Critique Vol. XII, No. 5 (September 2005)
The War Anniversaries: Harbingers of Things to Come
by YU Bin

When the "greatest generation," to borrow Tom Brokaw's phrase, finally fades away in East Asia's nations, the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II, celebrated on August 15, 2005, marking the day when Japan surrendered, may well be remembered as a turning point when the region did not move forward into the future, but back toward the past, in both style and substance.

While commemorations in Europe were joined by both victors and vanquished, Asians have gone their separate ways: Japanese to Hiroshima, Yasukuni Shrine, or Saipan; Chinese to Beijing's Marco Polo Bridge, the Nanjing Massacre Museum, or Harbin (where the Japanese biological warfare Unit 731 was stationed); and others to Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, and so on.

The substance and chemistry of those events also differ vastly in Europe and Asia. Gatherings at Normandy, Moscow, Warsaw, Berlin, and Dresden conveyed not only painful reflection, but also heartfelt remorse, reciprocal forgiveness, genuine reconciliation, and a determination not to forget and repeat the greatest slaughter in human history. Europe has indeed turned a historical corner. In sharp contrast, the anniversary year in Asia has so far witnessed hyper-nationalism, rising mutual hatred, and intensifying interstate rivalry.

The Agony and Irony of War

There are plenty of reasons why Asians have not found it easy to become reconciled to the past, even after sixty years. For one thing, World War II both began and ended in Asia. It also lasted longer and was more devastating than the war in Europe. The ball started rolling in 1931, when Japan seized the three northeastern provinces of China and turned them into the Japanese colony of Manchukuo. This was five years before Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, eight years before the official start of WWII in Europe with the German attack on Poland, and fully 10 years before Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Japan's 1931 annexation of Manchuria was also the beginning of the end of the Versailles system put in place by the Western democracies in 1919. When the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, ruled that Japan was the aggressor in the "Manchuria Incident," Tokyo angrily withdrew from it in 1933. This "unilateralism" of the Japanese was echoed and followed by Germany, which withdrew from the League in 1933, Italy in 1937, Austria in 1938, and Spain in 1939. And the rest was history.

Despite the different durations of the war -- 14 years in Asia (1931-45) versus six years in Europe (1939-45) -- the two theaters were intimately connected, ironically, by the action and inaction of the United States. The European democracies were totally consumed by their own war and paid little attention to Asia. The United States, a crucial weight in deciding the final outcome in both sectors, was still sitting on the fence. Harry S. Truman, then Democratic senator from Missouri, explicitly expressed the feelings of many Americans when he said in June of 1941, "If we see that Germany is winning we should help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don't want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances."[1] In actuality, ever since the 1937 Neutrality Act the U.S. practiced a policy of "cash and carry." Belligerents could purchase certain war materials from the U.S. if they paid cash and carried them away in their own ships. Even after Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact to form the Axis bloc in September 1940, the only thing FDR was able to do was to "lend and lease" goods to the European allies, which they were expected to "return" after the war.

In Asia, Japan remained one of the largest trading partners of the U.S., while the Emperor's Imperial Army devastated China's vast territory. Following the Japanese army's move into Indochina in the summer of 1941, the U.S. "accidentally" initiated an oil embargo against Japan. This "mistake" was inadvertently made by lower-level bureaucrats who went ahead with a total stoppage of oil shipments to Japan, when FDR meant only a partial embargo. Only after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor did the U.S. have no choice but to declare war on both Japan and Germany. Thus the process of the war in Europe was hastened by events in Asia.

Fast forward to 1945, when Asia was also the last to stop fighting. After fifty years of war with its neighbors and various Western powers in Asia, the unprecedented military ascendancy of the Empire of the Sun was finally arrested in 1945, thanks to the combined efforts of three continental powers -- America, China, and Russia -- plus U.S. atomic weapons. This first war to engulf the whole of Asia therefore effectively made WWII a conflict on a truly global scale. The United States of America, the only real winner of the war, was able to achieve an unprecedented global reach in the second half of the 20th century, thanks to its ideal geostrategic location and its late entry into the war.

