The war that cannot be learned from textbooks or the national identity discourse that can be perceived in media?

An analysis of Japanese mainstream media narratives on the Asia-Pacific War

Yunuen Ysela Mandujano-Salazar, Department of Pacific Studies, University of Guadalajara [About | Email]

Volume 16, Issue 1 (Article 2 in 2016). First published in ejcjs on 30 April 2016.


This article explores one of the many television shows broadcast in Japan on occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Asia-Pacific War: The War that Cannot Be Learned from Textbooks. The objective is to extract a sample of the current narratives found in mainstream media related to the topic of Japanese involvement in that war and show that they are aligned with the discourse found in Japan’s officially approved history textbooks, becoming another form of history education. Relying on an interpretative textual analysis of the show, it is argued that there is a tendency in Japanese media to exalt the heroism and sacrifice of Japanese soldiers, their human side, their patriotism, and the elements of a traditional national identity found in their lives, exonerating them from the crimes perpetrated by the Japanese Army on other Asian nations, which are not even mentioned, echoing the formal education discourse.

Keywords: Asia-Pacific War, Japanese history textbooks, media narratives, national identity.


In the last couple of decades, much has been written about Japanese history textbooks and their depictions—or lack of them—of controversial actions that the Japanese government and army executed during 20th century wartime, particularly in terms of Japan’s colonial rule over other Asian nations and the Asia-Pacific War. However, even if formal history education in Japan has been the focus of continuous debate, informal education through media has the potential, as Hashimoto Akiko (2015) has argued, “deeply [to] influence the hearts and minds of the next generation” (para 2). Notwithstanding this, the scholarly analysis of this powerful form of history education in Japan is scarce and has been mostly focused on the categories of manga and anime (see Hashimoto, 2015; Nakazawa & Minear, 2010; Tanaka, 2010). On the other hand, non-animated Japanese television productions involving war themes, while abundant and perhaps more influential among broader sectors of the Japanese society, have been largely neglected by academia. This article aims to begin filling this gap by performing a textual analysis on one of those television shows. By extracting a sample of the narratives found in mainstream media related to the topic of Japanese military actions during the first half of the 20th century, I intend to demonstrate that such narratives are aligned with the discourse found in Japan’s officially approved history textbooks, becoming a medium of history education that supports conservative ideas about the war.

The show selected for analysis is Sakurai Shō & Ikegami Akira: The War that Cannot Be Learned from Textbooks,1 which was broadcast on August 4, 2015 by Nippon Television Network (NTV)—one of the leading private broadcasting corporations in Japan and one that leans towards the conservative side. This was one of many Japanese media productions dedicated to commemorating the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings and the end of the Asia-Pacific War. I selected this as a relevant sample because the title explicitly expresses its purpose of providing viewers with new knowledge on the war, knowledge allegedly not learned in compulsory education, but it also unequivocally relies on two influential media personalities to attract certain sectors of audience and give a touch of honesty to the facts it is supposed to unveil. Notwithstanding its claim, the analysis of the diverse narratives found in the show and the intertextuality with those represented by the two leading personalities suggests that “the war that can be learned from television” is not so different to that learned from textbooks. Although the “facts” presented in the show may not be found in most officially approved history textbooks, the values and discourses behind them turn out to be the same in both. It also demonstrates how the use of mainstream media personalities can efficiently support an official discourse by not appearing obviously politicised and, thus, reaching greater audiences.

I will begin by presenting the context of the current controversy related to the Japanese history textbooks and the dominant narratives about the wartime found in these. Then, the results of the interpretative textual analysis on the previously mentioned show will be presented, focusing on the story line and the narrative tone, as well as on the discursive role of the media personalities involved in it, identifying the dominant narratives endorsed by media about Japanese history and the national identity.

The war that can be learned from the controversial Japanese history textbooks2

After militarism took Japan to a painful state of devastation during the first half of the 20th century, not only the infrastructure and economy, but also the national identity had to be rebuilt. As Article 9 of the Constitution of 1947 established Japan’s perpetual renunciation of war and maintenance of military forces,3 pacifism became a key element of the national identity that was going to support the reconstruction of the country and the national community. However, as the years have passed, domestic and foreign circumstances have caused Japan to find itself in the controversy of whether the nation is acting according to the pacifist spirit that has been assumed as an intrinsic feature of Japanese identity, or if there is a lingering belligerency in it.

In this regard, the growing trend of neo-nationalism seen among power spheres has been at the centre of the controversy because of provocative campaigns related to security policy, international affairs and internal politics. One of the most relevant symbolic actions that have identified this trend—and caused constant diplomatic difficulties—is related to the treatment of Japanese history in education and in official statements. China and South Korea have been very vocal regarding two issues: the reluctance of the Japanese government leaders to express “sincere” apologies for the crimes executed by the army during the Asia-Pacific War and the approval of history textbooks that apparently lessen Japan’s aggressive actions during the wars of the first half of the 20th century.

