Friday, September 25, 2015


War manga "Kuni ga moeru" (My Country is Burning) by Miyamoto Hiroshi 


Philip J Cunningham

So many decades after war’s end and Japan still can’t get its story straight. Hardly a day goes by when one doesn't hear about prestigious publications hailing the heroism of kamikaze suicide bombers, or leading politicians sanctimoniously defending the unsightly war shrine known as Yasukuni Jinja or revisionists cast aspersions on victims of the war, claiming variously that the Nanjing Massacre is anti-Japanese propaganda, that sex slaves corralled by the Imperial Army were upwardly mobile prostitutes, that for real human rights travesties one must look elsewhere: to the flattened cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or too the killing fields of Tibet and Tiananmen.

The Nanjing Massacre was in the news in 2005, thanks to the extraordinary illustrations of a manga artist who dared to show Japan doing wrong. Motomiya Hiroshi's "Kuni ga moeru" or "My Country is Burning” is an epic manga series about Japanese in China during the early Showa period. Not entirely surprisingly, it fell victim to right-wing critics,  including close associates of Tokyo mayor Ishihara Shintaro who complained that it "distorted history" by including scenes of the Nanjing Massacre in the September issue in Young Jump Shukan Magazine.

Publisher Shueisha let slip another two issues before caving in to the drumbeat of right-wing pressure, suspending the series in October and issuing in November a two-page joint apology by publisher and artist for ostensibly "offending" the sentiments of readers. 

The apology, wedged between pages of bikini-clad teen beauties and scatological comic strips, announced that some 20 scenes would be cut or altered for the book version in accordance with complaints. 

To understand how a handful of right-wingers with an anti-China agenda can cow a major publisher and veteran artist, one has to consider the low-margin economics of manga publishing shifting political landscape of Japan in recent years as the country struggles to free itself of the shackles of its US partnership while bracing itself for the seemingly unstoppable rise of China.

The Nanjing massacre, as vividly and unflinchingly portrayed by Motomiya has essentially been erased from the record, as manga magazines, voluminous but cheap, have a short shelf life, not unlike that of newspapers. Manga, like newspapers, are sold at something close to cost, the income stream is elsewhere. In the case of manga, artists and publishers collaborate closely to stimulate interest with newsstand sales of disposable product, then rely on word of mouth, fan loyalty and advertising to sell bound versions printed on quality paper with quality ink. The good stuff gets collected and preserved for the record in “tankobon” or collected volumes, and that’s where the hand of censorship is most likely to come down. Controversial manga can be effectively censored after hitting the newsstands because the newsprint version is ephemeral and usually recycled. 

“My Country is Burning” resumed publication in January and wrapped up on February 10, followed by the release of the white-washed book later in the month. in the contested September issue of Young Jump has been effectively white-washed. 

The Shueisha/Nanjing case is more about self-censorship and avoiding trouble than the result of draconian top-down orders to change content. In this way it is similar to the controversy raging between NHK television and the Asahi Shimbun newspaper over  the last-minute deletion of scenes critical of Emperor Hirohito in a dramatized trial about the fate of the comfort women who served the Imperial Army. All are agreed that sensitive topics such as Nanjing or the Emperor’s guilt are political hot potatoes, the question is whether or not fear of retribution is creating a climate of self-censorship in line with right wing demands. Right-wing attacks in the past, including the shooting of Nagasaki mayor Motoshima for his comments on Imperial guilt, or the slashing of film director Itami Juzo for criticizing yakuza or in January of this year, the delivery of bullets and a Molotov cocktail to the home of Fuji Xerox chairman Kobayashi Yotaro for speaking out against Koizumi visiting Yasukuni Shrine, all contribue to an atmosphere in which it is difficult to exercise free speech as guaranteed by Japan’s constitution.

A handful of terror incidents in an overwhelming peaceful and safe country have a chilling impact far beyond their original focused target, serving warning that certain political taboos must be observed.  According to Journalism professor Watanabe Takesato who tracked the reaction of the Japanese press in the Young Jump/Nanjing case, right-wing influence in the mainstream media is so dominant now that this important case got scant attention in the Japanese language press and was ignored by television news completely.

Motomiya’s controversial dramatization of Sino-Japanese history hit the convenience stores shelves and bookstores at a tender moment in Japanese political life when old paradigms were being discarded faster than a new way being forged.  Japan, since the days of Fukuzawa long accustomed to looking to the West, is redirecting its attention the Asian mainland, whether it be the China business boom, South Korean cultural product or North Korea saber rattling. Though unable to disengage from the enduring alliance with Washington, Japan has, with some US support, sought to reassert itself militarily and amend its US written Peace Constitution in the process.

Japan’s Cold warriors, first betrayed by Nixon’s turn around on China, later to complain that Clinton passed over Japan to favor engagement with China, may be temporarily supplicated by the presence of veteran cold warriors like Rumsfeld and Cheney in the Bush administration, but even so the breathtakingly rapid rise of China in recent years has been dramatic and impossible to ignore. To further complicate the mix, the post-911 world has been swirling with changeable and unreliable alliances, populated with new friends, new enemies, new paradigms rising and falling, war real and imagined.

At the very time when Japan is being swept with fears of China, real and imagined, from reduced economic competitiveness to petty crime, bilateral issues that had lain dormant for the first few decades after the war, when China was effectively in hibernation from the outside world, are springing back to life.  The hot button issues of Nanjing, Yasukuni, comfort women, war crimes and imperial guilt, swept under the rug for so long, are now increasingly difficult to dispose of. If Japan acknowledges its wrongs and accepts guilt now, it loses leverage vis a vis China concerning very different mix of bilateral problems today.

But its too late for heartfelt apology and timely recompense, so the problem festers even as the post-war generation moves to the helm on both sides of the China Sea. That’s one reason why Motomiya Hiroshi’s epic story has created such a fuss. 

Set during Japan’s colonization of China, My Country is Burning is scripted in a pseudo-documentary style, recreating newspaper reports from the period and photo-inspired dramatizations that allows its fictional cast to take a walk through history at a tijme when Japanese militarists were scheming, torturing, lying and killing to create beach heads and shore up control on the Chinese mainland. Motomiya is a cartoonist, not a historian, but he cites some of his sources and generally follows the contour of well-known historical events, explaining how economic crisis in Japan and the rise of militant young Turks in the military and the colonization of Korea contributed to the impetus to establish a colony in Northeast China. Vividly portrayed scenes include the assassination of Prime Minister Inukai, and the manufacture of bombings and anti-Japanese incidents in Shanghai and Manchuria that were used to extract concessions from Chiang Kaishek and justify sending troops to China. 

Motomiya’s take on this period of history is intelligent, almost overbearing in its seriousness. Most of all it is unflinching about the harsh realities of war, however spotty and incomplete it might be.  He portrays violence, even when committed by Japanese, with a cartoonist’s relish, and as is often the case with drama, plots involving diabolical cold-blooded killers make for colorful exposition. 

Motomiya has his legions of fans, he’s been churning out action manga, mostly about men and swashbuckling adventure, and “My Country is Burning” could be said to be as much an entertainment as a history.  The violence he graphically portrays sometimes goes beyond dinner table fare, but nobody’s complaining about the violence. Instead it’s historical minutia that have his critics up in arms.

