Note to Japanese readers:  if you are not prepared to accept a rather harsh criticism of your culture, please stop reading now.

A couple of days ago, I learned about the behavior of the Japanese in the second world war, and it rather shocked me.  I didn’t really understand why the Japanese were (and to some degree, are) so reviled in South and East Asia, but after hearing about some of the atrocities that were done in Manchuria, China, and the Philippines, among others, I think I understand it now.  I’m very uncomfortable with it.  Primarily because it seems, from what I’ve been reading, that most of those countries, including South Korea, only want an acknowledgement and apology for what the Japanese did eighty years ago.  I imagine some are looking for reparations too, but I’m not going to get into that discussion.  That’s also something we’re dealing with in America, on a smaller scale, and I don’t want to open that can of worms.

However, such an apology and acknowledgement has, from what I understand, never been forthcoming.

I can think of many reasons for this.  I am not familiar with Japanese culture as much as someone who may be living there, but my general impression is that they tend to avoid things that cause them shame or embarrassment.  So I can kind of understand why they, even today, avoid thought or mention of what was done in world war two.  But in other senses, I can’t.  Culture is a very strong driving force, and I get that, but there are some things with which the only appropriate thing is swallowing your pride, and owning up to the history of one’s country performing unimaginable atrocities in wartime should be one of those things.

I am very uncomfortable with Japanese culture right now, and while I continue to learn the language as I don’t wish for two years of study to be in vain, I’m not sure if I want to ever visit there at the moment.  I mean, before I was pretty sure I would never be able to, but now I’m not even sure if I want to.  Because behind every kawaii thing they come up with, there are relatively recent wounds of war that are still festering, and I remain very disturbed by what I learned.

Japan’s Checkered Past

Many years ago, I was taking piano lessons as a late teen.  My teacher was an older Filipino woman who was a child (or a teenager, perhaps) during the Japanese occupation of the Phillipines.

She hated the Japanese.  Or at least she struggled to not hate the Japanese.  She told me horrible stories, and honestly I couldn’t blame her for how she felt.  Obviously, that was not my experience, but there are many people and countries out there who remember a Japan that was not an exporter of cool media and well-built cars, but a warlike country that left many scars that have lasted a very long time, and with good reason.

On my feedly feed, I have a keyword search set up for “Japanese”, and to be frank, much of the things that come through are not complimentary to them.  There appears to be an ongoing dispute about the wartime Japanese practice of “comfort women”, which many countries still haven’t forgiven or forgotten.  Of course it would be easy for me to say “It’s been eighty years, maybe time to let it go”, but old scars run deep, and the Japanese history of war and conquering still holds repercussions today.  The Chinese, for example, have not forgotten the Nanjing massacre, and while that, too, was around eighty years ago, I don’t know if my country would forget the murder of three hundred thousand people either, no matter how long in the past.

The Japanese of today are an amazing people, contributing much to the world in the way of culture, of media, of philosophy and religion.  Obviously I admire and respect them enough to make a significant effort to learn about their language and culture.  But a part of me still has to wonder:  it’s only been eighty years.  We took Japan out of war, but did we ever truly take war out of Japan?  After all, their culture is thousands of years old – eighty years is just a drop in the bucket.  I wonder if the other countries who are currently having somewhat tense relations with Japan over the past – such as Korea and the Phillippines – are making a big deal out of something that should be left in the past.  But I also wonder if they’re right, too.

But, all told, the Japanese and my people settled our differences eighty years ago – we won.  Whether the Japanese and other countries have settled their differences is, in all honesty, not much of my concern.  Still, I hope that Japan and its quarreling east Asian neighbors can continue to work at settling their differences.

A part of me wonders, though, whether Japan has ever truly come to terms with their past.