Japan Today



The forever war

By Jonathan Genji Abbott

I received a good lesson in a quiet suburb of Tokyo. My teacher was my great-uncle. The subject was the war, a war going on now. Not the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, it was The War, the one that ended almost 70 years ago.

The lesson resulted from an article I wrote about an American submarine sunk off the coast of Japan. The brother of a sailor on board that submarine contacted the Japanese and met with the men who had killed his brother and with the relatives of those the submarine had killed.

The article was meant to be uplifting; about how men who had been enemies could put the past behind them and find friendship.

My uncle didn’t see that. He saw the words "mistakenly sunk," which described an American submarine torpedoing a Japanese ship with civilians on board.

"I got very upset when you wrote that. It had red crosses on it, and they sunk it anyway. The Americans killed so many innocent people during the war," he said.

I mentioned the Japanese also had much innocent blood on their hands.

"You are like all Americans, biased!” he snorted. “You think you always are right, the winners who can change history, then think they can be friends but never need to apologize for things like the atomic bomb. Japan has apologized to everyone, while Americans think they don’t have to apologize for anything,” he screamed.

He had a point about one thing. Americans reveled in their victory and still do today. The image of the “Greatest Generation,” freeing the world and spreading freedom and democracy, is embraced in books, movies and video games.

Japan still feels the results of their defeat. They follow a constitution drafted by an occupying army and live with, and depend upon, the military of another country. Japanese learn English, the language of the victors.

To my uncle, The War is a dark and disturbing memory. His brother was a soldier, his sister built warplanes in hidden caves while, as a child, he starved. When The War ended, my uncle learned English, did business in America and made American friends. But beneath the surface, he still is that starved little boy. In his view, Americans cannot justify chastising Japanese politicians for visiting Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war dead (including recognized war criminals), while those who planned the firebombing raids on Tokyo that killed a hundred thousand civilians are lauded as heroes.

Americans think of themselves as the ”good guys.” They don’t like it when a foreign country’s media cast them in another light. Similarly, Japanese are not as eager to hear about their vanquishing as we are in reminding them. They, like the Germans, cannot escape the guilt of their actions or find sympathy for their loved ones incinerated in Dresden or Tokyo. History may have put the fires out, but the embers still glow.

The victors might say: “Well, who started the war?”

My uncle didn’t. He lived in squalor because the Americans destroyed his country. It’s easy for the victor to accept collateral damage when their family is not the collateral. It is something that has to be accepted by a defeated nation.

For those, like my uncle, and people they influence, bitterness lies beneath the skin, until a small scratch brings it to the surface. They may move on but they don’t forget and we don’t let them. The War is still fought in the hearts and minds of those who lived it, and those living in its aftermath, with no end in sight.

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

I often like to tell Japanese about the S.S. Centaur that was sunk by a Japanese submarine off the Australian coast near Caloundra (there is a monument there on the headland). It was a hospital ship and the lives of many medical staff were lost, not only to the attack but to sharks when the survivors abandoned the ship. It was a real war crime.

My story will probably seen as a tit-for-tat story by many people here on Japan Today, but it makes me rather irritated the greater majority of Japanese don't seem to comprehend/know that Japan killed a lot of innocent civilians as well. I only ever seem to hear about the fire-bombing of Japanese cities and the devestation caused by the A-bomb. In my 20 years in Japan I have never heard about the suffering Japanese attacks had caused. I have never heard any Japanese mention it at all.

The scale of the attacks might be completely different but the effects for those who survived the war are pretty much the same.

3 ( +5 / -3 )

When you play, you pay.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

We are all biased based on our experiences, upbringing, and cultures. Wars are terrible. The leaders on all sides do terrible things and demonize the enemy to help solders perform in battle. My parents remember WWII clearly as teens during that time. Their views are warped by the sacrifices demanded for the American war effort. They remember the rationing and hearing about their friends, just a few years older, being killed. It is tough to get over that.

I imagine the exact same feelings happen to Japanese of a similar age. I grew up on military bases during the cold war. In my teens, I expected to die from an ICBM sent from the USSR. Until age 18, I lived at a primary targets for nuclear attack. That fear and the total lack of understanding with the people of the USSR were terrible. My ancestors migrated from Russia around 1897, so we aren't THAT removed from them.

Only through deeper understanding can we avoid wars. The more integrated our world becomes, the better we can understand each other, remove irrational fears and help each other through tough times.

This is a wonderful article that got me thinking about understanding different peoples from around the world. If only we could do a better job explaining our hopes for the current war-stricken areas.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

And there in lies the enigma of the duality of Japan...its both the victim and the aggressor. So depends on which side you want to look at the cup from and how you wanna argue. Also...isnt Japan and Russia still at war? No formal treaty or peace signed between those 2 nations?

0 ( +2 / -2 )

As someone much wiser than myself once said "The greatest enemy of war, is war itself'....

