The Hashimoto Controversy and Japan’s Failure to Come to Terms with its Past

May 17

The words were so brazen that they have created a firestorm globally.  This was the comment of Mayor Toru Hashimoto of Osaka, described as “outspoken” and “brash” in the international media, that “comfort women”– the thousands of Asian women who were forced to serve as prostitutes during the Second World War–were “necessary” for the morale of the Japanese troops. “Anyone can understand that the system of comfort women was necessary to provide respite for a group of high-strung, rough and tumble crowd of men braving their lives under a storm of bullets,” Hashimoto said, according to the Wall Street Journal. While the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and other political figures were quick to distance themselves from Hashimoto’s remarks, their stance was hypocritical since he was simply mouthing what many in these circles and in the broader population believe to be true.   Moreover, the Osaka mayor’s remarks, moreover, came in the wake of a mass visit in April by some 170 sitting legislators to the Yasukuni Shrine, the home of Japan’s war dead, including 14 convicted war criminals, a ritual that many of its neighbors have blasted as a sign of the country’s unrepentant attitude for its conduct during World War II. Failure to Confront Past Hashimoto and Abe’s behavior ultimately stem from the fact that the country has not really come to terms with its role and behavior during that war.  Japan’s experience is in contrast to that of Germany, where society was subjected to a more or less thorough process of “denazification,” the centerpiece of which was the embedding in the national consciousness of Nazi Germany’s responsibility for the war and for unspeakable atrocities, including the genocide inflicted on the Jewish people. Washington played a role in fostering historical amnesia.  Instead of dethroning the emperor after the Japanese defeat, the US kept Hirohito in power for purposes of political stability, thus exempting the main symbol of Japan’s war aims from retribution, a gesture whose meaning was not lost on the Japanese.  Moreover, the window of opportunity that saw a flurry of US-imposed reforms that destroyed the old imperial army and reduced the power of the bureaucratic and economic elites disappeared with the onset of the Cold War and the...

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