A Tale of Two Axis Powers

When the guns finally fell silent across Asia, 35 million Chinese had died, along with 27 million Russians, 10 million Germans, 3 million Japanese, 0.87 million French, 0.76 million British, and 0.6 million Americans. The way people were killed during WWII, however, reveals some significant differences from previous conflicts. Whereas military operations in Europe were far more effective and destructive, they were also fought between two more or less equally equipped and determined sides. The Germans' relatively high casualty figure (10 million in six years) testifies to the severity of the war. By contrast, Japan's aggression against China was very much a one-sided slaughter with the Chinese viewed as easy prey. The huge difference between the Chinese and Japanese casualties clearly indicates the asymmetry.  

Many of the WWII casualties were civilians. In Europe, both sides resorted to the use of deadly forces against the civilian population. (And of course Hitler's extermination of the Jews killed an additional six million.) In Asia, before the U.S. started large-scale air raids against Japanese cities in March of 1945, civilian casualties largely meant the slaughtering of defenseless Chinese by the Japanese invading army. During the notorious Rape of Nanjing in 1937, the killing and raping spree went unchecked for three months and an estimated 300,000 Chinese died.[2] In Asia, there is also the comfort women issue. The system, which forced some 200,000 young women into the Japanese wartime military brothels all over Asia, was put in place after the 1937 Rape of Nanjing when the random raping spree by Japanese soldiers alarmed even the Japanese military high command. For all the crimes the Germans committed in Europe, there was simply no such equivalent for the systematic enslaving of hundreds of thousands of young women.

Between 1931 and 1945, Japanese documents, publications and official pronouncements usually described Japan's war on China as the "Manchurian Incident," Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Nanjing Incident, etc., as if Japan had never really "declared" war on China and without the slightest hint that Japan engineered all of them. Another glossing over of Japan's war of aggression was to describe the invasion as Japan's "entrance" into China/Asia. The term, or justification, seems to miss a crucial difference between consensual love-making and violent raping, though both are accomplished by the act of "entering."

Softer Peace and Half Justice

No war produces love affairs between nations, at least not immediately afterward. It is the way peace is handled that determines the postwar chemistry. Sixty years after the war ended, a thoroughly remorseful and reformed Germany is able, with dignity and respect, to rejoin the European community of nations. Meanwhile, Japan is barely on speaking terms with its neighbors over the issue of history.

At the heart of the different fate of the two former Axis powers lies the two different occupation policies: one multilateral in Germany and the other unilateral in Japan. After Germany's surrender, the nation was jointly occupied and administered by the U.S. and its European allies, including the former Soviet Union. The joint occupation, shared responsibility, and mutual constraints ensured a more consistent de-Nazification process, despite the fact that Germany was at the center of the Cold War (1947-91). General George Patton, a legendary WWII hero and postwar military governor of Bavaria, was fired by General Eisenhower after making comments that the Nazis were nothing more than a normal political party, and also after his personal decision to employ some former Nazi officials for local administration.[3]  

In Japan, however, the occupation by the so-called "SCAP" (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) involved the allies in name only. From the beginning, MacArthur decided, for a variety of reasons, to exempt Emperor Hirohito from any war guilt and responsibility. The remaking, or disinformation, of Hirohito's wartime record in the postwar years was thorough and complete. Until his death in 1989, the emperor of Japan was remembered as a helpless figurehead during Japan's wars with China and the U.S. who knew nothing of the plan to bomb Pearl Harbor and had no power to stop atrocities like the Rape of Nanjing; who brought peace through surrender; and who was a mild-mannered little man interested in only marine science and Mickey Mouse in Disneyland. "It was almost a Hollywood production," commented Columbia University historian Carol Gluck on what she called the "efficient" U.S. "publicity machine."[4]

When the cold war started in 1947, MacArthur radically reversed the U.S. occupation policy -- which now lies at the heart of Japan's current "confusion" over its own historical behavior in Asia -- from the postwar "three-D" policy (democratization, demilitarization, and decentralization of Japan's economic system) to one of releasing wartime leaders and officers and rearming Japan. The U.S.'s "harder war" (including nuclear weapons) and "softer peace" toward Japan have sown the seeds for the current disputes between Japan and its neighbors over the issue of Japan's wartime aggression in Asia.