After the end of the Asia-Pacific War, the Japanese government established that all textbooks to be used in schools had to be approved by the Ministry of Education4—hereafter MOE—through a screening system;5 however, the Ministry itself would not write them. In this context, the debates about the history textbooks began in the 1950s as an internal conflict between progressive and conservative forces: left-wing politicians, intellectuals and scholars wanting to teach young generations about the darkest side of the wars fought by Japan, and their right-wing counterparts arguing about the need to inculcate in them the love for their nation, which could not be achieved by “talking bad” of Japan (Hamada, 2002; Nozaki, 2008). For years, struggles continued with conservative forces leading the battle and supporting the MOE in its censure of crude, extensive or critical accounts about the role of Japan in the Asia-Pacific War (Nozaki & Selden, 2009).

During the textbook screening of 1981-1982, the MOE censored the depiction of war crimes. Not long after, South Korean and Chinese media began to report that Japan’s government—through the MOE—was trying to water down the actions of the Japanese Army in those countries, particularly on scandalous topics such as the recruitment of “comfort women” and the Nanjin Massacre; this turned the issue into an international controversy that promoted nationalistic positions in the three countries (Yi, 2009). In order to avoid major diplomatic conflicts, the MOE announced that textbooks needed to take into consideration international cooperation, implying they should not offend Asian neighbours; in the same sense, the euphemisms used until then in relation to Japanese militarily-aggressive actions were mostly dropped, allowing for somehow critical history textbooks to emerge for a brief period (Nozaki & Selden, 2009).

This development caused the reaction of Japanese neo-nationalists. In the 1990s, members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)—the leading conservative party in Japan—and right-wing intellectuals and scholars began pressuring for a review of the descriptions of the Asia-Pacific War events in history textbooks. In January of 1997, a conservative intellectual and political initiative called the Japan Society for History Textbook Reform (Atarashii rekishi kyōkasho wo tsukuru kai)—hereafter the Society—was founded, having as its main aim to change the “bad image” that history textbooks were arguably teaching children about their country and, instead, promoting books that helped them love their nation (Atarashii Rekishi Kyōkasho wo Tsukuru Kai, 2011). Around the same time, inside the National Diet, the Group of Young Diet Members Concerned with Japan’s Future and History Education (Nihon no zento to rekishi kyōiku wo kangaeru wakate giin no kai) was formed, having today’s Prime Minister, Abe Shinzō, as Secretary General (Nozaki & Selden, 2009). As the name clearly expresses, this group was also interested in modifying the way Japanese history was being taught.

The pressure from these groups for the revision of existing textbooks and their rejection of foreign intrusion in a domestic matter resulted in the “self-censorship” of most publishers for the 2000-2001 screening; the most controversial issues were removed or the space dedicated to them was greatly reduced. At the same time, the New History Textbook (Atarashii Rekishi Kyōkasho), published by the Society, was approved. This book, although adopted only by a minor portion of middle schools, caused a renewed uproar among Asian media and leaders. Since then, frequent—sometimes sensationalist—reports in Asian and Western media have propagated the idea that Japanese history textbooks are highly nationalistic. Nevertheless, the analysis performed by diverse scholars of the narratives found in the approved books demonstrates that, in general, these are actually less ethnocentric and less nationalist than other Asian or Western history textbooks are, although they certainly evade details or moral judgement on controversial topics (Foster & Nicholls, 2005; Hamada, 2002; 2003; Sneider, 2013).

Officially sanctioned Japanese history textbooks of the 2000s onwards are, in a historiographic sense, “dry chronolog[ies] of events without much interpretive or analytical narrative” (Sneider, 2013, p. 39) that, nonetheless, “do offer a clear, if somewhat implicit, message: the wars in Asia were a product of Japan’s imperial expansion, orchestrated by the Japanese military in an attempt to resolve Japan’s post World War I economic crisis” (p. 40). There are references to the massacre of Chinese civilians and the forced labour of Asian people of occupied territories, although the topics of the “comfort women” and the colonial rule over Korea are avoided in most of the books (Sneider, 2013).

In general, the narratives found in them draw an image of Japan being pushed into war in order to avoid falling into the hands of Western powers; they also tend to focus on the misery and pain of “the people”—Japanese and non-Japanese Asian civilians—who were victims of a war led by the Japanese military officials, who are pointed out as responsible for all of that suffering (Foster & Nicholls, 2005; Hamada, 2003). Notwithstanding this, the books are ambiguous about blaming the immorality or unethical nature of such leaders; instead, they highlight the desperation of the situation of Japan; reckless actions—such as the “kamikaze” attacks—are portrayed as a result of despairing circumstances. This characteristic found in the narratives of all approved books is what Hamada (2003) describes as the “nobility of failure,” which stresses the heroism found in the defeat of Japan and the virtues of “selfless sacifice and sincerity of the individual or the group against all difficulties” (p. 143).

