Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Just had an interesting lunch conversation about the Japanese military. There is a famous Japanese military head. (I didn't catch the name...) who wrote a book about the retreat from China. In it he remembers the military leaving all of the Japanese civilians behind. Okinawa was similar, where the military used the civilians as shields and ran away. This is in contrast to the image from the US where the battle of Iwo Jima and others cast the Japanese military is tough and stick-to-your-guns type. I think Iwojima was a anomaly because the tunnel network required on the island caused the US to underestimate the strength of the resistance.

The Japanese remember the military as a cowardly and powerful and remember the police state during wartime Japan and do not want to relive it.

I asked another question that came up during the Japan Society meeting about why the Japanese have so much difficulty accepting war responsibility compared to Germany. Japan was united under the Emperor and at the end of the day, all Japanese are guilty whereas in Germany they could blame it on the Nazis. Also, Japan was never invaded so people don't remember the war much, whereas Germany and other countries who were invaded with land forces remember family being killed, etc. There are other reasons, but these were rather interesting.

I will post my notes the main session in a bit.


I have a pet theory on the issue of "responsibility" in Japan. This is hardly politicaly correct and should not in any way be taken as a value judgement, but here it is. Nation states/cultures which come from a Judeo-Christian background have a built in method of taking responsibility for failures via the notion of confession and redemption. If "sins" (the literal meaning "errors" rather than the moral connotation of the word) can be forgiven, one can accept and adjust ones behavior in the future. Acts of pennace may be performed and absolution can follow. Note that this does not really apply in the case of a predetermininistic view where ones assignment to the afterlife is decided already and therefore no ammount of pennance can redeem one's soul from condemnation to hell, however the "salvation through good works" viewpoint has been dominant in Protestant Europe and the US.

The Confucian/Buddhist tradtion however relies more on the concept of accumulated karma determining one's next re-incarnation and the concept of pennance/redemption is largely non existant. The only accepted method of taking responsibility is to abdicate ones position (or forfeit one's life) rather than to change one's course of action since no ammount of pennance can change one's fate in this life or the next.

Let me again stress that I do not believe that there is any moral superiority to one viewpoint or the other, but I do believe that the second is quite difficult to understand for those who hold the first viewpoint; and in practical terms, the first viewpoint does allow for a social dynamism which encourages progress by allowing the society to "reform" itself. I'm sure I've done a terrible job at explaining my idea, but I hope you get the jist of it.

Something I think doesn't get discussed enough in the context of Japan, Japanese, and WWII is the concept of MISOGI. Most Japanese memories of WWII are of the pain and suffering JAPANESE had to go through because of it. Many more soldiers died of starvation, for example, than by enemy bullets and bombs. Then the ultimate pain and redemptive sacrifice were Hiroshima and Nagazaki. So I think many if not most Japanese feel that they as a people have paid for the aggression of WWII through the pain and suffering they had to go through in the final days of the war and the weeks and months after that. Few speak of the glory days of the Kantogun in China. Many speak of the hell experienced in the Burma campaign, the battle for Okinawa, and the retreat from Manchuria. Does anyone else know how the concept of MISOGI applies to "war" responsibility?