Japan’s WWII Legacy: Interviews with Japanese Veterans by Hiroko Sherwin

Japan’s WWII Legacy: Interviews with Japanese Veterans
by Hiroko Sherwin
Quartet Books (2016)
ISBN-13: 978-0704374027

Review by Francesco Cioffo

The 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015 was without a shade of a doubt a global event. In the statement released for the August ceremonies, PM Abe Shinzo spoke regarding Japan’s actions against its Asian neighbours and the USA. While acknowledging, as some of his predecessors, the ‘immeasurable damage and suffering’, Abe made clear that ‘we [Japanese] must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize’.[1] Abe has been an active supporter of an interpretation of Japanese history that forgoes certain aspects of Japanese imperialism which contrast with his vision of Japan.[2] Yet, notwithstanding these forms of revisionism, Japan is still a country that is very proud of its pacifism as enshrined in Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution as we have seen from the strong resistance to the article’s revision.[3] Although the consensus behind the ‘peace clause’ is regrettably receding in the last years of Abe premiership, these number are still far from the two-third majority (plus a referendum) required for a constitutional amendment.[4]

The popular narrative according to which Japan, unlike Germany, has not been able to come to term with its past, is highly simplistic and it does provide any help whatsoever to understand neither the Japanese nor the German post-war experiences. If we complicate the picture, as Philip A. Seaton, Yoshida Takahashi, Franziska Seraphim and others have done, it is possible to find within Japan multiple voices all very difficult to reconcile with their own baggage of disputed memories.[5] The confrontations between these groups are often omitted in conversations about Japan WWII memories, but these should always be kept in mind in order to avoid misleading accounts that actually end up empowering the most vocal extreme fringes, while silencing the rest.

Hiroko Sherwin’s book Japan’s WWII Legacy is a well-timed contribution to help the reader re-discover how WWII has shaped, and still shapes, the lives of many. Written from the perspective of Japanese veterans, the book is divided in two main parts. The first part sets out to explore one of the key questions in modern Japanese history: ‘Why did the Japanese wage an inhumanly savage war?’. The veterans interviewed are all men who were low-ranking soldiers or junior officers at the time of the war. They come from different areas of Japan and from different backgrounds. Kaneko Yasuji, a veteran who also took part in a controversial documentary about Japanese war crimes in China (Japanese Devils or Riben Guizi, 2001), epitomises the wartime experience of many Japanese young men who were catapulted in a war that, as they all admitted in the interviews, Japan had almost no chance of winning. After Yasuji testimony, Sherwin introduces eight more stories encompassing the lives of idealistic students, suicide pilots, artists and boys too young to fight. These stories are, needless to say, often gruesome and hard to read with academic detachment. The crimes committed by the Japanese during WWII have been exposed by historians such as Ienaga Saburo, who fought the Japanese government to assert the necessity that everyone should be aware of what happened in China, in the Philippines and in all other theatres of war.[6] Sherwin’s response to these crimes and to the question asked in this part of the book is summarised by Kaneko Yasuji’s words ‘the Japanese army had little respect for life’. The author poignantly argues that the disrespect for human lives also applies to the Japanese leaders’ inhuman treatment of their own soldiers.

The second part instead focuses the attention upon the whole of Japan and particularly on those people who have been living with the consequences of memory. Sherwin asks ‘how did they cope with it?’ and ‘did the nation reflect on the war and mourn for it sufficiently?’. In order to explore this question, the author goes to veterans meetings and memorial services where the younger generations appear to be often more vocal and more attached to a certain perspective of the past than the veterans who lived these events (see for example chapter fourteen). On the other hand, Sherwin also visits other sites of resistance and reconciliation that sharply contrast with the memories of the more nationalists. She focuses on the stories of organisations whose members have struggled to find a quiet place in the post-war miracle society. See for instance the stories of the Chu-ki-ren (China Returnees’ Association) and the POWs Research Group in chapter ten and twelve. Perhaps the most interesting chapter of this section is the one the ‘comfort women’ and the far too unacknowledged story of the ‘Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery’ of December 8, 2000. The testimonies of Kim Hak-soon, the first ‘comfort woman’ to come public in 1991, Matsui Yayori, the leading voice of the Tribunal, and Ikeda Eriko, the director of the precious Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace and also the custodian of the voices of many Asian and Western victims of war, are all reminders of how powerful grass-root activism can be.

Eventually, the author does not provide a single answer to the questions asked at the beginning of this section. Rather she takes a different approach and shows how the government and a sizeable majority of the population do not agree on the issue of memory. Abe’s push towards historical revisionism, she argues, is countered by a strong, although arguably not as powerful, activism ‘from below’ that, in most cases, is led by women.

Sherwin’s book does come with its problematics. First of all, it would have been more interesting to find more diverse voices in a book about Japan’s veterans. Actually the idea of ‘veteran’ could have been expanded by Sherwin to counter the male point of view dominant in the first part of the book. There were many Japanese women who participated in the war effort both at home as labourers and on the battlefields as nurses. Sherwin has both the linguistic capacity and the sensibility, as seen in her previous works and in the second part of this volume, to portray more complex stories. This is not to say that the stories of Japanese young men at the battlefield are not relevant, but arguably the moment is ripe to complicate the picture and show how much more pervasive was the war in the lives of those who fought for the Emperor. Furthermore, alongside Japanese women, it would have been interesting to see more former colonial subjects and their experiences of the war. The story of Lee Hanne (part one, chapter seven) is a refreshing addiction, but arguably enough.

Moreover, although Sherwin’s book is not an academic book, we cannot but notice that at times the author’s’ voice disappears. Verbatim transcriptions take the leading role in the first part of the book, even if it would have been more interesting to hear more from the author apart from the succinct introductory chapters. The stories of the Japanese veterans are just reported and there is no guidance of the author to help the reader deconstruct the complex emotions and events described with sometimes too much nonchalance by those who perpetrated them.

Nonetheless, the book is a valuable reading to discover how memory and trauma can be expressed through other forms. The artists and activists show that the lectures and the interviews, although crucial for public and historical memory, are not the only way to continue the dialogue and that memory and guilt can inspire new forms of responses. Throughout the book, in fact, poetry and art oftentimes act as primary filters for expressing guilt, sorrow and desire of reconciliation. Perhaps the most precious insight that one might get from reading Sherwin’s book is that the Japanese state does not hold the moral leadership to offer truthful apologies. Rather, the most significant initiations of atonement and reconciliation were led by individuals and these exchanges occurred despite the Japanese state.

[1] Shinzo Abe, ‘Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan‘, The New York Times, 14 August 2015.

[2] Yoshiko Nozaki and Mark Selden, ‘Japanese Textbook Controversies, Nationalism, and Historical Memory: Intra- and Inter-national Conflicts‘, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 7, Issue 24, Number 5, 15 June 2009.

[3] See for instance details of the last year’s protest here.

[4] Miki Masaki and Hiroshi Aramaki, ‘Changes in the Public Attitudes towards the Constitution. From the 2017 Survey “The Japanese and the Constitution”‘, The NHK Monthly Report on Broadcast Research, October 2017.

[5] Philip A. Seaton,  Japan’s Contested War Memories: The “memory Rifts” in Historical Consciousness of World War II, New York; London: Routledge, 2007; Takahashi Yoshida, ‘Revisiting the Past, Complicating the Future: The Yushukan War Museum in Modern Japanese History‘, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 5, Issue 12, 1 December 2007; Franziska Seraphim, War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2005, Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2006.

[6] Saburo Ienaga, The Pacific War, 1931-1945: A Critical Perspective On Japan’s Role in World War II. 1st paperback ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

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