The war that can be learned from television

The narrative focused on the “nobility of failure” related to Japan’s involvement and outcome in the Asia-Pacific War has been supported through the years not only by the history textbooks, but also by media—particularly television—which have predominantly produced content related to the battles fought against the United States that led to Japan’s final defeat. Every year, around the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the war, public and private broadcasters produce special programming focusing on the personal stories of Japanese people who experienced such battles, exalting the agony in their circumstances, aiming to awaken empathy and boost patriotism among audience.

In 2015, the year that marked the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Japan, this kind of content multiplied. For instance, the public broadcaster Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (NHK) produced a project called The 70th Year of War and Peace,6 which involved the broadcasting of diverse documentaries throughout the year about various aspects of the war and its aftermath. Private companies did their part too. Nippon Television Network (NTV), through its division Nippon News Network, produced fourteen thirty-minute episodes of a series called 70 Years After the War,7 which broadcast between January and December and focused on Japanese survivors of the war or events related to Japanese civilians’ experiences during it. Tokyo Broadcasting System Television (TBS) and Fuji Television Network (Fuji TV) broadcast four-hour long documentaries (70 Years After the War, Thousand Testimonies Special; My town was also a battlefield, the family stories I want to tell now (TBS);8 and Please, teach us about the war. There are people who we must meet now, there are voices that we must hear today (Fuji TV)9) during primetime on the exact anniversary of the surrender of Japan; in these, they relied on celebrities to talk with survivors and serve as narrators. All these programs had in common the manifest solemnity of their topics, the emotive tone of the narrative developed through the individual life-stories of survivors, and their aim at an adult audience.

Among the numerous television productions of 2015 dealing with reminiscences of the war, Sakurai Shō & Ikegami Akira10 The War that Cannot Be Learned from Textbooks (NTV) is worth of attention for the slightly different approach of its narrative, which targeted a much broader audience. Broadcast on August 4th during the primetime slot of 9 to 11 PM, this show had an average rating of 13.1 points, the highest in the category of educational, religious and documentary programs during the week of August 3 to August 9, and the only specifically war-focused content getting more than a 10 percent viewership during the year (Video Research Ltd, 2015).11

From the title, NTV intended to indicate that two men, Shō Sakurai and Akira Ikegami, were to teach or unveil to the audience a side of the war that was not taught in compulsory education through the officially-sanctioned textbooks; and, by putting at the very beginning the name of Sakurai, the producer was openly targeting the young and young-adult sectors of the audience, those who had not experienced war, who had learned about it by formal education, and who had been constantly accused of a weakened national identity by conservative sectors of the society. Sakurai, thirty-three years old at that moment, is one of the five members of Arashi, an all-male idol group that has been dubbed the “national idol” since the end of 2008. In 2010, the group was designated by the Japan Tourism Agency as Ambassador for Tourism Promotion. Since then, Sakurai has been a crucial public figure for the dissemination of a patriotic discourse endorsed by the power elites (Mandujano, 2013; 2014a). Sakurai holds a high level of media power in Japan, which is closely related to his media image: he endorses an ideal model of Japanese young-adult manhood that possesses the stoic and traditional national values of the hardworking, group-oriented and self-sacrificing salaryman in an attractiveand slightly cosmopolitan disguise (Mandujano, 2014a). As a graduate of Economics at Keiō University, one of the most prestigious private educational institutions in the country, Sakurai is portrayed in media as a well-raised, intellectual, talented and multi-faceted social leader and ambassadorof his generation, who is always trying to enhance his understanding of his cultural heritage.12 On the other hand, Akira Ikegami, then 65 years old, is a well-known and respected journalist, writer and university professor who has a significant resonance among middle-aged and senior citizens. Also a graduate from Keiō’s Economics program, Ikegami worked as social analyst and newscaster for more than three decades at the NHK, becoming a freelancer in 2005. From that point onwards, he has continued to appear in numerous television programs and to write newspaper columns and books related to Japanese contemporary society and politics. He is particularly linked to content intended to educate either children or adults, on social, cultural and political topics. Thus, the presence of these two public names in the title of the show implied that the ideas that were to be exposed were reliable because they were endorsed by these intellectual, trustworthy and popular personalities.

The program was a hybrid between documentary, educational, and variety show, gradually changing the mood—from comical to serious—and the tone of the narrative—from instructive to emotional—undoubtedly aiming to grasp, from the very beginning, the attention of young people while developing the discursive line typical of war-related contents. In order to do this, the images move constantly from a studio where Sakurai, Ikegami—the hosts—and four celebrity guests interacted, to recorded street surveys with young Japanese people, to footage of the war, to documentary reports and interviews made by Sakurai and Ikegami. In the studio, Sakurai and Ikegami—dressed in dark and formal suits—were standing one at each side of a big screen that presented images or videos to discuss with the guests, who were seated at the right side of Sakurai; the vocal expressions of an unseen in-studio audience reinforced the changes of mood in the narrative.