But why have his fans been silent? Why hasn’t the relatively pro-China, left-leaning Asahi Shimbun not made this a cause celebre? Motomiya’s “entertainment” while hated by the right is not exactly reverberating on the left.  Increasingly, fear of China crosses the board of the political spectrum. Revisiting and bringing to life through his pen the thorniest years of Japan’s thorny past in China, however laudable as an artistic enterprise, Motomiya is showing his age, for his art fails to click with the public at a time when Japan is straining to see itself as a victim of China; Chinese economic domination, crime and growing military might 
Once again, Japan is resurrecting and wrestling with the ghosts of WW2, the right hand slapping the left hand, uncovering and covering up the truth. Japan’s clumsy handling of sensitive historical issues, whether it be Comfort Woman, slave labor, territorial disputes, Yasukuni war memorials or even the one-sided myth of victimhood that is a cottage industry in Hiroshima, is as predictable as it is baffling. When will they ever learn, wonders the rest of Asia, when will they ever learn, wonders the world. A living economic miracle, the second richest country in the world, an industrial, hardware and consumer product utopia, a creative producer of universally acknowledged soft culture manga, animation, video games, music, film and literature of the highest order; how is it that a country so capable, so subtle, so sensitive to market trends and gratification of human desire, how is it they consistently make themselves easy enemies of others. Penny wise, pound foolish, Japan, again and again, fails to get the big picture.

Having worked in the Japanese media for eight years beginning in the late 1980’s, the latest episode of whitewashing history sounds like deja vu all over again.  Japan, despite astounding accomplishments in other areas, can’t think straight when it comes to history, and hasn’t found the formula for feeling good about itself without insulting its neighbors.

Narrowing the scope for free expression in accordance extremist demands has political implications that go far beyond manga; it also infects the production of textbooks and news reporting on critical events of the day and even how people think in their own minds.

When I first arrived in Kyoto to begin research on the politics of manga as a Fulbright Fellow, I was met with chuckles of disbelief and envy “You get to read all those comics as part of your work? or simply cries of protest. “What politics? Manga are just comics. That’s just entertainment.”

At Seika University anthropologist and sho-jo manga expert Matt Thorn helped me to put current events in the manga world into a larger historical perspective, introducing me to the not-so-loveable “Norakuro” comic strip used as a propaganda tool to promote Japan’s war of invasion in China.  Doshisha University journalism professor Watanabe Takesato, author of “A Public Betrayed” in turn helped me to understand the politics of Japan’s big publishers and the right-wing obsession with war issues.

Although few manga are overtly political, political editorializing, intentional and inadvertent, in youth-oriented visual publications has a long, tortured history.  Trying to get a sense of the impact manga have on Japanese youth, and a sizeable legion of not so young readers, it’s worth pointing out the scope of distribution and depth of market penetration. Top-selling manga, Shonen Jump and Young Jump included, have circulations that would be the envy of any American publication with regular readership in the millions, and it’s been like that for more than half a century, the only notable downturn being due to rationing and poverty at the end of WW2. 

Manga, coined from the term “random pictures”, have through it all remained vigorously low-brow and reader-friendly. They are fast, furious and fleeting; though the artwork is sometimes superb, readers also learn a vocabulary of visual and verbal shortcuts that make it possible to tell complex and nuanced stories much like film does. Manga are made to be read quickly and discarded, though fans can collect hardcover collections for keepsakes and more considered reading. As Frederick Schodt, a world-recognized authority on manga who admits to reading more manga than any sane person would want to do, and has been writing insightfully about his insane reading habit for some thirty years, they take up a lot of space too.  My collection of Morning, my regular Thursday read, is almost floor to ceiling high now, and roughly half of bookstore product is manga-related, as most series are collected and sold in book form a few months after original release.

Manga in their first incarnation—bulky magazines, largely black and white ink on cheap newsprint, are generally not collected, but rather quickly recycled as I learned when I tried to find some back copies of Young Jump when the Nanjing controversy broke out. Seika University is the first and arguably foremost institution supporting manga studies, and yet even there I couldn’t find the controversial issue in question. Seika’s modern, multistoried “johokan” or library collects manga mostly in book form, not the newsstand version. Though a dazzling array of fairly recent issues of the magazines can be found lying around the art studios and in personal collections, manga are not systematically collected.  I got on my bike and canvassed as many manga venues as I could in Sakyo-ku, places like Comicshock, Manyudo, and couldn’t find back issues older than three weeks old, ditto for used book stores. Various noodle shops and manga-kissa, cafes that offer manga browsing for the price of a drink or some food, also have a fast turnover of the bulky magazines for space reasons, again focusing mainly on bound volumes that come out later.

Some of the scenes that were cut from "My Country is Burning"

Ironically enough, I had to turn to the web to find scans of the uncensored version of “My Country is Burning” published by Young Jump the very same month it was published in the millions but was nowhere to be found. I am not suggesting a conspiracy here, just economics of recycling and saving space. Most collectors wait for the release of the “tan-ko-bon” or book version, which is printed on better paper and pocket book in size.  That means the decision to censor the re-release of the “controversial” comic is almost as good as having censored it the first time around.

Thus Motomiya’s controversial scenes of the Nanjing massacre seen from the point of view of a wide-eyed Japanese protagonist have effectively been erased, and will not appear in the more durable book form as demanded by a handful of right-wing complainers. For publisher Shueisha, Young Jump is one of the crown jewels in its manga offerings, and being edgy, frequently pushing the limits of good taste, makes it a hit with readers. Shueisha is not squeamish about sex or violence, in fact there’s nary a page without one or the other. Thus it seems fair to observe that economics, rather than standards of good taste or a considered political position, animates the self-imposed censorship.

Manga publishers are beneficiaries of and thus by default, through artistic trial and error and constant pushing of the envelope, supporters of free expression, in the same way that shock-jock radio shows and pornographic magazines are, and they have shown a willingness to take a stand in defense of graphic content, sexual or otherwise. Complaints are frequent, PTAs and protective parents have raised alarms about content they find disgusting, lawsuits are filed and won and lost and the business goes on, pretty much as before. 

Given the normally wide latitude of expression found in manga, one might have expected the publisher of the controversial Young Jump/Nanjing case, to assert their freedom of expression as guaranteed by the constitution, or to vigorously defend one of their star illustrators, veteran artist Motomiya.  In fact, just the opposite happened, both Shueisha and author Motomiya made abject apologies in the face of complaints and agreed to delete or alter some twenty scenes.

Trouble in the form of right-wing sound trucks, threat of violence and the threat of reduced advertising revenue is worth avoiding within reason.


Watanabe Takesato, author of the recently published, “ A Public Betrayed” has sounded the alarm about right-wing thinking gaining ground in Japanese society at the expense of other views. He was concerned enough to write an article on the Nanjing controversy, “Japan, media still deny Nanking massacre” co-authored by Adam Gamble and published in the Chicago Sun-Times on December 4, 2004 knowing full well he could be attacked for doing so.  Indeed he points out that Shukan Shincho ran a piece attacking his new book within days, claiming he was a stooge of Soka Gakai, which for the record, he says he has no relation to, though he did write about how newsweeklies with murky political and economic agenda, select targets such as the religious group Soka Gakai for attack. Furthermore, he notes with some consternation that there was little or no discussion of the “controversy” in Japan’s mainstream media.

Watanabe remarked that the case got little attention in Japan other than a brief mention in a few papers including the Japan Times. From there it was picked up on web chat groups where there was a flurry of indignant protest from outside Japan: Japan is whitewashing its history again. When will Japan ever admit to its war crimes? When will it make reparations? Look at how they ignore and malign the long-suffering sex slaves euphemistically called comfort women. Most of the discussants writing in blogs and on-line chat sites identified themselves as westerners or Chinese, though a few self-identified Japanese joined the fray, attempting to counter the criticism by pointing out the wrong-doings of other countries, digging up other great injustices, such as China’s cultural revolution, and including America’s long record of aggression, up to and including the current war in Iraq. A common response from those defending Japan was to castigate China for its communism, a favorite right-wing argument being that Chinese Communists killed millions of their own people, so why complain about Japan?

