Eighty-one years ago today, a Japanese Lieutenant set a dynamite charge on the tracks of a Japanese-controlled railway in Manchuria, in Northern China. The act, blamed on the Chinese, was a successful attempt to initiate sino-Japanese war by the Japanese Kwantung Army. The army had to an extent gone rogue, engaging in militant acts intended to provoke a Chinese response, and was about to be disciplined by the leadership from Tokyo when it chose to take matters into its own hands by manufacturing Chinese resistance. This is known as the Manchurian Incident or the Mukden Incident. What followed was more than a decade of Japanese occupation of and violence against China, including the most brutal single incident in all of World War II, the Rape of Nanking.
Note that I say Nanking was singular in its brutality, not in the number of people it killed. The statistical honors might go to the Holocaust of eastern European Jewry, or to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan by the United States, or maybe even to the firebombing of Dresden by the English. What's remarkable about Nanking, and what it shares with the Mukden incident that paved the way for it, is the completely uncontrolled and undisciplined nature of Japanese military action.
Perhaps this is the real threat Mukden and Nanking hold for Japanese popular imagination, the reason there has yet to be a collective national reconciliation with the legacy of the war, nearly a full century and several generations later - a phenomenon whose very narrow manifestations in popular music I've documented. Perhaps it's not the evil of these acts that's so threatening, but the fact that they are out of character. Certainly, the Germans killed all those Jews, but they did it with a characteristic German efficiency that can be recouped - they may have done something wrong, but they were still German.
Japan's war crimes, though, defied every treasured stereotype of Japanese unity, the concepts so often
propagated, not just in the West but within Japan itself, of a 'hive-like' 'oriental' mentality, of
collectivism, self-sacrifice, and humility. In Mukden, low-ranking officers took it up on themselves to undermine
the plans of their leaders, including implicitly the Emperor. In
Nanking, enlisted men ran wild, raping, pillaging, and murdering in
endlessly creative ways. These were not strong Japanese collective actions gone awry - they were actions deriving from some other root, something alien and awry, something that, whether deeply human or deeply perverse, were surely not 'Japanese.' They cannot be recouped, explained, or folded into a narrative of evolution. For those who believe in the uniqueness of the Japanese spirit, they can only be denied, repressed, dismissed.