The University of Tokyo Professor Emeritus Takashi Ito, a leading figure in modern Japanese history and Showa political history research in particular, has been active as a conservative controversialist with the aim of freeing modern Japanese history from the left wing. In recent years he is devoting efforts to organizing and publishing oral histories and historical records owned by individuals. Ito spoke frankly with Toshio Motoya, from the historian’s standpoint, about the true nature of Japan’s masochistic historical view.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You are a historian specialized in modern Japanese history, and I asked you to serve as a “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest judge starting this year.
(I) Thank you for having me.
(M) I have sent you several of my books on history. Have you had a chance to read them?
(I) Yes, I have. I mostly agree with what you wrote. In the future, I think you can publish fascinating books if you focus on the older history of the Japanese, as well as the actions by Japanese people regarding the Meiji Constitution and Imperial Diet after the Meiji Restoration.
(M) Thank you for the advice. I have visited 82 countries and spoken with many different people, including important figures. All of these countries evaluate Japan highly. Yet when I come back to Japan, our history textbooks and newspapers say entirely different things. Our educational system and media are biased, so members of Japanese society that hold correct views are seen as mistaken. I’ve learned this through my experience traveling abroad.
(I) The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal-centered thinking is a masochistic historical view, and stemmed mostly from the American occupation of Japan. The American awareness included fear and racial discrimination. The U.S. looked down on Japan while being afraid of it, a consistent stance that has lasted from the Russo-Japanese War until today. The Allies in World War II came up with the brand-new concept that waging war is a crime, which they used to judge Japan and Germany. They also totally crushed the Japanese spirit with the Constitution of Japan and War Guilt Information Program.
(M) I agree. I feel the atomic bombings were another reason for implanting this self-torturing historical view among the Japanese. The U.S. provided extensive military aid to the Soviet Union to help it defeat Nazi Germany in Europe. The Soviet Union became a military monster, and the U.S. thought World War III would break out over the communization of the world immediately after World War II. That’s why the U.S. decided to bomb Japan as a way to place restraints on the Soviet Union.
(I) I see.
(M) The U.S. dropped two different types of atomic bombs on August 6 and 9: a uranium bomb on Hiroshima and a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. There was a reason for this, too – the U.S. wanted data on the damage caused by the different types. However, it judged that the international community would take a negative view of this amazingly destructive power, and that it could only conduct one attack if there was more time in between, which is why it dropped the two bombs so close together. As it planned, the U.S. successfully surveyed the damage and collected data after the war.
(I) Is that not a true war crime?
(M) Yes, it is. To cover up this crime, the U.S. had to create a story saying it dropped the bombs because Japan was a bad country. That’s why it guided the schools and media to spread false history, such as the claims that Japan waged an aggressive war and massacred 300,000 citizens in Nanjing. It is clear that racial prejudice was why the U.S. targeted Japan instead of Germany, although some say this was out of consideration for the German scientists who fled to the U.S.
(I) I agree entirely. Japan fought for the independence of countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, freeing Asia from the Western colonial powers.
(M) Japan did a great thing by inspiring the momentum for banishing colonialism from the world. The U.S. bound the media’s hands with the Press Code, which is why people don’t feel proud of this accomplishment. It systematically censored personal letters, burned important books before and during the war, and purged public officials who did not conform.
(I) The American treatment of Japan after World War II is highly unusual in world history. This may be hard to believe today, but Japanese people opposed it with extreme force at first. However, they couldn’t withstand the American power.
(M) For example, The Asahi Shimbun newspaper published a dialogue with Ichiro Hatoyama in September 1945, in which he said that the atomic bombings were a war crime. This earned the newspaper a publishing ban from the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (GHQ).
(I) I’ve researched American documents from the occupation of Japan. None of the central Japanese officials thought they had done anything wrong.
