Background image: Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge.
American Exceptionalism II
May 1, 2015
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in the Bay Area today and, to quote one of the Clintons, “I can feel his pain.”
I feel it because I, too, come from a defeated nation – that’s the way many Southerners still see the Confederacy – that like Japan has powerful elements who continue to fight a long history-rewriting war to deny a history that holds us or our ancestors responsible for crimes against humanity.
Abe (pronounced AH-bay -- I realize that writing the name probably causes you to think Honest rather than Shinzo) has been subjected to more international pressure than most recent Japanese prime ministers to acknowledge and apologize for that nation’s role in World War II. It’s because he leads a movement to rebuild Japanese nationalism and militarism (which the United States supports as long as the result helps check China’s growing power).
Nevertheless, Abe disappointed many people around the world by ignoring the opportunity presented by his speech to Congress earlier this week to take responsibility for what happened in the Pacific Theater of WWII. After all these decades, Japan’s failure to do so is still a big sore point in its relations with its neighbors.
But that shouldn’t be surprising. Before his election as prime minister, Abe chaired the conservative Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which produced a 2001 textbook that whitewashed Japan’s war history and drew complaints throughout the West, South Korea and China.
Considering Japan’s lengthy record for whitwashing the war history taught in its public schools (read a backgrounder here and an interesting discussion here), Abe’s book must really have been atrocious.
He proudly attends the ceremonies at Shinto shrines that honor the who prosecuted that war.
But I understand as a Southerner and as an American. Rare is the small Southern town without its memorial to glorious dead who fought to preserve a special way of life. Ignored is the fact these dead fought for a life of manners and gracious living that rested on the subjugation of a race of people whose lives didn’t amount to much.
I have studied in classroom buildings named for slave owners and KKK leaders. I read now about the national movement to oppose restructured AP U.S. History courses in high schools because the course has nothing to do with glorifying our own past.
Abe knows better than many Americans what the cost is to a national leader who even hints that a nation’s myth of noble exceptionalism is founded on something other than divine intent. We can't even call "slips" after invading a country under mistaken pretenses. Not that Abe ever thought of emulating Barack Obama.
The promoters of national glorification justify it as presenting a necessary façade for dealing with the world beyond our borders. But that world knows us better than we know ourselves.