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775: The M-List
774: Compatriotic Spirit
773: The Naked Truth
770-71: It Ainít Easy Being Green
769: íTwas the Night Before Christmas in Japan
768: Japanese Lessons
766: Bad Credit
765: Chew on this
764: Red faced
763: Down and Out in Tokyo
761: Kicking the bucket
760: Thumbing It
759: Fixing the System
757: Smoke rings
756: Stalking the Predators
755: Banding Together
753: No Competition
752: Sex and This City
751: Letís Shogi
750: The Yasukuni Follies
748: Loud and Clear
747: Iíll be back
746: Raiders of the lost SMAP
744: Magical Mystery Tour
743: Murder in Lotus Land
742: Stereotypes íRí Us
740: The Mother of all Mothers
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738: The Hafu Dad Brigade
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734: The Wind-Up Writer Chronicle
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731: The 2008 Nazi Olympics
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727: Dying for a doctor
726: Footloose Revisited
725: Little Fish, Bigger Pond
724: Japanís Peace Monster
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721: First Action Hiro
720: The Return of Asashoryu
718-719: A Time to Give
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541: Developmentally challenged
By Bert McBean

History Lessons

The “4C” generation needs to acquaint itself with Japan’s militaristic past

Bert McBean is the author of MacArthur: General Douglas MacArthur & The Occupation That Changed Japan (Touka Shobo)

A joke lamenting the historical ignorance of today’s youth goes something like this:

Elder Japanese: Do you know there was a war between Japan and the United States 60 years ago?

Young Japanese: Really? Who won?

This joke wouldn’t be so funny even if the reference were to some long-ago war that had no bearing on life today. But World War II happened just 60 years ago and changed the country for the better. It’s safe to say that Japanese youth wouldn’t be enjoying all the freedom and prosperity they have were it not for the successful Occupation managed by General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers from 1945 to 1951. Thus, it’s ironic (and, it seems to me, regrettable) that most Japanese under 30 know very little about the Pacific War, MacArthur and the Occupation.

Who or what is responsible for this sad state of affairs? One can hardly blame the youth. They are a generation born into affluence, spoiled by parents and obsessed with the four C’s: cellphones, comics, cars and clothes. Some blame can be attributed to elderly grandparents who are reluctant to talk about the war years, especially veterans who served overseas. These former Imperial Army soldiers, instead of passing down what they saw or did in China, the Philippines and other places, remain silent.

The media shares culpability, too. They—especially NHK—tread carefully around stories dealing with atrocities, and any discussion of the Emperor Showa’s role in the war is strictly taboo. University textbook publishers in particular tend to shy away from “controversial” topics. Perhaps they have in the back of their minds the unpleasant image of big black trucks with speakers blaring in front of their offices. The schools, for their part, have been constrained by having to teach Japan’s 2,000-plus years of history in fewer classroom hours. As a result, students often don’t get past the Meiji Restoration.

Mostly, though, the blame has to lie with the body responsible for educating youth: the Japanese government. From the inability to come to terms with the 15-year war of aggression to the distortion of history textbooks, the government has helped create a new class of victims—ignorant Japanese youth. This has fostered what’s been described as a collective national amnesia. Further, with repeated emphasis on Japanese suffering (i.e., Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the myth of Japan as war victim has been perpetuated.

Jon Siegel

I found out firsthand just how much 19- and 20-year-old Japanese don’t know about the war when I taught a university class to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the war’s end. I must admit that most of the kids knew that Japan lost the war and that they had heard of General MacArthur, but that was about the extent of their knowledge—except, of course, for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For homework, I asked them to research subjects like The Rape of Nanking, comfort women and prisoner-of-war camps in Japan.

To my amazement, most of the students reported that they had never heard about these topics before. After reading about them, however, almost all expressed shock and outrage, as if to say, “Did my country really do this?” or “Now I know why the Chinese get angry when Koizumi visits Yasukuni Shrine.” A secondary reaction seemed to be, “Why didn’t I know about this?” In one class, when I asked students to tell me how their present lives have benefited from the reforms made during the Occupation, one student responded (with a straight face), “Now we can eat MacDonald’s hamburgers.” Upon hearing that, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Cynicism aside, there is a silver lining: I found that my students became interested in Pacific War history once they were made to understand how it affects their lives today. Having decided with some trepidation to teach the subject to the 4C generation, I was delighted that students were more motivated and enthusiastic than I expected. Some spent hours on the Internet researching the topics in depth. Others sought out their grandparents to hear previously untold war stories.

Seeing their eagerness to tackle the material, I was reminded of the foolishness of a statement made by a right-wing politician a few years ago. He said, in effect, that Japanese youth should be taught only “good” history so they can grow up being proud of their country. Unfortunately for Japan, this nationalistic politician is not alone. In the last few years, a gradual shift to the right in the Liberal Democratic Party has resulted in a revisionist attitude towards war history. This has filtered down to the textbook level, as seen in the controversial text compiled by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform and published by Fuso Publishing Inc., which has been criticized for glossing over Japan’s colonial rule and military atrocities and has drawn fierce protests from South Korea and China. Also disturbing is the possibility of rising nationalism among today’s generation, who feel unrelated to, and less guilty about, Japan’s wartime acts.

Whether the history education of Japanese youth will be further shortchanged by the government’s increasing movement to the right is not yet clear. At the least, it surely is a disturbing trend that bodes ill for Japan’s already frayed relations with its neighbors.

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