In a rare break with royal protocol and 70 years of Japanese tradition Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito recently suggested that Japan should take a closer look at its World War II experience. What Naruhito was doing was criticizing the decades old attitude that Japan was a victim, not the aggressor, during World War II. Officially Japan admits it was in the wrong during World War II. But in more subtle ways Japanese society not only denies responsibility but sees itself as a victim. This is reflected in decades of Japanese opinion surveys, even though the official line was often enforced. Thus in 2008 the commander of the Japanese Air Force, general Toshio Tamogami, was forced to resign after the media noted an article he had written claiming that Japan was not an aggressor during World War II.
Tamogami was merely saying in public what was and is a common attitude in Japan. Unlike the Germans, who take to guilt quite readily, the Japanese always saw themselves as victims. For example, when all the encrypted Japanese message traffic from World War II was decoded (in the years after the war), one series of diplomatic messages, sent to embassies in the weeks after the atomic bombs were dropped, and Japan surrendered and before American troops took control of the Foreign Ministry, advised diplomats to push the idea that Japan was a victim of Western savagery. The atomic bomb attacks were to be used to prove this. Apparently the Japanese diplomats gained some traction with this in the West, but among their neighbors, the concept of the Japanese as victims was laughable, and still is.
Before Japan entered World War II it justified its aggression in China (which it began invading in the early 1930s) as an altruistic effort to bring the benefits of modern political thinking and technology to the backward Chinese. There is still a lot of anger in China over this. Japan justified its attack on the United States, and European colonies in the western Pacific in 1941 as an attempt to liberate Asians from European colonial rule. But the Japanese just replaced one set of foreign rulers with another and the Japanese were much more brutal. That was because the Japanese saw themselves as a master race (and still do), and treated lesser races with contempt and brutality. They have toned down the brutality since 1945 if only because of the inferior races have better weapons and the ability to destroy Japan.
Since the 1990s, the Japanese government has tried to persuade the world, and particularly their neighbors, that Japan really is sorry for their bad behavior before 1945. But many Japanese still prefer general Tamogami's pre-1945 version of events. There are enough of these old school Japanese around to keep Japans worst World War II behavior out of Japanese school books, and those who publish anything to the contrary in Japan, get a lot of abuse from old school believers in what Japan really was, and is. So while the Crown Princes’ comments may be popular with foreigners, it only irritates most Japanese. Turning around these Japanese attitudes will take a long, long time.