Most of the information was delivered by the hosts, but the presence of the four guests symbolised, through their media identities, different audiences: Hamada Tatsumi, a teenage actor and middle school student, represented those young Japanese currently learning about the war through the official textbooks; Higa Manami, a twenty-nine year-old Okinawan actress, whose grandfather experienced the Okinawa battle, represented those who have also learned from survivors’ experiences; Shelly, a thirty-one year-old television personality, whose father is an American Navy retiree and who attended elementary school at one of the American military bases in Japan, represented those Japanese-Americans who have two different views of history; and, Watanabe Yuta, a twenty-six year-old actor who played the role of a “kamikaze” soldier in some theatrical performances, represented someone who has tried to feel what people felt during the war.

The show began with a recorded survey: staff from the broadcaster had gone to the streets of Tokyo and had asked two hundred people, aged ten to thirty-nine, diverse questions derived from the content of 6th grade history textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology (usually referred by the acronym MEXT). While the screen showed the question written over the image of a textbook, a voice was heard asking: “What is commemorated on August 15?” The take went to young people giving their—amusingly erroneous—answers: “The day of the mountains,” said a young man confidently; “The day that dares began or something,” said another one; “The day to eat eel?” asked a young woman. The image went back to the book with the written answer, as the voice of the narrator was heard saying: “It is ‘the day of the end of the war.’” The rate of correct answers in town was only fifty-four percent. One more question. “The allies of Japan in the Pacific War were Germany and which other country?” Again, the take went to the streets and to young Japanese people: “America,” said a woman; “Russia,” answered another one; “England,” said a young man very confidently, praised by his friend for apparently knowing the answer, only to be told by a voice behind the camera that the correct one was Italy. The screen showed that only fifty percent of those surveyed gave the right answer.

Then, the narrator emphasised that numerous young people don’t know about the war, even though they have definitely studied about it at school; so, for all of them, ‘the truth about the war’ would be unveiled by Sakurai and Ikegami. The image of the hosts in the studio now appeared on the screen. Sakurai presented the show and he and Ikegami commented, in an amused tone, on the lack of knowledge that a surprising percentage of Japanese people had on the war. By this brief segment, presented in a humorous tone, the show directed the focus to the need to teach young generations about it, as well as the importance for young people to learn about it.

After this, the tone changed to an educational and increasingly emotive one, as Sakurai and Ikegami discussed four topics by contrasting the information contained in the approved textbooks with many other ‘facts’ that have been avoided by them. The narrative was built by the comments and questions of the hosts—who were depicted as having the truth and gave their moral judgement on the information and its official treatment—the interviews and reports they conducted with Japanese and foreign survivors or specialists, and the comments and reactions of the guests, who were addressed by the hosts in order to indicate the viewers the sentiments they were expected to have.

The first topic addressed was related to the Special Attack Forces (hereafter SAF)—commonly known in Western countries as “kamikaze.” It was highlighted that the editors of the history textbooks sanctioned by the MEXT generally neglected writing about these military forces, as it was difficult to explain the “special attack” without showing one of two types of moral judgement: if it was written that it implied an honourable death, it would be seen as a beautification of suicide; whereas if it was written that it was a suicidal attack, it would deny that it was an action performed for the sake of the nation. The hosts and guests expressed a slight disapproval of the editors for avoiding talking about the issue only to evade ideological and political conflicts. Then, the ‘truth’ about the SAF was presented through three narrative focuses.

First, in an instructive tone, by presenting the results of research done in various historic archives, the diversity of weapons and strategies used as part of the plans for special attacks, many of which never where actually used, either because the materials were expensive or because the prototypes resulted in failures, were shown. A model of one of these fiasco weapons was taken to the studio to show the absurd, crude, and desperate measures that were conceived by the Japanese military leaders—not naming names—only during the second half of the Pacific War, when material and human resources were lacking. This was a bomb that was attached at one end of a three-metre pole, which was supposed to be used by soldiers who would be under water when American vessels came close to the beach; in order to be able to remain submerged, the soldiers were supposed to use cement sandals weighing six kilos and take a strong poison soon before they exploded the bomb; however, during the trials, at least ten soldiers died, having accidentally released the poison kept in their special uniforms. As the guests in the studio took the sandals and the pole in their hands, they expressed horror at such a strategy, and sorrow for the soldiers who died in such absurd circumstances. Ikegami indicated that the army officials were well aware of the very slight chances of success of these kinds of suicidal strategies. Nevertheless, in the narrative there was no condemnation to the officials, but a focus on their reasoning behind such apparently cruel decisions: if the Japanese army did not persist until its last resource in trying to win the war, the lives of all those already dead soldiers and the sacrifices experienced by Japanese civilians would be wasted.

