Protesters reacting to the Japanese government’s re-investigation of wartime rape cases in March

The news that Japan has reacted angrily to Australian plans to commemorate the Chinese, Koreans and Malaysians who were forced to become sex slaves for Japanese soldiers should come as no surprise.[1] Earlier this year the Japanese government reviewed its initial apology for its wartime use of sex slaves.[2] The new head of Japan’s national broadcaster relativised the atrocities as something common in any country at war.[3]  There is a great reluctance amongst many Japanese for their nation to accept its history. What should have been one of the few memorials dedicated to women who suffered during the Second World War has now been made hollow, emptied of any symbolic apology and reconciliation.


This behaviour is symptomatic of a nation that is haunted by its history. It was in 1993 when Japan finally apologised to the estimated 200,000 women who were forced into army brothels to work as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers.  Eleven years later, Japanese conservative commentators upheld the allegation that the women were, in fact, prostitutes, something fiercely denied by the women involved as well as Japan’s neighbours. The present historical conflict being waged is a familiar one, since it was also fought in postwar Europe. Indeed, current events in Japan are the Eastern theatre’s fight against war guilt – a war guilt which was, too, challenged by German intellectuals in the 1980s. The insistence of challenging the historical record of events that occurred many decades previously is a curious postwar phenomenon which shows how historical memory is so fundamental to a nation’s political culture.


“Forgetfulness, and I would even say historical error, are essential in the creation of a nation” wrote the French writer Ernest Renan in his 1882 seminal work on nationalism What is a Nation? Indeed the idea of a nation being a purely intellectually creative process is a dominant theme in studies on nationalism, the most famous of which is Benedict Andersen’s Imagined Communities (1983), which argues that an imagined national community was created through the formation of a reading public and the rise of print-capitalism. A cursory glance at our current political discourse shows that national identity is a cerebral creation. It is no longer fought on the battlefield but instead in the debating chamber, as proven by UK debates over Scottish Independence, the debate over the content of citizenship tests for immigrants, the debates over what it is to be a European, and, most blatantly, throughout the Historikerstreit during the 1980s in Germany.


Ernst Nolte, a German conservative historian, sparked the Historikerstreit with an article in 1986 entitled The Past That Will Not Pass Away that attempted to relativise and contextualise the Holocaust with claims that Nazism was a reaction against the worse crimes committed by the Soviets, that the Gulags came before Auschwitz, and that both the superpowers spent more on arms than Hitler did. This relativising intellectual agenda was supported by the likes of Michael Stürmer, an advisor to Helmut Kohl, the conservative Chancellor at the time and himself a trained historian. Yet this attempt by conservatives to soften the crimes of Germany’s past was strongly resisted. The furore that broke out when Ronald Reagan visited a German military cemetery in Bitburg serves as evidence of the political charge surrounding historical monuments. The gesture was interpreted as an attempt to bury historical baggage for the expedience of closer German-American ties during, what is now known to be, the final stages of the Cold War. It was a gesture critised by German intellectuals, such as Jürgen Habemas, through the German press, but it also penetrated popular culture, prompting the release of The Ramone’s single titled ‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg’.


The politics of memory was not only fought in Germany. Vichy France imprisoned 135,000 French citizens and abetted the deportation of 76,000 French and foreign Jews. The true extent of French collaboration with German war crimes was kept hidden by Charles de Gaulles who, in an attempt to keep the country united and sustainable, in 1944 insisted that France was liberated “by her people”. In 1959 he claimed that “We are one people. The past is finished. Long live Vichy! Long live France! Long live the Republic!” Beyond a few trials  of some selected collaborationists and the swift shaving of ‘horizontal collaborators’, there was a collective amnesia surrounding the true extent of ordinary people’s collaboration with the Vichy regime, aided by the amnesty laws of the 1950s. It was only when the historical turn towards the study of everyday life during the 1970s occurred that people began to discover the true extent of French collaboration. Marcel Ophül’s documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) was particularly significant in correcting French memory. In the words of the French historian Henry Rousso, an “obsession” broke out in France, with the media outing former collaborators, including François Mitterand. An official acknowledgement of Vichy’s complicity in the Holocaust only occurred in as late as 1995 when Jacques Chirac paid his respects at the Vel d’Hiv monument. Before then, French political leaders had hi-jacked historical memory for their own purposes: to maintained a united and patriotic Frrench nation.


The attempt to modify and reframe parts of Japanese history by conservatives is therefore not an unfamiliar phenomenon – it has taken place in Germany and France, but also in countries such as Italy through the work of De Felice, and Spain through the Pact of Forgetting. As Michael Stürmer remarked during the Historikerstreit, “In a land without history, he who supplies the memory will win the future”. History can be instrumentalised to shape a nation, and it is for this reason that historians should always be watchful for, and suspicious of, the motives of revisionists.

BY: Simon Bartram

Simon Bartram graduated with a first-class degree in Modern History and Philosophy from the University of St Andrews. He now works full-time in the City of London and is a student of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.




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