August. 1987 - Tokyo Business Today

August, and with it the inevitable Hiroshima memorials. And with the memorials comes the inevitable gaijin puzzlement: Don't the Japanese realise the alternative to the Hiroshima bombing - a very likely U.S. invasion of Japan, with Japanese casualties on a scale that would have made Hiroshima look like a picnic ? Hiroshima was a tragedy, but why no mention of the much earlier and far greater sufferings Japan caused the other peoples of Asia ? Most Japanese say they reject the militarism of the past, but we see no hint of national guilt such as we see in Germany.

For a long while I used to blame it all on Japan's self-centeredness, indulgence, amnesia and dislike of moral questioning. But lately I've begun to wonder. The Japanese are not completely obtuse. There must be some who realise the contradictions involved in the Hiroshima self-pity. If they keep silent maybe there is a reason. And maybe that reason has something to do with a lesson I learned many years ago when I used to be involved in Chinese and Soviet affairs - that there are always two sides to every conflict, and if you try to see things the way even reasonable people on the other side see things, then sometimes you wonder if you are looking at the same conflict. Americans caught up with Iran and Nicaragua, and Soviets in Afghanistan, could benefit from the same experience.

For us the morality of the Pacific War seems quite simple: the Japanese let themselves get carried away by a mad militarism. They invaded China. The West, led by the U.&, rightly tried to put pressure on Japan to stop that cruel invasion. For its pains, the U.S. was bombed at Pearl Harbor. Duplicity and infamy!

But if one switches viewpoints it is very easy to come up with a quite different story: For many hundreds of years Japan peacefully went about its own business. Then suddenly it was put under intense pressure from the West - the Black Ships, the British bombardment of Kagoshima (the first "Pearl Harbor" incidentally), the Unequal Treaties. To survive, Japan had to arm itself quickly.

Meanwhile the Western powers put Japan in even greater peril by their colony grabbing throughout Asia. Japan too felt it should grab some colonies. True, Japanese colonialism was crude. But it was modeled largely on the Western colonialism that preceded it. And Japan did at least urge the liberation of Western colonies in Asia. For its pains it was hit by a Western embargo on the supply of vital raw materials. This in itself was an act of war, particularly since the U.S. had shown other hostility toward Japan in Asia. Pearl Harbor was a legitimate - even if impetuous - reaction to all this.

Admittedly all this represents a fairly hardline position in Japan. But even the more pacifistic would go along with much of it. They feel that the logic of the Western push into Asia made confrontation with Japan inevitable. And having been confronted, it was inevitable that emotional Japan would fight on foolishly against overwhelming odds to destruction. Hiroshima was the cruel, final indignity. Poor little Japan!

True, moderates will admit Japan may have gone too far in its China adventure and elsewhere. But they blame that on the militarists, who in turn were the product of earlier Western pressures. But for Western racial and other slights against Japan, the militarists would not have come to power. Western pressures guaranteed they would come to power, and once again it was the Japanese people who were left to suffer as a result.

Frankly, I still think the Japanese case still has some loose ends. In particular, Japan's atrocious behavior in China and South East Asia cannot be rationalized away so easily; the complex racialism of the Japanese towards other Asian peoples prevents most of them from even beginning to understand, let alone apologise for what happened during those years. But it's worth realising there might be another view, even if one does not agree with all of it.


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