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What We Forget When We Remember the Pacific War

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Remembering and Forgetting Through History

Whatever else history is or does, it is an indispensable component of our sense of self, both as individuals and as members of various communities. History in all its forms––memory, experience, and formal study––grounds us in a particular time and place and provides us with an understanding of how we are connected to those who came before us. History is also fundamental to our daily lives because it permeates our every decision and action in the present. From the “everyman” and woman to presidents and business leaders, our decisions about career, partners, parenthood, and lifestyle all turn on some understanding of the past that we bring to bear on any given decision in the present.1 If there ever were good reasons for studying history, these are among the most compelling.

Yet, written history, and the uses to which it is put, is deeply problematic for the same reasons that make it indispensable. To begin with, historical writing is highly selective, driven by numerous factors, including the availability of evidence and the professional and political biases of the historian. The process of choosing what to include and what to omit, coupled with a realization that the evidence is always incomplete, means that history can only ever represent a fraction of what actually happened in the past. Even with historians’ best efforts, total knowledge of any aspect, event, or process from the past remains beyond our grasp.2 At the same time, however, history continues to expand rapidly with each generation of new writers and with new forms of delivery like electronic media. While the past remains unchanged, our narratives about the past ––history— and the methods that drive them––historiography––increase at such a dizzying pace that even professional historians have difficulty keeping up-to-date. Herein lies the fundamental paradox surrounding the uses of history: human decisions and actions in the present are based on a particular understanding of the past that is irretrievably incomplete and yet so overwhelmingly large that we cannot fit it into any one set of narratives.3

History, therefore, must be understood and taught as a reciprocal process of remembering and forgetting. By forgetting I mean stories not told and voices not represented. By necessity, any given history must be a partial product of forgetting, a series of tentative truths, constrained by the recognition that the whole story, the totality of the past, always remains beyond our grasp. But historical forgetting is also intentional, colored by ideology and driven by a desire to elevate, marginalize, undermine, or protect particular subjects whose stories serve a variety of purposes in the present. This means that history and its uses, far from being neutral or detached, are viscerally emotional and politically charged. Consider Serbian historical claims to Kosovo in the late 1990s and the late Slobodan Milosevic’s use of the Turkish defeat of the Serbs in 1389 to rally Serbian support for his persecution of Kosovo’s Albanian majority. Closer to home and in a very different context, recall the animosity unleashed in the last presidential campaign over Senator John Kerry’s service record in Vietnam. Indeed, Americans need only think of Vietnam itself to appreciate the personal and political character of history and to realize that in the ongoing battle for historical orthodoxy, selective readings of history can be politically expedient to all.

In what follows, I want to examine the relationship between historical remembering and forgetting via three examples. The first is the Japanese textbook controversy from last spring. The second is the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the third is how our remembrances of war generally focus on dying, not killing. Each case stands as a powerful example of how particular stories are forgotten in the constructions of history and provides us with an opportunity to examine the reasons and consequences of this forgetting.

Japanese Textbooks and the Pacific War

Readers will recall last spring when protesters in China and South Korea took to the streets in opposition to the Japanese government’s announcement of a new middle school history text that glosses over or ignores the atrocities committed by Japanese troops during the Pacific War. While the intensity and violence of the protests are unusual in this case, neither the textbook nor the angry reactions are new.4 The book in question, The New History Textbook (Atarashii rekishi kyōkasho), is one of eight texts approved by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (Monbukagakushō: MEXT) for use in Japanese public and private middle schools.5 Originally approved in 2001, the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (Atarashii Rekishi Kyōkasho o Tsukurukai: ARKT) revised the text in 2005 in the wake of protests in China, the Koreas, and in Japan itself. The original 2001 version also spawned an “International Scholars’ Appeal,” signed by hundreds of scholars throughout the world who condemned the textbook for, among other things, “(mis)educating students.”6 It was the revised 2005 edition, however, that drew official protest from the Chinese and South Korean governments and generated even more violent civilian protests in both countries last spring.

