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Historiography of the Asia-Pacific War in Japan

Last modified: 3 June 2008
Takashi Yoshida

June 2008

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Takashi Yoshida, Historiography of the Asia-Pacific War in Japan, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 3 June 2008, accessed 30 January 2015, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/Historiography-of-the-Asia-Pacific-War-in-Japan, ISSN 1961-9898

 IV. Conclusion

From the late 1990s on, numerous revisionist accounts have been available in Japanese bookstores. Denials of Japan’s war crimes such as the Nanjing Massacre and military sexual slavery have become routine among the revisionists. However, to assume that the revisionists fully represent the Japanese people’s understanding of the Asia-Pacific War is to blind oneself to the complexity of the make up of the nation’s collective memory of the time. It is also to overlook a more ambiguous trajectory of the history and memory of the Asia-Pacific War. The significant increase in the number of revisionist accounts in the last decade was a response to a flourishing consciousness of the role of the Japanese state and the ordinary people in Japanese colonial rule and the commission of war crimes. The battle over the history and memory of the Pacific War seems far from over. Neither peace activists nor revisionists will give in to their adversaries, and they will continue to publicize their own perceptions in order to win public support.

Indeed, differences in the interpretation of the contested events of the war are so profound that consensus now seems impossible. For example, Kasahara Tokushi, of Tsuru Bunka University, now accepts that the Nanjing Massacre is an indisputable fact, although he does not believe that the Japanese troops slaughtered 300,000 civilians in Nanjing. Based on an analysis of Chinese, English, and Japanese sources, Kasahara concludes that the Japanese forces killed between 100,000 and 200,000 Chinese combatants and civilians from December 1937 till March 1938. [74] Rather than becoming bogged down in controversies over numbers, Kasahara’s approach underscores human rights violations by the Japanese military in Nanjing. In contrast, Higashinakano Osamichi, of Asia University, focuses on the number of the deaths in Nanjing and argues that the Nanjing Massacre, as described by progressives, was not factual because the Japanese troops did not slaughter 300,000 Chinese civilians. His argument perversely uses the uncertainty as to the precise number of deaths as a means of effectively denying the entire event. [75] In the eyes of Nishino Rumiko, director of the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace founded in 2005, the system of “comfort women” was “a violent system initiated by the Japanese state to coerce women into sexual slavery and deprive them inhumanely of bodily control, pride, security, future, and hope”. [76] To Nishino, remembering the history of these women and restoring their honor is an urgent task, and she has devoted herself to enlightening the public through the museum displays, journal articles, and public lectures. In contrast, Fuioka Nobukatsu believes that the “comfort women” were not sexual slaves, but professional prostitutes. He argues that, since the textbooks do not discuss sexual violence against women by the other nations during and after the Asia-Pacific War, the textbook descriptions unfairly exaggerate Japanese misdeeds against women. [77] Whereas Awaya Kentarō, from Rikkyō University, finds the International Military Tribunal for the Far East contributed to the historical studies by compiling an immense archive concerning Japan’s war crimes, Tanaka Masaaki understands the tribunal as an instance of retaliation outside the bounds of legal justice because it ignored any atrocities or war crimes committed by the Allied Powers. [78]

The lengthy dispute over the history and memory of the Asia-Pacific War in Japan has produced both fruitful and fruitless outcomes. It has encouraged concerned individuals across the world to study details of the Asia-Pacific War, and cross-national and cross-disciplinary scholarly accounts of the war are now more abundant than a decade ago. Japanese, Chinese, and South Korean authors have recently published History That Opens Future, a book meant to be used as a modern East Asian history textbook in all three countries. Less encouragingly, the dispute has inspired a resurgence of nationalism and ethnocentrism not only in Japan, but also in other parts of the world. Regardless of the nationality of any particular authors, these accounts perceive the world with black-and-white simplicity and apply chauvinistic double standards, refusing to extend their sympathies to people whose ethnicity marks them as presumed adversaries. As long as people continue to voice opinions about the Asia-Pacific War that are dictated by the speaker’s national and ethnic identity rather than objective rationality and a sense of our shared humanity, the task of the historian will remain unfinished.


Newspaper correspondents accompanying the army that captured Nanjing were more or less aware of the atrocities by the army. They witnessed innumerable atrocities during the so-called “sacred war,” which was in fact a war of aggression. Yet they dared not remonstrate to the military, deeming it wiser to shut their eyes and to excuse the brutality as an unavoidable wartime evil. The irresponsibility of war correspondents, ourselves included, is reprehensible in its disregard of humanity.

Despite the fact that the military committed unspeakable brutalities, the government issued a statement declaring that Japan would consider Chinese people its friends. Such contradictory actions were characteristic of all Japanese policies on China, resulting in spreading hostility toward Japanese among Chinese people. This hostility remains the bitterest in the more than one-thousand-year history of relations between China and Japan. We must acknowledge the crimes committed by the militarists, epitomized by the Nanjing Massacre, as an ineradicable blot in our history (Takashi Yoshida, The Making of the “Rape of Nanking”: History and Memory in Japan, China, and the United States (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 49.

[74] Kasahara Tokushi, Nankin jiken (Nanjing Incident), (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1997), pp. 218-28.

[75] See, for example, Higashinakano Shudō (Osamichi), “The Overall Picture of the ‘Nanjing Massacre,’” in Nanking 1937: Memory and Healing, eds. Li, Sabella, and Liu (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2002), pp. 95-117.

[76] Nishino Rumiko, “The Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace and Its Role in Public Education,” paper presented at the United Institute of Peace, March 30, 2007 (http://www.usip.org/events/2007/nishino.pdf).

[77] Fujioka and Nishio (1996), pp. 194-95.

[78] Awaya Kentarō, “‘Tōkyō saiban shikan’ to wa” (What is the “Tokyo Trial Viewpoint” of History?), in Kingendaishi no shinjitsu wa nanika (Truths in Modern Japanese History), ed. Fujiwara Akira (Tokyo: Ōtsuki shoten, 1996), pp. 162-67. Tanaka Masaaki, Nankin jiken no sōkatsu (Summary of the Nanjing Incident), (Tokyo: Kenkōsha, 1987), pp. 30-31.

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