Friday, November 7, 2008

Revisionist America?

At 空, Ken Tanaka responds to yesterday's post about Japanese revisionism by citing Stephen Walt regarding American "historical amnesia."

I definitely take his (and Walt's) point about America's historical amnesia, particularly in regard to Japan. Few Americans appreciate the extent of the damage inflicted upon the Japanese people, or if they do, their appreciation stops at the atomic bombings; in some way the indiscriminate bombing of cities with "conventional" weaponry was far worse. Czeslaw Milosz captured the failure of Americans to understand just how complicated, just how relative reality is in the second chapter of The Captive Mind.

"The man of the east [referring to the eastern bloc]," he wrote, "cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.

"Their resultant lack of imagination is appalling. Because they were born and raised in a given social order and in a given system of values, they believe that any other order must be 'unnatural,' and that it cannot last because it is incompatible with human nature. But even they may one day know fire, hunger, and the sword. In all probability this is what will occur; for it is hard to believe that when one half of the world is living through terrible disasters, the other half can continue a nineteenth-century mode of life, learning about the distress of its distant fellow-men only from movies and newspapers." (29)

I hardly need to point out that Milosz's observation remains relevant to the present day, 9/11 notwithstanding. (If anything 9/11 reinforced the tendency described by Milosz.)

But historical amnesia is not the same as historical revisionism.

Historical revisionism is, as I have argued, an ideology that is as much about the present and the future as it is about the past. It is an active process. And it involves the conscious and willful denial of generally accepted facts of history. Indeed, in the process of claiming to only be presenting "the facts," the revisionists deny the very existence of facts as commonly understood. For them, the measure of whether something is truthful or not is that it serves political ends. They reject the idea of falsifiability or alternative explanations for events: look at the confidence with which General Tamogami asserted, with merely a whiff of evidence, that the Comintern was behind both the Second Sino-Japanese war and the Pacific war. Revisionists seem to care little about the credibility of the messenger or the method by which the message is produced — only the message matters. Stephen Colbert could have been describing the revisionists when he coined the term "truthiness."



This differs greatly from "historical amnesia," or the natural difference in historical interpretations between history's winners and losers. Granted, Americans have a problem seeing history through the eyes of its "losers." But that is considerably different from the revisionist project, which is a wide-reaching program that seeks to determine how Japanese citizens learn history (by infiltrating the national curriculum, which, unlike in the US, is determined by the central government), how Japanese citizens think about their own country, how Japan conducts its security policy, and how Japan conducts its foreign relations. The analogy to the US fails. Conservative hawks may downplay some of the uglier moments in American history and emphasize the triumphs, particularly international victories, but they are hard pressed to deny those moments and periods outright.

Again, Japanese revisionism is not only or even mainly about the past. By revising how Japanese looks at the war, they also want to revise how Japanese look at the postwar period. If the former was a period marked by glorious sacrifices for emperor and nation, the latter has been marked by selfishness, wanton prosperity, decadence, decay, and "Americanization." The revisionists hope to reclaim the wartime and prewar periods as sources of value for contemporary Japan.

Of course, by working so hard to correct the historical consensus on Japan's wartime behavior, the revisionists merely serve to call attention to the enormity of Japan's behavior — and alarm Japan's neighbors, who remember only too well what Japan did during the war. Revisionism amounts to calling those who suffered at Japan's hands as prisoners of war, slave laborers, comfort women, or unwilling imperial subjects liars.

Revisionism is a problem for the region. It is a mistake to pretend otherwise. Sincere advocates of a more active Japanese security role should doing everything in their power not only to distance themselves from the revisionists, but categorically denounce their brazen denial of history.

3 comments:

PnetQ said...

Mr Tamogami's behavior was unacceptable because he expressed his political view in the disguise of "personal opinion on history" while he held a position as high-ranking public servant. I agree with Mr Harris's opinion that revisionism is not only about the past but also about the present and future. In other words, revisionism is politics.