To some, this controversy may seem to be a mere “tempest in a textbook.” Although a commercial bestseller, The New History Textbook has apparently been adopted for use by only eight private and eight public middle schools out of more 10,000 nationwide.7 Yet, it does illustrate a number of fundamental problems of how history is written and taught, whose voices are represented, and what is remembered and forgotten in the process. For the Chinese protesters and for those of us who specialize in modern Asia, the textbook writers forget much. They neglect to give voice to the tens of millions Asians killed and they downgrade the Rape of Nanjing to a mere “Incident.” More egregiously, they omit altogether the sex slavery, the biological and chemical experiments, the brutalization of POWs, and slave labour. Those of us who study this period know these things because the documentary record tells us that tens of millions of people were killed on all sides in the Pacific War. The New History Textbook ignores all this in favor of a narrative that contains few voices other than those of the Japanese.8

But there is even more at play here in the politics of forgetting. As the International Scholars’ Appeal reminds us, “all nations have disgraceful chapters in their histories”9 and we should alert our students to the ways in which Japanese wartime atrocities can be deployed to deflect attention away from the disgraceful chapters in the national histories of not just China and South Korea but Canada and America as well. A useful exercise in this regard would be to have students compare textbooks over time and, where accessible in English, across nations to see what is remembered and forgotten in each case. We might further ask students to explore stories of Japanese-American and Japanese-Canadian internment, or have them research what kind of support any Allied government has given, post-1945, to former POWs, sex slaves, and slave laborers.10

Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Historical Context

Lost in last spring’s textbook controversy and the protests it generated was another story of Japanese anti-nuclear activists protesting the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Washington. As with the textbook protesters, this group claimed the exhibit did not tell a balanced story or give appropriate voice to the victims. The exhibit, they argued, focused too narrowly on the triumph of American science and technology and the atom bomb’s performance rather than on its effects on the inhabitants of the two cities.11 For the survivors of the bombs––the hibakusha––and their supporters, the Smithsonian exhibit appeared guilty of a similar kind of selective memory as was the case with the writers of The New History Textbook. In telling one set of stories that focused on the bombs as a part of American aviation history, the Smithsonian, too, omitted much.

In the history of the twentieth century, perhaps no two words resonate as powerfully with the peoples of the world as do Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They remind us that science, like history, is not just about human progress and achievement. Yet, despite their global relevance, the atomic bombings are strikingly dissimilar when told from an exclusively national perspective. For the Japanese, Hiroshima and Nagasaki mark not only the utter defeat of the Japanese empire but also symbolize for many the emergence of a postwar “victim’s consciousness.” As a Japanese tragedy, the atomic bombings tend to displace the many voices of other Asian peoples for whom the war was equally or even more tragic. Intentionally or not, remembrances of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have enabled a process of forgetting in postwar Japan about how and why the Japanese government initiated and conducted its wars in Asia. Despite the considerable efforts of Japanese citizens and scholars to tell a more balanced story over the last decade or so, the sense of victimization symbolized by the bombings remains powerful.12 This kind of forgetting may not be as intentional as, say, the writing of a textbook, but its consequences are equally profound. For Americans, remembrances of these events are similarly problematic. Like the Smithsonian exhibit, remembrances of the atomic bombings through textbooks and other media still tend to focus on the “fact” that the bombs were necessary to shorten the war and save countless American lives.13 In doing so, these writings ignore or “forget” that professional historians have disputed these claims for forty years, and from their research we know that the decision to use the bombs was complex and, especially after that fact, constantly contested.14