Second, by showing pictures of the young soldiers, letters they sent to their mothers, and interviews with survivors, the narrative became more emotional, emphasising the soldiers’ human side. It was made clear that those involved in the SAF were not volunteers, that they were reluctant to participate, and that they did not want to die. Nonetheless, the assignment to the SAF was received from above—it was not said explicitly from whom—and they had the moral obligation to obey because that was the national mood at that moment: everyone was suffering and they could not waste the already lost lives.

Finally, by presenting the surviving wife of one of the fallen soldiers, there was a highly emotive note on the virtues of those who gave their life for their nation, even if the result was a defeat. Through the account of the SAF, the development of the narrative exalted the “nobility of failure” that Hamada (2003) identified in the accounts of official textbooks. It also appealedto elements of the officially endorsed national identity discourse: the respect for authority, the avoidance of conflict within the group, the sacrifice of the self for the group and the nation, and the unceasing effort towards a goal even if the defeat seems the unavoidable result (Mandujano, 2014a).

Another subject addressed in the show was the social mood and the daily lives of Japanese civilians during the war. It was exposed that current history textbooks merely talk about how civilians were called by official and economic elites to make sacrifices in order to cooperate with the national cause. Focusing on the role of media during that epoch, it was explored how children and women were involved in the war: through advertising, popular songs, cartoons and women’s magazines, they were called to give up their savings to create bullets, to work in the military factories or for military laboratories, and to avoid luxuries and sacrifice their food. The food crisis was emphasised in a slightly amusing way by having the guests taste one of the dishes recommended in newspapers during the war—a mix of wild flowers’ leaves, heads and bones of fish, and eggshells—and focus on their reactions to the unpleasant flavour.

In the development of this topic, although in a general educational tone, there was still a strong condemnation through the use of music—a cultural form related to Sakurai’s professional activities—to indoctrinate civil society on the ideology of war. This was the only moment in the show when the names of past military leaders were openly signaled and criticised for having said that music was a war product that could be used to enhance the spirit and engrave the desired official messages in people’s minds without them realising it. Related to this, another element that was particularly stressed was the fact that media employees were forced to cooperate with the war propaganda, by hiding information or lying to people about the losses that the Japanese army was experiencing and the horrific and fruitless deaths of Japanese soldiers, in order to keep civilians’ national consciousness focused on their selfless cooperation. Yet, once again, there is no specific person pointed to as responsible for such developments.

One more theme discussed was the origin of the war. The educational tone was set when the hosts said that the Japanese history textbooks indicated the taking of the Malay Peninsula and the attack on Pearl Harbour as the events that initiated the Pacific War. Then, they said that the main objective of the Japanese army during that crusade had been the control over the Malay Peninsula and its oil refinery—because at that moment Japan was already suffering from a lack of resources—and that the attack on Pearl Harbour was almost two hours later and was a measure aimed merely to distract the United States and avoid their interference—implying that Japan had no intention to get into a war with the American power, but only to protect its interests in Asia. Still, the narrative of the show, as well as that of most textbooks, was clearly considering as “the war” only that fought against the United States, avoiding to specifically mention or explain the previous military involvements of Japan in Asia.

After presenting the ‘truth’ behind the beginning of the war against the United States, the tone quickly turned solemn and emotional. The screen showed interviews with Japanese and Malay survivors—who were taken to work at the refinery—as well as a report on a place in Papua New Guinea called “the cemetery of pilots”—where many young Japanese pilots died as result of reckless war strategies. The narrative emphasised the already deteriorated stance of Japan, its need of resources and the desperation felt by the army officials and soldiers for making something out of the deaths that had already occurred. It also stressed the humanity and patriotism of the soldiers who died away from home and did not even have the chance to have their bodies taken back to Japan. In covering this topic, the narrative laid emphasis on the superiority of the American army’s material resources and the awareness that the leaders of the Japanese army had of this fact, but also on how they perceived the importance of keeping such information concealed in order to preserve the morale of the soldiers and civilians. In this sense, the general discourse follows that of Japanese history textbooks, which also point at the American material superiority as the reason behind Japan’s defeat (Foster & Nicholls, 2005).

The last theme addressed in the show was related to the creation of the atomic bombs—surprisingly, not on the atomic bombings over Japan themselves. The show stressed the fact that Japan was doing research on the development of an atomic bomb long before the bombings on Nagasaki and Hiroshima occurred. In an educational tone, the narrative pointed out names of the Japanese scientists involved in the research, but the language used implied that they were commanded to do it, although it did not specify by whom. It also noted that the research on nuclear power began for fear of the United States taking the lead in the development of the bomb. By interviewing a man employed by the army to obtain the material to produce uranium, it was revealed that the Japanese army had the intention to use an atomic bomb on an American city. However, it was stressed that in this issue too, the United States had a material advantage over Japan. Japanese scientists could not get enough resources to develop the uranium and, in June of 1945, two months after the American army bombarded their laboratory, leading Japanese scientists dropped the project.

