Japanese general hoisted by own canards
By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO – The latest high-profile incident involving Japan’s scandal-prone Defense Ministry has further rattled public confidence in the nation’s civilian-controlled military.
Air Self-Defense Force Chief of Staff General Toshio Tamogami, 60, was sacked on October 31 over a controversial essay in which he denied Japan’s aggression against other Asian countries before and during World War II. Tamogami also called for the authorization of Japan’s right to collective self-defense.
These remarks, among others, clearly contradict the Japanese government’s official position on its wartime aggression and Japan’s pacifist constitution.
“It is certainly a false accusation to say that our country was an aggressor nation,” Tamogami wrote in an essay which took the grand prize in a contest called “The True Outlook for Modern and Contemporary History”. The competition was organized by the hotel developer Apa Group which is run by a right-wing owner.
“Japan is a wonderful country that has a long history and exceptional traditions. We, as Japanese people, must take pride in our country’s history,” Tamogami wrote. The prize came with an award of 3 million yen (US$30,000).
Tamogami may have best summed up the jaw-dropping extent of his naivete himself when he told local media, “I did not predict hell would break out like this.”
But it has; and with it launched a national debate over how such a jaundiced view of history could have been acquired by a top general in a military establishment under strict civilian control.
And, considering that of the 230 competitors in the essay contest, 94 were ASDF (Air Self-Defense Force) members, many are worried about how many military leaders think along similar nationalist lines. For his part, Tamogami has denied any effort to pressure subordinates into entering the contest, saying, “If I had instructed it, more than 1,000 would have entered.”
But for many older Japanese, the general’s miscue has revived painful memories of the devastating Sino-Japanese War and World War II – conflicts that sacrificed the lives of millions of Japanese and even more foreign victims, especially Chinese.
“The correct historical perception constitutes democracy, especially for countries like Japan, which conducted wars of aggression in 1930s and from that time onwards,” Jiro Yamaguchi, politics professor at Hokkaido University in Japan, told Asia Times Online. “Japanese people still have not realized the seriousness of this situation. If the nation denies past wrongs, there would be no place for Japan in the international community.”
The issue of Japan’s past is nothing new. Right-leaning Japanese politicians, including Prime Minister Taro Aso, have strained Tokyo’s diplomatic relations with neighboring countries, especially Beijing and Seoul, by justifying Japan’s wartime military policies and colonial rule. There has also been the thorny issue of controversial history textbooks that whitewashed the atrocities committed by the Japanese military during the invasion of China in World War II.
This incident is all the more surprising because the air force chief is in charge of 50,000 armed personnel. It represents the latest effort of Japan’s small number of prominent hawks to revise history in an attempt to inspire a sense of pride in Japanese history, especially in the postwar era.
Content of essay
Even from a Japanese perspective, Tamogami’s essay contains historical inaccuracies. It stresses, for example, that the Japanese Imperial Army never advanced on the Korean Peninsula or Chinese mainland in the last half of the 19th century without the consent of those nations. This is not true.
Japanese soldiers invaded to secure Tokyo’s vested interests, and justified their actions on a loose definition of self-defense. Moreover, the essay crucially omitted any description of the Manchurian Incident which was instigated by Japan’s semi-autonomous Kwantung army between 1931 and 1932.
The problematic essay also attempts to view Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek as the major victimizer who dragged Japan into war in China. The essay states, “The bombing of Zhang Zuolin’s train in 1928 was for a long time said to have been the work of the Kwantung army,” but continues, “The theory that it was actually the work of Comintern [an international communist organization led by the Soviet Union] has gained a great deal of prominence recently.”
Suffice to say, the majority of historians don’t exactly buy this theory. More than a few memoirs of key veterans such as Mamoru Shigemitsu revealed the Kwantung army actually had its hand in the bombing of Zhang Zuolin.
Tamogami also wrote, “Japan was caught in [Franklin D] Roosevelt’s trap and carried out the attack on Pearl Harbor.” This is a perennially popular conspiracy theory that belongs in a mystery novel.
And Tamogami was hardly finished with his revisionist canards.
“There are so many descriptions based on inaccurate facts and misinterpretation of facts,” Ikuhiko Hata, a professor emeritus at Nihon University in Tokyo and a well-known expert of modern Japanese history, told Asia Times Online. “The essay’s quality is extremely low. It’s very shameful that a person in a good position of the nation’s air force chief wrote this kind of low-level essay. It has no academic value at all.”
In retrospect, many Japanese find it worrying that Tamogami was able to ascend the ladder of success in the Defense Ministry. Tamogami even served as commandant of the Joint Staff College of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) from 2002 and 2004, where he took the initiative of creating a class on “views of the state and history”. Many are now concerned about just what the school taught SDF recruits under Tamogami’s tutelage.
China, South Korea keep mum
China and Koreans are unhappy as well. On November 1, both nations denounced Tamogami after he had been forced to retire the previous day. But Seoul and Beijing have been less vocal as days go by; the swift action to dismiss Tamogami made it difficult to hold the Japanese government responsible.
Also, neither nation wants to strain their improved relations with Japan, which were severely damaged after former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visits during his term to the Yasukuni Shrine honoring the war dead (including 14 Class A war criminals such as wartime premier Hideki Tojo).
Since the controversy escalated, Tamogami has stressed his human rights. “A country that does not allow remarks against the official government view is just like North Korea,” he has been quoted as saying.
In this, Tamogami is finally correct. In a democratic nation like Japan, whatever comments someone like Tamogami makes, there is no legal way to stop him – especially as he is now a civilian. As he said, only a totalitarian state can limit the freedom of speech. This represents a difficult state of affairs in which Japan is beset with problems with history both at home and abroad.
Kosuke Takahashi, a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun, is a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at email@example.com.