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I am of the generation born immediately after the war. We were fed on a diet of US and British films about the war from the victors perspective. I lived in Germany for 10 years and now live in Japan. I find that German and Japanese people are remarkably like me, they are not the blustering teutonic type or the short sighted, buck toothed, sword weilding psychopaths that were portrayed in the films of my childhood. I am old enough to realise that all this was self congratulation and stealth propoganda. Terrible crimes were commited by all sides in that conflict let no one forget, but also we should remember the victims of our own nations crimes.I suspect most of the vitriol spewed out on the internet comes from people 2 or 3 generations away from the event.

2 ( +2 / -1 )

I for one am glad the USA invaded Japan - although I REALLY think WE are the victims now and NOT Japan - as we have to PAY to maintain our troops in this most idyllic of countries (aside from the occasional nuclear melt down and radiation poisoning).

We implemented a government which has become steeped in corruption - just like our government - I don't know if that was intentional - but amusing to observe.

Japan first broke the Geneva convention when it firebombed Shanghai - targeting civilians. They followed through with civilian massacres in Nanjing, etc etc - the list is endless. This man - just like US citizens - likes to blame everyone and anyone except his own leaders - just like the good old USA. Our politicians can point fingers everywhere except back at home where the evil and corruption were allowed to take root.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

The author needs to do some more research. There's been a large amount of revisionist scholarship regarding World War II and what exactly it was about. While Germany and Japan continue to be singled out for the grisly and horrifying acts their soldiers committed (Germans mainly against Eastern Europeans, Japanese mainly against East and Southeast Asians), more people (including Americans) have come to recognize that World War II was a hegemonic war that pitted revisionist, irredentist nations (Germany, Japan, Italy) against the established powers of Britain, France, the USSR, and the USA. You'd have to think Churchill respected colored people to believe that the latter group of nations were innocent players in the world.

The simplistic "good vs. evil" narrative about "The War" is, I can tell you, consistently challenged and refuted daily by people living in the victor nations. And, the difficulties of the author's great-uncle notwithstanding, the nature of the postwar settlement was incredibly good for Japan. No division of the country as was the case with Germany, and no occupation of Japan by soldiers from the USSR and, most crucially, China.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

“I got very upset when you wrote that. It had red crosses on it, and they sunk it anyway. The Americans killed so many innocent people during the war,” he said.

Wow and the Japanese never did that hey? As the first poster mentions what about the AHS Centaur and the 270 odd people that where killed when the I-177 commanded by Hajime Nakagawa torpedoed it. Despite the fact it was painted and illuminated as a hospital ship. What about the prisoners beheaded once captured by the Japanese, the people worked to death by them. No you dont see that do you! This is the problem with this country the eternal victims, they are fast to point the finger but they are slow to admit that they the mighty Japanese where actually the aggressors and the instigators of many more horrors and war crimes. And when you dare say who started the war you get the standard response "well my family didnt they just did this and this and suffered". Well guess what your nation started the war, as a people you allowed it to happen and for that you suffered the consequences and l for one am truly getting tired of you playing the victim card. The true victims are the millions of people who died at your hands the prisoners you murdered after they surrendered, the nurses you raped and killed, the civilians you interned and worked and starved to death all in the name of your glorious emperor and until you come to terms with that then l say you deserved everything you got and probably deserved more afterall the greatest war criminal in Japan got to keep his throne long after the war.

3 ( +7 / -4 )

Is it fair to say that a child born in Hiroshima or Nagasaki deserved to be incinerated to death simply because his or her government started a war before he/she was born?

Horrific war crimes were committed on both sides and with the approval if not direction of governments.

No more wars, no matter how nasty the media portrays the 'enemy'.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Yes, it's true that the Americans did truly nasty things during the war.

I think it's good to talk about it even if the anti-japanese people try to shout you down.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

I never discuss World War II with Japanese people. If it is brought up in conversation, I always ignore it. If the topic persists, I simply leave.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

An eye opening story and All of our children should see just what war Really means-A Hell on Earth! Tokyokawasaki's post hit the nail on the head!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The lesson here is simple friends. War makes victims of everyone!!

So what do we learn from this?

Don't start wars. Too often the suffering you intend to inflict will be visited back upon YOU. We must change our thinking and recognize that violence is not a solution to problems. Most wars are essentially about economics. So we need a system that is not competition based so that there is no need for war.

Finally. Both sides in WWII need to recognize that it was a terrible attrocity world wide. No nation involved is entirely innocent. Especially so for those who initiated the war.

Japanese need to accept the full responsibility for starting that war. And everyone downstream of that decision must accept responsibility for how the war was waged and for the countless lost lives. Above all we must all commit to never allowing such a conflagration to begin again. Simple enough if you put down your pride and nationalism and think about people first.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The Japanese government has merely expressed "regret" or "remorse", the Japanese Prime Minister or the Emperor has never performed dogeza or the diet passed an Official apology, for the Democide of up to 10 million people, from Mass killings, Human experimentation, Cannibalism, Forced labor, to Comfort women. What many people call the Asian Holocaust.

"a kind of historiographic cancellation of immorality as if the transgressions of others exonerate one's own crimes". While right-wing forces in Japan have tried to deny or re-write the war-time history.... Japan's ultra-nationalists' reflexive response to any popular demands for an official apology has been to counterattack.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites