Thursday, January 05, 2006

Revisionist Edutainment: Japanese Comic Books

Unfortunately, a kid from the university where I teach is being quoted extensively on the popularity of the new revisionist textbooks. Oh, did I say 'textbooks'? My bad, I meant 'comic books'.

The quote that has leapt out at me a few times is from when he said something to the effect of, 'Each country has the right to interpret history in any way it sees fit.' Right. We'd be so much better off if post-war Germany had swept all of its atrocities under the carpet like Japan has. Oh yes, it's true; all those folks that caution us to learn from the past so that history doesn't repeat itself? They're full of crap.

This new breed of comic book sets out to paint a rosier picture of Japan's colonization of other countries in Northeast Asia during the first half of the 20th century. One comic book that I've looked through frames Japan's colonization of Korea in the modern day context of the 2002 Soccer World Cup. The subtitle of the book, loosely translated, is 'How South Korea Cheated and Ended Up in the Semifinals'.

Saying that these comic books paint a 'rosier' picture of Japan's colonist past implies that Japanese school children are being taught all about how their country's attempt to expand its influence over this region resulted in several large-scale atrocities. However, that is not the case.

History education usually stops short of the modern era, and the circumstances surrounding the horrific nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the hands of the United States are 'briefly' touched upon at best. The English language textbooks (all students are required to study English) used in the secondary education system here actually head back the other way. The message to be gleaned from the stories contained therein is that Japan was the victim. Hey, that's not propaganda the students are being fed in class, is it?

Comic books are a way of life over here as far as entertainment goes. You don't need to crane your neck very far to catch people of all ages reading them on their train-ride home after work/school. These 'rosy' comics are finding a receptive audience, and more are in the process of being published. It seems that some people are happy to have some kind of retort to all of the condemnations that are aired by both North and South Korea and China on the nightly news. The media never bothers to put the protests in context, so few people have a firm grasp of what's going on. At least now, because they read the comic book, they can say, "Oh, and this is the thanks we get for paving their roads, reorganizing their mess of a market at 'Namdaemun', and not raising a stink over the fact that we think they made the red dot on our national flag too big at the opening ceremony of the world cup in 2002!"

Try reading through Trans-Pacific Radio's article on what happened in Nanjing, or Google 'Comfort Women', and you'll probably have a better understanding of the historical context of the situation than the majority of people that went through Japan's public education system. What makes things more difficult is that the old guard in the government, including politicians who enjoy wide popular support (like Shintaro Ishihara, mayor of Tokyo), have said on the record that many of those atrocities never happened.

Anyone in the US government who tries to say that atrocities were not committed at the hands of our own soldiers will be slapped silly by the press, disowned by their political party, and most likely not re-elected the next time around. The opposite is true in Japan. The end of Iris Chang's book, The Rape of Nanking, quickly details some of the things that have happened (harassment and murder, just to name a couple) to those academics and politicians who dared to challenge the prevailing denial that continues to exist in modern-day Japan.

Part of the blame for all of this, of course, falls on the United States. Why was Hirohito let off the hook? According to John W. Dower in his Pulitzer prize winning book 'Embracing Defeat', the American occupiers were fearful of a popular revolt if Hirohito, who was revered like a god, were held accountable for what went on during his rule. The Tokyo war crimes trials (ie. victor's justice) ensued, and Dower argues that the denial is partly rooted in the conservative wing's resistance to accepting the way that guilt was established after the war.

We're currently seeing more carefully orchestrated trials being conducted where Milosevic and Hussein are concerned. Someone actually took the time to learn something from the mistakes of the past! Imagine that. Are these modern trials still just a more clean-cut form of victor's justice? That's definitely arguable.

So what the hell does all this mean?
Well, it means that a surprisingly large portion of the metropolitan population is getting it's historical analysis from a comic book that admittedly tilts history in an inaccurate way.

Lots of laughter and common-sense objections arise from this, at least from an onlooker's point of view. This is similar to how the Catholic and Protestant churches, during the 16th and 17th centuries, tried to bend history in their respective favor. Both were determined to prove that, historically-speaking, their church went back further, thus staking a stronger claim to the idea that they were the one true interpretation of Christ's life and death.

OK, maybe that wasn't the best comparison I could have drawn here, but hopefully the stupidity of both approaches to interpreting history is evident. Many would argue that both sides of the story need to be told in order to keep history from repeating itself, and those people would sound exactly like my parents. Of course, we Americans are very fortunate because we have cable networks like FOX news to give us exceedingly balanced accounts of what is going on in the world around us...

Now admittedly, the perils of a revisionist set of comic books aren't all that nasty. Indignation is sure to spout out from all sorts of angry orifices, but we're not looking at an impending remilitarization of Japan or anything (oh wait...). A disgruntled netizen in a chat room in South Korea wrote, 'Well fine. I'm just going to start producing comic books that embellish the atrocities they committed, and makes Japan look like even more of a bad guy than it already is!' Luckily, the other people in the chat room were a bit more on the adult-side of the maturity spectrum. They quickly told him to shut the hell up.

"What, so stooping to their level is going to get them to stop?!?" one person wrote.

I would argue that the bigger challenge is going to come from China. The government over there still has a pretty impressive control over what news the average person sees and hears. Beijing is also quite good at fanning public resentment--one of its favored ways of flexing its muscles with regard to countries is doesn't like. More importantly, China is a country of one billion-plus people--one billion-plus people who tend to have a negative opinion of Japan--and it is going to be an increasingly difficult opponent, economically-speaking. This is just my opinion, but it seems that purposefully antagonizing a giant (that is only getting bigger!) is clearly bad policy.

On a positive note: these new revisionist textbooks (damn, did it again), are bringing people closer to a real dialogue about what went on during Japan's colonization of this region. The few people I have spoken to about these comic books are aware of the factual inaccuracies, so this could lead to a discussion of what actually went on. Maybe, but then we still have to do something about those revisionist history comic books, er, I mean textbooks that they use in the junior and senior high schools.

PS. Dower's 'Embracing Defeat' is fantastic. I highly recommend it. Chang's 'The Rape of Nanking' will probably make your stomach hurt, but qualifies as interesting reading.

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