The words were so brazen that they have created a firestorm globally.  This was the comment of Mayor Toru Hashimoto of Osaka, described as “outspoken” and “brash” in the international media, that “comfort women”– the thousands of Asian women who were forced to serve as prostitutes during the Second World War–were “necessary” for the morale of the Japanese troops.

“Anyone can understand that the system of comfort women was necessary to provide respite for a group of high-strung, rough and tumble crowd of men braving their lives under a storm of bullets,” Hashimoto said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

While the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and other political figures were quick to distance themselves from Hashimoto’s remarks, their stance was hypocritical since he was simply mouthing what many in these circles and in the broader population believe to be true.   Moreover, the Osaka mayor’s remarks, moreover, came in the wake of a mass visit in April by some 170 sitting legislators to the Yasukuni Shrine, the home of Japan’s war dead, including 14 convicted war criminals, a ritual that many of its neighbors have blasted as a sign of the country’s unrepentant attitude for its conduct during World War II.

Failure to Confront Past

Hashimoto and Abe’s behavior ultimately stem from the fact that the country has not really come to terms with its role and behavior during that war.  Japan’s experience is in contrast to that of Germany, where society was subjected to a more or less thorough process of “denazification,” the centerpiece of which was the embedding in the national consciousness of Nazi Germany’s responsibility for the war and for unspeakable atrocities, including the genocide inflicted on the Jewish people.

Washington played a role in fostering historical amnesia.  Instead of dethroning the emperor after the Japanese defeat, the US kept Hirohito in power for purposes of political stability, thus exempting the main symbol of Japan’s war aims from retribution, a gesture whose meaning was not lost on the Japanese.  Moreover, the window of opportunity that saw a flurry of US-imposed reforms that destroyed the old imperial army and reduced the power of the bureaucratic and economic elites disappeared with the onset of the Cold War and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.   Seeing the defeated Japanese elite as an ally against Communism and needing a revived Japanese industry as a base for war material production, the US allowed the rehabilitation of key figures in the Japanese war machine, a process that climaxed with the coming to power of Nobusuke Kishi, a top official in the Japanese puppet regime in Manuchuria and, later, Japan’s wartime Minister of Commerce and Industry, in 1957.  This would have been the equivalent of Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s surviving economic henchman, becoming head of post-war Germany.

Reemergence of Chauvinism

Owing to wartime suffering, pacifism has been a widespread sentiment in Japan.  But instead of building on it to get the nation to accept responsibility for Japan’s wartime crimes and atrocities, the elites promoted rapid economic growth and winning global markets as an alternative to national soul searching– indeed, as an antidote to it, given the willing participation of almost the whole society in imperial aggression.

Conservatives committed to maintaining Japan’s subordinate status to Washington have dominated the country’s politics in the last six decades.  But with the two-decade-long recession that the country entered in the 1990’s and the economic ascent of China, which Japan’s elite sees as its mortal rival, political and ideological trends in Japan have become more fluid.  Right-wing elements that seek to restore Japan’s imperial glory have taken advantage of the nation’s lack of internalization of war guilt and responsibility for war crimes to become a political force, even as the left, which has championed pacifism and national  responsibility for war crimes, has become more and more marginal.   The view that the comfort women were a myth and that Rape of Nanking in 1937, which saw the massacre of  thousands of Chinese civilians, never happened has gained widespread popularity.

Far-right politicians such as Hashimoto and former Tokyo governor and nationalist ideologue Shintaro Ishihara have successfully fished in these troubled waters.  In a move calculated to inflame relations with China, Ishihara proposed that the Tokyo city government buy the disputed Senkaku Islands, while Hashimoto played on the Japanese public’s frustration over the government’s failure to address the radioactive and political fallout from the 2011 tsunami by advocating a “dictatorship.”  Ishihara has advocated a nuclear-armed Japan, while Hashimoto proposes “simulating” possession of nuclear weapons while the parliament is debating whether or not to go nuclear.

Japan Moves Right

In the general elections of December 2012, Hashimoto and Ishihara’s party, the Japan Restoration Party, became the country’s second-largest opposition party.   The conservative Liberal Democratic Party rode back to power, this time with an avowed chauvinist, Shinzo Abe, becoming prime minister.   Abe, who was in power briefly in 2010, shares with Hashimoto and Ishihara the desire to deletethe Article 9—the clause that outlaws war as an instrument of foreign policy—from the Constitution.  According to Australian analyst Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “Though Abe’s comments on the nuclear weapons issue have been more circumspect than Ishihara’s and Hashimoto’s, he has expressed the view that the development of  ‘small’ nuclear weapons would be permissible even under Japan’s present constitution.”

With the LDP and the Japan Restoration Party competing for the growing right-wing vote, the center of gravity of Japanese politics is moving right.  In such a volatile context, one can only expect more incendiary statements from figures like Hashimoto as they go about their work of revising interpretations of the Japanese past in order to get to a future featuring an aggressively assertive Japan.   With the previous generation’s failure to come to terms with their nation’s checkered past, many Japanese unsettled by contemporary conditions marked by permanent recession and demoralization now find that promised future increasingly seductive.