Anitha Quintin: The “Harmonious Japan Paradigm” and Japanese Historical Revisionism

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The denialism of Japan’s war crimes by high-ranking Japanese authorities has been a strong point of contention over the past decades—particularly since the recent testimonies of former Japanese soldiers and comfort women. According to perceptions of Japanese culture as a homogenous, hierarchical culture, all echelons of Japanese society would echo statements made by officials and the media. If there is historical founding for such a culture, what should be made of those who do not deny Japan’s war crimes? Johnston’s adaptive rationality provides insight into the impact of lived experiences on Japanese historical revisionism and its strategic culture.

Japanese revisionism and denialism of crimes committed during the Second World War is an issue which continues to present itself at the forefront of political and economic disputes in the Asia-Pacific region (Denyer). However, the Western response to such open denial since the end of the war disproportionately relies on a prevailing perception of Japan as being a “relatively homogenous” society which “stifles individual creativity and promotes conformity” and “in which seniority and the senpai-kohai[1] relationship are valued over a competitive meritocracy” (Seaton, 66-67). This reductionist view of Japanese culture is a clear example of Alistair Johnston’s application of limited rationality. While Japan’s cultural foundation in strict hierarchies may influence its memory of war crimes, placing too much significance on this culture overlooks variations within Japanese society itself. The rejection of conflicts in Japanese society comprise the Harmonious Japan Paradigm.[2]  Unaddressed, this paradigm mounts a significant obstacle to understanding Japanese denialism.  In this paper, I will analyze the differences in Japanese memory to offer a more complete understanding of denialism.

In order to understand motivations for Japanese denialism, it is useful to separate Japanese society into three main groups: those directly impacted by the war; the post-war elite; and the broader post-war Japanese society. This paper will examine the influences on each group—ranging from recognition of guilt to denialism—through an application of Johnston’s explanation of adaptive rationality and Thomas Mahnken’s arguments on the differences between national and military strategic cultures. The ways in which societal roles of these individual groups as well as their history inform their perceptions of Japan’s war crimes are so distinct that it is impossible to identify one singular ‘Japanese’ response to its past.

In “U.S Strategic and Organizational Subcultures,” Thomas Mahnken examines the distinction between the strategic cultures at different levels of American society. One of the primary differences Mahnken highlights is the tendency of military decision makers, closer to the conflict, to be more casualty averse than the American public (Mahnken, 75)—thus ostensibly favoring policies and strategies which would reduce casualties in conflict. Though Mahnken’s argument pertains to American strategic culture, it can be applied as a framework of understanding for the case of post-war Japan. Those closest to the war’s horrific events seem to evince the most complex memories. Among those who lived through the Second World War, Nobusuke Kishi, Economic Manager of Japanese-controlled Manchukuo and later Prime Minister of Japan, embodied the imperialist Japanese attitude now so strongly condemned. Kishi “referred to all Chinese as ‘lawless bandits’” who were “incapable of governing themselves” (Driscoll, 266). With so much of his power founded in his brutal rule and having been held as a Class A war criminal, Kishi had incentive to deny claims of Japanese wartime atrocities committed[3]. However, his attitude was not reflected among the broader population of those most greatly impacted by the war. Mahnken’s conceptualization begins to help us understand competing perspectives among other Japanese survivors.

In the 1980s, “an increasing number of [Japanese] soldiers started confessing their parts in atrocities” (Seaton, 44). Japanese soldiers, both victims and victimizers within the context of the war, were accepting their part in history: they too, had suffered, as “over 60 per cent of them died miserable, horrific deaths from illness and starvation, far from home” (Sakamoto, 161), but they could not acknowledge their suffering without recognizing the suffering they had inflicted. Furthermore, the local governments of some of the Japanese cities most devastated during the Second World War—Hiroshima and Nagasaki— “indicated more willingness to acknowledge Japanese aggression” (Seaton, 50). Former Hiroshima Mayor Hiraoka Takashi was “among the first Hiroshima mayors to state in 1991 that there was no excuse for Japan inflicting ‘great suffering and despair on the peoples of Asia and Pacific’” (Seaton, 51), a statement which he later repeated to an international audience. For Japanese soldiers and Japanese civilians living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, traumatic personal experience influenced the way in which they responded to Japan’s war crimes. If considered from a homogenous-Japan perspective, these open admissions of fault would be in direct conflict with perspectives asserted by prominent officials. However, they are representative of a more dynamic experience and hierarchy, influenced by how a particular individual experienced the conflict. Within the Japanese hierarchy, elders are given elevated status. The influence of direct familial or personal ties to suffering on negative perceptions of the war exists within a smaller proportion of the hierarchy in Japanese society, but an identifiable subset all the same.

