Tuesday, February 10, 2004
Collective Amnesia: The Japanese Case

I've decided to publish some excerpts from my thesis on collective amnesia and the importance of teaching and disseminating facts with historical accuracy. In other words, the thesis addresses various governments' usage of historicizing as a tool in shaping their nations' perception of the world, with a special focus on the Japanese case.

I was recently checking out the
Interview American Amnesia conducted with Howard Zinn and came accross this great quote:

"We're forgetting the past because neither our educational system nor our media inform us about the past. For instance, the history of the Vietnam War has been very much forgotten. I believe this amnesia is useful to those conducting our present foreign policy. It would be embarrassing if the story of the Vietnam War were told at a time when we are engaged in a war which has some of the same characteristics: government deception, the killing of civilians through bombing, scaring the American people (world communism in that case, terrorism in this one). As for the history beyond Vietnam, that would certainly be damaging to present policy. Because if young people knew the long history of U.S. expansion, through violence and deception, they would not easily believe that we are in Iraq to promote democracy. They would know how many false claims were made in the past to justify aggressive acts..."

It seems so simple. “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.”[1] Yet if we are not to take for granted that there is an absolute universal truth, we are faced with yet another problem in historicizing: which truth?

Growing up, my Korean grandfather frequently told me stories about Korea during Colonial times. He avidly related stories that depicted the suffering my grandparents and great-grandparents experienced under Japanese rule. At the time, living in a city like Sao Paulo, which hosts one of the largest Japanese populations outside Japan, many of my school friends were Japanese, and I did not understand why the resentment that my ancestors harboured was so strong it was even brought with them to another continent. For our generation, being friends with Japanese or non-Japanese alike had nothing to do with country of origin or nationality. But for my grandparents’ generation, the lack of moral accountability remained an overdue injustice in their perception of the world. The problem with unacknowledged mass atrocities, as Erna Paris describes, is that “the ordinary people will remember, even when they are ordered not to; that the victims – including their children and eventually their grandchildren – will not disappear.”[2]

The truth that they, and other survivors of the colonial empire told was very different from the truth that the media told, the truth that the Japanese government told, or even the view that the Japanese people held. In a survey conducted in 1993 in Japan, results revealed that a significant part of the population actually views Japan as an aggressor during WWII. Interestingly, this figure decreases with age. While 61.7% of those interviewed in their 20s agree that Japan was an aggressor during the war, only 41.1% among those over 70 say yes to the same question.[3] These results suggest that despite the current controversies surrounding moral accountability in Japan today, in recent years the level of recognition about Japan’s past among Japanese has actually increased. While this figure might decrease again in some years if revisionist textbooks are used in schools today, the survey suggests that denial occurs mostly at a governmental or bureaucratic level. It also reminds us that many are aware of past atrocities.

Significant questions remain. Who are the real perpetrators of injustice? Is the Japanese government, or are also the Japanese people responsible? Having grown up with several Japanese friends and being so familiar with Japanese culture (which I admire in many ways), I would find it difficult to simply ascribe them the value of "other" and thus separate myself from them. Eventually my grandfather married a Japanese woman and moved to Japan to live with her, where he spent the last ten years of his life. Perhaps reconciliation is possible. At the individual level, it has already begun to occur even in my grandfather's generation. But much remains to be accounted for at the macro, historical, and political levels. Most importantly, we must not deprive future generations from learning from our past -- whether it be Japanese, German, Brazilian, or American.


[1] Slav proverb, quoted in Erna Paris’ Long Shadows, p464.

[2] Ibid, p454.

[3] Source: Yomiuri poll, quoted in John Dower’s essay, “An Aptitude for Being Unloved,” War Crimes, p315.


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