History is Written by Victors

At a recent networking event I attended, an executive of an investment firm challenged me on history. He insisted the Japanese are out to “rewrite history from what actually happened.”

What came to my mind was: how do you know what happened? Were you there?

None of us were. History is elusive: you take evidence from the past and reconstruct a narrative, which changes over time. Even in America, new books constantly being published on the American Revolution, Civil War, and Feminist and Minority Right movements are ever challenging the narrative of the status quo.

The Japanese are no different. Yes, they are out to challenge the historical narrative in their favor. Why? Because, as occupiers, Americans had significant influence in how their history and post-war narrative were written.

We wrote Japanese history.

The constitution. War guilt through class A war crime trials. Pacifism.

There is a recent movie where Tommy Lee Jones plays General MacArthur overseeing the American occupation of Japan, with a focus on the question of the Emperor’s Role in the decision of Japan to attack Pearl Harbor. The movie ends without a definitive conclusion, and the movie incorporates the Japanese perspective. Which shows there is a shift in the narrative even on the American side: we are willing to contemplate the Japanese view.

As a US-Japan Relations professional, there are many hot button topics that I will be forced to address eventually. The Rape of Nanking. Comfort Women. Pearl Harbor. The Atomic Bombs. The US occupation. The 9th Article in the Japanese Constitution. Okinawa and the US bases. Rape of Japanese civilians by American servicemen. The future of the US-Japan alliance. Japan-Korean Relations. North Korea and Japan’s role in the 6 party talks. Japanese re-militarization. The role of the Self-Defense Force in Japanese Foreign Policy. ODA and Japan’s corporate strategy and its relationship to Japan’s foreign policy: the list goes on and on.

I will address NONE OF THEM here. Someday!

My point is this: history usually is written by victors (though Nietzsche in his The Genealogy of Morals argues the existence of Slave Morality constructed by the weak). As victors and occupiers, the US had a strong say in how history, international norms, laws, and institutions were written and formed post-WWII.

It should not be a surprise to anyone this was done so in American favor.

Does that make them wrong? No.

In an ever-changing international environment, where American power is in decline, we are entering a multipolar world. It is natural the post-war American narrative and global structure will be challenged by various players. Unavoidable.

Does this mean Japan is rewriting history in a way that is a lie? No. It means they are seeking a narrative in their favor. None of us were the decision makers of those horrific events that took place in the 1930s and 1940s. Narratives come and go, and what is adopted has material consequences for societies, governments, and even alliances.

The investment executive who stated Japan is rewriting history is true. It is unavoidable as Japan seeks to assert itself in an international climate abundant with threats and the US seeming less and less reliable. Japan seeks an empowering narrative.

Japanese decision makers know the West could not stop Russia from invading and annexing Crimea from Ukraine. The US-Japan alliance is yet to be tested. Will the US spill American blood if Japan is attacked? We claim so, but words are cheaper than action.

History is not fact. Narratives come and go and reflect interests of power. As a US-Japan Relations professional, it is not my role to say which competing narratives are correct, at least at this juncture in my career. I am aware of these narratives, and further changes will come.

That I can say, with confidence, is inevitable.