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Why Nanking Matters

By 18 February 1938, the Japanese Army had exhausted itself in Nanking, and about 300,000 Chinese civilians had been dead, maimed, mutilated, or raped to death in Nanking, and the first reports were reaching the world outside.  Refugees, diplomats, the odd reporter, and the sheer volume of horror carried the story, but it was not widely reported.  Japan, to this day, denies the scale, and is generally silent about the issue.

More than seventy years later, the issue of Japanese war guilt is indisputable, but the issue of exactly what atrocities were committed is not, especially in Japan.  The west insists that massacres like Nanking happened, and that the many scores of perpetrators be punished (albeit many already have been).  Japan insists that these incidents were exaggerated, that “comfort women” were volunteers, and that Unit 731 was not a biological warfare outfit that used humans as guinea pigs.  At minimum, Japan often suggests, Japan was only doing what was necessary to survive.

While the gods of Expediency often is worshiped in wartime, that does not excuse atrocity.  To say “I know you are but what am I” to accusers holding evidence of barbarity (deflecting guilt by saying “so did you”) is just frivolous. While the Americans burned Tokyo and a score of other Japanese cities with firebombs and torpedoed hospital ships that routinely carried ammunition, the Soviets invading Manchuria in 1945 were as brutal to the Japanese and Chinese they encountered as they were to the Germans,  Yes, these crimes were committed in the name of the Expediency gods, but that does not excuse Japan’s denials.

Japan’s excuse-making deflection may be intolerable, but so is the litany of finger-pointing every year when some prominent Japanese visits the Yasukuni shrine.  The west insists that this is a place of worship for the “killers” of WWII.  Trouble is, it’s for them…as well as for every other Japanese who ever died in any battle, including WWI and the Peking Relief in 1900, side by side with the west’s finest fighting men.

The reason Nanking matters even to this day is though Japan was guilty, so is popular perception of a war that had enough tragedy to go around.  No one has to compound it by making up things, or by denying the undeniable.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look and Japan At War, 1945-45 is a study of Japan’s motivations and methods up to and including WWII.  Available in hardback and paperback at fine booksellers everywhere.

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The Founding of Japan and the Meiji Constitution

On 11 February in the year 660 BCE, it is said that the emperor Jimmu founded the empire of Japan.  Jimmu is said to have been descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu through her grandson Ninigi, and from the storm god Susanoo.  All of this is founded on myth, but far more reliable sources indicate that the Meiji emperor Mutsuhito’s constitution for the restored Japanese state/empire/arsenal was adopted on this date in 1889.

Most readers think “representative democracy” when they read the word “constitution,” but this is not always the case, and certainly it wasn’t for Japan.  The Meiji Constitution was a document that, by intent, ensured the tyranny of the hereditary samurai class by placing veto power for any policy in their hands, and their hands alone.  All the samurai had to do was withdraw their war minister (appointed from the ranks of the Army, samurai all), or later the navy minister (ditto) to force the imperial cabinet (selected from the Diet) to reform the government.  This they would do, repeatedly, when the governments–especially under the reign of Yoshihito, the weak Taisho emperor that followed the Meiji in 1912–did not support another of their unsanctioned outrages such as grabbing German territory in the Pacific at the outset of WWI, invading Manchuria, then China proper, in 1914, 1932 and 1937, respectively.  The process would be repeated during the reign of the Showa emperor Hirohito right up until 1941, when the appointment of General Tojo Hideki as prime minister obviated the need.

Most of the early 20th century was punctuated by assassinations, violent uprisings (food riots were common in japan, averaging two a year for the better part of a thousand years) and attempted coups d’état in Japan that everyone caught in the middle would support any measure that looked like it pointed to stability.  To the samurai, of course, this meant them running things.  And they “ran things” right up to August of 1945, when their emperor had had enough.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War 1941-45 examines the political reality of the samurai against a backdrop of a world that moved beyond the need for them.  Available from fine booksellers everywhere.