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Why the Greater East Asia War Naming Controversy is a Non-Issue

There is a strange debate over the Self-Defense Force using the term "Greater East Asia War." GHQ disallowed it during the Occupation, but that ended in 1952.



Minister of Defense Minoru Kihara (© Sankei by Ataru Haruna)

A recent Sankei Shimbun editorial published by JAPAN Forward discussed a recent incident involving the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF). The 32nd Regiment recently used the term "Greater East Asia War" in a post on its official X (formerly Twitter) account. 

Some media outlets, including the Asahi Shimbun, deemed this problematic. As the editorial explained, the General Headquarters (GHQ) had prohibited the use of this term under its occupation policy. Nowadays, however, there is no restriction on its usage.

And yet, the Ministry of Defense and the GSDF deleted the reference to the Greater East Asia War. By reacting to the Asahi Shimbun's language policing, they now face questions regarding their consistency.

Communist Party Hand Wringing

On April 14, the Communist Party newspaper Shimbun Akahata published the following story as an exclusive scoop: "Before the collective visit of senior Ground Self-Defense Force officials to Yasukuni Shrine in January, the Ground Staff Office drafted a document. Our April 13 investigation found that the wording in this internal document closely mirrored the language used at Yasukuni Shrine. Furthermore, it approvingly employed the term 'Greater East Asia War.'"

Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on April 21, 2024.(© Sankei by Shinpei Okuhara)

It is puzzling why citing reference materials from Yasukuni Shrine should be a cause for concern. Furthermore, the pompous tone of former Communist Party Chairman Kazuo Shii's April 14 X post on the matter was astonishing. "This backsliding signifies a troubling continuity with the Imperial Japanese Army," he declared.

Shii seems determined to sever all ties between pre and post-war Japan. This is, of course, wholly impractical. We are the same Japanese people, whether pre-war or post-war, and this is still Japan. Is the Communist Party really so desperate to drag Japan back to the days of occupation?

Exacerbating the Situation

Shigefumi Matsuzawa of the Japan Innovation Party raised the subject during the April 16 Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense. Defense Minister Minoru Kihara responded to Matsuzawa's inquiry as to the correct terminology. 

According to Kihara:

  1. There is no specific law that defines the term "Greater East Asia War."
  2. While it is not commonly used in official documents, there have been many instances where it was.
  3. Its usage depends on the context.
  4. It is not prohibited – that is the government's stance.

As Kihara explained, "The 32nd Regiment used the term to describe the fierce combat on Iwo Jima. 'Greater East Asia War' was commonly used at that time. The Regiment, therefore, opted to use it during a joint Japan-US memorial ceremony on Iwo Jima honoring the war dead."

37 mm gun fires against cave positions of Japanese troops on Iwo Jima (public domain, via Wikimedia)

If that is the case, referring to the conflict as the Greater East Asia War should not be controversial. Nevertheless, the minister elaborated on the deletion, stating that "the regiment's use of the term inadvertently stirred up significant controversy." 

However, attempting to sidestep conflicts and resolve matters amicably only complicates and prolongs historical issues. A typical example would be the comfort women issue. Deleting the term has only undermined the Ministry of Defense and SDF and empowered the Communist Party.

Maintaining Integrity Under Political Pressure

In the Sankei Shimbun's April 17 edition, commentator and former Self-Defense Forces officer Masato Ushio raised a compelling question:

Why cave to criticism when there is no real issue? The recent disciplinary action against senior SDF officials for visiting Yasukuni Shrine in official SDF vehicles exemplifies this trend. Politicians and senior officials' tendency to avoid confrontation harms SDF members.

During Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's tenure, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda criticized the Defense Agency (at the time) unfairly. He would often try to make the agency a scapegoat. When asked why senior agency officials did not push back then, Ushio's response was disheartening. "Accepting the role of villain and apologizing was easier," he admitted.

Today, increasing international tensions mean this tactic is no longer an option. We should not bend to petty criticism anymore. Let us confidently refer to the war as the Greater East Asia War.


(Read the column in Japanese.)

Author: Rui Abiru