Japan’s Concealed Past, Condemned Future

In his 1905 book, The Life of Reason, George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If one accepts there is a degree of truth in these words, one question to be asked is, “What happens to those who had their country’s past concealed from them?” Aren’t such misled people even more likely to be “condemned to repeat it”?

One example of this phenomenon is found in postwar Japan, lasting to the present day. In WW II Japan engaged in a conflict that took the lives of more than 3.1 million of its own citizens, both military and civilian, nearly 20 million lives of other Asians and more than sixty thousand Western Allied lives. In explaining the war in the postwar era, the Japanese people have been taught that the war was caused by Japanese militarists who seized control of the Japanese government over the strenuous objections of their peace-loving monarch, Emperor Hirohito.

Needless to say, the Japanese are not the only ones who describe wartime Japan as a militarist state. If “fascism” is a label readily applied to both wartime Italy and Nazi Germany, then it is widely believed that “militarism” (gunkoku-shugi) characterized wartime Japan. This label leads to the belief, widely accepted in both Japan and abroad, that since Japan is now firmly under the control of democratically elected civilian politicians, not the military, everything is fine. Hence, there is no need to further investigate, or dwell on, the past.

However, in 2000, the Pulitzer-prize winning author, Herbert Bix, published an explosive book on wartime Japan entitled Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. Bix detailed how from start to finish, Emperor Hirohito, not Japanese military leaders like Tōjō Hideki, was firmly and decisively in control of the military, not the reverse. Bix wrote: “From late 1937 onward Hirohito gradually became a real war leader, influencing the planning, strategy, and conduct of operations in China and participating in the appointment and promotion of the highest generals and admirals.”

That 1937 was a pivotal year is also demonstrated by the words of Inoue Nisshō, a close advisor to then Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro. Inoue wrote: “Once Konoe became prime minister [in June 1937], things changed. No matter what the issue, Konoe first sought the emperor’s consent. It was only after the emperor gave his approval that a policy was implemented. Government administered directly by the emperor came about in this way.” The emperor would continue to preside over the government until Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945.

Emperor Hirohoto
Emperor Hirohoto

What difference does it make if Hirohito, not the military, was actually in control of wartime Japan? The answer is closely connected to the question of why, during the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal of 1946-48, Hirohito’s wartime role was never mentioned. As Bix points out, the failure to examine the emperor’s war responsibility was a deliberate policy of the Allied Occupation of Japan, headed by American General Douglas MacArthur. More accurately, it was US policy as MacArthur demonstrated when he overruled the Tribunal’s head, Australian judge William Flood-Webb, who believed Hirohito should stand trial. In the case of Nazi Germany, it is inconceivable that had Hitler not committed suicide at war’s end, the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials of 1945-6 would have failed to investigate his role or convict him as a war criminal. Yet that is exactly what happened in Japan. Why?

First and foremost, as Joseph Grew, the US ambassador to Japan up until Pearl Harbor, had personally witnessed, Hirohito was staunchly opposed to socialism of any kind, whether the rightwing “national socialism” Hitler claimed to have embraced, or, even more so, the anti-imperialism of leftwing socialism. Hirohito, thanks to the massive investments and land holdings of the Imperial institution, was integrated into, and benefitted from, the capitalist economic system. As the richest man in Japan, he was completely amenable to the Occupation’s postwar goal of sustaining Japanese capitalism while, at the same time, lending his prestige to ensure the growing leftwing movement in Japan was successfully crushed (as it was)

Japan was forced, as a result of its wartime defeat, to give up its empire and any possibility of independent imperialist expansion. Although the Occupation forced the emperor to take on a symbolic role, he still commanded a broad following among the Japanese public. Thus, he could be relied upon to use his influence in support of America’s anti-communist policies, directed primarily against China and North Korea but also against communism anywhere in Asia, especially in Vietnam. No longer a rival, Japan became America’s “junior partner” in both Asia and beyond. This was coupled with the Occupation authorities’ decision to release key wartime civilians from prison who had collaborated with the military in running, and expanding, the Japanese empire.

Chief among those released was Kishi Nobusuke, known for having sanctioned slave labor during his rule of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo (Manchuria) in Northeast China in the 1930s. He later served in the wartime cabinet of Prime Minister Tōjō Hideki as Minister of Commerce and Vice Minister of Munitions, and co-signed the declaration of war against the United States on December 7, 1941.

PM Kishi Nobusuke
PM Kishi Nobusuke

After World War II, Kishi was imprisoned as a suspected Class A war criminal. However, a group of influential Americans known as the “American Council on Japan” came to Kishi’s rescue, and lobbied the American government to release him as they considered Kishi to be the best man to lead a post-war Japan in a pro-American, pro-capitalist and staunchly anti-communist direction. Kishi was released in 1948 and never indicted or tried by the War Crimes Tribunal. In return, Kishi pledged to align the foreign policies of Japan to fit American desires. Among other things, this meant he would allow the US to keep its military bases in Japan indefinitely and secretly store nuclear weapons in the country. All Kishi asked for was America’s support.

US support came in the form of the CIA paying him for information. The CIA also established paid relationships with promising young men who became, a generation later, members of parliament, ministers, and elder statesmen. At the same time, the CIA bankrolled Kishi in his creation of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). So as not to arouse suspicion, trusted American businessmen were used as go-betweens to deliver money to Kishi and his followers.

