When democracy yields: Saburo Ienaga’s lessons from Japan’s role in World War II

Over last decade or so, working with governments and civil society all over the world, I have sensed a growing degree of fatigue with concepts associated with liberal democracy such as civil liberties, human rights, or participatory and inclusive political processes. Or perhaps it isn’t fatigue with the concepts as such as much as the overuse and misuse of the terms. Either way, in the non-western world, authoritarianism is now often seen as an effective and efficient system of governance for purposes of attaining economic growth. And in the western world, being politically correct (i.e. trying to avoid the use of offensive and inflammatory rhetoric) has become synonyms with cowardliness and insincerity. Political forces with scant respect for the fundamental pillars of the liberal democracy appear to be faring better than they have since the end of World War II, so much so that they have become known as ‘populist’ in the mainstream media.

Professor Saburo Ienaga

Professor Saburo Ienaga

Against this backdrop, I was lucky to find a copy of Japanese historian Saburo Ienaga’s ‘The Pacific War 1931 – 1945’, originally published in 1968. This is an account of the events that led Japan onto its path of self-destruction, culminating in the defeat and occupation of Japan in 1945. Ienaga’s work is precise, rich in detail, and in Japan at least, politically explosive. After all, this is a man who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by none other than Noam Chomsky. Ienaga is perhaps best known for his tireless efforts to document atrocities by the Japanese Imperial forces, not only in occupied countries such as Korea or China, but also, and perhaps less widely acknowledged, in Japan itself (see press cutting below). 

The book sets out by asking a fundamental question: ‘Why was the Japanese people not able to prevent their government from starting the war?’ To Ienaga, it was critical to get history right. He noted how ‘[t]he public only wants to forget the unpleasant experience, but collective amnesia will also erase the costly lessons of the war. This book is an attempt to halt that erosion of consciousness.’

He offers overwhelming evidence pointing at three underlying factors that combined to give rise to a tragedy in which tens of millions of people lost their lives.

Firstly, the use of an education system, which has always placed emphasis on conformity, to indoctrinate a whole generation in fascist ideology and the need to fight and die for a god-emperor. This meant that too few people had the intellectual urge to question the increasingly fascist and aggressive ideology of the state.

Secondly, the quashing of all free debate and suspension of civil liberties, which meant that even the relatively few who were inclined to question, despite the propaganda, were swiftly silenced. Questioning any government policy, or even the way in which it was implemented, became tantamount to treason.

And thirdly, the ever-increasing power and autonomy of the military and police, a process justified with reference to ‘national security’, which meant that the armed services gradually did away with civilian control, ensuring that the country evolved into a de facto military dictatorship.

Ienaga sums up his findings in a paragraph:

The pre-war state kept the populace in a powerful vise: On the one side were the internal security laws with their restrictions on freedom of speech and thought; on the other side was the conformist education that blocked the growth of free consciousness. The vise was tightened whenever any individual or popular resistance challenged reckless military action. These laws and public education, used as instruments of coercion and manipulation, were the factors that made it impossible for the Japanese people to stop their country from launching the Pacific War.’

Ienaga also describes how once a society begins to lose its democracy and its freedoms, the process quickly gathers momentum, and it becomes ever more difficult to reverse it: ‘There was no way to stop the escalation in the 1930s; there was no freedom to demand an end to the war in the 1940s even when it was obviously lost. The meaningless slaughter continued until Japan’s cities were smouldering ashes and atomic bombs brought the Japanese people to the brink of genetic holocaust. If the popular will had influenced policies, the conflict might have been avoided or at least shortened. It was a vicious cycle: the weakness of democracy was one cause of the war, and the war further eroded freedom.’

Ienaga’s analysis serves as yet another reminder of why it is so dangerous when politicians, even in relatively stable democracies, begin to sacrifice civil liberties purportedly in the interest ‘national security’. Surly the fate of Japan between 1931 and 1945 warns us that whatever national security risks we seek to mitigate by dismantling civil liberties, the very act of doing so gives rise to far greater risks, not just to the nation, but more importantly to its people.

It also reminds us of how important it is that the education system encourages critical and independent thinking. Aside from spurring innovation and entrepreneurship, Ienaga shows how this can serve as an effective insurance policy against tyranny and oppression. Finally, in an era in which many countries are again investing more resources in military might, again supposedly necessitated by ‘national security concerns’, Ienaga’s work illustrates how a powerful military relatively quickly can turn itself into a national security nightmare of downright apocalyptic proportions.  

Saburo Ienaga dedicated his life to ‘the truth about the Pacific War and making these facts as widely known as possible…’ this was, he believed, ‘the only way to avoid another tragedy, and a solemn obligation, a debt we owe to the millions who perished in the fires of war.’ Professor Ienaga, who passed away in 2002, clearly fulfilled that obligation. The question is if the people who call themselves leaders today will care to listen. 

Marcus Baltzer

An obituary in the UK Guardian can be downloaded here. The article below is from the Canadian Globe and Mail. 

A cartoon from 2016. Saburo Ienaga may have found it helpful in illustrating some of his messages. Thanks to "Anonymous" for sharing it. 

A cartoon from 2016. Saburo Ienaga may have found it helpful in illustrating some of his messages. Thanks to "Anonymous" for sharing it.