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Journal of World History 24.2 (2003) 270-272

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The Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan. By James J. Orr. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001. xix + 271 pp. $22.95 (paper).

James J. Orr has two overarching aims in this well-researched and eminently readable monograph. First, he describes how the postwar Japanese—after having lost their colonial empire and putative divinity as descendents of the Sun Goddess—went on to create a new national "myth" in the sense of a commonly held view of themselves grounded in enough shared experience to seem cogent. Their post-1945 myth, that of being war victims extraordinaire, formed the core of a reconstituted national identity, that of being pacifists par excellence. Orr's second overall aim is to relate how Japanese special interest groups repeatedly fought for and won monetary compensation from the postwar government justified on the basis of their suffering and/or sacrifices for the national good. These interest groups comprised demobilized military personnel and their dependents, families of servicemen who had died in action, atomic-bombing victims, repatriates from former colonies and occupied areas, and absentee landlords disposed under the seven-year U.S. occupation that ended in 1952. Orr notes that by reinstating privileges for certain groups such as the military and landlords, the postwar Japanese state repudiated the American-inspired reform ideal of egalitarian social welfare; that is, the principle that everyone had served and suffered in the war, so compensation should be based on need, and no group deserved special dispensation denied to others.

Elaborating on his first major aim, Orr examines several topics of vital interest and importance. He lucidly shows that American strategic needs in the Cold War and the Japanese leaders' desire to preserve their imperial institution combined to exempt the Shöwa emperor (r.1926-89) from indictment as a war criminal, and that this remission of sins for Japan's head of state facilitated the evading of responsibility at lower echelons, down to the common people. All Japanese, it seemed, had either been forced or duped by their leaders to support the imperialist war effort. In this vein, Orr analyzes three postwar novels-cum-movies—Twenty-four Eyes, The Human Condition, and Black Rain—to claim that virtually everyone waxed eloquent in national victimization, but no one clearly identified and censured those who caused this needless suffering. Yet Orr also cautions readers that, contrary to common accusations, postwar Japan never ignored or forgot about Asian victims of the war; there were always some Japanese voices of conscience speaking out against their imperial past. Thus, much- [End Page 270] criticized Japanese school textbooks indeed did discuss atrocities committed in Asia, although often in the context of common victimization, that is, by explaining that ordinary commoners in both Japan and Asia suffered because of militarist aggression. Moreover, as Orr states, it is only because of their excessive victim-consciousness that the postwar Japanese have so adamantly renounced war as a sovereign right of the state—at least to this date. In that key sense, I would add, the Japanese have atoned for past war crimes by staunchly refusing to commit any new ones, whereas the same cannot be said for the Americans or even the Chinese and Koreans since 1945.

In discussing his second overarching topic—victim groups who won state compensation—Orr enticingly hints at the other side of this coin: those who failed to do so. Thus, we might ask, why did military personnel killed or injured in air raids win compensation whereas civilians who suffered the same fate got nothing? Or, why were military pensions pegged for former service ranks, so that, for example, a high-ranking A-class war crimes suspect received a lucrative pension—with time spent in Sugamo prison included in his period of service—whereas a former inductee received but a pittance? In postwar Japan, it seems, wartime leaders who planned and pursued the war of aggression came out better off than...


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