'Anti-Japan' movement gains steam

In a scathing commentary, Japan's right-wing Sankei Shimbun newspaper accused Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of "openly defending China's sabre-rattling while insulting law-abiding Japan" at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue last month.

The writer of the commentary, upset at Mr Lee's advice for Japan to "acknowledge past wrongs", bluntly declared Singapore a new member of the "China-led anti-Japanese alliance".

Welcome, Singapore, to the expanding "anti-Japanese fraternity".

Since 2012, the return to power of ultra-conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vindicated like-minded nationalists in Japan, happy to now have a "friend" at the top.

These nationalists are a complex mix of anonymous Internet users, populist politicians, people nostalgic for past military glory, conservative media, young people ignorant about their country's role in World War II, China/Korea-hating xenophobes, et cetera. Although a minority, they are nevertheless very perceptible, with their vehement attacks against anyone disagreeing with their patriotic re-interpretation - "whitewashing" to critics - of Japan's wartime history.

This "feel-good" revisionist version of history appeals to a significant portion of the population fed up with having to assume culpability for a war that ended 70 years ago, and being endlessly blamed by China and Korea for Japan's past sins.

These people share a strong hostility to generally accepted wartime history because it portrays their country as an aggressor with a record of various war crimes, including forcing women in Japan-occupied Asia into military brothels - the "comfort women" or "sex slavery" issue.

They therefore attribute the "anti-Japanese" label to anyone holding this kind of "self-flagellating masochistic view of history". Instead, the revisionists advocate a "correct version of history", according to which Japan was rather a victim, having been forced into war by America and having suffered genocides (Hiroshima!) inflicted by the Americans.


In this version, Imperial Japan merely tried to defend the national interests it held in China; its army did not massacre innocents and, instead, has heroically "liberated" the rest of Asia, including Singapore, from European colonial rule. It also dismissed "comfort women" as professional whores and not victims of coercion.

This "feel-good" revisionist version of history appeals to a significant portion of the population, fed up with having to assume culpability for a war that ended 70 years ago and being endlessly blamed by China and Korea for Japan's past sins.

This trend has, among others, led to a phenomenon where patriotic books advocating revisionism and attacking the "anti-Japanese" at home and abroad become instant bestsellers. Publishers thus scramble to splash "anti-Japanese" across book covers, sometimes to the point of absurdity, as seen in the title of this otherwise serious book: Analysis Of 5,000 years of Anti-Japanese Chinese Civilisation.

Determined to correct the "wrong history" version, Premier Abe has, on record, avoided acknowledging that Japan conducted aggressions in Asia because, in his words, "the definition of aggression has not been established academically or legally". His supporters also reject Japan's responsibility for the "Rape of Nanjing".

The Japanese leader's repeated display of revisionism, nicknamed "Abenesia" by CNN, has stirred international calls

for Japan to face up to its inconvenient past, especially, as Prime Minister Lee has remarked, when this revisionism is a source of regional tensions.

To Japan's revisionists, such voices contesting their own version of history are part of an "anti-Japanese fraternity" which, to their dismay, seems to have become crowded lately.

First, there is America touching off uproar in Japan when Washington voiced unusually strong "disappointment" about Mr Abe's controversial 2013 visit to the war criminal-worshipping Yasukuni Shrine.

Although the United States' Congress in May warmly applauded Mr Abe's commitment to a larger role in defence, it has nevertheless maintained a 2007 resolution condemning Japan for wartime "sex slavery". Tokyo is actually fighting a losing battle for its image in America, where antipathy to Japan on this human rights issue is spreading. And, one after another, major US media outlets have come to be dismissed as "anti-Japanese" for their editorials questioning Japan's attitude on history.

Then there is Germany - its chancellor's visit to Tokyo in March was initially celebrated as a sign of Mr Abe's diplomatic success in Europe. But the welcoming mood turned ugly when Dr Angela Merkel cited Germany's example, counselling Japan to come clean on its wartime past.

The German leader did not inform her Japanese hosts of the decision she had made to lead Europe to join the China-led

Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank despite US/Japanese objection. The European move constituted a diplomatic slap in the face for Japan.

Next comes long-time "Japan-friendly" Taiwan, which chose to offend Japanese nationalist sensibilities by staging on July 4 a large-scale commemoration of the 70th anniversary of victory over Japan. Taipei further rubbed salt in the wound by announcing the building of a "comfort women" memorial.

Even the United Nations has caught "anti-Japanese fever", having issued a human rights report condemning Japan for failing to admit its responsibility for wartime "sex slavery" and having rejected a Japanese request to retract it.

Lastly, alarmed by the rampant revisionism in the country, 187 prominent international scholars on Japan in May co-signed a Worldwide Open Letter on War and Historical Memory in support of Japanese fellow historians who dare to challenge Mr Abe's revisionist view on history. Support for the Open Letter grew to more than 450 scholars, and counting, worldwide.

In the end, the so-called "anti-Japanese alliance" that Singapore has unintentionally found itself in, is no more than a product of imagination by a handful of angry ultra-nationalists whose attitude contributes to draining Japan of its stock of friends.

To the revisionists, who seem to defiantly declare "Sorry, but we are not sorry (for Japan's wartime conduct)", the so-called "anti-Japan" sentiments are in fact a retort to their world view that says in substance: "Sorry but, contrary to what you want to believe, we in Asia are not 'grateful' for the 'liberation' and occupation by the Imperial Japanese Army."

  • The writer is a retired French diplomat who has served in Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore and Beijing.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2015, with the headline ''Anti-Japan' movement gains steam'. Print Edition | Subscribe