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Coming to Terms with the Past: Japan

Rikki Kersten extols the example of an unlikely hero, the historian Ienaga Saburo, who singlehandedly challenged Japan’s official view of responsibility for its behaviour in the Second World War.

In Japan since the Second World War, the battle over history and memory concerning Japan’s war experience has largely been fought in the arena of junior and senior high school history textbooks. Since Japan’s defeat in 1945, questions of war responsibility, imperial accountability and the cultural roots of Japan’s expansionist adventure into Asia and the Pacific between 1931 and 1945 have festered in the popular and academic imagination. In fundamental ways, the issues of the Second World War in postwar Japan remain unresolved, thus opening the way for opportunistic readings of the past in the present, and for history to be used for political purposes. The history textbook lawsuits waged against the Japanese government by Professor Ienaga Saburo have reflected and sustained this divided discourse on the war in contemporary Japan.

Academics are unlikely heroes. In the case of Japanese historian Ienaga Saburo, one could be forgiven for deeming this a self-evident truth. Painfully thin, bald and bespectacled, Ienaga reminded one more of an elongated sparrow than of a champion. He was so demonstrably feeble in his youth that he was declared unfit for military service, and the closest he got to any kind of action was an inglorious stint in the Army Reserve in the last desperate days of the Second World War.

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