Through a brief report done by Ikegami on the site in New Mexico where the United States tested the bomb before dropping it on Japan, he presented also the current developments that the American government is doing on nuclear weapons. In this regard, the narrative—through the words and expressions of the hosts and guests—vaguely questioned the intentions of the United States behind continuing those experiments, when its official stance is against using nuclear weapons.

Interestingly, absolutely no reference was made to the Japanese bomb victims; although three images were shown when presenting the testing site—one of a destroyed Nagasaki and two of Japanese children hurt. On the contrary, the main point of the section appeared to be to demonstrate that Japan was a victim, also in this regard, of its lack of material resources: if Japan had been able to produce uranium and develop the bomb earlier, the Imperial army would have dropped it over the United States. Yet, no major censure is perceived on this possibility; the criticism and the emotive tone were directed to the fact that teenage Japanese boys were used by the army to obtain the rocks to produce uranium, involving them in dangerous and hard activities.

The final scenes of the program showed a slightly dark studio, where only Sakurai and Ikegami were standing in front of the camera. As his conclusion, Sakurai emphasised, in a solemn tone, the words of one of the surviving soldiers of the SAF who was in the interviews presented during the program: “I cannot be the only one to say that I do not want to die; I cannot be the only one to say that I do not want to fight, because everyone is making this war, because that is what a war is.” On the other hand, Ikegami seriously stressed his surprise at the high percentage of young Japanese people who do not even know that Japan’s enemy was the United States. Sakurai expressed the obligation to inform people effectively and accurately—implicitly referring to the whole media’s duty towards the public.

That was it. No references to controversial topics absent in textbooks: no mention of the colonial rule over Korea, the comfort women or the Nanjing massacre; no references to the Japanese soldiers’ actions on occupied territories nor to the distresses of Asian nations caused by the war. The narratives in the show exonerated the soldiers of all guilt for the actions of the war. The accusing finger was pointed to the sky, vaguely to army leaders, but mostly to some unnamed figure who, from above, took the Japanese people along a path of suffering and defeat, but who was not a villain, because he was also a victim of the circumstances. The need to maintain Japan’s sovereignty was indirectly referred to as the reason behind the involvement in a war with the United States—because the focus of the show was on this enemy that meant Japan’s defeat—but the motive specifically mentioned was the difficult economic situation that Japan was experiencing. However, there is no association of this circumstance to previous wars and military actions executed by the Japanese army in Asia. The narrative follows the same tone as textbooks in this matter as well: there were unavoidable situations that pushed Japanese leaders—whoever they were—into unwise actions in their attempt to rescue a victory for the nation. Thus, more than something new about the war, what could be learned—or reinforced—from this television show were Japanese identity elements—stoicism, endurance, respect for authority, group orientation and sacrifice for the nation—through the lives of the soldiers, the women and children, who lived and died in those painful conditions or who survived and were able to rebuild Japan from the ashes.

In the place of a conclusion

In December 2012, Shinzō Abe—member of the LDP and once Secretary General of the Group of Young Diet Members Concerned with Japan’s Future and History Education mentioned before—took seat as Prime Minister of Japan. This was Abe’s second term, as he had been in office between 2006 and 2007. In 2006, just before he was elected Prime Minister for the first time, his book, Towards a Beautiful Country: For a Confident and Proud Japan,13 was published. In it, Abe defined himself as a conservative with an open mind; he also shared his thoughts on how Japanese society should be, making manifest his alignment with a traditional vision of national identity (Abe, 2006). For him and most conservatives, a key factor that was restraining the advance of the nation was Article 9 of the constitution, in which Japan renounced its right to have armed forces and engage in war. Abe’s slogan for his 2012 campaign was ‘Restore Japan’, referring to the infrastructural, economic, social and emotional restoration needed after the disasters of March 11, 2011, but also to his ideas of reinstating Japan’s international position in economic and military spheres (Abe, 2012).

On July 1, 2014, news inside and outside Japan informed that the Japanese Cabinet had approved a new interpretation of the constitution; by this, the government would be allowed to participate in military joint actions aimed to defend Japan or its allies.14 This was seen by many as a symbolic turn of the nation’s pacifist stance, which has been an essential feature of the post-war Japanese national identity. Demonstrations surged and continued for months in Japan, China and South Korea against this approval. In Japan, protesters accused Abe of fascism and expressed their fears of Japan once again being involved in wars, even though Abe maintained in his official discourse that Japan would continue to be a pacifist nation (Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, 2014).