The atomic bombings also represent another type of forgetting due to the uniqueness of the weapons themselves and the enormity of their consequences. What is forgotten in this case is that the bombings were the culmination of an Allied policy of civilian bombing––initially condemned by England and America, but then later sanctioned at the highest levels of government as effective military strategy. Between 1937 and 1940, President Roosevelt, the US State Department and the Senate, and their British counterparts all publicly denounced Japanese and German aerial bombardment of enemy cities. The State Department claimed civilian bombing was “contrary to the principles of law and humanity.” A 1938 US Senate resolution defined “the inhuman bombing of civilian populations” as a “crime against humanity.” In 1939 the British Foreign Office declared that its government would never make civilian bombing part of its policy “no matter what the policy of the German Government may be.” That same year Roosevelt claimed that the “ruthless bombing from the air of civilians . . . has profoundly shocked the consciousness of humanity,” and later in the war wrote proudly that the US had “consistently taken the lead in urging that this inhuman practice be prohibited.”15 However, by 1942 against Germany and 1944 against Japan, the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Force adopted and perfected the very strategy their governments had so vociferously denounced. The prophecies of aerial warfare theorists in the 1920s that civilian bombing strategies, then only an idea, would erase the distinction between soldiers and civilians had come true with a vengeance.16

These statements remind us that that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are parts of a much larger story of strategies and tactics of which the Pacific War was neither the beginning nor the end. By placing the atomic bombings back in the context of earlier, evolving civilian bombing strategies we gain a clearer understanding of the processes by which these particular bombings occurred. This approach raises an issue about the degree to which we, the Allies, had become thoroughly desensitized to the mass killing of non-combatants from the air long before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit. The atomic bombs were unique in terms of their destructive power and in the insidious aftereffects of radiation poisoning, but the intentional targeting of mass numbers of civilians for incineration was not.

Between late February and mid-August 1945, the American Army Air Force systematically targeted and destroyed all of Japan’s major urban centers, except Kyoto, first using high explosives but increasingly resorting to incendiary devices that created firestorms. The results were stunning. In less than six months, American aerial bombing killed somewhere between 300,000 and 750,000 people, mostly civilian, many elderly and children, some Allied. The principal act in this tragedy was the firebombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945, when 300 B-29s incinerated sixteen square miles of the city, killing as many as 100,000 men, women, and children in about three hours. The stories of this night are truly horrific by any standards of humanity. And this was only one––the biggest one––of many similar attacks during that six-month period. By the time the Enola Gay and Bockscar delivered their payloads five months later, virtually every Japanese city lay in ruins.

Even less remembered is the US Army Air Force’s firebombing of the Chinese city of Hankow in December 1944 and the similar destruction of most Taiwanese cities the following spring, which killed tens of thousands of civilians, most of whom were Chinese and Taiwanese. The inhabitants of these cities were doubly cursed, having lived under Japanese occupation for decades only to be killed by their would-be liberators. These are some of the important stories that tend to be forgotten by Japanese and Americans alike, except for those who lived them, subsumed beneath the enormity of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.17

While Hiroshima and Nagasaki are important stories in their own right, as are the stories of sex slavery and POW brutalization, they are also part of a larger set of stories about power politics, scientific and technological development, cultural misunderstanding, racial hatred, inter-service rivalry, and personal ambition. In fact, there are so many stories that the teaching of them seems truly daunting. The atomic bombings are prime examples of how history is a reciprocal process of remembering and forgetting. They can remind us, particularly historians and educators, to pay special attention to what is not there and, most importantly, why. If for no other reason, this silence from history profoundly affects our relationship to the past, our understanding of ourselves in the present, and above all, our identities as Canadians, Americans, and Japanese.