Judging from the heat on-line and the mainstream reluctance to deal with the issue at all, Nanjing it is still difficult to manage a constructive conversation on the Japan’s invasion and takeover of what was then China’s capital city. If truth is the first casualty of war, it also appears to be the last casualty, being fought over long after the guns are silenced. War is riddled with unpalatable truths, shocking contradictions and brutality that is hard for people operating in a zone of peace and affluence to fully comprehend. If disagreement about basic terms bedevils even the arguments of serious historians  (what is a massacre? what is Nanjing? Are all civilians innocent, are all soldiers fair game? What is the frame, how many days and how many miles wide a zone around the city limits of Nanjing? etc) then how much more unrestrained is the discussion in the hands of manga artists and xenophobic politicians and writers trying to sell books?  The 1937 Japanese army take-over of Nanjing, given its remoteness in time, given what followed hence, given its huge scope and complexity effectively a becomes a political football kicked about in different directions in response to different prejudices. Discussion of it is often more revealing about the underlying attitudes of the discussants then the event itself, crippled as it is by misplaced emotion.

On the one hand, Japan’s neo-nationalists talk as if they need to believe their country could do no wrong, and doggedly dispute the death toll, or insanely dare to suggest that nothing inhumane happened at all. On the other hand Chinese nationalists take the undisputed horror of Nanjing, and amplify it by exaggerating the death toll and making racist caricatures of Japanese as innately inhumane. Nanjing thus eludes sober discussion, let alone understand and instead gets enshrined as a symbol of what’s wrong with the other side, the Chinese penchant for propaganda versus the Japanese penchant for cruelty.

The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang is a landmark book on the topic that both sides find useful in discrediting the other and it invariably becomes part of the discussion.  Her work is widely lauded for bringing attention to an unhappy chapter of history that Japanese apologists and war hawks would rather forget, but Chang’s book is also littered with enough minor errors, advocacy and emotion that Japanese right-wingers have seized upon Chang’s shortcomings as an author to make the preposterous claim, that Nanjing never happened, or is too clouded by Chinese propaganda to be worthy of discussion. By tragic coincidence, Rape of Nanking author Iris Chang, suffering from depression, took her own life while the largely unpublicized discussion of the Young Jump case raged an ocean away. No link, direct or indirect between the events has been seriously suggested, but her untimely passing makes the discussion more emotional than ever, especially for her defenders.

Iris Chang’s sense of outrage and her desire to shed light on overlooked or whitewashed historic events is understandable, even laudable. It’s hard for any author, especially a young writer starting out to write a book without emotion. What I find harder to understand is what makes the rightists tick? I mean, why would a group of men residing in Adachi-ku and other parts of Tokyo, including some city assemblymen, band together to put pressure on a youth publication for illustrating scenes of a broadly acknowledged historic event that took place in China in 1937?


Reading work by revisionists and talking to young people I made one discovery; history if up for grabs as never before as Japan is at a turning point in its post-war history, Tokyo’s support for Washington is not a given, and popular opinion indicates US stock is dropping fast in the eyes of ordinary citizens in what has to be one of the most consistently pro-US and Americanized countries in Asia.  Trapped between a US showing signs of decline and a rising China, Japan is tentatively flexing its military muscles and seeking a new, improved nationalist identity.  Flag ceremonies and singing the Kimigayo are back, especially in Tokyo where governor Ishihara has spearheaded a resurgence of pre-War values, including his demeaning references to China as “Shi-na” an epithet as indelicate and outdated as the word “Jap.”  The term “Shi-na” was popular during Japan’s occupation of China, and his intransigent stance on Nanjing, Yasukuni, and other divisive issues. Straining under the constraints of a US-mandated Peace Constitution and archaic Cold War security arrangements, Japan is acting a bit like a soldier in a straitjacket trying to break free.

Into the vacuum left by the collapse of Cold War world view come rushing contending theories:  Look West, Look East, China is the future, China is the problem, US is our friend, with friends like the US who needs enemies, and so on.  The task of resurrecting the bad guys of yesteryear, including the Class A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni, has been made easier by the failings of the “good guys” in recent years. The Yankees who saved Japan from itself sixty years ago through the use of brutal force, invasion and occupation, are now making such a bad show of things in Iraq, so much so that the idea of one side being right, the other wrong sounds more and more like the naïve politics of a lost era. The buzzwords freedom and democracy have lost their buzz, if only through mis-use and over-use, even if the underlying philosophy remains sound.  The standard received narrative of WWII, that the in the end the US was right and Japan was wrong, was never accepted by some recalcitrant Japanese nationalists and has been steadily chipped away by revisionist history for many years now; what accounts for the current sea change in perceptions, the US is arguably more hated now than at any time in recent history, is the unpopular war in Iraq and the admittedly unbecoming unilateral arrogance of the current US government.

Thus mounting evidence of war crimes, happening in the here and now, in places like Falluja and Abu Ghraib, though far removed in time and place from Nanjing and Japan’s invasion of China, have direct bearing on how the discussion proceeds. For one, US defense of free speech and democracy has a hypocritical ring to it, it’s not at all a sure thing that the US holds the high moral ground anymore.  Bad news from the US invasion of Iraq also resonates in a way that either makes Japan’s wartime excesses more understandable, --in a time of all-out war it is truly difficult to avoid civilian casualties and soldiers being shot at get carried away with hate or vengeance, or it makes current US excesses less forgivable, given the flow of high-blown rhetoric coming from Washington. 

Sadly, current events make the claims of the traditional America-haters, leftist critics of US imperialism, and right-wing critics of America as a racist country, seem more plausible than ever. Among the disparate American-haters, the gap between left and right is closing in places like Okinawa, where agitation to remove US bases now enjoys a convergence of right and left-wing support, albeit for different reasons.  Perhaps even more significant in the long-run is the shift within Japan itself; the pacifist anti-militarism of Japan’s left is losing ground to the pro-militarism of the right, as neo-conservatives on both sides of the Pacific are grabbing the microphones of the media and waving their respective flags as never before.

The blunt, belligerent nature of current US foreign policy has not only incensed the Arab world but is offensive to long-time admirers of the US in Japan who find it easier to sympathize with those being bombed than those doing the bombing, who can understand the indignity of being occupied better than US cowboy style rhetoric about freedom.

Or to put it another way, the lofty rhetoric of Roosevelt and Churchill, once mis-appropriated to a less-than-noble cause, raises doubts not just about US sincerity in the use of words such as freedom and democracy, but also raises doubts about the political wisdom of Roosevelt and Churchill.

Perhaps in retrospect the pro-US Japan of the immediate postwar period will be seen for the remarkable polity that it is, one of those wonderful anomalies in history where the country that lost the war truly became friends and admirers of their conquerors, going so far that a few years back, you’d be more likely to spot an American flag hanging in a kid’s bedroom or adorning a restaurant or bar than the Kimigayo. 

Those days, for better or worse, are drawing to a close. The arrogance, unilateral aggressive and pre-emptive doctrines bandied about by Washington today are a betrayal of what many supporters of the US, not to mention Americans themselves, thought the US stood for.  Even the bloody Pacific War was one in which the US refused to attack until attacked. Even against the protestations of Churchill and European colonialists, the US insisted on respecting the territorial integrity of other nations (with the exception of Philippines perhaps) Gone is the alliance view of history, in its place,  “might makes right” the new paradigm.

In a world defined by might makes right, our received understanding of the world starts to crumble. If might makes right, then maybe Japan under Hirohito and Tojo was not wrong, they simply lacked the firepower to win and write history accordingly. 