On August 15, 2015, just in the middle of heated debates regarding the new security bill proposal already in the Diet’s hands, Abe delivered his official speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. There was much expectation for Abe’s words. Asian neighbours were asking for him to express ‘sincere apologies’ for Japan’s actions; Western scholars were calling for him specifically to address colonial rule, aggression, and the comfort women issues; left-wing Japanese were also demanding him to ease some of the international tension by expressing regrets and dropping the bill proposal (Kingston, 2015; Morris-Suzuki, 2015; Sieg, 2015). He did reiterate his grief and condolences for the many people who perished and suffered because of the war; he did restate Japan’s future stance as a pacifist nation; he did maintain that Japanese people would have to continue facing history; but, he also claimed that the younger generations should not be predestined to continue apologising for the past (Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, 2015).

Just a few weeks after the commemorations on the anniversary of the end of the war, Abe participated in the Sixth Trilateral Summit with the Republic of Korea’s President Park Geun-hye and China’s Premier Li Keqiang. In that event, they released a joint declaration agreeing to address the history-related issues in order to improve their relations (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2015).

Perhaps the most problematic of such had been the dispute on the comfort women—largely absent in Japanese history textbooks and, as it has been shown here, also missing in the media’s war accounts. On December 28, 2015, following the spirit of the declaration, Japan and the Republic of Korea, by means of their Foreign Ministers, released a joint statement announcing that both governments had finally reached an agreement on the issue of the comfort women: Abe had expressed his “most sincere apologies and remorse” to all the affected women and the Japanese government had accepted that the Japanese military authorities had been involved in the issue, so it would pay for those women’s psychological attention; on its part, the South Korean government would refrain from accusing or criticising Japan again on the issue, particularly in international settings (WSJ Staff, 2015). This was definitely a win for Abe and Japanese conservatives, as in the statement there is no mention to the treatment of the issue in history textbooks.

Hence, it can be expected that younger Japanese generations will continue to learn a rather limited version of the Asia-Pacific War. The war that they can learn from media is, essentially, the same that they learn from textbooks. The meta-message found in the show analysed here is clearly aligned with the official position. The coverage of Japanese war history in non-fiction, mainstream media seems to aim at the promotion of a national sentiment, by boosting nationals’ empathy with those older Japanese generations’ pain and sacrifices, while overlooking the feelings of remorse or empathy towards the suffering of other Asian nations. More than a critical evaluation of what circumstances led Japan to those armed conflicts and final defeat, by following the narrative lines of the nobility of failure and the rebirth of the nation, the media discourse is focused on the reinforcement of national identity elements that are more relevant and suitable than pacifism for the current aims of the government. Finally, it is evident that Japanese media, by using popular personalities—such as Sakurai and Ikegami—are trying to reach segments of the Japanese population that are not typically involved in formal politics—youth and women—and promote among them the national values and spirit.


Abe, S., 2006. Utsukushii kuni he. Jishin to hokori no moteru Nihon he [Towards a beautiful country. For a confident and proud Japan]. Tokyo: Bunshun Shinso.

Abe, S., 2012. Nihon wo torimodosu [Restore Japan]. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 June 2015].

Atarashii Rekishi Kyōkasho wo Tsukuru Kai, 2011. Tsukurukai to wa. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 1 October 2015].

Foster, S. & Nicholls, J., 2005. America in World War II: An Analysis of History Textbooks from England, Japan, Sweden, and the United States. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 20(3), pp. 214-233.

Hamada, T., 2002. Contested memories of the imperial sun: history textbook controversy in Japan. American Asian Review, XX(4), pp. 1-37.

Hamada, T., 2003. Constructing a National Memory: A Comparative Analysis of Middle-school History Textbooks from Japan and the PRC. American Asian Review, 21(4), pp. 109-144.

Hashimoto, A., 2015. 'Something Dreadful Happened in the Past': War Stories for Children in Japanese Popular Culture. The Asia-Pacific Journal Japan Focus, 13(30), Number 1.

Kingston, J., 2015. Wartime 'Abenesia' bad for Japan's international reputation. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 May 2015].

Koide, R., 2014. Critical New Stage in Japan's Textbook Controversy. The Asia-Pacific Journal Japan Focus, 12(13), Number 1.

Mandujano, Y., 2013. The Politics of Selling Culture and Branding the National in Contemporary Japan: Economic Goals, Soft-Power and Reinforcement of the National Pride. The Scientific Journal of Humanistic Studies, 5(9), pp. 31-41.

Mandujano, Y., 2014a. Flagging the national identity, reinforcing Japaneseness. The case of the national idols pre- and post-2011. Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, 14(1), Article 3.

Margolin, J.-L., 2014. Japanese history textbooks and the Asia-Pacific War. Apportioning blame. In: M. Baildon, et al. eds. Controversial History Education in Asian Contexts. New York: Routledge, pp. 109-122.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2015. Joint Declaration for Peace and Cooperation in Northeast Asia. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 7 January 2016].

