In Richard Wilkinson’s Ted Talk, “How Economic Inequality Harms Societies,” there is a striking consistency in the many different graphs of inequality that he shows: Japan is rated as one of the more equal societies, often grouped with Scandinavian countries. And Japan is indeed a more economically equal, healthy and safe society when compared to most other developed countries. After all, it ranked ninth highest on the 2019 Global Peace Index, compared to the United States’ measly 128th. Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolis, is also consistently ranked as the safest city in the world. However, these glorious statistics often distract from the Japanese government’s efforts in erasing its racist past.
Like the U.S., the Japanese government has a long history of racist policies, especially during its imperial era (1868-1947) when attitudes of racial superiority against colonial subjects prevailed. Forced assimilation policies directed at the Indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido and in colonies like Okinawa, Korea and Taiwan all contributed to cultural erasure of non-Japanese subjects.
Imperial forces also committed a lengthy list of atrocities. They forced an estimated 200,000 (mostly Korean) women into sexual slavery, euphemistically referring to them as comfort women.
Additionally, there were numerous massacres of non-Japanese people during the colonial period. Thousands of Koreans were hunted down in the Kanto Massacre of 1923. The estimated death toll of the 1937-1938 Nanjing Massacre in China was over 300,000. And during WWII, Japanese soldiers ordered Okinawan civilians to commit suicide in order to avoid surrendering to American forces. These are only a few of the horrors Imperial Japan left in its wake.
To this day, the Japanese government continues to deny the extent of these atrocities, going to great lengths to rewrite its history. Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike has repeatedly denied that government officials were involved in the Kanto Massacre or that it even occurred in the first place.
Even though the government officially acknowledged the coercion of comfort women in 1993, conservatives like Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga have downplayed, questioned and outright denied the military’s role in this horrific act. In 2014, Suga even looked to revise the 1993 admission but was curtailed by pressure from the Obama administration. In January 2021, Suga rejected a Korean lawsuit demanding monetary compensation to 12 victims.
This revisionist history is further propagated by the Ministry of Education. In 2007, the Ministry revised its history textbooks (Japan has a centralized education system), changing the wording around the forced Okinawan suicides, removing mentions of them being ordered to do so by Japanese soldiers. On top of historical erasure, strict standardized language measures continue to perpetuate the erasure of Okinawan language and culture as well.
These concerted efforts to change history speak to larger issues of xenophobia in Japan, reflected in its notoriously restrictive immigration laws despite a rapidly shrinking population. Even though Japan boasted a record number of foreign residents in 2016, only approximately 1.4 percent of the population are non-citizens compared to the U.S.’s 14.8 percent. As Tokyo Bureau Chief for the New York Times Motoko Rich notes in the podcast “The Daily,” there is “[not a] majority but certainly a very large and vocal segment of the population [that] does not want [a nation of immigrants].” This fear of immigration is particularly apparent in the alarming health disparities between citizens and non-citizens, in part due to the barriers non-citizens face in obtaining healthcare.
Not only do the Japanese government’s actions continue to haunt and hurt the victims of Imperial Japan, but they also strain Pacific Rim relationships, most notably with South Korea. With leaders like Suga, the government is poised to continue its longstanding comprehensive approach to shaping a conservative nationalism that denies parts of Japan’s history and is generally hostile to a multiethnic society. Considering recent ostentatious displays of Chinese military aggression, Japan can ill afford murky relations with other U.S.-backed Asian nations, nor can it economically withstand a restrictive immigration policy. Japanese leaders must abandon these outdated nationalistic norms and begin restorative conversations with their victims.