The two different occupation policies led to startlingly different results with respect to the past in Germany and Japan. To date, former Nazi officers have been systematically chased around the world and brought to justice. German school books have been purged of racist references and the message in German classrooms is that the end of the war was not a defeat, but the liberation of Germany from a criminal regime. While no German scholars would engage in a debate about how many Jews were actually killed, the mere denial of the Holocaust remains a criminal offense. Throughout the postwar decades, the German government and companies have provided, and are continuing to provide, financial assistance to hundreds of thousands of victims of Nazi Germany.

After decades of being the only "pacifist state" in the world, Japan is still apologizing today. Nobody, however, seems to be listening. Nor are any of Japan's neighbors willing to believe Japan's "reflection," which is usually followed by more rhetoric and actions by some high-level officials to beautify and whitewash Japan's history of aggression. Since the 1980s, the Japanese government has gradually and persistently revised the nation's history textbooks in order to minimize its responsibility and maximize its own sufferings. The result? Almost all Japanese under the age of 50 know that atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they have little idea of why the bombs fell on Japan.

At the onset of the 21st century, all of these developments in Japan have borne their logical "fruits" -- the overwhelming right-turn in the Japanese political and social environment. Only ten years ago, at the 50th anniversary of the war, the possibility of Japan's acquiring nuclear arms and revising its official renunciation of war was unthinkable. Nowadays, both are either in active consideration or preparation. In the 1990s, Japanese politicians still kept a low profile for their visits to Yasukuni, where numerous Japanese war criminals are enshrined. In the new century, lawmakers and prime ministers openly rush to visit the shrine, most in their official capacity. For the 60th anniversary, the two largest conservative newspapers, the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Sankei Shimbun are sponsoring a 200,000-person visit to Yasukuni. On August 2, 2005, the Japanese Parliament passed a resolution that plays down Japan's militarist past, omitting the words "invasion" and "colonial rule," which were put into a similar resolution ten years earlier. On the same day, the Japanese cabinet passed the 2005 Defense White Paper zeroing in on a perceived growing Chinese military power, and the school textbooks by the right-wing Fusosha Publishing Inc. were on sale.

Japan's uneasiness with its pacifist image could even be felt on the nation's most solemn Hiroshima day (August 6). Although the commemoration went through the usual rituals, the unmistakable national pulse was to shed Japan's postwar pacifism, go ahead with constitutional revision (remove or reinterpret Article 9), and toy with the idea of acquiring nuclear weapons. In a broad sense, the symbolism of Hiroshima is no longer viewed as important or even desirable for Japan now. An editorial in the Yomiuri Shimbun went so far as to call it "empty" and to urge that Japan's anti-nuclear movement "should reflect reality." Indeed, the tone and trend in Japan is to avoid these "humiliating" anniversaries.[5]   In their place, politicians and the general public are embracing another anniversary: the centennial celebration of Japan's victory in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. "At that time Japan's spirit was very strong but it went down after World War II," former prime minister Nakasone told a crowd at Tokyo Bay in May, 2005. "We should remember Japan's spirit at that time and we should build a new Japan," urged Nakasone. Defense Agency director-general Yoshinori Ono also expressed his hope that the anniversary would "have the nation, especially the young generation who will lead the future of Japan, realize the importance of loving and defending our country and thus to make a contribution to the . . . awareness of defense in general."[6]

Thus, on the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII, Japan remains unmoved, unrepentant, and reluctant to face the historical fact that it invaded, occupied, and brutalized its neighbors to an extent that no Western imperialist powers had ever done. Many in Asia still wonder how and why so many Asian peoples were slaughtered in order to be "liberated" from the rule of "white imperialism," a common justification during the war and now.

The Rise of Asian Nationalisms

There has been a general rise of nationalist feelings across East Asia during much of 2005, when the region and the world were commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Much of this originated inside Japan, where political elites have consistently whitewashed history. As a result, anti-Japan sentiment and activities in China, South Korea, and other Asian nations escalated. Ironically, the more that Asian nations expressed their opposition to Japan's effort to whitewash history, the more revisionist Japan has become.

In the midst of all these issues over history and its interpretations, territorial disputes in the region are also growing. These include Japan-China disputes over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and demarcation of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the East China Sea; Japan and South Korea over the Tokdo/Takeshima Islets; Japan-Russia over the Southern Kuriles/"Northern Territories;" and to a lesser degree, Japan-Taiwan over the Diaoyu islands. All this is taking place against a backdrop of the strengthening of the U.S.-Japan Alliance. In February, 2005, at the 2+2 conference in Washington D.C., Japan agreed for the first time to extend its geographic military protection to Taiwan.

