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Reviewed by:
  • War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2005
  • Christopher Ives
War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2005. By Franziska Seraphim. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006. Pp. xv + 409. Hardcover $49.95. Paper $22.95.

With her detailed and insightful analysis of five key interest groups in postwar Japan, Franziska Seraphim has crafted, in War Memory and Social Politics in Japan, 1945-2005, a monograph that will prove of great value to scholars and students working on such issues as the representation of history, contested memory, war responsibility, public discourse, and democracy in Japan.

After setting forth in her introduction a framework for analyzing war memory since 1945, Seraphim devotes the first part of her book to exploring the how the "social politics" of war memory has played out in each of the five civic organizations: the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honchō), the Association of War-bereaved Families (Izokukai), the Japan Teachers' Union (Nikkyōso), the Japan-China Friendship Association (Nitchū Yūkō Kyōkai), and the Memorial Society for the Soldiers Killed in the War (Wadatsumikai). In the second part, "The Political Dynamics of War Memory," Seraphim highlights several shifts that have affected the sixty-year history of these groups, such as generational change, public debates about the Yasukuni Shrine and textbooks, and new conditions in China, Korea, and Okinawa. The final part of the book focuses on the recent landscape, including a series of crises and apologies since the 1980s, the treatment of the infamous Unit 731 by the choral piece The Devil's Gluttony, and the mode of representation in the Hall of Shōwa museum in Tokyo. And in her conclusion Seraphim steps back and offers rich comments about the quest for a unified national memory in the face of fragmented memory, and about how the making of memory occupies a space between the ethics of remembering and the politics of forgetting, and between the individual and the state. [End Page 295]

Seraphim's analysis is especially valuable for those of us who know the civic organizations and their divergent political stances only in broad strokes and hence run the risk of construing them as monolithic and unchanging, as holding fixed positions along a political spectrum and engaged in memory debates only with the other organizations or with the state. As a useful antidote to this, Seraphim identifies tensions within the groups along fault lines of generation, gender, and class. For example, contrary to the image of the Association of War-bereaved Families as a highly unified group of widows and other relatives of soldiers who died in the war, Seraphim highlights tensions between widows and the soldiers' fathers, between orphans and these other two constituencies, and between members across generations. She also sketches rifts in the Japan-China Friendship Association as members grappled with the Cultural Revolution, and in the Memorial Society for the Soldiers Killed in the War when younger members toppled the organization's commemorative statue on the Ritsumeikan campus out of frustration when older members were not supporting them in opposing the university's administration.

And for those of us who might have construed the five organizations as holding a set of unchanging political positions over time, Seraphim highlights skillfully how their stances shifted in response to international conditions, for example the Vietnam War, the economic rise of the PRC, and public declarations by women who had been sexually enslaved by the Japanese military. One other contribution of the book is the clarification of how all five groups, not simply the more conservative ones, obfuscated responsibility for the War. Even the otherwise progressive Teachers' Union represented wartime teachers as passive victims of the state and its bureaucratic control of education, and the Memorial Society for the Soldiers Killed in the War did not raise the issue of the responsibility of the elite student-soldiers it so earnestly memorialized in its collection of their letters. Of course, as Seraphim points out, the issue of war responsibility was muddled from the start by the SCAP decision not to try Emperor Hirohito for war crimes.

The scholarship here is strong. Seraphim draws carefully from an array of sources...