In the West and in Japan, public discourse about the war in Asia is often limited to the attack on Pearl Harbour and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Less prominent is the fact that millions of Chinese, Koreans, Indonesians, Filipinos, Malaysians, and Singaporeans lost their lives under Japanese occupation. For decades, the Cold War and the internal political and economic struggles of the newly independent Asian countries had an undue influence on the public discourse about the war.
Today, the legacy of Japan’s war crimes continues to be a sore point in the relationship between Japan and other Asian countries.
At the making of this documentary in the late 90s and early 2000s, more and more revelations of these war crimes were surfacing and lawsuits by survivor groups were being filed in Japanese courts. There were also individuals and groups in Japan who had for years been challenging their own country’s institutionalized amnesia, the status quo, and the nationalistic elements in their society. Some had travelled to the Asian countries once occupied by Japan, seeking the war they were not taught, and in effect, becoming their own Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The major debate that continues in Japan is whether to view the wars and occupations as acts of aggression or defence. The fact that this question remains unsettled decades after the war indicates how closely it strikes at Japan’s nationhood and identity.
In one camp, there are those who view the wartime actions as a defensive measure against Western colonialism and imperialism. They believe that Japan’s only mistake was attacking the United States. To them, the Peace Constitution is a product of American post-war strategy to continue to dominate Japan. They would like to revive pre-war and wartime legislation and institutions, including reinstating of the Emperor as head of state.
The other camp are those who view the wars and occupations as a crime against Japan’s Asian neighbours. The fact that Parliament has voted to designate two relics of Japan’s war in Asia – the Hinomaru (Rising Sun) and Kimigayo (Your Sovereignty) – as the national flag and anthem is causing them much consternation. They are haunted by questions about the Emperor’s war responsibility, and wonder how it was possible for Japanese society to be mobilized into war. They fight to bring attention to the victims and to further the democratization of Japan, and oppose what they see as resurgent nationalism.
Many less politically involved Japanese people think of the war only as a time of hardship, not unlike a condition resulting from a natural catastrophe, such as an earthquake or flood. Many also believe that the post-war prosperity they have enjoyed is born from the sacrifices of their war dead.