Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World
- John W. Dower
- The New Press
- 324 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- August 8, 2012
This collection of essays looks at Japanese and American “uses of history” to shape national narratives about World War II.
George Santayana famously observed that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But anyone familiar with Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film classic “Rashomon” knows that no two people recollect the same event in exactly the same way. In each re-telling, participants twist facts to portray themselves in the best light. John W. Dower, a professor emeritus of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, strongly concurs. In his latest book, Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World, Dower writes: “We use history in many ways: consciously and subjectively, idealistically and perversely, to educate and to indoctrinate ... the focused gaze is simultaneously an averted one.”
In this collection of 11 previously published essays, Dower skillfully turns his keen historiographer’s eye to these “uses of history” by the Japanese and Americans in their national remembrances of what Americans call World War II. Yet even unto the name of the war, which the Japanese refer to as the 15-Year War, Pacific War or Greater East Asia War, these histories differ greatly.
The first essay in this collection is an homage to E. H. Norman, a Canadian diplomat who was posted to Japan as his country’s representative during the U.S. occupation. Born and raised in Japan, Norman had valuable insights into Japan’s post-feudal emergence as a modern state, but because of his left-leaning writings the U.S. Congress accused him of being a spy and a Communist, and he committed suicide in 1957. To Dower, that tragic loss of a perceptive historian represents McCarthyism’s profoundly negative impact on Asian studies and policy. Norman’s sin was to examine history in a way that went against the victor’s perceived interests, and his wisdom was largely ignored by American scholars of Japan and Asia throughout the Cold War.
In subsequent essays, Dower takes pains to show the mirror images of racism, political and cultural propaganda, colonialist policies and war atrocities in Japan and the United States. Using examples from magazines, posters, paintings, cartoons and more, he reveals the racism that imbued both Japanese and American popular media in the years leading up to and during the war. While the Japanese portrayed Anglo-Americans as slavering demons and rich, thieving fat cats, the Americans drew the Japanese as rats, monkeys and slant-eyed, buck-toothed midgets.
In defense of decades of incursions into China and Korea, the Japanese declared that Asia was their own “Monroe sphere” and that they had just as much right to keep order there as the Americans did in close-by Central American and Caribbean nations. Much of the world looked on in horror and dismay when then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine from 2001 to 2006. Yasukuni is dedicated to all those who died in defense of the emperor since 1853, including 14 Class A war criminals. Dower sees little difference in those visits and the Memorial Day laying of wreaths at the Vietnam War Memorial by U.S. presidents. In fact, Dower finds those two wars comparable: “It is not unreasonable to see [the Vietnam] war, in its ferocity and futility, as a rough American counterpart to Japan’s own atrocious lost war of several decades earlier.” U.S. planners in the 1960s, Dower points out, even went so far as to study Japan’s scorched-earth anti-Communist tactics in rural China in the 1930s and early 1940s for lessons pertinent to their own “pacification” campaign in Vietnam.
Then, of course, there is the forgetting. Dower closely examines the revisionism in both countries on their war atrocities. In Japan, politicians deny the 1937-38 Rape of Nanking, school textbooks minimize the military’s aggression and women kidnapped into sexual slavery have never received restitution. The Japanese post-war populace preferred to view themselves as victims, badly used by their military and political leaders, rather than examine their acquiescence to Japan’s imperial ambitions. (With the collaboration of the American occupiers, Emperor Hirohito's personal responsibility went largely unexamined until after his death.)
In America, Dower suggests, our own notorious anti-Asian immigration laws and exploitative presence in China are largely ignored. In the essay “How a Democracy Should Celebrate Its Past,” Dower explores how Congress inserted itself into the Smithsonian Institution’s commemorative exhibit on the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In that stroke of censorship, he writes, the exhibit became “a gelded presentation” of patriotic glorification, with no mention of the unspeakably horrible effects of an atomic bomb explosion over a city full of people.
With the final two essays, the author uses America’s involvement in Japan as an argument against the impending invasion of Iraq, urging the Bush administration, then in power, to heed the lessons of the past. “To rush to war without seriously imagining all its consequences, including its aftermath, is not realism but a terrible hubris.” The U.S. did rush to war, and now all sides are furiously pitching their versions of the story, hoping theirs will become the one that is remembered and not the one that is forgotten.
Alice Stephens lived in Nagasaki, Japan, for four years.