My Hero Academia is one of the recent breakout hits of Japan’s anime and manga industry. Created by Kōhei Horikoshi and inspired by Western superhero comics, it’s been ongoing since 2014. However, the ghosts of the past risk overshadowing its global acclaim and many accolades (including the 2019 Harvey Award for Best Manga).
It began with the release of Chapter 259 on 3 February 2020. This revealed the identity of a sinister doctor aiding the manga’s villains: a scientist named Maruta Shiga. Following the trend for wood-themed names for non-superpowered characters, the first name is derived from a common Japanese word for logs or timber. However, it also alludes to the victims of Unit 731, a covert Kwantung Army unit under the command of Surgeon General Shirō Ishii, who conducted human experiments during the Second World War. This has sparked outrage on social media, prompting Horikoshi and Weekly Shonen Jump to issue apologies the same day.
Despite the author’s promise to change the character’s name and his explanation that he never intended to “call actual historical events to mind,” the attacks did not stop. Over the following days, #APOLOGIZE_HORIKOSHI continued to trend on Twitter, together with accusations that Horikoshi was whitewashing Japan’s war crimes and that he hadn’t properly apologized at all. Soon supposed fans were burning their copies of the manga, mocking the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and delivering death threats. Tencent and Bilibili removed the manga from their platforms in the People’s Republic of China (the latter cited the decision as “in accordance with China’s policies”) and the anime episodes were also pulled (though not before being hammered by negative reviews). As the PRC was probably one of the largest foreign markets for the series, this was a hefty blow.
A second round of apologies, on 7 February, were not enough to stem the rage. Further clarifications, in which Horikoshi insisted that he hadn’t intend to invoke such controversial material and promised to do better in future fell on deaf ears. Within a day, outraged critics began to focus their anger on the fact that some of the characters shared birthdays with historical fascists, and that one such date coincided with the founding of the Japanese Communist Party. This was followed by the backlash against the renamed villain (“Kyudai Garaki”) after edited versions of Chapter 259 came out. His first name was interpreted as a reference to the Kyushu University Live Dissection Incidents of May 1945, which involved experimentation that led to the deaths of American B-29 bomber crewmen, despite the alternative explanations provided by the official English translator and by the fan base in and outside Japan.
Over just two weeks, the author of one of Japan’s biggest successes found himself embroiled in a toxic culture war, both within East Asia and beyond. Yet, although they shared a similar cancel culture mindset, the online mobs weren’t started by Social Justice Warriors from the Anglophone west. Initially, the backlash came largely came from Mainland Chinese and South Korean sources. Their rhetoric suggests that they’re fighting over injustices left over from World War II.
The interminable Culture War in the Pacific rages on.
A Contested History
Events like Pearl Harbor, the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937 and the 1931 Mukden Incident, which led to the invasion of Manchuria and the escalation of the Second World War, left a deep mark on Asia. By the time Imperial Japan, whose military cliques (led by the likes of Hideki Tojo) were comparable to those of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, if not worse, surrendered, millions were dead on all sides, including throngs of Chinese. Among the many atrocities and war crimes committed by the Japanese were the activities of Unit 731.
The unit was ostensibly tasked with biological and chemical research and development. In practice, this involved human experimentation on largely Chinese prisoners and civilians. According to the Federation of American Scientists, as many as 200,000 may have perished as a result of this research. This is also the origin of the negative connotations of the word maruta, which was both the cover story for their operations (operating a lumber mill) and a grim in-joke among the personnel, for whom their subjects were like lumber to be processed.
By 1945, the war was all but lost. As bombers struck the Japanese heartland and the Soviets pushed into Manchuria, Unit 731 tried to disappear. Despite efforts to cover up the evidence, however, the US soon caught a whiff of what had happened. The data—unethical and brutal as it was—was seen as too valuable to fall into Russian hands. The 1979 anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk, found to have been the result of bioweapons research derived from recovered unit documents, seemed to confirm those fears in hindsight. Thus, in a move reminiscent of Operation Paperclip, American authorities gained access to the findings, while granting immunity to the remaining personnel. Ishii himself died of cancer in 1959, while most people were none the wiser about his activities.