(M) Of course they had some responsibility for Japan’s defeat, but Japan was forced to fight. In 1941, Chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy General Staff Osami Nagano said, “If we do not fight, the country will be ruined. If we do fight, the country may be ruined. Yet if we do not fight and the country is ruined, our ethnic group will be forever ruined body and soul. If we fight to defend our country – even if we are not victorious – we can preserve the Japanese spirit of protecting our nation, and our descendants will certainly recover.” I think that’s how people felt at the start of the war.
(I) Wars occur when people can’t come to an agreement in negotiations. It wasn’t that the U.S. wanted peace yet Japan decided to start the war. The U.S. pressured Japan in all sorts of ways – it froze the assets of Japanese residents in July 1941 and decided on an oil embargo on Japan in August. Another method was the Hull Note in November. Kinmochi Okura was effectively the director of the East Asia Research Institute (a thinktank on foreign strategy) before and during the war. In his diary he wrote that the Japanese ethnic group would meet its demise if it yielded, but that it would recover even if Japan was defeated in the war. However, Japanese people have totally lost this ability through the American occupation policy – which was totally different from past methods of ending wars – that crushed the Japanese spirit of recovering from hardship. Since then, Japan has protected the Constitution of Japan that was made by the U.S. with religious zeal, and we haven’t changed a single word.
(M) Furthermore, creating permanent laws during a military occupation is a violation of international law.
(I) Japan was threatened that the Emperor would be in danger if the constitution wasn’t enacted. This is the major weakness of the Japanese.
(M) The Japanese constitution is extremely difficult to amend, but we finally have a chance to do so.
(I) The most important thing is revising Article 9. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to add a third clause clearly specifying the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). However, that would mean continually denying the right of belligerency. “Right of belligerency” also includes the “right of self-defense.”
(M) I think Abe is aiming for a two-stage approach: first he will show that constitutional reform is possible, and then he will work to create a more ideal constitution.
(I) I wonder if Japanese people will accept a second amendment.
(M) The Komeito won’t approve removing the second clause, and I think this would currently be voted down in a national referendum.
(I) We have to convince them somehow.
(M) This opportunity won’t last forever. We have to revise the constitution between the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election in September and the House of Councillors election next July, considering that this is within Abe’s and Donald J. Trump’s terms of office. There’s no guarantee that the Komeito and people can be persuaded by then. Realistically, I think adding a third clause recognizing the JSDF is the only option.
(I) Tanzan Ishibashi was minister of finance and a member of the House of Representatives right after World War II, and he worked as a commentator after being purged from public service. He said a third clause should be added, stating that the first two clauses were not valid unless the world was in an ideal state of security, as described in the preamble. I feel this thinking is essential.
(M) There are varied opinions on potential third clauses, such as that we should also clearly specify the right of self-defense in addition to recognizing the JSDF. I think Abe is considering many different things as well.
(I) It is important to clearly state the right to self-defense. Without that, just adding the JSDF to the constitution would end up restricting its activities.
(M) I understand that concern, but I think it is important to clarify the JSDF so people no longer wonder if they are unconstitutional. The JSDF is why China cannot easily take military actions in the seas near Japan today. The Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) is especially capable. For example, while regular submarines travel at a depth of around 300 meters, MSDF submarines can fire torpedoes upward even from a depth of 500 meters. The Chinese navy, which can’t even gain control of the Straits of Taiwan, could never oppose the MSDF to take the Genkai Sea.
(I) I fully concur that we must recognize the importance of the JSDF.
(M) That’s why constitutional change is needed.
(I) The masochistic historical view means the Japanese people are seen as an aggressive ethnic group, but historically that isn’t true. I don’t think Japan has attacked any country since around the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Imjin War.
(M) In areas such as Europe, where the countries border each other, it is normal for victorious countries to become occupiers and for the defeated nations to be occupied. Japan, being an island nation, never had that experience, and I think that’s why we put up no resistance to the American occupation policy. Germany resisted and no constitution was enacted, merely the provisional “Basic Law.”