It’s hard to find a time in recent years where Japan’s past, whether it be as portrayed in history texts, or in questioning the constitution, or in glorifying war dead in Shinto shrines, portraying the much vilified Tojo Hideki as a hero in film “Pride” or the  rhapsodizing about courage of kamikaze pilots exhibits, is more up for grabs. It’s hard to find a time in the recent past where what went on before is more vulnerable to poaching from the present.


Japan’s right-wing militants are like fundamentalists elsewhere, they have a fixed idea of reality, a ready-made program and into the vacuum they go, trying to expand their space. They are poachers, stealing bits of history here and there, rewriting the books for their own purposes.

But what are their purposes, and what is the vision they seek to impose on history?

For this I turned to the literature of Yukio Mishima, the patron saint of right-wing ideologues, the man whose life and death has come to represent the need for Japan to purify itself with violence, to be more manly, more sure of itself. Given that Mishima took his own life in a scripted ritual suicide, it need not be stressed that his vision contained cold and cruel elements, perhaps he was delusional. But his writing is so vivid and accomplished he has in a sense left a roadmap for rightwing thinkers of subsequent generations. Kamikaze were good, purity is the essence of Japaneseness, Shinto ritual and integration with nature creates a strong ethnic identity and sense of homeland, etc, etc.

Reading Runaway Horses, Homba, which is set in the 1930’s and charts, in symbolic terms, the rise of right-wing militarism and fanaticism. In his novel, Mishima makes frequent reference to a juvenile publication called Kodan Club, which is read religiously by a man named Sawa, a forty-year old who scrubs his clothes obsessively for his weekly obeisance gate of the Imperial Palace to show his patriotism. Sawa, who eschews books for the “tattered pages” a “swashbuckling adventure magazine” called Kodan Club, wants to join a fanatic youth group bent on assassinating corrupt figures. It also figures later in the story as one of the few “childish” publications prisoners were allowed to read in jail.

Kodan Club, as described in Mishima’s fiction, sounds like Shonen Club, a popular 1930’s manga that influenced the generation coming of age as Japan took the road to war. Shonen Club is one of the classic manga products of Japan, full of adventure stories of the sort popular with boys, starting with imaginary wars between men and monkeys at the beginning of its ten year run and concluding with propaganda about a real war  in progress.  Mishima shrewdly uses the man’s choice of reading material to create ironic distance. How can you take a man seriously if his favorite reading material is a childish adventure magazine? But Mishima is really being politically astute, suggesting the true home for cracked notions of purity, military adventure and national fanatic nationalism is in the mind of young men. Indeed it is in the character of Isao, a brilliant kendo student, that Mishima embodies the fanatic fascist spirit with its odd quest for purity through bloody violence.

What I found striking about Shonen Club, parts of which are reproduced in Akiyama Masami’s “Maboroshi senso manga no sekai” is the uncanny obsession with China, then as now. Then as now, China was an alternate force to be beaten or contained, then as now, Japan was in the right, China in the wrong, then as now, unapologetic scenes of violent battles, bombings, bayoneting, and wanton massacre were presented as part education, part entertainment. And then as now, Japanese could see China fully deserving of the abuse it got.  Then as now, Japanese portrayals of China and Chinese were less than respectful, failing to meet even the most rudimentary standards of political correctness.

In Shonen Club comic, “Norakuro” the Chinese are portrayed as pigs, the Japanese are dogs. It’s Mickey Mouse does the Nanjing Massacre, the invading dogs break through China’s defensive walls and chase the frightened pigs out of Chinese settings in battle after battle, bayoneting their victims, tossing them in the air, bombing and breaking down their buildings. The series extends the playful yet undeniably racists animal metaphor by portraying the relatively pro-Japanese population of Manchuria as sheep, slyly acknowledging a wished for compliance with Japanese power, while portraying them as fundamentally different from other Chinese.

In another comic strip dating from the war of the invasion of China, an imaginary militaristic playground features turns Great Wall into the world longest slide, and boys play happily on tank turrets and military hardware. This playful yet macabre image makes light of a China that was truly being reduced to rubble by foolish young men playing foolish war games. A sign to the playground reads “free of charge” as if China was public domain, up for grabs. The youth-oriented war adventures in 30’s manga are striking in several ways, first of all, the idea that war is play, or something akin to play, which the generally sanitized manga format makes tenable in the same way that Saturday morning cartoon violence in America is tenable because of the “childish medium” of line drawings. But more importantly, unlike China the strange, China the mysterious, China the invisible which comes to dominate images of the other during the Cold War, the China portrayed in Shonen Club comics is as familiar as the playground around the corner, a place where Japanese had a stake in the land, a place where Japanese had a legal right to be. Just as children are attracted to playgrounds for the challenge and easy sense of mastery, so too, I would argue, these playful stories suggest China was there for the mastering. After all, at this point in time, Taiwan was part of Japan, largely integrated into the politics and culture of the home islands, as were Korea and later Manchuria.  Shinto shrines were being built in Manchuria and China’s open ports were a viable link in trade and military influence. China was so much a part of Japan’s world that Fuji was demoted to second highest mountain in the realm, making room for Yushan, or Nii-taka yama in Taiwan.

And it’s not all about fighting, though young boys are undeniably entertained by tales of fighting. As China is tamed and domesticated, made safe for the Japanese way, there are glimpses of humility and irony in Shonen Club as the thrust of Japanese strategy shifts from invasion to occupation. There are “good” Chinese who welcome and assist the Imperial Army, and there are attempts to learn from the victims of invasion. One funny strip shows a Chinese child teaching Japanese men to speak in  mandarin, a humorous role reversal where the hapless soldiers struggle to say “chi fan le ma?” or “have you eaten yet?”

Again on the theme of mastery, it is interesting to note that China begins to fade from the funny pages long before the war is over; it starts to fade from the time the war is not going well. The popular “Norakuro” series is terminated by the time of Japan’s desperate sneak attack on Pearl Harbor as increasingly tight censorship, rationing of paper and the impoverishment of manga readers and their parents all conspired to put an end to thickly-paged adventure comics.

Thus what might have been the golden age of anti-America comics due to all-out war after 1941 never really develops due to the limitations of the war-time economy and tightened censorship. China was Japan’s main pre-occupation before Pearl Harbor, by the time US and Japanese soldiers were shooting it out, the war-time footing of Japan’s economy and the emergency mobilization of society left little room for manga art to flourish, even as Tokyo Rose cast her gaze to the US. Predictably, the US-themed manga of this period were predictably unkind in their views of America, one kids comic features a fantasy attack by plane on New York City. But by and large the days of poking fun at the enemy or titillating young boys with adventure packed stories of war were over. Around this time, the future king of post-war manga, Tezuka Osamu, was already scribbling out little stories, including a graphic death scene in “Until our day of Victory”.  But the days of 200-page fun-oriented magazines were already over, what manga were cranked out were reduced to a few sheets of cheap newsprint or state-issued pamphlets, blatant in their propaganda.


While the US counter-attack and ultimate victory over Japan was
made possible in part by China’s great sacrifice, distracting and holding down massive numbers of Japanese troops, China’s contribution to the peace of the post WW2 era unfortunately gets obscured for political reasons.  China bore the brunt of Japanese imperial aggression, from 1931 onward, and lost some 2o million lives during the war period. In contrast, the US was late to scene, getting involved at the time of Pearl Harbor and emerging victorious, though shouldered with guilt of world’s first atomic bombings, a mere three and a half years later.  Due to the protracted civil war in China that resulted in Chiang Kai-shek fleeing to Taiwan and Mao Zedong taking over the mainland, Japan’s role as the common enemy that temporarily united China with the US and Chinese on both sides of the civil war, was replaced by an unimpeachable US-Japan alliance that legitimized and sanitized Japan’s image, once the Showa Emperor was let off the hook and appropriate subordinate scapegoats were found to take the fall in unevenly prosecuted War crimes trials in Tokyo.