It wasn’t until the 1980s, towards the end of the Cold War, that surviving members and others involved with the unit started becoming more vocal about what they had done. As more books emerged and public awareness grew (both in and outside Japan), debates arose over how to respond to such serious revelations. In 2002, Japanese authorities finally publicly acknowledged that Unit 731 used bioweapons on Chinese soil. The Chinese were denied compensation, under the argument that reparations had already been made through international treaties and government initiatives. Since then, knowledge of these events has not only become widespread enough—increasingly so—to spark debates, but has also fueled allegations that Japan has whitewashed its past.
These accusations, which influenced the outrage against Horikoshi, persist.
The Germans rightly took responsibility for World War II and the Holocaust, even though those actions have contributed to a culture of collective guilt, which, at times, borders on self-loathing. Japan’s postwar experience, however, was decidedly different. It was defined by neither denazification nor a split into a Communist East and Capitalist West.
Under the leadership of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, fondly known as the Gaijin Shogun (“Foreign Generalissimo”), the nation was effectively rebuilt along American-inspired lines. As the YouTube documentary channel The Cold War has shown, the reforms pervaded the national consciousness with varying degrees of success in their impacts on modern Japanese culture. The legacy of the war included incorporating critical accounts of the militarist mindset that brought the country to ruin into the education system. Compromises were made, however, including the decision to allow Emperor Hirohito to remain in power as a figurehead. The Japanese were treated with relative leniency. Some claim that this same leniency led to amnesty for fifty Class A (crimes against peace) war criminals. But that isn’t the whole story.
What is less well known is that Japan attempted to come to grips with its wartime behavior and continues to do so. In 1950, a year before the Peace Treaty of San Francisco was signed and the country’s status as a virtual pariah formally ended, a Japanese delegation attended a moral rearmament conference in Caux, Switzerland, followed by a visit to Washington, DC. In front of the US Senate, delegation member Chojiro Kuriyama apologized for his country’s “big mistake” and sought forgiveness from the American people.
This would not be the last time such apologies were made. The imperial family also expressed remorse. Over the past seventy-five years, the Japanese people have tried to move out of the war’s shadow, while reaching out to other Asian nations. The country has offered war reparations and financial aid through a number of treaties. This policy was formalized by the establishment of Japan’s Official Development Assistance program in 1954, which in 2018 stood at $14.2 Billion.
These attempts at atonement are neither perfect nor have they always gone smoothly: look at the domestic debates over the 50th anniversary of the end of the war and the mixed messages sent by current prime minister Shinzo Abe. Such debates are often heated, since some parts of Japanese society accuse right-wingers of revisionism, if not denialism. There have also been notorious history textbook controversies, which make sensational headlines internationally, and which seem to prove that Japan still whitewashes their part in the conflict. However, with the exception of some ultranationalist fringes, the Japanese have long acknowledged the nature of their actions during World War II, though with a wide spectrum of views on the subject. According to Stanford University’s “Divided Memories and Reconciliation” study, the media coverage of provocative history books was wildly disproportionate, since less than one percent of all classrooms used them in 2014. Despite the fact that it is the country’s largest conservative organization—Abe is a member—and has been accused of propagating reactionary nationalism, the Nippon Kaigi (“Japan Conference”) has not usurped Japan’s postwar democracy, nor is it likely to instigate a neo-militarist regime any time soon.
For many westerners, however, to paraphrase Robert Dujarric, Shinzo Abe’s Japan is still, in some respects, being judged by the standards of Willy Brandt’s West Germany. It’s therefore unsurprising that some have found Japan’s response to its critics unsatisfying. Though these critiques—which also fuelled the outrage against Horikoshi’s work—can be traced to hostilities involving two of Japan’s neighbors.
