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And never the twain shall meet

January 15, 2009

I know I shouldn’t get wound up about what I see on commercial Japanese television, but sometimes it raises seriously worrying questions about society in general.

Take this, for example, a clip from the show ‘Yorosen!’.

Hitler (or Hitoraa-Ojisan, “Uncle Hitler”) – a ‘great man of history’, so this roomful of vapid girls tells us, revealing a jolly little cartoon of a kawaii Hitler.  Good at speeches, captivated his populace (ooh, they mentioned anti-semitism – bonus point for that).

So what about this Hitler fellow then?  Good speaker, snappy dresser, but with an unfortunate penchant for totalitarian oppression and genocidal atrocity?  Oh, scrap that last bit, it’s not mentioned.  Why bring down the party mood!

How on earth that made it onto broadcast television, the mind boggles.  But old Uncle Adolf made it onto the telly again last night, on the London Boots show, The Best House (no clip, sorry).  To an upbeat, jaunty background tune, and the accompanying Pavlovian laughter of the brainless collection of tarento, we got to see a video clip of that sweet little dance Hitler did in an unguarded moment at the Eagle’s Nest (Kehlsteinhaus) in Berchtesgaden.  You see?  And you thought he was all about the shouting, and the killing, and all that humourless stuff.

We are used to commercial Japanese television treating areas of extraordinary delicacy with a total lack of respect or dignity.  What is worrying is wondering how far this mindset extends.

Last year, when General Toshio Tamogami, the head of Japan’s air force, published an essay denying that Japan was a second world war aggressor, he was fired, albeit with a 60 million yen going-away present.  But the only ‘condemnation’ from those above him was that his words were “inappropriate”, and they ran “contrary to the current government’s position”.  Ooh, I bet his ears were burning.

Japan has, in the form of several of its governments, issued apologies for its actions during the second world war.  The problem arises with the assumption that mere words, in the usual style of a Japanese apology, are enough.

As Germany has shown, mere words are simply insufficient to get you readmitted to the human race.  You need to back it up with action.  Hence Germany is full of reminders of those years in which it chose the wrong path, in the hope that by not forgetting, such mistakes can never be repeated.

Japan, on the other hand, is entirely bereft of any official acknowledgement of wrongdoing.  Quite the opposite – a vocal minority, the notorious right-wing uyoku, deliver loud diatribes to that effect in the high street, while good people (and the police) say nothing.

Where are the war museums?  Well, you’ll find the Nagasaki and Hiroshima memorials to the dropping of the atomic bombs.  These museums, both detailed and moving, say much about how the Pacific war ended.

But not a word about how it started.

All context is stripped away.  You’ll find nothing about Japan’s invasions of its neighbours, no mention of its attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbour, just Japanese victimhood.

Japanese moderates will say that the past mistakes are simply understood, there’s no need to beat future generations over the head with it.  As a westerner, I’m entirely unconvinced by this.  If it was a self-evident truth held as such by the majority, you wouldn’t have military chiefs spouting revisionist nonsense, you wouldn’t have teenagers who are “not sure who Hitler was”, and you would never see a genocidal dictator reduced to a Hollywood villain on national television.

There seems to be little realisation that Japan was during those times and for many years after seen by the West with the same enmity as Hitler’s Germany.  And that alone should mean that the Japanese, of all nations, should be the ones to teach themselves to tread most carefully around these issues.  Instead, you see the remarkable insensitivity in the video above.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sam permalink
    January 15, 2009 7:36 pm

    Great post. Hadn’t thought about our responsibility to teach our kids how much of an aggressor Japan was before WWII ended with a bang. Certainly that needs to be emphasized and not skipped over as the Japan “Self Defense” Forces are being deployed in other countries. Seems as though Japan is being swept up with the US in it’s global calamities.

    I too have noticed the scary sight of the Japanese public turning a blind eye to local aggression like the right wingers blasting away, swearing at the traffic in front of our children.

    For some reason, I always have flashbacks to North Korean television clips when I see Japanese elementary kids in perfect rows at a sports day following the leader in perfect unison.

    However, as much as Japan has it’s scary elements, it’s not the only country where the citizens don’t cry out anymore.

    What is the US bailout and stimulus package total at now… 1.x Trillion dollars???!!! Why isn’t there a monstrous uproar? No angry mobs? Why isn’t there some policy makers, CEOs, and top management going to jail due to fraudulent mismanagement?

    Another example is crime rates in the US inner cities? Why do we as a society put up with these atrocities? Is it complacency or appropriate tolerance?

  2. January 17, 2009 4:03 pm

    Thanks for your reply, Sam.
    Yeah, the Japanese are not the only people who need reminding that “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing”, but I can’t really comment on the U.S., I don’t know enough about it. If there was a world league table for “Likelihood of a popular revolution”, though, you’d have to think Japan would be somewhere near the bottom of it!
    My main issue here is that Japan’s popular culture doesn’t see the link between wartime Japan and Germany that the rest of the world sees, and then even makes light of it.
    I can’t imagine the TV shows mentioned above being broadcast in Germany. It’s a question of good judgment, along with years of painful reflection, which seems to be lacking in the former ally (if not in the people, then in parts of the popular media).

  3. remora permalink
    January 18, 2009 3:10 am

    We’re Doomed! – Private James Frazer

  4. toneburst permalink
    March 17, 2009 1:03 am


    I was at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in the Summer of 2007, and I remember being very moved by the experience, and actually thinking, contrary to your observations, that the museum organisers had gone to some trouble to place the dropping of the atomic bomb into the context of the poisonous militarism of domestic politics at the time. I don’t recall any specific mention of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbour, but I do remember reading there that more German civilians were killed in the fire-bombing of Dresden than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, which suggests a sincere attempt to provide a balanced account of a truly horrific event, within the wider historical background of one of the bloodiest periods of human history.

    Having said all that, as a non-Japanese-speaker, I was only able to read the English material there. I’d be interested to know if there is a consistent discrepancy in tone or emphasis between the information presented in English and that in Japanese.

    Incidentally, great blog! I’ve been periodically dipping in since you left sunny London for more exotic climes, and your insights into Japanese society and language, and your excellent photographs have been never less than fascinating.


    a|x (ex of Bughouse)

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