recover at least enough to go back to work for an hour. She really didn’t look too good after coming back home from the hospital, and a recovery period of a week seemed to be on the brief side. When she wanted to go back to work anyway, she found out that SHE HAD BEEN FIRED BECAUSE OF HER MEDICAL ABSENCE! She did not find that out by talking to anyone, though. The people who had employed her had sent her an email and refused to answer her phone calls when she was trying to inquire why they would treat her like that.
What a lovely way to support someone who had just made it over a serious health crisis! My friend and her boyfriend left Japan soon after that nasty experience. This was not the only case in which one of my expat friends was fired after being too sick to come to work – in the other case a scuba instructor was not deemed duty-full enough when he wouldn’t dive with a bad flu and high fever. Compassion? No, these folks were not Japanese after all!