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Foreign Policy

Japan Out to Distort History

Jan 15 , 2014

Shinzo Abe continues to disown the country’s dark past by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and doctoring textbooks

In the ongoing Sino-Japanese conflict, we have again heard people asking Japan to atone for its war crimes. Many years ago, one such plea came from John Rabe, a German who witnessed the 1937 Rape of Nanking (Nanjing) but later declined to testify at the Allied Tokyo Trials, saying that, “judgment must be spoken only by (the Japanese) own nation.” Rabe’s plea is touching, almost noble. But the Japanese nation (led by a succession of postwar prime ministers) is not the same as the German nation.

After the end of World War II, the Germans (and their government leaders) have shown genuine remorse and repentance. This can be seen from their aggregate payment of more than $90 billion as compensation to Holocaust victims and their survivors to atone for the Germans’ collective guilt. More evidence is the open teaching and discussion in schools of the history of Nazi Germany’s war crimes.

In contrast, Japan has at best been ambivalent about its guilt and responsibilities for its war crimes. Rightist politicians like Shintaro Ishihara, former governor of Tokyo, have stubbornly insisted that the Nanjing Massacre – in which over 300,000 Chinese (more than the atomic-bomb casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined) were slaughtered by the Japanese invaders in two weeks in late 1937- never happened and that it was made up by the Chinese.

Far from shirking its responsibility, Germans have offered official apologies for Nazi Germany’s role in the Holocaust, as well as for their war crimes. German leaders have continuously expressed remorse, most notably and touchingly when former chancellor Willy Brandt, in full view of the world via the modern mass media, dropped on his knees in front of a Holocaust memorial in a former Warsaw ghetto in 1970.

Additionally, the German government coordinated an effort to reach a settlement with German companies that used slave labor during the war. The companies agreed to pay $3.75 billion to the victims, half of which, meant for victims who left no heirs, was given to the state of Israel as the inheritor. Germany has also established a National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Berlin for looted property.

Again, unlike Japan, which has been consistently dodging the issue of Japanese war guilt and has resorted to doctoring textbooks – apart from banning textbooks that realistically portrayed Japanese invaders’ wanton killings and the chemical warfare by Unit 731- the Germans teach their students the truth of Nazi Germany’s war crimes squarely.

The primary political and educational objective of confronting young Germans with their country’s darkest past and their forefathers’ guilts, above all, is to make them aware of the magnitude and consequences of Hitler’s atrocities and war crimes so that history never repeats itself.

The Japanese have yet to face their past, a past when their forefathers wantonly massacred hundreds of thousands of innocent people, committed untold atrocities in China (and other parts of Asia) and forced women into sex slavery.

Then there is the repeated ritual of Japanese prime ministers visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 14 Class-A war criminals convicted in the Tokyo Trials and has been a source of tension alienating Japan from its neighbors, principally China, the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The visits to the shrine are a reminder that Japan’s supra-nationalism, which underpinned its aggression in the past, is far from dead. Prominent among the 14 convicted war criminals honored at Yasukuni is Hideki Tojo, the general who upon becoming prime minister in October 1941 approved war plans against the British, Dutch, French and American territories. He also ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Thus, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Yasukuni on Dec 26, 2013, has touched off a storm of fury in China and the ROK.

To optimists, there seems to be a ray of hope because the visits to the shrine do not seem to command unanimous domestic support. For example, on July 20, 2006, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Japanese Economic News) published the private notes of the late Tomohiko Tomita, former head of the Imperial Household Agency (Kunaicho), revealing for the first time that the late Emperor Showa (Hirohito 1926-89) strongly objected to the enshrinement of 14 Class-A war criminals among the war dead in Yasukuni in 1978. Tomita’s notes say that the emperor, who had visited Yasukuni eight times before, stopped doing so from 1978 onward.

Also, a public opinion poll, in July 2006 by Nihon Keizai Shimbun, asked respondents whether they supported prime ministers visiting Yasukuni. About 53 percent of them said they were opposed to such visits, with only 28 percent supporting them.

The harsh reality is that in Japan’s postwar parliamentary system, the prime minister (with his cabinet) rules the country under the nominal aegis of the emperor, and 53 percent of the people do not carry enough weight to crack the prime minister’s control over the political agenda because of the country’s weak civil society.

The obstacle to Japan’s atonement continues to reside in its official oblivion to its ugly past and the massive loss of memory of the Japanese nation, because the postwar generations are not taught the truth about its war guilt. Will the 14 Class-A convicted war criminals continue to be worshipped as Japanese war heroes, something inconceivable in Germany?

James C. Hsiung is a professor of politics and international law at New York University and has the book, China and Japan at Odds: Deciphering the Perpetual Conflict, to his credit.

© China Daily

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