The Victim as Hero

The horror of the atomic bombings, the terror of the firebombings, the oppressive regimentation at the home front under a government at total war, the loneliness of civilians and foot soldiers abandoned by their state on the open Manchurian plain or in the Philippine jungle, the brutalization of the common man at the hands of fanatical militarists in the armed services–such was the crucible from which postwar Japanese rose to become a peace-loving, democratic people. But the victim-hero’s sentimental pacifism harbored hidden meanings and sustained several agendas.

Heroes are public commodities, and in a democratizing postwar Japan it was inevitable that competing political groups would struggle over control of the powerful ideological construct of the people as victim. The U.S. military and Occupation reformers set the early parameters for the victim mythology. But it was the progressives, themselves among the prime beneficiaries of the American reforms, who were the first to put the image of the people as victims of the state to work for them in opposing the postwar conservative government. With the development of a national sense of atomic victimhood, conservatives too recognized the importance of establishing a presence in the contest over the meanings assigned to war victimhood. Thus “the people as victim” became a trope whose import was contested for domestic as much as for international purposes.

Although it is essential to recognize that an amnesia about Japanese aggression against Asia accompanied and abetted this Japanese victim consciousness, this study has shown that the ideology of Japanese war victimhood involved selective remembrance and reconstruction that often recognized the victimization of others. To be sure, neglect of Japanese responsibility is a key element of the Japanese discourse on victimhood, and it was a strong tendency in the ban-the-bomb movement. But it should be clear from the foregoing analysis that Asian suffering was a vital concern of both progressives and conservatives in many discursive fields, including war victimhood.

A central element of war responsibility and war victimhood in this regard was the desire to identify with Asian victimhood rather than deny it. This was certainly true of the progressives, who saw solidarity with Asian peoples as symbolic of the struggle against capitalist imperialism. The adoption of atomic victimhood as national heritage–and the emergence in the middle 1950s of independent states out of the former European colonies in Africa and Asia–made Asian solidarity a desirable goal again. Narratives that characterized these events as Asian and African ethnic national (minzoku) struggles against Western hegemony carried echoes of the wartime ideology that supported Japan’s invasion of the Asian continent as a war of liberation….

Japanese history textbooks, which since the late 1970s have been remarkably frank in their admission of wrongs done to other nationalities, have toyed with a nationalist parochialism in the preponderance of “sentimental” passages that seem to accord equal status to Japanese and Asian war victims. Despite textbook recognition of a Japanese record of aggression and the need to own up to this past, the victim mindset does tend to qualify the people’s sense of complicity and hence responsibility for Japan’s wartime acts. Textbook revisions that emphasize Japanese victimhood and thus mitigate Japanese aggressions violate Asian sensibilities because they discount Asian victimhood. On the international level–as was evident in Chinese protests over (erroneous) reports in 1982 that Ministry of Education textbook officers directed that the Japanese “invasion” be termed an “advance”–the main issue is control over one’s own history. In this age of tenacious nationalism in the face of increasingly rapid and thorough global communication, self-serving constructions of history are unacceptable when they violate other nations’ mythologies. This modern reality is particularly clear, of course, when conservative cabinet members fail to exercise discretion regarding a colonial past they do not regard as shameful. But a pacifism that recognizes Japan’s past as victimizer while insisting on elevating Japanese victimhood to an equal or higher level than Asian victimhood is also self-serving and ultimately apologist.

SOURCE: The Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan, by James J. Orr (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2001), pp. 175-176

This book is reviewed on H-Net here and here.

Robert D. Kaplan also makes a few observations about victims as heroes in his essay entitled “The Media and Medievalism” in the December 2004 issue of Policy Review.

The cult of victimhood is another legacy of the 1960s and its immediate aftermath — when, according to Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life (1999), Jews, women, blacks, Native Americans, Armenians, and others fortified their own identities through public references to past oppression. The process was tied to Vietnam, a war in which the photographs of civilian victims — the little girl fleeing napalm — “displaced traditional images of heroism.” The process has now been turned upon the American military itself. When not portraying them as criminals in prisoner abuse scandals, the media appear most at ease depicting American troops as victims themselves — victims of a failed Iraq policy, of a bad reserve system, and of a society that has made them into killers.

Yet the soldiers and Marines with whom I spent months as an embed in ground fighting units found such coverage deeply insulting. At a time when there are acts of battlefield courage in places like Fallujah and Najaf that, according to military expert John Hillen, “would make Black Hawk Down look like Gosford Park,” media coverage of individual soldiers and Marines as warrior-heroes is essentially absent. The heroism of someone like Jessica Lynch is acceptable to the journalistic horde because it is joined to her victimhood. There are exceptions: The coverage of Pat Tillman, who left the National Football League to be an Army Ranger and who was killed in Afghanistan, is one. But serious analysis requires generalization, and pointing out exceptions — at which the media are especially adroit when they themselves are criticized — does not constitute a rebuttal.

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