(I) I think that’s because the Emperor was taken hostage.
(M) The fear caused by the atomic bombs likely played a part, too. The U.S. was the sole nuclear power until 1949, when the Soviet Union conducted a nuclear test. Nuclear weapons were extremely useful both for threats and actual combat at that time. One theory says the American scientists were anxious, so they leaked information about atomic development to the Soviet Union. This seems highly credible to me, since the Soviet Union took just four years to develop and test its atomic bombs. From that point on, no nation has been able to use its nuclear weapons. Douglas MacArthur planned to employ atomic weapons in the Korean War in 1950, right after the Soviet nuclear tests. The government opposed this, and he ended up being dismissed from his position of general.
(I) Recently I’m working in oral history, interviewing various people and recording what they say. I’ve included many of these oral histories in my books, from Nobusuke Kishi to politicians, business leaders, and journalists.
(M) Really? We bought the Nagatacho TBR Building, which was home to the offices of many politicians including Noboru Takeshita and Keizo Obuchi. We are currently building APA Hotel Kokkai-gijidomae-Ekimae, with 17 floors and 500 rooms, and plan to open it next February. It will be a high-grade, landmark hotel for APA.
(I) I’ve visited the former TBR Building for interviews.
(M) APA should be in the center of Japan, just like the word “Japan” has the letters “apa” in the middle. I bought a building and established our Head Office in Akasaka because I believe it is the heart of the country, right by the Imperial Palace, National Diet Building, and Supreme Court. Today we have three buildings on Sotobori Road in Akasaka. Many areas of Tokyo call up specific company names, and I hope people will associate Akasaka with APA. We won the TBR Building at a high auction price, and are turning it into a hotel. Why did you start taking down these oral histories?
(I) My original goal was to free modern Japanese history from the left wing, and I couldn’t think of anything new to do once I passed the age of 70. I decided to interview politicians and others who built their eras, take important records of things only they remember, and preserve them for future generations. I also collect individual historical documents such as diaries, and I publish them and my interviews. With permission from Kiichi Miyazawa, I have brought his extensive historical records to the Modern Japanese Political History Materials Room of the National Diet Library, where they are being organized. I don’t just interview politicians, for instance, I also talked with Tsuneo Watanabe. Right now I’m working on an oral history of Atsuyuki Sassa.
(M) I know Sassa well.
(I) You have reached a venerable age yourself, so I would like to interview you if possible!
(M) I always tell people I’m just 38, so I don’t feel old yet…
(I) We can always publish a sequel!
(M) In that case, I’ll think about it (laughs). I have many opportunities to meet people, and some of them are particularly memorable. I have strong impressions of both Sassa and Susumu Nishibe.
(I) I also know Nishibe. We were both left-wingers during our time at The University of Tokyo (laughs). I was a member of the Editorial Department for the bulletin of the Democratic Youth League of Japan (DYLJ).
(M) I think most intellectuals were left-wing back then. When I worked at the Shinkin Bank, I was the head of the union’s executive committee, and I always had heated discussions with the DYLJ (a subordinate organization of the Communist Party) and Soka Gakkai. Each time I defeated their arguments, they would bring out higher officials. The Communist Party is bad because it controls all information and only releases data to its advantage. That’s why Japanese people previously saw China, the Soviet Union, and North Korea as utopias without understanding their internal circumstances.
(I) The Soviet Union was formed after World War I. Conflict between communism and the rest of the world continued until the Soviet Union’s collapse.
(M) I always ask Big Talk participants to share a “word for the youth.”
(I) First, I hope they will feel pride in being Japanese. I particularly wish for people in the prime of their working lives to describe Japan as a wonderful country.
(M) They must learn about Japanese history for that reason. All countries study their own history, called “kokushi” in Japanese (“the history of our country”). The University of Tokyo changed its department name from “kokushi” to “nihonshi” (“history of Japan”).
