U.S. Should Be Appalled by Japan's Historical Revisionism

If Imperial Japan was the victim in WWII, than Harry Truman, not Hideki Tojo, must be the war criminal.

In a late January address to Parliament, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe directly entered the fray in Tokyo’s accelerated attempts to rewrite World War II history.

As the New York Times reported at the time, in the speech Mr. Abe vowed “to step up efforts to fight what he called mistaken views abroad concerning Japan’s wartime actions.”

The prime minister was referring specifically to references to Comfort Women in a McGraw Hill-published textbook used in some California high schools. However, while Japan’s historic revisionism may begin with the Comfort Women and the Nanking Massacre, it ends with President Truman and the atomic bomb. If Japan is the victim in the Pacific War, Tokyo would have it, then America must be the aggressor and Harry Truman, not Hideki Tojo, the war criminal.

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Those who argue that the United States should have little interest in the current debate raging over the historic legacy of the Second World War in Asia need to think again. First and foremost, the Pacific War, which ended 70 years ago this coming summer, was very much America’s war too.

While the Second World War had raging in both Asia and Europe for years, it began for the United States on December 7, 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Following the surprise attack, America declared war on Imperial Japan, NOT Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. The recent movie “Unbroken” is a chilling reminder of what that declaration of war meant for America’s Greatest Generation.    

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Tokyo’s revisionist logic is centered on the premise of Japan being victimized by the Allied powers, most notably in the fire bombings of Tokyo and the devastating atomic bombings of the of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which resulted in thousands of civilian casualties.

This revisionist narrative is laid out in detail at the Yushukan museum in Tokyo next to the Yasukuni war shrine. The logic is as follows: Imperial Japan waged the Great East Asia War (Daitowa Senso) in an effort to liberate the Asian peoples from the yoke of Western Imperialism. The “selfless goal” was to bring the enlightened modernization of Meiji Japan to hopelessly backward Asian brothers and sisters.  

The Yushukan museum claims that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt sought to halt this crusade of “Asia for Asians” by imposing an oil embargo that aimed to cripple Tokyo’s war-making capacity. According to the narrative, then, Japan had no choice but to respond to Roosevelt’s interference by attacking the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor.

The unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor was the greatest such attack on American soil before 9/11. Notably, the Pearl Harbor attack also had civilian casualties, including a seven month-old infant.

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In truth, Pearl Harbor likely had more to do with Japan signing the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in Berlin on September 27, 1940 than with FDR’s oil embargo. Even the bravado of Japanese militarists would likely have been tempered by the sobering thought of taking on the industrial might of the United States all alone.

When the decision to attack Pearl Harbor was reached in the fall of 1941, Nazi troops were engaged in a full-scale invasion of the Soviet Union. It looked as though the Allies would be preoccupied with stopping the Nazi blitzkrieg, leaving Tokyo a free hand in Asia. Hitler’s troops reached the outskirts of Moscow before a Soviet counterattack on December 5, 1941 – a mere forty-eight hours before Pearl Harbor. As Japanese bombs fell in the Pacific, the Red Army and a ferocious Russian winter combined to begin to turn the tide against Hitler in Europe. Still, Hitler and Mussolini, foolishly in retrospect, honored their treaty commitment to Tokyo by declaring war on the United States in response to Congress declaring war on Japan.

Unlike in Europe, history revisionists in Tokyo are not limited to isolated neo-Nazis and skinheads. Rather they include respected figures in Japanese society, including politicians and journalists. The crimes committed during the Pacific War which these Japanese opinion leaders now deny are critical to the judgment of history. While the overwhelming majority of the victims in the Nanking massacre, the Sook Ching massacre in Singapore, the sacking of Manila, Tokyo’s slave labor system, Unit 731’s bio-chemical experiments in Manchuria, and the Comfort Women stations, were Asians, rather than Americans or Europeans, these atrocities join other Axis war crimes and crimes against humanity as a major rationale for post-war international tribunals, including Nuremberg.

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