Thereafter, Cold War policy considerations in both Tokyo and Washington conspire to erase China from the pages of history; the victims at Nanjing and elsewhere, the comfort women, the slave laborers, the raped and abused suddenly lose their voice; they are lost sight of as a bamboo curtain is put up on China’s perimeter; no longer victims of Japan, the Chinese are victims of communism, or if they are fully-functioning citizens, then part of a new, menacing enemy. Leaving aside the traditional Three Kingdoms lore and other cultural product of Chinese origin that were historically assimilated into Japan, there is a dearth of material set in China.

If Shonen Club, with its popular series “Norakuro” epitomizes Japan’s foolish turn down the road to war, then the work of manga “kamisama” Tezuka Osamu helped cheer a nation wallowing in defeat by penning happier manga product along romantic and escapist themes.  Although part of the continued appeal of Tezuka’s product is the hint of a dark side in his writings; after all, Astro Boy had built-in machine guns and atomic power was far from being universally admired, he carefully skirts controversy by avoiding real places like China, and to some extent robots instead of real people, and instead created adventures inside fantasy worlds with a passive, if not outright pacifist slant. It has been jokingly noted that when MacArthur said that all Japanese are like twelve year olds, the perpetually youth-oriented Tezuka took him seriously.

Shukan Shonen, published in Osaka is one of the influential manga magazines of this period. Boys and dogs still figure on the covers, but now stories are about Tarzan, jungle adventures, robots, dinosaurs, cowboys, space exploration, etc.

War is conspicuous by its absence in Japanese manga published under the watchful eye of US Occupation authorities and only gradually makes a return to the pages of boys magazines, often in highly abstract, sanitized forms, such as ships and planes.
War itself, a time-tested topic of appeal to young boys, is hard to find as well and when it appears, especially in the rather heavily censored 1950’s it is usually in proxy, involving robots, space exploration or keeps a narrow focus on the hardware of war.  It isn’t till about 15 years after Japan’s defeat that warplanes, battleships and watered down “war” stories enjoy a boom in boys comics, with “Shonen Zero sen tai” making a debut in the appropriately named “Hinomaru” followed by manga such as  “Zero sen hayato” “Shonen King” “Battle of the South Pacific” and “Zero sen raid.”  The early sixties, marked by Japan’s coming out party in the 1964 Olympics, are marked by increased assertiveness of national symbols, through success in the Judo ring (one cover story shows a victorious Japanese wrestler standing in front of the Hinomaru, and standing on the Stars and Stripes.

As we can safely note in hindsight, none of this marked an imminent return to militarism and at least in part it seems to have been market-driven, a combination of challenging taboo topics and  an opportunistic reaction to loosening censorship and direct US influence in such policy. The early 1960’s manga, though apparently criticized at the time, tend to draw attention to combat technique, in the air and at sea, and leave the politics of land armies out of it. One odd example of this is “Heavy bomber over Kyushu” a short manga by renowned anime master and self-admitted WW2 era aircraft aficionado Miyazaki Hayao. An attack plane from China, a Martin 139W, drops leaflets for peace during a night raid.

The late sixties see an increase of adult themes including the semi-clad waif genre and indeed manga were by then being marketed at a wider age range than ever before. By 1970 anti-war manga such as “Vietnam Attack” can be found, side by side with “Kamikaze” stories followed a few years later by the seminal anti-nuclear book-length manga Barefoot Gen. and “Kamikaze”

One exception to the Cold War China blackout is the 1950’s release of Mo-taku-to or Mao Tse-tung by the duo Fujiko Fujio, done in the spirit of a great man series according to people who have read it, done roughly at the same time as Tezuka Osamu was doing Adolf.

The other, more personal and significant reflection on life in China is the Fichin-san series, a nostalgic look at life in Japanese-occupied Manchuria written back in Japan after the war.

After years of colonialism and conquest, after Japan failed and gave up the effort of trying to convince itself and others thatit had a right to rule China, in part or as a whole, Japan lost its toehold entirely. In the three decades leading up to the war, Japan was building Shinto shrines in China, in the three decades after the war they were effectively barred from visiting at all.

It should come as no surprise that manga artists read the papers, watch TV, rub shoulders with people common to the society they inhabit and reflect, to a large extent, what they see in what they write and draw. Thus China goes into hibernation from the Japanese imagination. Thus topics like Nanking hardly get a mention until the eighties when China is opening up again. Thus TV dramas don’t have any Chinese characters.  In manga, one encounters few contemporary China images until well into the eighties after Deng Xiaoping tentatively opened the gates to commerce and cultural exchange.

Portraying Chinese as gangsters is not necessarily a swipe at the culture or the people as manga are filled with lurid crime stories peopled with yakuza and Japanese miscreants of all stripes. Still, as anthropologist Matt Thorn reports, there are irritating practices in the portrayal of Chinese in such manga, where they are often tagged with bad “accents” in Japanese and other condescending and diminutive markers of differentness. If we look at it as a case of comparative crooks,  Chinese gangsters are portrayed as unusually cold-hearted and criminal (as opposed to the familiar, cuddly, human if not humane,  and presumably likeable yakuza) emphasizing their “otherness” rather than common humanity.

The single most beautiful and notable exception to the vanishing China trend is the work, the previously mentioned Fichin-san, written by Ueda Toshiko was published in 1957. Here too, China is depicted in familiar, not exotic terms, after all, the author was among the thousands of Japanese of that generation who knew no other home but China. But her characters are light and loveable, free of any trace of prejudice or facile stereotyping.

The late 1950’s is an interesting period vis-a-vis China that deserves more exploration. The gains of the communist revolution now consolidated, China was just starting to look like a normal country again, though not for long as the increasingly cranky and eccentric Mao was always stirring things up. But at least until the Great Leap Forward, China enjoyed time a brief golden age, the Korean War over, the Vietnam War not yet begun, cities were being rebuilt, the people had work and food to eat. Many Asian writers, especially some of the best and brightest from Thailand such as Sri Burapha, Nai Phi and Suwat Woradilok were feted in Beijing at this time.


Japan too was finally scraping out of poverty at that time. Japan too was looking more like a normal nation. Perhaps there was something about the lifting of occupation controls and US-instituted censorship, so ably documented by John Dower in Embracing Defeat, that created  a “Let a hundred flowers atmosphere take place in Japan just as Mao was exhorting Chinese (with tragic effect) to do the same. During this time, the young but already incredibly accomplished Mishima Yukio wrote a short story called “Peony”, a largely forgotten work that is unforgettable once you read it.  “Peony” tells of an old eccentric man with a beautiful, immaculately maintained garden with exactly 580 flowers on display. When the narrator asks, on the behalf of the now curious reader, why 580 flowers? The answer is as short as it is brutal. “that’s how many women he killed single-handedly in Nanjing.”

Though I am quite unable to discern Mishima’s “take” on Nanjing from this story, a few points can be made. There was nothing being published on the Nanjing massacre at the time, this debate picked up in the 70’s and became a hot topic as China opened up to the world. Mishima writes about flowers almost surrealistically  elsewhere in his fiction as follows, saying that camellias kept in prison “had somehow become sacred after the cries and groans of the tortured had flowed through it…” Mishima betrays admiration for the militarism and the cult of the sword, set in vivid counterpoint to his a disdain for things soft, feminine, corrupt. Whatever his views on Nanjing massacre, denying it happened wasn’t part of his conservative ideology at the time.