As all these thorny issues of history and territory between Japan and its neighbors are heating up, Tokyo has also launched a determined effort to acquire a permanent U.N. Security Council seat. While nothing is wrong with Japan's desire to address the issue of "taxation without representation," the timing and manner simply do not work and have led to another vicious cycle of mutual misperception and resentment among East Asian nations. Thus the more Japan struggles to get itself into the U.N. Security Council, the stronger the effort to avert it in the region, leading to still more resentment inside Japan against its neighbors.

Why does Japan pay so little attention to Asian opinions? How come so many Japanese policies, domestic and foreign, appear calculated to offend its neighbors, precisely when Japan needs the region for its bid for the Security Council seat and to be accepted as a "normal" state? Is Asia no longer important for Japan, the second largest economy with the second largest military spending in the world? How far will Japan travel along this trajectory of allying itself with the distant U.S. while being nasty with neighbors? When will Japan "return" its attention to Asia, for what purpose, and by what means? The last time Japan massively and aggressively "advanced" into the Asian continent as a modernized and Westernized "normal" state began with the 1894-95 war with China. Is history returning to the starting point of a centennial cycle?

These questions, among others, are difficult to answer due to the vastly different international and regional environment. A glimpse into the Japanese sense of identity, however, may offer some clues regarding how and why Japan pursues certain policies. Behind Japan's extraordinary rise to modernize and Westernize is a key issue of Japan's mixed and twisted national identity. In the 19th century, the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry forever changed Japan's perception of and policies toward China. The "Central Kingdom," which used to be a useful, if not superior, neighbor for purpose of cultural and commercial exchange, was now to be defied, defeated, and dismembered for the pride and prosperity of the Japanese nation. And China happened to be such easy prey after the Opium War (1839-43). Japan's military victories against China and others furthered its self-confidence and sense of racial superiority, which at least partially explains the violent behavior of Japanese soldiers in Asia during WWII and its reluctance and refusal to apologize to Asian nations regarding its wartime atrocities.

At the end of the 20th century, Japan's perception of its national identity continues to be one of "above and away" from Asia. According to Japanese political scientist Shin'ichi Kitaoka, Japan is "a country that sits on the outskirts of Western civilization but continues to thrive as an independent civilization not completely overwhelmed by Western culture."[7] Nowhere does this statement offer any explicit idea regarding where Japan is located in both the physical and cultural worlds. The only message from the quote is one of intangibility ranging from abstraction to emptiness. Asia simply does not exist according to this Japanese scholar. Western nations, particularly the United States, are also contributing to Japan's identity crisis. In his famous treatise "The Clash of Civilizations," Samuel Huntington singles out Japan as an independent and separate "civilization," along with the West, Islam, Confucian, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin America, and Africa. The special treatment of Japan makes little sense when the whole of Africa is defined as a separate civilization despite the numerous religious and ethnic groupings there.[8]   One may understand Japan's special place in the minds of Americans based on America's perception of Japan over the past 100 years as a favorite pupil of modernization and Westernization, except for the four-year "anomaly" of the Pacific War.

Even with its obsession for Westernization at the expense of its Asian identity, Japan still needs to decide which "West" to join: the Europeans' more secularized, liberal, and pacifist version, or America's more conservative, religious, and from time to time, more militaristic one?   The American legacies, however, are by no means fixed. The U.S. itself is deeply divided in its society and politics over how to relate to the rest of the world. Japan's elite would do well to remember that it was the United States that forced Japan to adopt a pacifist foreign policy for much of the 20th century, which has so far benefited both nations as well as the world.

Some Modest Proposals

Regardless which "West" or which "America" Japan chooses to identify itself with, the world is irreversibly moving into the 21st century, in which distinctions among victims, victors, and vanquished of the great war will come to signify less and less in the real world.