Remembrances of Killing

a man in camo looks at a building with american flags on it
Image from the 2005 Veterans Day national ceremony held at Arlington National Cemetery on November 11, 2005. A soldier’s view of Veterans Day ceremony. Source: Web site of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

My final example concerns the vast, linked systems of remembrance that all peoples construct to memorialize, celebrate, and mourn those who fought and/or died in wars, whatever their causes. These include history courses and textbooks, media accounts, popular films, and books, but I am thinking particularly of the memorials and museums that house the memories and experiences of war itself. Each nation has them, as they do the particular dates and anniversaries for which remembrance is most central.18 They contain within them many stories, but the overriding message is one of remembering those who fought and/or died for us. While we rightly remember these acts of sacrificial death and near-death, our remembrances of dying or the willingness to die tends to erase the memory that all these men (and now women) also killed or were willing to kill for us.

That soldiers suffer in war is unquestionable. But in remembering only their willingness to die for cause or country, we forget that an important part of soldiers’ suffering includes the brutalizing and killing of others. As Joanna Bourke has argued eloquently, “the characteristic act of men at war is not dying, it is killing . . . the lawful killing of other people.”19 Even in the case of so-called “justified” brutality committed in the “normal course of war,” soldiers are dehumanized by the experience of trying to kill those who seek to kill them. In and of itself, this is neither remarkable nor controversial. In times of war men, and now women, are commanded to kill each other. For the soldiers on the ground, the reasons for killing are often personal, displacing grand strategies, nationalism, and religion. They may kill simply to protect themselves and their buddies from being killed.

My point here is two-fold. First, we should reflect on why our remembrances of war focus on more dying than killing, and challenge our students to explore the reasons for this. We might, for example, assign our students to attend a Veterans’ Day (US) or Remembrance Day (Canada) ceremony and ask them to identify what is being remembered, by whom, and for what reasons. We might further ask students to examine phrases like “lest we forget” and “they died for us” and to interrogate more deeply exactly what it is we should not be forgetting and who the “us” actually represents.20 We might then ask our students to imagine forms of remembrance that recover the forgotten killing and place it alongside our remembrances of dying, and then have them discuss what kind of impact this altered form of remembrance might have on our understanding of war, its causes and consequences, and the conditions under which we would support or oppose such action. Second, when discussing the causes and consequences of war, we must remind our students that the act of killing, even in self-defense, can be deeply traumatizing. According to many scholars, killing does not come naturally to either men or women. State-sanctioned killers, they argue, are made not born. Given this, we can explore with our students the ways in which governments and militaries throughout the world have sought to overcome this natural disinclination to kill through training, patriotic appeals, technology, and dehumanization of the enemy other.21

By taking these critical approaches to our own forms of remembrance, we may run the risk of being criticized for dishonoring the memory of our soldiers or of being unpatriotic. We saw this occur in the 1995 and 2003 Enola Gay controversies in the United States and in the 1994 airing of the documentary The Valour and the Horror in Canada, which led to a governmental inquiry and even a lawsuit against the film’s makers for defamation of character.22 But these examples only serve to refocus our attention on the deeply personal and politically volatile character of historical writing and the intimate relationship between personal and national identity. The linkages between nation, war, and its remembrances will always be controversial, but they are particularly germane to our students because war will always demand that a disproportionate number of young men and women of our students’ age, in the name of some higher purpose, do the killing and dying.

In providing these examples of forgetting in the histories of the Pacific War I, too, have omitted much. This is partly due to the editorial constraints of this journal but also because my choice of purpose drives the decisions I make about what to include and what to exclude. That purpose has been to argue that all histories contain within them a multitude of unseen stories, the illumination of which enriches our understanding of the past while simultaneously deepening our problematic relationship with it. Forgetting, like bias, is not just “the other guy’s problem” but is endemic to the human project of creating meaning and value from the world we inherit and in which we now live. Therefore, historians and educators have an ethical responsibility to remain sensitive to what has been forgotten and why. This approach can reveal much about who we are and the values we hold dear. Clearly we cannot teach our students all that has been forgotten, but we can train them to critically evaluate any narrative for what is missing and to help them see below the surface to what lies hidden beneath.

