Japan Must Stop ‘Fleeing’ Asian Neighbors and Clean the Wartime Slate


With the death of Emperor Hirohito, Japan now has its fourth emperor since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when it began to build the modern ten’nosei , an emperor system suitable for a modern nation-state that was drastically different from its predecessors.

During the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) the emperors played no significant political role. With the advent of modern Japan, the emperor suddenly emerged on the center stage of politics.

Although much emphasis has been put on Japan’s “opening” to the West, what is often forgotten about the emergence of its modern emperor system is an accompanying and equally drastic change that took place in the Japanese attitude toward other Asian countries--an attitude that is frequently described as datsu-a nyu-oh , or “fleeing from Asia and entering Europe.” Before the Meiji period it was customary to pay respect to visitors from the Asian continent and regard them as potential teachers. Since the new emperor system was fashioned after European monarchies, the modern Japanese nation was created with a view to reaching an equal and symmetrical relationship with the nations of the Western world. Asian countries were excluded from the group of nations with which Japan should have relationships of equal and reciprocal terms. It was around this time that the Japanese adapted to the developmental view of the world in which Asian countries were classified as underdeveloped so that the Japanese were justified in not treating them on equal terms. Thus the Japanese internalized the very logic of 19th-Century imperialism, which legitimated the colonization of non-Western peoples. The Japanese sense of superiority to other Asian peoples still lingers, and is no doubt rooted in this logic. Yet the Japanese were fully aware that they could also be victimized by Western imperialism. Hence, later, in justifying its own colonialist policies, the government resorted to an argument that Japan had to take care of Asian peoples in order to protect and liberate them from Western domination.

Perhaps no national leader’s life in modern history better illustrates the fateof such an imperialist argument than that of Emperor Hirohito. Since Japan’s defeat in 1945, not only those in Japan but also those in former Japanese-occupied territories like Taiwan, Korea and other Asian countries have repeatedly asked about Hirohito’s war responsibility. Particularly noteworthy are the claims made by the relatives of dead soldiers in former Japanese territories that the emperor should be responsible for the deaths of their fathers, brothers and sons who were made to fight against Western imperialism as the emperor’s sekishi , or babies, despite the social discrimination to which they were subjected in the prewar Japanese empire. As those territories became independent and non-Japanese as a result of the collapse of the empire, the emperor seemed to evade their questioning on the grounds that no national leader is held responsible to foreigners.


On the issue of the emperor’s war responsibility, Japan’s rapport with countries in East Asia has been awkward, to say the least. One reason is that the emperor has never replied to the queries about his responsibility for the aggression and acts of destruction that were committed by his forces during 15 years of war (1931-45). Since the Allied powers--the United States in particular--decided to overlook Hirohito’s war responsibility out of political consideration, the emperor had remained silent about Japan’s past relationships with Asian countries. Yet when he visited the United States he did “deplore” the mistakes that he and his subjects had made during the war, and he accepted certain reproach for the war when he traveled in Europe. But he avoided any situation in which he could have been confronted with the question of his war responsibility in the Asian context. By so doing he took the decided risk that other Asian peoples could interpret his silence as implying that Asians were not worth replying to.

As Japan has grown more important in economic and international politics, many Asian countries have taken a much more friendly attitude toward the Japanese than immediately after the war. Some have openly sought Japanese economic and technological guidance. In response to this change of general political climate in East Asia, an increasing number of Japanese, including those of the Ministry of Education, have ventured to claim that there is no particular historical past that the Japanese should apologize for. They point out that although Japan was one of the colonialist powers, no other Western colonialist has publicly acknowledged its historical crime and apologized for it.

It has also been argued that the war was fought between the nation-states, and that it was legitimate for any national leader to pursue the national interest by any means. Japanese leaders, including the emperor, did for his country what was expected of any good patriot. This logic continues to say that there has never been any judicial ground on which one could possibly judge the behavior of the nation-state.

After 40 years, few believed that there would ever be any judicial grounds on which Hirohito could be prosecuted. But the point of asking about the war responsibility lies elsewhere. It is a way for those living in or concerned with Japan to maintain the possibility of criticizing the nation and to keep Japan aware that it must be receptive to criticism. Unless one is prepared to expose oneself to such criticism, which may be offensive on occasion, one cannot remain open to others or maintain a sense of responsibility. Unfortunately, there are signs that some people in Japan have become non-responsive and intolerant.

In death, Hirohito has lost the opportunity to respond to queries about his responsibility and consequently his opportunity to be responsible. It is natural for Asian peoples not to be able to think of constructing relationships with Japan on the basis of fundamental trust, because trust is possible only between two parties that are responsive and responsible to one another.

Will the people of Japan follow the example of their symbolic leader, thereby missing any chance of creating trustworthy relations with people in East Asia? I hope that Hirohito’s death does not mark the closing of the Japanese mind, and that the new emperor will not mistake his father’s death as a sign of this case being closed and the slate being clean.