Keeping Wounds Open
According to Ezra Vogel’s 2019 book China and Japan: Facing History, postwar relations between the two former enemies had grown cordial by the 70s and 80s, during which decades the PRC even benefited from Japanese aid and investments. The perception that there have been almost continuous culture wars and hostility between the two nations, going back centuries, is inaccurate. In around the early 90s, however, this state of affairs changed dramatically.
The Chinese Communist Party began pushing a policy of patriotic reeducation. In addition to a renewal and co-opting of Chinese nationalism, this led to the increasing demonization of the Japanese. At one point, the Chinese even aired a number of TV shows set during World War II, which painted the Japanese in a ludicrously evil light. They not only revived old grievances, such as Unit 731, but often exaggerated or rewrote history in order to do so. Such wrongs have been acknowledged by all sides, even though a number of them still arouse strong emotions and the specifics of what happened are disputed—this is especially true of what is known as the Nanjing Incident or Rape of Nanjing. But, as far as the CCP is concerned, any dissent from the established narrative is denialism or even treason. This hasn’t stopped Mainland Chinese from consuming works from Japan that have been deemed acceptable—until recently, Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia was one of these works—nor has it wholly prevented both countries from maintaining diplomatic and economic ties. However, such scapegoating of their old enemies has allowed the regime to deflect attention from inconvenient truths, such as what happened during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, Xi Jinping’s authoritarian treatment of the Uighurs and Hong Kongers, and the CCP’s inept handling of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
South Korea’s anger towards Japan is rather peculiar, though no less heated. It stems from memories of Japan’s 1910–1945 rule, together with conflicting ideas of postwar nationalism. The issue of the use of comfort women—sanctioned prostitutes—during WWII arouses particularly strong feelings. While both sides recognize that such women existed, the devil is in the details, as Joseph Yi has pointed out. Despite the normalization of ties in 1965 and further compensations in 2018, the prevailing sentiment is that the Japanese have not apologized enough—if at all—for kidnapping (mainly) Korean girls for the purposes of sexual slavery. However, the historical facts are more complex than this simplistic narrative might suggest. Contemporary sources (such as surviving Allied, Chinese and Japanese records) and even feminist scholars have noted inconsistencies in the story and have drawn attention to the complicity of many Korean collaborators. In order to uphold a distorted sense of national pride at the expense of its former enemies, South Korea has silenced dissenting voices on this topic and issued censorious, government-backed textbooks, beside which those Tokyo is accused of distributing pale in comparison.
Both South Korea and China have reopened old wounds and perhaps created new ones. Given the increasingly unrealistic demands for Japanese atonement and the activist attempts to boycott the 2020 Olympics over the use of the allegedly fascist Rising Sun flag (which has been around since at least the start of the Edo period in the seventeenth century), no wonder the Culture War in the Pacific continues to rage with no end in sight. The harassment of Horikoshi is just the latest skirmish. In 2009, protests led to the cancellation of the TV anime adaptation of Hidekaz Himaruya’s Axis Powers Hetalia on the grounds that it was “insulting to Koreans” and that it invoked the world wars, despite the fact that the series is a cynical gag work and affectionate parody featuring many national stereotypes. If the creator of My Hero Academia were to quit tomorrow—an unlikely prospect, as he’s faced controversy in the past—the outrage mob would simply find another Japanese target.
Such campaigns have global consequences. While Imperial Japan’s wartime actions and the Pacific War in general have been a recurring subject in video games and featured in Anglophone productions as varied as Empire of the Sun, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Pearl Harbor, public awareness elsewhere is more limited. Given the widespread agreement with the German response to how such events should never happen again, it’s not surprising that foreigners, especially in the west, are probably more familiar with the politically charged narratives of the PRC, South Korean activists and others with similar views. This reinforces the idea that there is permanent animosity between Japan, China and Korea, obscuring the nuances of the situation.