Japan’s post-war political elite have perhaps greater incentive to openly deny war crimes. A post-war Japan, shattered by the dropping of the atomic bomb, needed to hold and revere past ideals of glory and of hope for the country. Immediately following the Japanese surrender, “the Japanese military had attempted to cover up many of its crimes by burning incriminating documents” (Seaton, 35). Nationalist movements pushed to “eradicate mentions of ‘comfort women[4]’ from the school history curriculum and to replace ‘masochistic history’ with ‘a history to be proud of’” (Seaton 52), in what would be known as the 2001 Textbook Crisis. Without an acknowledgement of crimes committed, there would be no need to face political, financial, or social retribution.

Those who openly admitted or apologized for Japanese crimes posed a problem to this culture of denialism and were addressed accordingly. The soldiers who came forth with their stories were met by “accusations that the soldiers were brainwashed by the Chinese” (Seaton, 44). When former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa “called the war an ‘aggressive war and a mistake’” (Seaton, 49), he was “pressured into backtracking by alarmed bureaucrats and politicians in his fragile coalition” (Seaton, 50).  Denialism at the governmental level was rooted in a sense of lost pride and lost social and political authority, thus creating a greater need for a vehement rejection of any accusations.

Post-war Japanese society, influenced by the systems supported by the elite, was looking for this new identity to hold on to: “unlike members of the war generation who base their war memories on recollection of past experiences, members of the postwar generation can only [rely] on a personal interpretation of the war based on learning” (Seaton, 11). In the 1970s, this took the form of “corporate warriors.” Japan’s economic growth gave reason to liken the “self-sacrifice of the military for their country during the war [with] the self-sacrifice of salarymen for their companies” (Seaton, 47). The saturation of Japanese media and education with such heroic stories and otherwise revised history caused significant segments of Japanese society to accept a denialist memory. Despite this, post-war Japanese society as a whole did not necessarily reflect the culture of the political elite. A 1994 survey “found that 80 per cent of Japanese polled agreed that the government ‘has not adequately compensated the people of the countries Japan invaded or colonized’” (Seaton, 51).

This separation between the political elite and the rest of Japanese society is yet another example of the limited rationality which comes from a harmonious-Japan perspective.  A limited understanding of Japanese culture—often focusing on the media, selected texts, and the political scene—simplifies Japanese society as homogeneous. But “despite the overwhelming scholarly and media focus on right-wing textbooks and academics in discussions of Japanese history education, teachers, the people who really decide what is taught in the classroom, and their unions have a reputation for being more progressive” (Seaton, 67); the state of Japanese history education is far more complex than a ‘consensus’ put forth by selected texts. The differences in societal opinions remain nevertheless congruent with broader perceptions of Japanese culture. The “strong vertical hierarchy in which deference to authority is expected” (Seaton, 66) is still present—but, as noted, political elites are not the only authority which exists in Japanese society.

The range of reactions across these three categories within Japanese society demonstrate the dangers of defining any reaction solely based on the broadest reading of Japanese strategic culture. Reactions which may seem to challenge the foundations of Japanese culture in fact support a cultural methodology if the actions of individuals are not reduced solely to their membership in the broadest social group. Denialism by Japanese officials of the trauma of Imperial Japan’s victims in spite of contradictory popular sentiments remains problematic, with opportunistic politicians galvanizing nationalist sentiments at the expense of history and competing perspectives. Meanwhile, the victims are still left with no official apology, but understanding the stratified nature of denialism is the first step toward atonement.

[1] Senior-Junior (Seaton, 66)

[2] Krauss et al.

[3] Class A crimes are those considered to be crimes against peace (International Crimes Database).

[4] Comfort Women, or Ianfu, are “women from [Japanese] colonies and occupied areas […] forcibly put under sexual slavery” (Hayashi, 129).

Works Cited:

  1. Denyer, Simon. “Japan-South Korea Dispute Escalates as Both Sides Downgrade Trade Ties.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 Aug. 2019,
  2. Seaton, Philip A. Japan’s Contested War Memories: the “Memory Rifts” in Historical Consciousness of World War II. Routledge, 2010.
  3. Johnston, Alistair Iain. “Thinking About Strategic Culture.” International Security, vol. 19, no. 4, 1995, pp. 32–64.
  4. Kraus et al., Conflict in Japan, Hanley, Susan B. Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 40, no. 2, 1985, pp. 238–241. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Apr. 2020.
  5. Mahnken, Thomas G. “U.S Strategic and Organizational Subcultures.” Strategic Culture and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Culturally Based Insights into Comparative National Security Policymaking, by Jeannie L. Johnson et al., Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 69–84.
  6. Driscoll, Mark. Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque: the Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895-1945. Duke University Press, 2010.
  7. “War Crimes.” ICD – War Crimes – Asser Institute,
  8. Hayashi, Hirofumi. “Disputes in Japan over the Japanese Military ‘Comfort Women’ System and Its Perception in History – Hirofumi Hayashi, 2008.” SAGE Journals, 1 May 2008,

Author: Anitha Quintin

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