Morris-Suzuki, T., 2015. Japanese war apologies lost in translation. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 14 October 2015].

Nakazawa, K. & Minear, R., 2010. Hiroshima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen. The Asia-Pacific Journal Japan Focus, 8(39), Number 1.

Nippon Television Network Corporation, 2015. Sengo 70nen tokubetsubangumi kyōkasho de manabenai sensō [70 years after the war special programming. The war that cannot be learned in textbooks]. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 1 August 2015].

Nozaki, Y., 2008. War Memory, Nationalism and Education in Postwar Japan, 1945-2007: The Japanese History Textbook Controversy and Ienaga Saburo's Court Challenges. New York: Routledge.

Nozaki, Y. & Selden, M., 2009. Japanese Textbook Controversies, Nationalism, and Historical Memory: Intra- and Inter-national Conflicts. The Asia-Pacific Journal Japan Focus, 7(24), Number 5.

Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, 1946. The Constitution of Japan. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 7 January 2016].

Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, 2014. Press Conference by Prime Minister Abe. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 29 October 2015].

Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, 2015. Statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. [Online] Available at:

Shibata, R., 2015. Globalization, Politics of Historical Memory, and Enmification in Sino-Japanese Relations. In: J. Zadja, ed. Nation-Building and History Education in a Global Culture. New York and London: Springer, pp. 67-82.

Sieg, L., 2015. Western scholars press Japan's Abe on war history. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 4 September 2015].

Sieg, L. & Takenaka, K., 2014. Japan's military just made its most dramatic change since World War II. [Online] Available at:

Sneider, D., 2013. Textbooks and Patriotic Education: WartimeMemory Formation in China and Japan. Asia-Pacific Review, 20(1), pp. 35-54.

Tanaka, Y., 2010. War and Peace in the Art of Tezuka Osamu: The humanism of his epic manga. The Asia-Pacific Journal Japan Focus, 38(1), Number 1.

Video Research Ltd, 2015. Shūkankōseitaishichōritsu bangumi 10. [Online] Available at:

WSJ Staff, 2015. Full Text: Japan-South Korea Statement on 'Comfort Women'. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 3 January 2016].

Yi, I., 2009. History in Action: the Japanese Textbook Controversy in Northeast Asia. Japan Studies Association Journal, Volume 7, pp. 79-96.

Yoshida, R. & Mie, A., 2014. Critics: What defines the conditions for military force?. [Online] Available at:


[1]「 櫻井翔&池上彰 教科書で学べない戦争」

[2] For extended analysis focused on the development of the diverse controversies related to Japanese history textbooks, see Hamada (2002), Koide (2014), Margolin (2014), Nozaki (2008), Nozaki & Selden (2009), Shibata (2015), Yi (2009).

[3] The English version of the Chapter II, Article 9 reads:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized. (Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, 1946)

[4] In 2001, the Ministry of Education merged with the Science and Technology Agency to form the current Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Science and Technology (usually referred by the acronym MEXT).

[5] For more on the screening system, see Hamada (2002).

[6] 「70年目の戦争と平和」For more information, see

[7] 「シリーズ戦後70年」See

[8] 「戦後70年 千の証言。私の街も戦場だった今伝えたい家族の物語」This documentary was presented in two episodes, the first was broadcast on March 9th and the second on August 15th. For more information, see

[9] 「私たちに戦争を教えてください。いま、会っておかなければいけない人がいる。今日、聞いておかなければいけない声がある」For more information, see the webpage

[10] The order of the names in the title of the show reflects the Japanese practice of putting the family name before the given name. However, in this article, when I mention Japanese people, I use first the given name in order to avoid confusions in the references list.

[11] In the Kantō area, usually refereed as sample for the national audience trends.

[12] He has been the leading reporter in many cultural and historical media specials that have had as aim to recover pieces of Japanese history or to show the current doings of Japanese people.

[13] 「美しい国へ。自信と誇りの持てる日本へ」An English version was published in 2007, entitled Towards a beautiful country: My visions for Japan.

[14] See, for example: Sieg & Takenaka (2014), Yoshida & Mie (2014).

About the Author

Yunuen Ysela Mandujano-Salazar is Doctor in Social Sciences and holds a Master in Studies of Asia and Africa Specialty Japan. She has focused on the study of Japanese contemporary media discourses and nationalism, particularly through mainstream cultural phenomena. She has written articles for specialised journals and chapters of books focused on Japanese culture and Social Sciences. An alumna of the Japan Foundation Japanese Course for Specialists in Academic and Cultural Fields, she is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guadalajara (Mexico) conducting research on the Japanese media dominant discourses on the nation during the government of Abe Shinzō.

Email the author

Back to top