Vicious Cycle vs. Reconciliation
In most other contexts, this would be seen as unfair. Must the US disavow pioneering NASA scientist Werner von Braun for having been a Nazi SS officer during WWII? Should historic German symbols like the Iron Cross be shunned as “brands of hate”? Should Europeans today be expected to feel guilt at colonialism? Outside of certain corners of academia and leftist circles in the west, such ideas would be laughable. Yet the idea that the Japanese should continue to feel guilt at their past and be all but ostracized for it seems to be taken as a given.
To call the Culture War in the Pacific a toxic farce would be an understatement. The level of vitriol is more appropriate to a conflict that ended recently than one that finished seventy-five years ago. Acting as if we are still living in the 1940s or suggesting that something akin to the punitive Morgenthau Plan ought to have been imposed on Japan is destructive.
Smearing people like Horikoshi makes it harder to broach topics like Unit 731, even tangentially, hence encouraging censorship and discouraging examination of the past. This could make distorted, politicized narratives the norm and provide fuel for further outrage or even violence.
That there has been so much ado about something as innocuous as a fictional character’s name is symptomatic of a pettiness more in line with the western woke than with healthy patriotism. Even if the name “Maruta” were a direct nod to the infamous covert unit, it is the name of a fictional antagonist and therefore analogous to naming a villain after Josef Mengele. This opprobrium also sets a dangerous precedent for other creators, who might find their works or livelihoods threatened over the most minor offenses.
The demonization of Japan also risks doing a gross disservice to history. Such activists and ideologues caricature history. Information about such things as the comparatively progressive Taisho Democracy prior to the militarist years and sympathetic figures such as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto have been obscured by images of baby-bayonetting devils and remorseless drones. This is worse than the American wartime propaganda images of the dirty little Jap: it reinforces a skewed narrative of perpetual victims and evil oppressors. Can the Japanese people ever apologize or atone enough or does this just encourage more Japanese guilt and self-hatred?
This all encourages resentment. It emboldens CCP hardliners and ultranationalists, who believe that other Asians hate their country, and could lead to a vicious cycle of vengeance and rage that feeds on age-old ethnic grievances. We need only look at how the break up of Yugoslavia devolved into an orgy of brutality to see that those hoping to finally win World War II may regret getting their wish. While at best, this could mean passing on more vitriolic hatred to the next generation, the prospect of a Japanese, Chinese or Korean version of a song encouraging the killing of Bosnians being acted out is not hard to imagine.
All sides have a lot to learn. Nor should we forget the past. Nonetheless, to echo one of the recurring mottos in My Hero Academia, plus ultra. We must move past the war and seek to be better. The fact that the US, India, Thailand and Taiwan have mended ties with Japan, in stark contrast to the PRC, shows that it’s not impossible to confront the past while still putting it behind us.
Take the Philippines. World War II caused some of the darkest moments of the nation’s history. The doomed defense of the joint Filipino and American forces led to the infamous 1942 Bataan Death March, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of POWs. After years of hardship, the Battle of Manila left the capital in ruins—next only to Warsaw and Stalingrad in terms of destruction—with thousands of civilians massacred by Imperial Japanese soldiers.
However, in 1962, Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko undertook the first state visit to the Philippines by a member of the imperial family. Despite being reportedly “nervous” that there might be local hostility—since memories of the carnage of only seventeen years previously were still fresh—to their surprise, the royals were welcomed warmly. While some continue to express outrage at the events of the past, those close ties have continued ever since. Whether it’s due to the pervasive impact of Japanese culture through Voltes V in the 70s and shows like My Hero Academia in recent years or the strategic and geopolitical benefits, the country has evidently moved on. While critics may portray this as historical amnesia, Filipinos have forgiven their former enemies.
Those still waging the Culture War in the Pacific should do so too.