Seventy years of se­lec­tive post­war his­tory

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In her mov­ingly beau­ti­ful novel deal­ing with Ja­pan from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, The Gods ofHeav­enly Pun­ish­ment, au­thor Jen­nifer Cody Ep­stein de­scribes how peo­ple tended to divide life be­tween “be­fore” and “af­ter” the war. When I was living in Ja­pan in the 1950s, I re­mem­ber the coinage and fre­quent us­age of the term “apure” – which was de­rived from the French term après guerre and was meant to con­vey the mood of the “new” Ja­pan af­ter 1945.

But in his out­stand­ing book, Year Zero: A His­tory of 1945, Ian Bu­ruma, writ­ing on both the At­lantic and the Paci­ficWars, demon­strated how things were not that sim­ple.

As he shows, the clo­sure of Auschwitz did not im­me­di­ately re­sult in the end of anti-Semitism in Ger­many or else­where in Europe.

Year Zero also cov­ers in grue­some de­tail the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by the Ja­panese in China – the mass rapes, the ac­tiv­i­ties atUnit 731, in the then Ja­pane­seoc­cu­piedNorth­east China, where vivi­sec­tion was car­ried out on pris­on­ers of war as part of bi­o­log­i­cal and chem­i­cal war­fare ex­per­i­ments.

There have been waves of wa­ter un­der the bridge in the past 70 years, though they have flowed quite dif­fer­ently in Europe and East Asia.

June 2014 marked the 70th an­niver­sary of theNor­mandyD-Day land­ings. It was an emo­tional oc­ca­sion, in which not only the heads of state and gov­ern­ment of the al­lied na­tions, but also An­ge­laMerkel of Ger­many par­tic­i­pated. Sim­i­larly, vet­er­ans from both sides at­tended and em­braced.

The 70th an­niver­sary of the sur­ren­der of Ger­many and the end of the war in Europe onMay 8 this year will no doubt re­flect a sim­i­lar spirit of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

That his­tory has been openly and col­lec­tively ad­dressed for decades. When I was a doc­toral stu­dent in the 1960s at St. Antony’s Col­lege, Ox­ford, there were Bri­tish, French and Ger­man re­searchers and schol­ars work­ing to­gether.

Din­ner ta­ble dis­cus­sion fre­quently turned to “what had hap­pened”. There is a ba­sic con­sen­sus in Europe about the his­tory ofWorldWar II and es­pe­cially about the atroc­i­ties – the holo­caust – com­mit­ted by Ger­many. Erst­while enemies are at peace, not be­cause they have forgotten the past, but be­cause they re­mem­ber it.

The sit­u­a­tion in the Pa­cific is dif­fer­ent and alarm­ing. His­tor­i­cal am­ne­sia is never a good thing. In the fa­mous words of Ge­orge San­tayana: “Those who can­not re­mem­ber the past are con­demned to re­peat it.”

The re­jec­tion of his­tory is, quite un­der­stand­ably, es­pe­cially as­so­ci­ated with Ja­pan. There is a com­bi­na­tion of de­nial and will­ful ig­no­rance. Ask a Ger­man about Auschwitz and he or she will al­most cer­tainly know. Ask a Ja­panese aboutUnit 731 ( Nana-san-ichi Bu­tai in Ja­panese) and he or she will al­most cer­tainly not know.

Ja­pan in­vaded ev­ery East Asian coun­try ex­cept Thai­land in the course of the Paci­ficWar, although to­day many Ja­panese ar­riv­ing in, say, Sin­ga­pore, Malaysia, the Philip­pines, Myan­mar or In­done­sia, hear about it – if they do at all – for the first time.

With re­gard to Paci­ficWar am­ne­sia and dis­tor­tions, how­ever, the Ja­panese are not alone. RanaMit­ter made a great con­tri­bu­tion to his­to­ri­og­ra­phy when he wrote China’sWar with Ja­pan, 1937-1945: The Strug­gle for Sur­vival, which deals in de­tail not only with China’s war against Ja­pan, but its over­all con­tri­bu­tion toWorldWar II gen­er­ally.

Again, ask the rea­son­ably ed­u­cated man or woman in the street any­where, which were the al­lied pow­ers dur­ingWorldWar II and she or he will prob­a­bly re­spond: Rus­sia, Bri­tain and theUnited States. The enemies were, of course, Ger­many, Italy and Ja­pan.

No men­tion of China? Among the many facts that come out ofMit­ter’s book is the war the Chi­nese waged against Ja­pan— the huge num­ber of lives it sac­ri­ficed— per­mit­ted theUnited States to con­cen­trate on win­ning the war in Europe be­fore mov­ing to end the war in the Pa­cific.

This is rarely ac­knowl­edged. China has been to a con­sid­er­able ex­tent air-brushed out of the his­tory books. The rea­son, of course, is that the Chi­nese turned com­mu­nist shortly af­ter the war ended – hence they be­came the United States’ en­emy.

This com­ing Au­gust will mark a se­ries of key Paci­ficWar an­niver­saries: the 70th an­niver­saries of the atomic bomb­ings of Hiroshima and Na­gasaki and, of course, the 70th an­niver­sary of the Ja­panese sur­ren­der.

Cody’s novel in­cludes scenes be­fore and dur­ing the war, in theUnited States, Ja­pan andNorth­east China, and events such as the 1942 Doolit­tle air-raids.

How­ever, the high­light and most dra­matic chap­ter de­scribes in amazingly ter­ri­fy­ing de­tail the Amer­i­can bom­bard­ment of Tokyo onMarch 9 and 10, 1945 that re­duced the city to rub­ble and cost an es­ti­mated 100,000 lives, one of the worst atroc­i­ties ofWorldWar II. The num­ber of peo­ple killed in Dres­den was less than 20,000.

Ask a rea­son­ably ed­u­cated Amer­i­can at a uni­ver­sity and he is more than likely not to have the fog­gi­est idea what his coun­try did to Tokyo in­March 1945— and prob­a­bly does not care. His Ja­panese coun­ter­part­may know, though he will stay sto­ically si­lent and en­dure.

Tokyo’s more as­sertive for­eign pol­icy and Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe’s na­tion­al­ism notwith­stand­ing, Ja­pan will not want to risk alien­at­ing theUnited States, is not the time, its ally, and po­ten­tial sav­ior, against a ris­ing Chi­nese be­he­moth.

TheUnited States has been com­pletely com­plicit in the his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal dis­tor­tions of the Paci­ficWar. Be­fore and af­ter can­not eas­ily be sep­a­rated, nor can past and fu­ture.

The present his­tor­i­cal per­cep­tions— or per­haps more ac­cu­rately— mis­per­cep­tions of the past con­flicts in the Pa­cific do not au­gur well for the fu­ture. The au­thor is an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal econ­omy at IMD in Lau­sanne, Switzer­land. The Globalist

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