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Organized Panel Session

4 - Alternative Facts: Sobering Lessons from Wartime Japan

Saturday, July 7
8:30 AM - 10:00 AM
Location: Juniper, New Building

The objective of this paper is to use wartime Japan’s society-wide deployment of ‘alternative facts’ as predictive lessons for us in the present—whether we live and work in Trump-era America, the post-Brexit U.K. or the wider world.  In wartime Japan, the information being released by the military and the government (including by extension the heavily censored press) was patently false, and easily falsifiable by anyone with a measure of skepticism and access to a map.


The rhetoric deployed by the official news media on the retreat from Guadalcanal, and specifically the term “advance by turning”, was also easy to expose as false, since the “advance” was back north, in the direction of Japan. Similarly, once American forces approached close enough to the Japanese homeland that regular bombing attacks could begin, it surely became difficult for many people to continue to believe in private what society required they insist in public: that victory was assured.


Yet the true lessons we can glean from this episode in Japanese history, ones with clear applications to the contemporary world, are in how heretofore espousers of the alternative facts view of reality reacted to incontrovertible proof their version of the present was simply false. In such cases, do true believers show contrition for their role in assisting demagogues in rising to power? Judging from wartime-to-postwar Japan, and the insistence, as disingenuous and irresponsible as it was widespread, that “we were fooled” (and thus cannot be blamed), there is little reason for optimism.

Sean D. O'Reilly

Akita International University, Japan

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