Saturday, August 18, 2001


Saturday, August 18, 2001

Let's talk about the war


Seizing married women, raping mothers in front of their children - this is the Imperial Army. - Jinzaburo Saeki

Censorship by United States occupiers made it difficult for individuals such as the poet above to find an audience after World War II - and made it difficult for Japan as a whole to come to grips with the country's terrible war legacy.
Suppressing recollection of Japan's atrocities was an integral part of US policy during the occupation, argues John Dower, a professor of Japanese history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in his book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II.
Now, US policy is inadvertently allowing Japan to airbrush its flaws and glorify militarism as a counterweight to China. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's participation this week in a Shinto-officiated prayer for imperial war dead memorialised at Yasukuni Shrine has opened old wounds and angered many people across Asia. But the US, perhaps the only country with the clout to influence Japan on this issue, has been notably silent.
"I don't have any comment on that," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said when asked about Mr Koizumi's controversial visit. "I don't believe we've ever had [any comment about such visits] in the past, either."
President George W. Bush's administration might be adopting a breezy attitude towards the Japanese political elite's unrepentant memorialising of those faithful to the emperor, but many Japanese are baffled and upset.
Today's elderly are the remnants of the generation of farmers, housewives, boy soldiers, prostitutes and tireless labourers cruelly drafted into the service of the Imperial Army. In the prosperous, peaceful post-war era that followed, the children and grandchildren of these tight-lipped veterans were given a fairy-tale view of their own history.
Having failed to come to grips with their history, Japanese are now doubly confused by Mr Koizumi's visit to Yasukuni and by the fallout from it. Why do a handful of politicians insist on going there every year? Why does the world care? Why is Shintoism being revived? Wasn't that part of the wartime cult of the emperor?
And who's to blame? After the war, there was the "repentance of 100 million souls", a clever top-down effort to spread blame evenly. But the war that proved so disastrous to Japan's closest neighbours and so harrowing for Japan itself was not started by 100 million well-informed co-conspirators.
The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, by which General Hideki Tojo, Japan's wartime prime minister, and dozens of other Class-A war criminals were sentenced to death, constituted a miscarriage of justice barely permissible to be discussed in Japan, even today. Few, if any, of those convicted and hanged in the post-war trials had clean hands, but they can be viewed as victims insofar as they took the rap for someone higher up.
Once the occupation authorities, led by General Douglas MacArthur, decided to exonerate War Criminal No 1 - the emperor Hirohito - injustice and confusion inevitably followed. To this day, the US-Japanese mythology of a benign emperor puts too much blame on Tojo and other official scapegoats of the period. Furthermore, the tendency for the heavily scripted Tokyo trials to go after individuals linked to attacks on American targets in the Pacific while letting crimes against humanity go unpunished had the effect of denigrating the importance, indeed the very reality, of mainland Asia's incomparably greater suffering.
Not only did the "doctors" from the torture and vivisection laboratories of Manchurian Unit 731 get off lightly in return for "medical" data, but also documented opium dealers, gangsters and known purveyors of atrocity in China and Southeast Asia were let off the hook and eventually honoured for their contributions to the anti-communist cause. Lieutenant-Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, the "Butcher of Singapore", was so awe-inspiring in his capacity for evil that he was hired to fight Mao Zedong's Communists by the Nationalists, who also recruited ace pilots from Japan's discredited army and navy.
Tojo at least had the "decency", in the severe view of his supporters, to attempt to kill himself - though much scorn was heaped on him when he botched it, and his life was saved only to be taken at the gallows.
In the culture of sacrifice, whereby countless young men threw away their lives as human bombs or fighting machines for the imperial cause, it was widely assumed the emperor and his top men would follow suit in the face of defeat. War veteran Kiyoshi Watanabe, writing about emperor Hirohito's visit to Yasukuni just after the war, concluded there were no veterans interred at the shrine - for if there were, their souls would have killed the emperor with their curses. Likewise, survivors of the kamikaze pilot corps have long been among the Showa emperor's harshest critics.
The Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan almost as long as the Communist Party has ruled China, is still tainted by its links to the military-industrial elite who oversaw the rape and pillage of China, Korea and Southeast Asia, and then reinvented themselves as pro-American anti-communists.
Even today, Japan has a whiff of the collaborator's culture, built on selective historical amnesia, lip service to American values and condescension towards former victims in Asia - whether those be individual "comfort women", forced to serve as sexual slaves for imperial troops, or entire countries. The Liberal Democratic Party, though given a new lease of life by Mr Koizumi's maverick image-making, sits on a volcano of unacknowledged guilt.
Japan's Socialist and Communist parties, more sceptical about the US and more sympathetic towards Asia, were marginalised by the politics of the Cold War. Nevertheless, principled anti-militarist voices still manage to animate the debate in Japan.
Most major newspapers opposed Mr Koizumi's shrine visit, and Kenzaburo Oe, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, blasted Tokyo's school board for "cruel opportunism" and "targeting the weak" when it assigned rightist history texts to schools for the handicapped. It is no accident that the only plausible semi-official apology for Japan's war crimes came from former Socialist prime minister Tomiichi Murayama.
Just as Japan has used the brutal US bombing at the end of the war to obscure earlier atrocities, the US has used Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's attack on Pearl Harbour to justify brutality that occurred much later. When Pearl Harbour is made to equal the Rape of Nanking or is used to justify the immolation of entire cities, then historical events are not being given their proper weight.
When Walter LaFeber, a respected professor emeritus of history at Cornell University, argues that then-president Franklin Roosevelt knew about Japan's impending "sneak attack" and did nothing about it, patriots blink in disbelief.

Chinese history has suffered a similar distorting dynamic. At their trial in 1976, the Gang of Four - Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, and three of her closest aides, Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao - were blamed for all the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, just as Tojo and crew had been forced to take the rap at the Tokyo trials. Although these four anti-heroes were certainly guilty of many things, none of them would have amounted to anything, or been able to hurt so many people, without the tacit support of the gang's unmentionable ringleader.

To this day, it is as hard for Japan to come clean on Hirohito as it is for China to come clean on Mao. Maybe even harder.

Philip Cunningham ( is an Asia-based writer.