Japan Wages War — Over What to Name the Last One

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A Japanese delegation Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, General Yoshijiro Umezu and Chief of the Army General Staff formally surrender on the USS "Missouri" as Japan accepts defeat to end World War II, Tokyo Bay, Sept. 2, 1945.

TOKYO – It’s no secret that Japan remains deeply conflicted about its role in the Second World War.  A new study finds that nearly seven decades after the war ended, there’s no agreement even on what to call it.

A  report by Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies finds there are at least four names by which the war is commonly known here, reflecting distinctly different points of view.

“People who justify and affirm the war call it Greater East Asia War, those who are relatively neutral use the term Pacific War, and those who view it as the war of (Japanese) aggression against Asia use the terms 15-Year War and Asia-Pacific War,” concludes the report’s author, Junichiro Shoji.

It’s perhaps more than an academic issue. Labels can shape public attitudes and government policy; that, in turn, can effect domestic affairs and foreign relations. The language used in Japanese schoolbooks to describe wartime atrocities in China and “comfort women” in South Korea have roiled relations with both countries in recent years.

The study finds that Pacific War is the term most often used in Japanese textbooks, newspapers and magazines, and in government reports, laws and regulations. But that has begun to shift in recent years, at both ends of the political spectrum.

“We are now observing a strange structure where the general public seems comfortable with Pacific War, while intellectuals favor Asia-Pacific War or Greater East Asia War,” says Shoji, director of the institute’s Center for Military History.

What to name the war is not a new issue.  Meeting just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Imperial General Headquarters’ Government Liaison Conference officially named the conflict the Greater East Asia War. That term included the hostilities that began in China in 1931.

After Japan’s defeat, the US General Headquarters in Tokyo banned the description; it was too closely associated with the Japan’s stated war aims of creating a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” — a thin cover for its own colonial ambitions. Henceforth, the Americans decreed, the war would be known simply as “the war.”

According to Shoji, a variety of names came into use once Japan regained its independence in the 1950s. But none adequately described the geographic or political scope of the Japanese conflict, and none gained singular nationwide acceptance.

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Pacific War failed to encompass the fighting that ranged from Midway Islands to China, Burma (now Myanmar) and Australia. Greater East Asia War masked Japanese aggression. World War II involved Europeans. Other descriptions floated in books, research papers and news articles were too broad: the 100-Year East Asia War posited a conflict that dated to the arrival of Commodore Perry’s Black Ships in 1853.

Today, there is little uniformity among schools, government agencies or publishers.  The Ministry of Defense, for example, uses both Pacific War and World War II; the defense studies institute, which is sponsored by the ministry, uses those terms, plus Greater East Asia War.

As late as 2006, Japan’s leading newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, sought to bring consistency to the issue by coining the term Showa War.  It never gained traction, though, most likely because it could be construed as  placing blame for the war with the Showa emperor, Hirohito. The emperor’s role remains a politically sensitive issue in Japan, best not discussed. Yomiuri has fallen back on Pacific War.

Says Shoji: “From the perspective of the total picture of the war… it might be advisable to consider the use of either Greater East Asia War or Asia-Pacific War, after shedding their respective ideological biases.”