In the lead-up to hosting the 2020 Olympic games, Japan must revisit and acknowledge its militaristic past in order to foster Asian identity and solidarity
The day after the International Olympic Committee announced that Tokyo would host the 2020 Olympics, a headline in the South China Morning Post read, “China: Tokyo Olympics will only be success if Japan recognises war aggression.”
Tokyo’s successful hosting of the 1964 Olympics, less than 20 years after its defeat in the Second World War, was seen as a brilliant illustration of its reintegration into the international community – which at the time was synonymous with the West. A year later Japan joined the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an exclusive club of rich economies. Geopolitically secure in its military alliance with the US – and protected by the American “nuclear umbrella” – Tokyo could focus on economic growth, which proved astonishing and was soon dubbed a “miracle.” In 1967, Japan surpassed Germany in size of aggregate GDP.
In the meantime, the rest of Asia was still poor and chaotic. China was two years away from the devastating Cultural Revolution, Vietnam was at war and would remain so for more than another decade, South Korea was still at least 10 years away from achieving any noticeable economic ascent; indeed, in the late 1960s, the state of Asia could be encapsulated in the title of a 1968 three-volume opus by Economics laureate Gunnar Myrdal, “Asian Drama: An Inquiry Into the Poverty of Nations”. Once again, Japan was distancing itself from Asia and ensconcing itself in the western camp. Henceforth, whether in Cold War parlance or in reference to the global economy, “the West” included Japan.
The narrative of the 19th and most of the 20th centuries is the rise of the West and precipitate decline of the East. In 1820 Asia accounted for 60 per cent of global GDP, with 33 per cent from China. By 1913, Asia’s share had declined to 20 per cent. By mid-century, the time of the 1949 Liberation, China’s share of global GDP had fallen to less than 5 per cent.
Japan bucked the Asian decline trend. In the space of one generation, the nation emerged from a feudal, isolated, peasant society to become a major industrial and imperial power. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 it sat with Great Britain, France, Italy and the US. Rising phoenix-like from defeat in the Second World War, by the late 1960s it accounted for half of Asia’s total GDP.
Japan showed a knack for adaptation. In the mid-19th century, fearing that it might suffer an ignominious fate at the hands of western imperialists comparable to China’s devastating humiliation in the Opium Wars, Japan underwent a radical political and cultural revolution. With the “restoration” of imperial rule, as the Emperor Meiji ascended the throne in April 1868, a “Charter Oath of Five Articles” was promulgated, the intention of which was to set the spirit and vision of the “new” Japan. The fifth article reads: “Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundation of imperial rule.” The 1880s were dubbed the decade of “western civilisation and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika), culminating in 1885 with one of modern Japanese history’s most seminal publications, written by the prominent Japanese thought-leader of the time, Fukuzawa Yukichi (his image can be found on the 10,000-yen bank note) entitled “Datsu-A/Ny-O”, or “Exiting Asia/Entering Europe”.
Japan’s modernisation following the Meiji reforms cannot be described as sheer westernisation. While the structure of many institutions – including the army, navy, parliament, civil code and education system – were imported from the West, the spirit remained Japanese. Nevertheless, for the Chinese and Koreans, Japan’s behaviour and policies through the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries were those of a “western” industrialised imperialist power – in fact, even worse.
Korea was brutally colonised economically, politically, militarily and culturally. The sexual enslavement of an estimated 100,000 Korean women during the Second World War stands out as a heinous crime against humanity. Likewise in China, Japan was responsible for the Nanjing massacre, and the army’s Unit 731 carried out lethal biological and chemical experimentation on prisoners, as well as vivisection, with an overall estimated toll of up to 20 million civilian Chinese casualties.
In the first half of the 20th century, Japan allied with two western powers: Imperial Britain (1902 to 1922), and Nazi Germany (1938 to 1944). Since 1952, it has formed an alliance with the US. Japan had no alliance, or, for that matter, a close relationship with an Asian nation.
To make amends for Japan’s wartime aggression, the late Japanese emperor Hirohito made state visits to the UK, the Netherlands and the US, but not a single Asian nation, let alone to those that suffered the most, China and Korea. Hirohito’s son Akihito is due to visit India in November. This is fine, but relations between Japan and India throughout history have been distant, and there are no burning and potentially conflicting issues as those between Japan and its immediate Asian neighbours. In awarding the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo, the International Olympics Committee seemingly assumed that in the course of the years ahead, war won’t break out in Northeast Asia. In keeping with the Olympic ideals, maybe the hope was that the games could ensure peace. Perhaps – but for that, action is required from Japan. For the moment, Japan may not be at war with its neighbours, but it’s certainly not at peace. The wounds of war and humiliation have not healed and continue to fester, in turn exacerbated by territorial disputes and irresponsible hawkish language from Japanese leaders.
To achieve peace, as Europe learned, bold steps are necessary. The Franco-German post-war rapprochement is a model, illustrated, among other images, by former French president Francois Mitterrand and former German chancellor Helmut Kohl holding hands on September 22, 1984 in Douaumont cemetery in Verdun, where the remains of 150,000 French soldiers rest from one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. On September 4, at Oradour-sur-Glane, the site of the worst Nazi massacre of civilians conducted on French soil, French President Francois Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck held hands, along with one of the three survivors, Jean-Marcel Darthout.
On his way to making his state visit to New Delhi, Emperor Akihito should stop first in Seoul, where he could meditate and hold hands with South Korean President Park Geun-hye in front of the monument to the memory of the Korean sex slaves, with one or more of the survivors. From Seoul, he could fly to Nanjing and undertake a similar exercise with Chinese President Xi Jinping in front of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.
These simple acts could turn the pages of an atrocious history of conflict between Japan and its neighbours, and in so doing, Japan could “re-enter” Asia as a force for peace. The 2020 Olympic Games may then mark a magnificent historical turning point, engendering great hope for the Asian Century.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor, IMD; founder, The Evian Group; visiting professor at Hong Kong University and at NIIT University, Neemrana, Rajasthan; and co-author with John Haffner and Tomas Casas i Klett of “Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship”.
The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University.