Modern history can be always closely related to politics. However, there is a specific reason to regard modern history, or history concerning WWII in particular, as a political matter in Japan because Japan is one of the rare countries which have admitted their war was "a criminal act" in the international diplomatic arena. In contrast, the US has fought only just wars so far in history, diplomatically at least. In that sense I don't see much significance in comparing "revisionism in Japan" and "historical amnesia in the US."

Revisionism in Japan is problematic, but their voices shouldn't be silenced by merely louder voices. The real problem is, as Mr Harris has pointed out in the previous entry, that "the history problem has effectively been swept under the rug since the war ended." Although Mr Tamogami's essay is amateurish at best, we cannot belittle the potential power the revisionist camp may hold over the Japanese public.

In the end, all that matters is truth backed by the facts. It is best to let the "revisionists" speak out, and see what they have. If we try to put them in obscurity, it would give them more credibility. Only when we have left no stones unturned, I think the Japanese can say they share their history with other Asian peoples and the rest of the world.

Anonymous said...

Isn't revisionism simply a view that goes against the politically/corporately/academically correct version that dominates a society? Saying that the South was more concerned with the tariffs than slavery during the US Civil War would be revisionism, right?

As far as the historical amnesia question goes, maybe it's just a better way of lying to the public. "Keep them ignorant, and we won't have to lie." seems to be a reasonable perspective for elite opinion shapers.

Anonymous said...

The American elite does not need to be revisionist as they already control the terms of discussion.

In America, those who call the atomic bombings an "atrocity" or Columbus a "mass murderer" are revisionists as they are going aginast the dominant interpretations.

In essence, every work of historical writing should be revisionist - it should go against the dominant interpretation and "revise" it. Otherwise, it has no scholarly value as it contributes nothing to debates.

There is a huge difference, however, between Japanese revisionists and the dominant American positions. For example, at present, Japanese revisionists like Higashikunio (a tiny minority who are going against official views) do not completely deny that mass killings took place at Nanking. They instead argue that what happened was mass executions of illegal combatants. This is not a good argument to be making, but it must be pointed out that they are by no means arguing that killings at Nanking were a good thing or the right thing to do morally.

On the American side, we do have denial in many cases (American government continues to deny that the invasion of Iraq was an act of aggression or that its bombing campaigns constitute atrocities; several mass killings of civilians in Afghanistan in the past weeks have been called "successful strikes against militants" even after photos of the corpses of young children have come out). For issues that are not being denied like the bombing of civilians in WWII, the killing of what was likely millions of Vietnamese civilians, and killings of civilians in Iraq the American government is doing something far more hurtful to victims than Japanese revisionists. They are, in effect, arguing that turning women and children into charred husks has been a positive part of wars for freedom and justice.

Germany and Japan 1940s - killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians was necessary to "save lives" and bring freedom and was the morally justifiable and correct thing to do. This argument can be taken up to a point, but what about Nagasaki? At present, the dominant trend in the scholarship suggests that the a-bombings had little to do with the Japanese surrender - that talks among the Japanese elite were active from July and that the invasion of Manchuria had a much bigger role to play in the eventual decision.

http://www.japanfocus.org/_Tsuyoshi_Hasegawa-The_Atomic_Bombs_and_the_Soviet_Invasion__What_Drove_Japan_s_Decision_to_Surrender_

Vietnam 1960s - killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians was necessary to "save lives" and bring about freedom and was the morally justifiable and correct thing to do.

Iraq 2000s - killing of many civilians was necessary to "save lives" and bring about freedom and was the morally justifiable and correct thing to do.

Iran 2010s?
North Korea 2010s?
Since there has been little sincere reflection on past American violence by the elite, there is the fear that past justifications will be trotted out again.

The pattern continues. Meanwhile, the American revisionists - academics who argue that attacks on civilians are morally unjustifiable, are the "revisionists" in this society.