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Anne Frank and the Japanese psyche
Publication Date : 09-03-2014
In Fukuyama city, Hiroshima prefecture, stands the Holocaust Education Centre, the only such facility in this region and a place where Japanese children can find out about Jewish teenage war diarist Anne Frank.
In the centre stands a statue of Frank, one of two in Japan. Both are said to be the only ones in East Asia erected in the memory of the girl who became famous through a diary she kept while hiding from the Nazis in an attic in German-occupied Amsterdam during World War II.
She was later captured and died in a Nazi concentration camp.
Just how large Anne Frank looms in the Japanese psyche was highlighted last month when more than 300 copies of her diary and related books were found defaced in public libraries across Tokyo and nearby Yokohama, causing a public outcry and prompting government spokesman Yoshihide Suga to label the act "disgraceful".
The motive for the crime is unclear. Japan has no large Jewish settlement or any history of anti- Semitism.
The Tokyo police department has put its top investigators on the case but the criminal or criminals have yet to be found.
Some observers see the vandalism as a manifestation of the right-wing drift in Japanese society.
Perhaps it was not by coincidence that the bulk of the books were defaced around the time that officials of one southern Japanese city applied to Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) to place on the World Heritage list more than 200 farewell letters written by World War II kamikaze pilots before their suicide missions.
China has slammed the bid which, if accepted, would place the letters alongside other world heritage documents, including Anne Frank's diary.
Among the books with pages ripped out or sliced with a box cutter are a few about Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat also known as Japan's Schindler who helped 3,000 Jews to flee Lithuania, where he was based, to Japan during World War II.
But it is the destruction of books depicting the life of Anne Frank - the most famous of an estimated 1.5 million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust - that has shocked the public.
Even though many Japanese these days, especially the younger generation, know little about their country's wartime history, it is said that almost all Japanese have read about Anne Frank at some point in their lives.
The first Japanese translation of her diary appeared in 1952, after the end of the Allied Occupation, and even a year before it was published in Hebrew.
In 1953, the diary, originally written in Dutch, topped Japan's best-sellers' list.
Over the years, the country has produced many popular comic books and animated movies about Anne Frank.
Her popularity remains undiminished.
Every year, about 30,000 tourists from Japan visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam - her hiding place in World War II and now turned into a museum - outnumbering Israeli visitors.
One reason for the Japanese fascination with Anne Frank is that her story is taught in school.
As part of Japan's post-war "peace education", Japanese children were introduced to Anne Frank in civics classes as part of an attempt by the then powerful left-wing teachers' union to instil in children an opposition to war and violence.
Part-time college lecturer Yoshitaka Komatsu, 41, said: "I remember being made to write a book report after having to read her diary. I felt teachers were trying to make us see ourselves as victims of World War II just like Anne.
"There was little discussion in class of Japan as the aggressor. The lessons focused on the misery of atomic bomb victims, the tragedy of the air raids over Tokyo and stuff like that."
Surveyor Koichi Ito, 35, first learnt about Anne Frank through a comic book on world history.
He believes many Japanese feel a strong empathy for Anne Frank because they see themselves as victims of the war.
"But just because we do not see ourselves as aggressors, it does not necessarily mean that we support the war either," he stressed.
Yuzu Katane, 16, who first read about Anne Frank when she was nine years old, admires the Jewish girl's sensitivity to her surroundings. "Like me, she is also curious about things," said the high school student, who also hopes to visit the museum.
But experts say the story of Anne Frank resonates with the Japanese people because they have difficulty perceiving themselves as aggressors in the war although Japan was the invader that overran much of East Asia.
If anything, they see themselves as victims, particularly because of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the end of the war. It is no accident that the Holocaust Centre is just 80km from the site where one of the bombs landed.
The difficulty Japan has in seeing itself as the aggressor is said to stem from the country's failure to pin the blame for the war on its leaders at the time.
Scholars said from the late wartime Emperor Hirohito, all the way down to the bureaucrats, no one admitted responsibility for the war.
Social scientist Kiyobumi Matsuo, who teaches at Aoyama Gakuin University, said: "Ordinary Japanese also believed that their loving fathers, husbands or sons who carried out atrocities in Asia were only performing their duty as citizens of Japan.
"They therefore could not see themselves as aggressors."
The fact that Anne Frank's story was set in Europe is believed to have helped secure her popularity in Japan.
"If her story had taken place in, say, Japan-occupied Singapore, even if her diary came to be widely read in the West after the war, a Japanese translation would probably not have appeared in Japan," said Professor Matsuo.