(I) The name was changed after I retired from my professor position. You can imagine why that happened.
(M) Yes, we must change the Japanese educational system and media. The newspapers are also bizarre. The Yomiuri Shimbun is focused on printing 100 million copies, so it has become leftist to gain broader support. That’s not good. Japan would become a better country if The Yomiuri Shimbun had a tone like the current Sankei Shimbun, and if the Sankei Shimbun took a firmer conservative stand. I have great hopes of the online society, which leans strongly conservative. Newspapers are selling fewer copies, so I think their influence will decline and the truth will be shared online. Trump was able to directly convey his views to the citizens and world via Twitter, and I don’t think he could have been elected through the traditional media alone.
(I) I agree.
(M) The media says the economy has worsened under Abe, but it’s actually changing for the better in terms of rising stock prices, favorable foreign exchange rates, and a better ratio of job openings to employment seekers. Abe is also gaining trust on the global stage and showing his talents in diplomacy, now that he has the longest term among any G7 leader after German Chancellor Angela Merkel. I don’t think anyone would make a better prime minister than Abe today. He will likely win the presidential election in September and stay in power for another three years, but the issue is what happens after. He has to train a successor over the next three years.
(I) I don’t think that will be so easy. Leaders appear when a situation changes.
(M) Perhaps that’s true. Of course, there are politicians with superb views of the world and history who haven’t yet taken the center stage. The question is whether they are able to influence many people and display leadership. They must have grit in addition to knowledge.
(I) Another issue is that Japan lacks an intelligence agency.
(M) Japan has long disregarded the value of intelligence. It made many mistakes in World War II because it didn’t realize its naval and diplomatic codes had been decrypted.
(I) This is the age of the Internet, so we must think about how information is being pilfered in all sorts of places. It will be important to create an intelligence agency for the sake of Japan’s future.
(M) First, I feel we need an anti-espionage law. I have long suggested that Japan also establish a “Ministry of Information” with a staff of 3,000 and a budget of 300 billion yen. Any mistaken information about Japan, anywhere in the world, should be refuted in the local language within 24 hours.
(I) Organizations of that type are extremely important.
(M) We can’t just gather information; we must also analyze it. My insight about information from the Internet and media led me to believe that President Barack Obama would visit Hiroshima; Trump would win the election; countries with large populations near Japan would have rising income levels, ushering in an era of global travel; and Japan would become a major sightseeing destination for more foreign tourists. My predictions were right on the mark. I have seen how odd the Japanese media is by traveling abroad and analyzing various types of information.
(I) Going overseas also clearly throws Japan’s great qualities into light. It’s not good if people never leave Japan and do nothing but complain about it.
(M) Truly, the enemy of the Japanese people is the Japanese people. The Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders was funded by the Sohyo (General Council of Trade Unions of Japan, which later joined the Japanese Trade Union Confederation). Funds from members of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, which Japanese attorneys are forced to join, are used to lobby at the United Nations and censure Japan for the comfort women and other issues. Labor unions also use “checkoffs” (wage deductions) and other money to pay people daily wages to demonstrate in front of the National Diet. We should prohibit these checkoffs.
(I) Yes, absolutely.
(M) Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me today.
(I) Thank you.
Date of dialogue: August 3, 2018
Born in Tokyo in 1932. Graduated from the Department of Japanese History, Faculty of Letters, The University of Tokyo in 1958, and from the Japanese History Master’s Course, Graduate School of Humanities, The University of Tokyo in 1961. Began working as a professor in The University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Letters in 1981, and as a professor in the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies’ Policy Information Center in 1997. His many published works include Research on the Political History of the Showa Period (University of Tokyo Press, 1969), Politics of the Showa Period (Yamakawa Shuppansha, 1983) and History and Me: Recollections of a Historian’s Life With Historical Records (Chuko-Shinsho 2317 / Chuokoron-Shinsha, 2015). He became a “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest judge in 2018.