Many years ago as he was fleeing the Nazi march on Europe, literary critic Walter Benjamin penned a series of eighteen short pieces that, among other things, revealed his extremely dark view of historical writing. In Thesis VIII, Benjamin wrote: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.”23 It may seem unduly harsh to equate forgetting with barbarism, but when we look at this relationship from the standpoint of those who are forgotten, we might well perceive the omission of these voices as barbaric. Of all the stories in the modern era, those of war, its remembrance, and its impact on our national identities, are among the most central and contested. They are stories of valor, determination, and sacrifice. They are also stories of human inhumanity, which in the twentieth century has been written with such tragic force so as to collapse every other century into a singularity of slaughter in the present. For precisely this reason we must take Benjamin’s words to heart and, for all systems and structures of remembrance, look to what is not remembered and find ways to transmit these stories to our children.


1. The term “everyman” comes from historian Carl Becker’s famous article “Everyman His Own Historian,” American Historical Review, 37:2 (Jan.1932): 221–236. The language may be a bit difficult for today’s students, but with the teacher’s guidance Becker’s piece can be the starting point for a series of assignments through which students understand how history is used in everyday life. Becker’s examples may also provide students an interesting glimpse into the world of 1930s America.

2. To help students appreciate the process of selection in historical writing and the impossibility of “telling it all,” teachers can ask them to construct histories of a single day, of an hour, or of their classroom within a specified period of time. As they build their stories from evidence, students will be able to see more clearly the gaps in their records, even with recent events that have greater documentation. To help students understand how the chronological structure of history changes thematically, teachers can have them construct a number of timelines or periodization schemes for the same historical subject (postwar Japan, for example), each based on a different theme such as gender, international relations, or popular culture. These exercises will reveal that the chronological plotting of historical narratives is dependent in part on the historian’s particular focus.

3. To give students an appreciation of how quickly history grows, teachers can have them compile bibliographies of sources (of the Pacific War, for example) based on date of publication. Students would then see how historians’ interests change over time as the overall output increases.

4. An excellent online resource for issues related to the Pacific War is “Memory and Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific,” based at George Washington University:, cited January 9, 2005. It also has a comprehensive bibliography of writings about the textbook controversy dating back to the 1970s. Teachers should also consult Ienaga Saburō, Japan’s Past, Japan’s Future: One Historian’s Odyssey, translated and introduced by Richard H. Minear, (Lanham Md.: Roman and Littlefield, 2001).

5. Nishio Kanji, et al., The New History Textbook (Atarashii rekishi kyōkasho), Tokyo: Fusōsha, 2005.

6. The appeal and its signatories can be found online at JWRC/center/english/appeal1.htm. Students should also be encouraged to explore the Center for Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility (JWRC) at This Japan-based Web site contains valuable information about court cases, textbooks, and materials related to Japan’s prosecution of the war in Asia. Familiarity with the site will also help students appreciate the efforts of Japanese scholars and citizens to face squarely and honestly their country’s activities during the Pacific War.

7. This information comes from Eric Prideaux, “Cartoon duo leads the way in a version of history that’s no joke,” getarticle.pl5?fl20050821x2.htm (cited August 21, 2005). According to a recent scholarly paper, the number of schools is eleven. For an abstract of this, see Harry Wray, “Content Analysis and Comparison of Selected Topics in Japanese History, 1905–1930,” in the first and second drafts of the Atarashii rekishi ky¬kasho,, cited January 11, 2006.

8. Two good video resources documenting Japanese wartime atrocities are The Rape of Nanking, A&E Television Networks, 1999; and Japanese Devils (Riben Guizi), Matsui Minoru, Director, 2001. Teachers should screen both carefully as they are graphic and disturbing. For Japanese civilian perspectives on the war, students would benefit from exploring the collections of stories in Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook, eds., Japan at War: An Oral History, The New Press, 1993. Teachers should also consult, in addition to the Center for Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility Web site mentioned above, the Web site of the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia,

9. Quoted in

10. An English translation of chapters four and five of The New History Textbook prepared by the ARKT itself can be found on the Society’s Web site at A good visual history of Japanese-American Internment is Consult also the Japanese American Internment Memorial, Diversity/memorial.html, the Japanese American Online Exhibit at, and Children of the Camps at For Canadian resources, see All these sites are good starting points and have links to books, videos, and other materials.