“Three Kingdoms” or “Sankoku” lore continues to fascinate Japanese readers, the ancient Chinese tales have been appropriated with such enthusiasm and sense of cultural connectedness that modern authors vary the tales and make up stories that more or less fit in with the known parameters of the Chinese classic. Classical China is to Japanese what the Classical Mediterranean world is to Americans, it is part of who they are or would like to seem themselves as being. Classical civilizational antecedents, whether from across the sea or contained in what are in today’s terms “foreign countries” are part and parcel of cultural identity and live on in the minds of men and women today. Much in the same way that Rome or ancient Greece is intellectually alive and still being aggressively appropriated by Americans; just consider the architecture of Washington, DC for example, or Hollywood films such as the Gladiator, Troy, Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, etc., so too does China (albeit an imaginary ancient China) is part of Japanese identity.

But when appropriators of classical norms are faced with the reality of a living, breathing modern day city in the land they idealize, whether it be Athens, or Shanghai, reality is bound to disappoint. There are China scholars who have never set foot in China and never hope to. On the other hand, Japan in the last decade, thanks in part the opening of China, has had the option of looking at China as more than a historical ideal, and continuity between China of ancient lore and China today is as likely to be affirmed as denied.  After all, what were Mao and Deng but latter day emperors, what is communism but the latest sect or orthodoxy?

For the better part of the Cold War, contemporary China is absent from the manga world. No less an authority than Fred Schodt could do two definitive books on the amazing diversity of Japanese manga citing hundreds of examples after reading thousands of stories and come up empty on China.

Bamboo-curtained, mist-enshrouded China, when it appears at all, is a recollection or a backdrop, ancient history or an imaginary locale. China, in all its clichéd, inscrutable mystery is represented obliquely for the most part, a Chinese gangster here, a fantasy tale there, and sometimes in proxy through Chinatowns and the cities of greater China, that is to say, HK, Taiwan, or even Singapore. The stereotype of the inscrutable and incredibly violent Chinese gangster, captured so effectively in “Sanctuary” by Fumimura Sho and Ikegami Ryoichi in the early 1990’s continues to be a durable stereotype, because Chinese triad lore, flying daggers and all, is marketable fodder to a reading public attuned to Hong Kong action films and the huge home-grown yakuza genre.

Saito Takao, one of the giants of Japan’s manga industry, does an effective take on the uncharted territory of communist China in the late seventies with his thriller series Gogol 13. Now in re-release as “Letter from China” Saito does a fair job, based on journalistic reports on China in the waning days of Mao, of inserting his mysterious and cold-blooded protagonist into Politburo intrigue and inter-weaving the back story of his character with the victory of Chinese communists in 1949.   Darker, more evil and more brooding than 007, Gogol 13 nonetheless is reminiscent of Western thrillers set in the far east, that is to say, it’s an outside job with few insights into the society or culture.

Golgo 13, a cold war thriller, a darker, more unsettling answer to James Bond features a remorseless hitman who courses through exotic locales on brutal missions. When this manga was in its heyday in the early seventies, China was still an unknown, a stark, bleak backdrop for thrillers and adventures. There is little or no sense of belonging, that Japanese ought to or might want to be part of China as in Fichin-san or the 1930’s manga.

Japan’s artistic reckoning with brutality continues throughout the Cold War, perhaps influenced by unresolved issues grappling Japan due to its frightening and largely unexplored plunge into militaristic violence. Cashing in on subsequent US prosecuted conflicts in Korea and Vietnam as host of military bases and commercial procurer further strained Japan’s newly found peaceful self-image. Golgo 13, available in convenience stories everywhere, is still alive and kicking today, a never-ending story about a remorseless killer. The name itself is intended to sound creepy, Golgo from Golgatha, where Jesus was killed, and 13 for the unlucky day. The main character is hardly a dashing figure, he’s a killing machine so cold and efficient that artist Saito Takao teases the reader with intrigue about his birth and ethnic origin.

The title character is Japanese but not Japanese, how could a Japanese of good birth be so brutal as to have killed some 300 men? The Japanese “hitman with no heart” is said to be China-born with Russian blood (putting the blame for his terrorist habits cleanly on the shoulders of Japan’s two main cold war enemies) and it in “Letter from China” he is shown wowing Mao Zedong and other veteran communists in the Yenan revolutionary base as a three-year boy with remarkable martial skills.  Saito’s matricidal, patricidal unsmiling hero is no dashing James Bond, but the Cold War intrigue is similar and his skillful pen sketches compelling bird’s-eye view scenes of exotic locales where the thriller action is set, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, New York.


With the opening of trade during the Deng Xiaoping years, the early and effective foothold of Japan’s big corporations with offices and factories in Beijing, Shanghai and southern coastal cities, business in China became the story. Politics was played down, indeed, almost as government policy. As anyone in Japan during the time of the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square can recall, Japan’s response was muted and almost uncritical, while the US and European powers talked of sanctions and containment.  Indeed, there was a brief grace period in Japanese foreign policy when Japan and China became a mutual admiration society where neither partner could do wrong, Tiananmen was played down, Nanjing not a topic; in China, anti-Japanese  demonstrations and writings were fiercely suppressed. In fact when I worked at NHK from 1990-1992, the tacit “three –T’s” policy of Japan’s quasi-governmental broadcaster made it next to impossible to discuss Tiananmen, Tibet or Taiwan. NHK banned the airing of footage that included Taiwan’s flag for example, and offered the most restrained, polite coverage of the events at Tiananmen that could be imagined in a major news hungry country.

Thanks to landmark visits and forward-looking protocol promoting exchange and friendly relations between the two countries dating from the time of Hu Yaobang and Nakasone, China touring was in high gear, Japanese businesses set up representative offices and Chinese students were welcomed in Japan with open arms. Neither Japan-China embrace proved to be a lasting one. NHK helped CCTV build its International Broadcast Center with massive influx of funds and goodwill personnel. When I became Producer and writer for China Now in 1991, I found it near impossible to write anything critical about China, and got warned not to do so several times,  as the program purchased CCTV footage and as I later learned was construed as a gift and “tip of the hat” to China.

With growing reports of Japanese businessmen losing their shirts in China, and “ten-thousand years of friendship” deals for technology transfer, lowered tariffs, preferential treatment, etc proving in the very least that Japanese businessmen had met their match if not superiors in their Chinese counterparts. The boom in China’s economy came close on the heels of Japan’s bubble bursting, suddenly the Chinese didn’t seem as deserving of all the ODA, loans and friendship deals they had been asking for. Concomitantly with the decline of communist ideology and the fanning of nationalist flames to keep a restive population looking outward for enemies, Japan was the target of complaints, criticism, demonstrations and the like.

If Japan’s largesse had on one level been essentially a huge bribe for silence or pretended harmony, then there was palpable anger that the terms of the deal were not being respected, even if some of that sentiment was beyond government control. A series of incidents; a Japanese company’s sex junket in Zhuhai, a sexually graphic skit at a student talent show, and of course Koizumi’s in-your-face pilgrimages to Yasukuni Shrine despite strident Chinese complaints about him doing so, all conspired to make Japan public enemy number one, easy to hate, easy to rally around, easy to run out of control, as incidents at a soccer match last summer indicated. The US which has vied for the top spot on the short list of countries China loves to hate, dropped after a flurry of diplomacy and sober business interests cleaned up the fallout from the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade (which was followed by a mob attack on the US embassy in Beijing) and the Hainan spy plane incident which was volatile but handled coolly on both sides. Once these two serious setbacks were explained, excuses made for and otherwise neutralized, the US China relation was on the mend, an inadvertent beneficiary of America’s pre-occupation with Iraq and so-called war on terror.