What happened in the past cannot be changed, though it has been constantly reinterpreted. For the sake of the future, Japan really needs to face its own past, while understanding that forgiveness cannot be demanded or even expected, but must be earned with heartfelt remorse and concrete steps toward reconciliation. Japan's "reflection" on its past should also move beyond an obsession with what happened and look at why things happened. This should be done without blaming the Americans for dropping atomic bombs, nor accusing other nations that their governments are said to have killed more of their own in the past.   These are totally different things from what Japan did in Asia in WWII. At a minimum, Americans did not drop the atomic bombs without reason. And Chinese troops have never "advanced" into Tokyo. Beyond history, Japan should try to find a way to live with its neighbors, no matter how "Westernized" it perceives itself to be. There are limits to how much Japan can continue to ignore or get tough with its neighbors in East Asia. In its long-term interactions with neighbors, Japan as a "normal" state does not only imply the right to use force, but also the ability and willingness to make peace and reach a compromise with others, as Germany has done in the past 60 years.

The frequent shrine visits by Japan's ruling political elite are justified with and defended by a claim of exercising democracy. Democracy without moderation and a stable middle ground, however, is perhaps dangerous for both itself and others, as were the cases of the Weimar Republic in Germany and Japan's Taisho democracy in the 1920s. [9] Both had infrastructures typical of a parliamentary democracy. Neither however survived the tidal waves of extreme nationalism, militarism, and racism in the 1930s. When the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson declared his intention to make the world safe for democracies at Versailles, he obviously failed to see the other side of the coin, that is, an equally important task was to make democracy safe for the world. And the rest is history. Sixty years after the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, why do Japan's neighbors still feel unsafe with such a "pacifist" democracy, whose ruling elite increasingly insists that nothing was wrong with what Japan did in the first half of the last century except Japan was defeated? But if nothing was wrong then, will Japan do it again? In that sense, what President Wilson failed to see in 1919 and MacArthur failed to do in 1952 (end of U.S. occupation of Japan) continue to haunt East Asia, as well as the U.S., in the 21 st century.

Regardless of what it did in the past, the United States is perhaps the only nation in the world that Japan may still listen to on the subject of history. In a broader sense, the U.S. as the sole superpower of the world should not only exercise its military power and political influence, but also strive for moral authority and ethical restraints over itself and others. In this regard, a democracy should be held to higher, not lower, moral standards regarding both past and present issues. This is particularly imperative in the era of weapons of mass destruction. There are therefore limits to how far Washington should play off one Asian power against the other at the expense of a just international system. A more balanced approach to Beijing and Tokyo is in the long-term interests of Washington, as well as of the region and the world.


[1] New York Times , June 24, 1941, p. 7. [Return to Text]

[2] Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking, The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (Penguin Books, 1997). [Return to Text]

[3] See [Return to Text]

[4] Hirohito, Emperor of War , Discovery Channel, August 6, 2005. Also see Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (HarperCollins Publishers, 2000). [Return to Text]

[5] Norimitsu Onishi, "Mourning Pacifism in Hiroshima," New York Times , August 8, 2005; Joichi Ito, "Nagasaki and Hiroshima: An Anniversary To Forget," New York Times, August 8, 2005; Kazuo Ogoura, "Don't Judge Japan Only by Its Past," International Herald Tribune , July 22, 2005. [Return to Text]

[6] Mie Kohiyama, "Japanese Urged To Seize Spirit of Victory Over Russia on Centennial," Agence France-Presse (AFP), May 27, 2005. [Return to Text]

[7] Ito Ken'ichi, Nishio Kanji, Kitaoka Shin'ichi, Japan's Identity: Neither the West nor the East (Tokyo: The Japan Forum on International Relations, Inc., February 1999), p. 1. Excerpted from the Japanese version, Nihon no Aidentiti: Seiyou Demo Nai, Touyou Demo Nai (Tokyo: Foresto Shuppan, 1999). Cited in Michael J. Green, Japan's Reluctant Realism: Foreign Policy Challenges in an Era of Uncertain Power (Palgrave, 2003), p. 27. [Return to Text]

[8] Foreign Affairs , Vol. 72, No. 7 (Summer 1993). [Return to Text]

[9] For debates regarding the "dangers" of democracies, see Fareed Zakaria, "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy," Foreign Affairs (Nov./Dec. 1997); Jack L. Snyder, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict (W. W. Norton & Company, 2000)]. [Return to Text]   

YU Bin is a professor of political science at Wittenberg University in the U.S.,Senior Research Associate for the Shanghai Institute of American Studies, and visiting scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai. He is also a regular contributor to Comparative Connections. He can be reached at

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