11. “Enola Gay Display Should Include A-bomb Outcome, Japanese Activists Say,” Japan Today, April 30, 2005. This article used to be available online but now seems only to be accessible in hardcopy. For more on this issue, including the Smithsonian’s rationale for the exhibit, see Debbie Ann Doyle, “Historians Protest New Enola Gay Exhibit,” Issues/2003/0312/0312new4.cfm, cited January 2, 2006, and Lawrence S. Wittner, “The Enola Gay, the Atomic Bomb, and American War Memory,”, cited January 2, 2006.

12. An excellent source illustrating both victimization and complexities of the nuclear age is John Whittier Treat, Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). A powerful film in the anime genre that portrays the sense of victimization (of the Japanese and US military) is Barefoot Gen (Hashi no gen), Director: Shinzaki Mamoru, 1986. Another powerful anime film that portrays a victim’s consciousness, this time from the firebombings, is Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka), Director: Takahata Isao, 1988.

13. Samuel Walker made this argument in 1995, maintaining that most American high school and college history texts offered this single storyline with little indication that there are other, competing explanations. Samuel J. Walker, “History, Collective Memory, and the Decision to Use the Bomb,” Diplomatic History, 19.2 (Spring 1995): 319 –328. More recently, other historians have made similar arguments. See, for example, the collection of essays in Laura Hein and Mark Selden, eds., Living With the Bomb: American and Japanese Cultural Conflicts in the Nuclear Age (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997). See also by the same editors Censoring History: Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany, and the United States (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2000), especially the articles in Part II.

14. The material on this controversy is truly voluminous. I recommend the following opposing positions just to start: Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), and Robert P. Newman, Truman and the Hiroshima Cult (East Lansing, Mi.: Michigan State University Press, 1995). The Spring 1995 issue of Diplomatic History also carries a series of useful articles that re-examine Hiroshima and Nagasaki fifty years later.

15. The above quotations are cited in John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986): 38–41.

16. A good account of the development of civilian bombing strategies is Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987), 9 –21. Another account that focuses more on the technological aspects of American civilian bombing is Kenneth P. Werrell, Blankets of Fire: U. S. Bombers over Japan during World War II (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996).

17. Sherry, 274–277, 406.

18. The story of the creation and maintenance of these systems of remembrance is fascinating in its own right, dating back to the early postwar years of World War One. Two good sources on this process in America and Canada are Cecilia Elizabeth O’Leary, To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), and Jonathan Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 1997).

19. Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare (London: Granta Books, 2000), 1.

20. Another useful exercise that uses a comparative perspective is to have students examine Web sites of veteran’s associations and war memorials in Canada and the US and then compare them with accessible sites from Japan and China. Two of the latter in Japan that have English Web pages are the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo where the spirits of Japan’s war dead are interred (, and the English site of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (

21. Possible teaching materials for this include Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Back Bay Books, 1996, and Joshua S. Goldstein, War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa (Cambridge University Press, 2003), all of which argue that killers in war are made, not born.

22. For a detailed analysis of this controversy, see Graham Carr, “Rules of Engagement: Public History and the Drama of Legitimation,” The Canadian Historical Review 86:2 (June 2005), 317–354.

23., cited April 28, 2005. This Web site offers a complete translation of all the theses as well as background information on Benjamin and his work. Benjamin is a tragic figure in his own right. While trying to cross from France into Spain in 1940, Benjamin and his friends were held up at the border. That night while despairing that he would never make it, Benjamin killed himself. The next day, his friends were permitted to cross.