Hong Kong Working Girl, published by Kadokawa  (1995-6 reviewed by Michelle Phillipps) in the mid-nineties marks a tentative turn towards China, albeit in the familiar comfortable form of late colonial Hong Kong. Office girl goes abroad seeking work, makes Chinese friends, admires their energy, but they need her savvy.


The American government has had little stake in the victim-victimizer arguments that have wracked Asia ever since Japan’s failed conquest, but in practice it sided with Japan by restoring much of the pre-war elite in the name of anti-communism and in turning a deaf ear to legitimate grievances of communist victim nation China.  America was largely aloof and removed from the brutal early years of the Sino-Japanese conflict, though Pearl Harbor changed all that, causing the US to actively side with Chinese resistance to Japanese rule. After achieving total victory over Japan less than four years later, however, the US, drunk with victory and pre-occupied with the politics of administering Occupied Japan, began to neglect Japan’s victims again, letting Unit 731 off the hook, shielding the Emperor from war crimes accusations and after perfunctory, unevenly executed War Crimes trials, allowing the zaibatsu and reformed militarists, born again as pro-Americans, get back to business again.  Thus instead of being an objective arbiter of human rights abuse, protector of the weak and prosecutor of war crimes, the US role, siding in effect with the scientists of unit 731 instead of its victims, siding with Japanese government than the Korean and Chinese slave laborers and comfort women, is increasingly cynical, self-serving and hypocritical. Given the way the US waved the banner of democracy one might have expected more sensitivity to victim complaints in the name of human rights, legal redress and free expression, but after the war Washington had bigger fish to fry.

MacArthur intentionally and inadvertently lent support to Japanese hard-line nationalists because they were useful allies in the anti-communist crusade; to this day Japan’s right-wing serves a function in keeping pressure both on liberals in Japan and keeping China and Korea at bay. As such, any American involvement in this heated discussion is vulnerable to questions about the US war-time excesses, then and now. Whether it be the dubious wisdom of fire-bombing entire cities and nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or more recent misapplication of force in Iraq, it is humbling and disconcerting to realize that abuse of power of the sort central to debates about Nanjing in 1937 are not entirely absent from today’s world.

Having been away from Japan for seven years from 1997, the sea China in Sino-Japanese relations is conspicuous. Instead of the special relationship touted by PM Miyazawa and others who used US-China friction in the post-Tiananmen era to question how Americans could possibly understand the deep Chinese-Japanese relationship, to Koizumi, who it seems goes out of his way to anger China.  But I saw this coming in a personal, professional capacity as a commentary writer for the op-ed pages of the Japan Times. In the early nineties, I was told my articles were too anti-China, in the late nineties they were too pro-China. Allowing for the fact that my own experience as an eyewitness to the bloody crackdown at Tiananmen and my very gradual coming to terms with China in the years that followed are not a perfect constant, I still maintain it is the Japan Times view of China changed, not me. Ditto for NHK, Asahi and other media that were, in my opinion, slavishly pro-Beijing in the aftermath of Tiananmen for obvious political and strategic reasons, but now often take quite the opposite position as before.

“Ron” by Murakami Motoka (aka King Gonta) takes a look at the everyday life of Japanese in film studio, set in Manchuria during the war. The author was born in Japan but stimulated by family stories and research to lovingly recreate that lost world with more than a touch of nostalgia. There is a vicissitudes of war feel to many panels, but Japan is safely rendered more victim than victimizers. One scene of the US bombing of Tokyo is as graphic as Motomiya’s Nanjing massacre scene, but it hasn’t become an issue of controversy or faced suspended publication.

Perhaps the best-known and most likeable portraits of China in recent years is “Shima Kosaku” series, following the exploits of a big corporation salaryman who gets posted overseas and invariably gets involved with all kinds of exotic local women and criminal syndicates, but largely without giving offense, sort of like Clark Kent goes on an adventure.  On a more serious note, business-oriented manga try to educate readers about the rise of China and offers strategies as to how this might be checked or contained.  Japan, no less than the US, seems to subject to swings of public mood and policy on China, from the China that can do no wrong to the China that can do no right. In some ways, the Korea boom that has gripped Japan in the last year or two is a way of compensating for the precipitous drop of China’s stock in Japan these days.  Just as it has been argued that America needed Vietnam, a foothold on the East Asian coast, only as long as it was prohibited and proscribed in China. Once China opened, Vietnam lost its luster.  Similarly, though in reverse sequence, China’s loss is Korea’s gain, though not North Korea of course, with whom China is sometimes lumped by the anti-communist extremists.

In all the discussion of Japan and China it is worth reiterating an obvious point, whether Japan and China enjoy good relations or not, there historical link is long and intimate, at least as close as the Greco-roman, Judeo-Christian legacy is to modern America. Americans don’t necessarily feel aligned to Greece, or the Holy Lands in the Middle East, but American culture is part and parcel of the heritage. Likewise,  Japanese have no difficulty embracing Chinese poetry, art or calligraphy while hating their neighbor China. Not surprisingly, earlier cultural achievements  in China are easy to accept than more recent inventions. One can find Japanese manga versions of Three Kingdom’s lore everywhere, and one manga writer, Motomiya Hiroshi to be exact, even goes as far to say that without the Sino-Japanese war there would be no  “gyoza”, today lovingly consumed every where in Japan, but originally from China. In tan-ko-bon issue number seven, the issue leading up to the incredible shrinking Nanjing Massacre of the altered upcoming issue eight of “My Country is Burning,” Motomiya Hiroshi includes an interview about the joys of Sino-Japanese cuisine, introducing a Manchurian-born Japanese whose mother is credited for introducing delicious gyoza to Japan, a nostalgia food for a generation of Japanese who for better or worse spent formative years in China.  

Thanks to America’s victory in WW2 and MacArthur’s imprint, Japan is one of the most America-oriented countries in the world today, reflected in business, language study, travel, Hollywood film and music.  But there have always been Japanese uninterested in studying English and underwhelmed by America’s seductive culture. In a trend that shows every sign of growing, Japanese increasingly look to Asia, reflected in language study, film and perhaps the strongest bond of all, a shared history. China is back.


In January of this year, it was reported that China became Japan’s biggest trading partner, eclipsing the US, which long held the number one spot. That same month, the likeable, mild-mannered manga hero Shima Kosaku finds himself back in Japan after a lengthy posting in China. He gets drinking with a co-worker in a traditional izakaya, where a co-worker assigned to go to China loudly proclaims “I hate China,” putting Shima on the defensive for his sweet and friendly inclination to the same country.

Shima explains that he is not pro-China per se, and they go on drinking, talking noisily until they are asked to leave.
Outside on a dark street, stumbling in drunkenness, they get attacked by four hat-wearing thugs. One of the attackers shouts “Ayah!” another says “kill them” in Chinese. (Japanese furigana accompanying the kanji offer the Mandarin pronunciation of the threat.) They get beaten up and robbed, left lying in the gutter with the garbage. While Shima and his China-hating colleague bemoan their unhappy fate, “those rats were talking in Chinese and they have to do this to me right before I get sent to China…” Shima is explaining how Chinese pickpocket gangs are proliferating in Japan when he gets a call from his daughter in the US on his mobile phone. The dark imagery of the fear of China scene is vividly contrasted with a happy New York scene where a chirpy, happy Japanese voice congratulates Shima on his promotion. “Thank you,” he answers in English, too shocked and ashamed to tell his daughter he has just been robbed by Chinese thugs.

This episode makes the subtle but effective point that Japanese businessmen now stand at a crossroads between the US and China. The US for all its quirks, irritations and wide cultural divide is the devil they know. China, which has swung from land of traditional culture to tempting target of invasion to bitter wartime battlefield to closed communist society to a burgeoning capitalist economy to Japan’s leading trade partner and an awesome political and military power, is more like a genie let out of the bottle, unknown, unknowable and a source of increasing discomfort.