Kishi allowed the CIA to recruit and run his followers on a seat-by-seat basis in the Japanese parliament. One source states that CIA payoffs to key members of the LDP continued for at least fifteen years, under four American presidents, and helped consolidate one-party rule in Japan for the rest of the cold war. Secret CIA financial support also made it possible for Kishi to consolidate the Japanese conservative camp against perceived threats from Japan’s leftwing parties. With a financially weak opposition, the LDP has been able to rule Japan on an almost uninterrupted basis, extending even to the present day.

After Kishi became Prime Minister in February 1957, he persuaded the US to commute the remaining sentences of the Class B and Class C war criminals still imprisoned. Kishi argued that their release would make it easier for Japan to forget the past and move closer to the US. At the same time, like many of his fellow conservatives in Japan, Kishi maintained that Japan’s war in Asia and the Pacific had not been a war of aggression but of self-defense.

In addition, Japanese conservatives asserted that wartime Japan had engaged in a program of liberating its fellow Asians from the yoke of white Western imperialism. On the one hand, this assertion is accurate, for Japan did drive Western colonial powers out of such countries as British Burma, the Dutch East-Indies (today’s Indonesia), and the American colony of the Philippines. However, what conservative war-apologists fail to mention is that after ‘liberation’ from their Western colonial masters, the citizens of these countries soon discovered they had exchanged one colonial master for another, for the Japanese were every bit as brutal and exploitative, if not more so, than their former Western masters.

Failing to acknowledge this, Kishi maintained that the treatment he and his colleagues received as suspected “war criminals” after the war was unjustified and amounted to nothing more than victor’s justice. Based on this belief, in 1960 Kishi dedicated the headstone of a grave built to honor General Tōjō Hideki and the six other military leaders sentenced to death in 1948 by the War Crimes Tribunal. Located on Mt. Sangane in Aichi prefecture, Kishi wrote on the headstone: “The grave of the seven patriots who died for their country.”

The US paid no attention to Kishi’s revanchist views and continued its lavish support. This included an invitation to visit the United States in June 1957 where Kishi was given the opportunity to address a joint session of Congress among other honors. The American historian Michael Schaller called these honors “remarkable” in that they were awarded to a man who as a wartime Cabinet minister had signed the declaration of war against the United States in 1941 and had presided over the conscription and deaths of thousands of Koreans and Chinese used as slave labor during World War II. The Vice President of the United States, Richard Nixon introduced Kishi to Congress as a “honored guest who was not only a great leader of the free world, but also a loyal and great friend of the people of the United States.” Nixon was either unaware or indifferent to the fact that Kishi was formerly one of the closest associates of General Tōjō.

In return for its largesse, Kishi’s single greatest gift to the US was his support for the very contentious revision and extension of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty in 1960. This treaty, still in force today, resulted in Japan’s permanent status as America’s closest, yet clearly subordinate, military ally in East Asia. At US insistence, Japan now possesses the world’s fifth strongest military despite its war-renouncing Constitution.

Although powerful, the Japanese military’s current size is now considered too small. Hence, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s recently approved a $47.2 billion defense budget for fiscal year 2022, beginning this month. This marks another record high for the eighth year in a row in the history of Japan’s national defense budget. Due to its purchase of US fighter aircraft and other weapon systems, Japan’s military now effectively operates as an arm of the US military. This is demonstrated by the ever increasing number of joint training exercises between the two militaries as well as their use of interoperable weapons and equipment.

On the political front, Kishi’s brother, Satō Eisaku, became Japan’s LDP-affiliated prime minister from 1964 to 1972. Additionally, Kishi’s daughter Yōko married politician Abe Shintarō whose second son, Abe Shinzō, served as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 and again from 2012 to 2020. Their third son, Kishi Nobuo, adopted by Kishi’s son Nobukazu shortly after birth, won Kishi’s historical Diet seat in 2012, and in 2020 became Japan’s powerful Minister of Defense.

As Minister of Defense, Kishi is a strong proponent of increased military cooperation between Japan and the US. The Kishi family is, moreover, but one example of the many conservative political dynasties in Japan who have continued to play influential roles in postwar years as they did during the wartime era and before. Benefitting greatly from uncritical and unstinting US support, these conservative political dynasties suffered almost no serious repercussions for their contribution to, and responsibility for, wartime events.

In light of this history, I do not think it is too much to charge that the Japanese people have been deliberately deprived of an accurate understanding of the wartime and postwar era by their country’s rulers, as well as the US. Further, as I introduced in an earlier article, “Pearl Harbor Comes to Taiwan (https://countercurrents.org/2022/02/pearl-harbor-comes-to-taiwan/), Japan, in tandem with the US, is now engaged in making plans for the possibility of war with China over Taiwan. A growing number of powerful voices in the US advocate going to war with China sooner rather than later, i.e. while China is still, relatively speaking, the militarily weaker party.

Thus, the remaining question is, does the Japanese people’s deliberately induced ignorance of their wartime and postwar past “condemn them to repeat it,” this time allied to the US whose citizens, like the Japanese, have had the true nature of their own government’s wartime imperialism concealed from them?

Brian Victoria, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies

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