Young people who would have studied English or French a generation ago are now studying Chinese, Thai and Korean in growing numbers. America fatigue, brought on by years of pro-US alignment and cultural aping, is evident in artistic and political circles. Even the right-wing, which has, at least in contrast to the left wing, been more favorably disposed to Washington, especially anti-Communist real-politick, is starting to sound like the leftists when calls are made for US to quit Okinawa and to quit following the US lead in the unpopular Iraq War. Okinawa, scene of epic WW II battles, still host to tug of war between loyalty to Washington and Tokyo, is also one part of Japan where Chinese claims of suzerainty have some basis in history, and it is closer to Taiwan than mainland Japan, making it a four way flashpoint.

Kobayashi: from JAPAN UNBOUND:
The truth is: The Great East Asian War [World War II] was an epic poem that expressed the full range of our Japanese spirit.

The miracle of our early victories
The horror and poignant beauty of our retreat
This was Japan's war!
We fought alone against the West;
We had an obligation to fight;
And when the war had ended, the map of the world was transformed - the age of imperialism had come to an end.

May I be a little arrogant? The day will come when this war is reappraised for what it truly was, the most beautiful, cruel, and noble battle ever waged by mankind. Let us express our thanks to those brave heroes who transcended themselves on our behalf.

Former Big Spirits editor Kumada says that manga have grown more conservative in recent years along with the rest of society. He sees this as a function of economic hard times, and notes that manga circulation is down, along with that of weeklies that used to carry manga in their pages. His understanding of the Shueisha/Nanjing case is that the magazine was not central to the decision to run, or not run, Motomiya’s controversial Nanjing scenes but rather, with an artist of Motomiya’s clout and stature, responsibility rests solely with the author who he describes as “not at all liberal.”

Manga enjoy wide latitude of free expression, as evidenced by Yet it is Motomiya’s retelling of history in manga form, precisely because manga are influential, pictorial and widely read, that got the artist in trouble.  It is easier to finds things more critical of the Imperial Army in writing, somehow telling the stories in pictures (vivid, in-your-face images are fully in the manga tradition and manga usually enjoy a range of expression not available in newspapers or TV. Author Motomiya, though not a political manga artist per se, wrote a manga about disgraced Permier Tanaka Kakuei). That did not get him in trouble but his China manga did. Not for being insensitive to the victims, but for being insensitive to the victimizers.

How different from the case of Britain’s Prince Harry who got in trouble for donning a Nazi uniform at party; his father ordered him to Auschwitz for penance and education. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent historic site or shrine in China where Japanese can go to learn about horrors of the war they prosecuted in China. Americans can visit well-crafted memorial museums in Hiroshima and Europeans can learn from Auschwitz, for Cambodians the school-turned-prison Tuol Sleng offers up a sobering critique of what Cambodians did to themselves, but nowhere can this be found in Japan.

It remains difficult talking about the war in Japan. Just a few weeks ago, NHK and Asahi Shimbun exchanged barbs over alleged political interference from Abe Shinzo, an outspoken hawk, regarding a heavily self-censored television program dealing with the Showa Emperor’s guilt and the issue of comfort women. That same week, bullets were found in the mailbox of a prominent businessman who took issue with Premier Koizumi’s controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

However tempting it might be it is hard to dismiss the Nanjing deniers as a bunch of ridiculous, odious eccentrics, their concerted attempted to go for the jugular in rewriting history, both in the formal textbooks assigned to the younger generation, and the informal, immensely popular manga read by youth before and after school, makes their absurdity a problem for society. Japan’s answer to Europe’s Holocaust deniers insinuate themselves on the front line of Japan’s diplomacy with its neighbors, noisily propagating views designed to shock and offend Japan’s historical rivals, China and Korea, the second and third biggest economies in Asia respectively. Every society has its cranks, but when a hateful message is not only not repudiated but repeated and endorsed by politicians of international stature, mayors, ambassadors and even ministers of state, the mean-spirited, illogical thinking of a handful becomes a problem for the entire nation.  Europe has its skinheads, the US has its vengeful Bible-thumpers and the Ku Klux Klan, and it is troubling when extremists bearing a message of hate rise to prominent positions in government and business as the extreme rightists have in Japan. 

Thus it is dispiriting to see Shueisha cave in so shamelessly and NHK might not be that far behind. The traditional fear of retributive violence epitomized by the chilling ideological attacks on film director Itami Juzo and former Nagasaki mayor Motoshima Hitoshi comes to mind, as does the more recent right-wing sound truck and Molotov cocktail attack on the home of Fuji-Xerox Chairman Kobayashi Yotaro, said to be in retaliation for criticizing Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Eschewing discussion of “sensitive issues” for fear of harassment from right-wing thugs is a salient aspect Japanese of political discourse today, essentially limiting the comfort of speaking out on the left, while expanding the comfort zone for the right.

More to the point, for those who wonder why right-wing extremism has supporters in big business and national government, long-term economic motives are a compelling consideration, there is big money to be made by big business, think auto makers and resurrected zaibatsu, if and when production capacity and technical know-how are permitted to mass produce advanced weapons for the global market. Think of all the money that could be made if only Japan’s hands were not tied by a peace constitution, if only militarism could re-invent a dignified past. Getting Japan’s war crimes stricken from the historical record is one warped way clearing the path for a resumption of neo-nationalism underwritten by weapons production. The stakes are high, the nature of the business is odious, but other countries, the US, France, Israel and UK included have made a brisk business of it. 

When national politicians such as Tokyo mayor Ishihara Shintaro make frequent use of right-wing code, whether it be calling China Shi-na, making disparaging remarks about foreigners or elevating Yasukuni to a national religion, they legitimize and empower the extreme right. When major publications such as Fuji-sankei, Sapio and Shukan Shincho give favorable emphasis and lavish page-space to rightwing revisionism, the health of Japan’s civic society is put at risk. The implications of caving in to the rightists go beyond the loss of a good comic series. Every time Prime Minister Koizumi and other national politicians visit the Yasukuni Shrine to honor a dishonorable war, they insult victims of the war, Japanese and foreign, and authorize and expand the tactical space of the unrepentant militants. Yes, they want to be proud of their country, yes they want Japan to strengthen it’s military and take a more aggressive role in world affairs. But is industrial profit worth junking one of the world’s most admirable constitutions, a peace constitution? Must Japan humiliate itself and its neighbors again by whitewashing history and foment attacks against those who dare to disagree with their militant agenda?

No sooner does one politician make a partial apology to victims of Japan’s historic aggression, than another politician will claim that Nanjing never happened. No sooner do scholarly textbooks appear that recognize crimes committed by Japanese soldiers at Nanjing and elsewhere than "patriotic" textbooks are released, white-washing uncomfortable aspects of the past. The national anthem dating from the war period is back, flag ceremonies mandated. Cosmopolitan Japanese increasingly travel to China and Korea to work, study and make friends, thus expanding the peace; while homeland-obsessed xenophobes find new ways to enrage Japan’s insult-weary neighbors. Koizumi may gain domestically when he visits Yasukuni Shrine where the spirits of wartime kamikaze bombers and convicted war criminals are said to reside, but it predictably enrages China and Korea who were victims of that war.

Even if Japan effectively buys a seat on the UN Security Council, Tokyo will still have difficulty taking on a respected political role commensurate with its economic power and technical know-how if it doesn’t have the courage to face up to legitimate complaints from its neighbors and acknowledge suffering caused.

Just before Motomiya’s series was suspended, one of his manga characters got in something as good as the last word:

“What Japan’s army did in Nanjing cannot be covered up, no matter how hard you try…”