Why Japan Can’t Come to Terms with its Past

09:51 AM November 02, 2014

Nearly 70 years after the end of the Second World War, Japan’s behavior in that conflict and the events leading up to it continues to cast its long shadow on its relations with other Asian countries.

The latest return of the region’s poisonous 20th century was occasioned by the recent retraction by a key member of the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of a previous administration’s admission in 1995 that thousands of women from all over Asia, euphemistically known as “comfort women,” had been coerced into serving as sex slaves for Japanese troops.


China’s foreign ministry immediately condemned Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga’s statement, saying “Enslaving ‘comfort women’ is one of the grave crimes that the Japanese military committed against people of its victim countries during WWII, which had undeniable proofs.”

The Japanese Puzzle


The perception of a lack of acknowledgment by the Abe government of Japan’s war crimes, coupled with his cabinet’s recent decision to allow Japan to participate in overseas conflicts even if Japan itself is not under attack, has embittered the already raw relations with China.

This absence of real regret for an aggressive past also troubles South Koreans, making it increasingly difficult for US President Barack Obama to get the two Northeast Asian pillars of his strategy to contain China—the so-called “Pivot to Asia”—to work together.

One thing ahout Japan that puzzles outsiders is that while most of the people lean toward pacifism, owing to the devastation wrought to their country by the Second World War, there appears to be widespread amnesia about the country’s record during that conflict.

It is this absence of war guilt that has enabled right-wing historians to revise history textbooks and made the visits to the notorious Yasukuni Shrine by top-level government officials relatively non-controversial. This cemetery is where 14 Class A war criminals are buried along with other participants in the country’s imperial wars, and many in Asia see official visits there as a sign of Japan’s unrepentant attitude for its record of aggression in the first half of the 20th century.

A Bloodstained Record

It is not like the facts are seriously disputed, except by a small minority. Historians may quibble about the exact number of Chinese killed and raped in the Nanking Massacre in December 1937, but, as Rana Mitter has asserted, “this dispute should not obscure the fact that a very large number of people died as the out-of-control Imperial Army exacted revenge on a population that had stood in the way of its advance.”

Similarly, there is simply no evidence to show that the as many as 200,000 Chinese, Filipino, Burmese, Korean, Taiwanese, and Dutch women who served as “comfort women” volunteered to be sex slaves, as the current government’s apologists seem to be saying.


There are, in fact, some, like war crimes researcher Geoffrey Robertson, who argue that the hard documentary evidence presented at the Tokyo war crimes trials showed atrocities that “in their elemental bestiality were beyond even Nazi contemplation: this imperial army impaled women on stakes, after raping them and cutting their children in half. It dropped bubonic plague germs on Chinese citizens, and boasted of its contempt for the laws of war by executing Allied airmen alongside their parachutes and by sending surviving prisoners, at war’s end, on death marches.”

Explaining historical amnesia

The “denazification” campaign in post-war Germany has often been criticized as having been incomplete and overtaken by Cold War priorities. But however imperfect, Germany’s internalization of guilt for the Holocaust and other war crimes is a big achievement compared to Japan’s state of mind, which might be described as collective amnesia. To the post-war generations, pre-war and wartime Japan simply became, as Eri Hotta put it, “another country.”

There are a number of theories why war guilt has not taken hold in Japan. One is that the nuclear wasting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 gave the Japanese a sense of being victims rather than culprits in that war. As Mitter puts it, Japan “has pointed to its sad distinction as the only country ever to have been attacked with atomic weapons to make a case for itself as a ‘peace nation’—but often with little context or explanation given for the events that led to the dropping of two atomic bombs.”

Another is that, despite the prosecution, conviction, and execution of a number of top leaders like wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, members of the Japanese elite that had shared responsibility for Japan’s decision to go to war, then went on the serve the Occupation Government of US General Douglas MacArthur, told the population to collectively accept the responsibility for the war and put it behind them. The problem with this was that by claiming that all Japanese were responsible, the elite was really saying that no one was responsible and diluted the very real responsibility of the political class for bringing on Japan’s aggression and its attendant crimes.

As historian Eri Hotta notes, “Conservative politicians, in power for most of the post-war period, were only too happy to inherit such a partial and incomplete rendering of Japan’s past. Despite the efforts of some individual citizens, academics, and journalists to have a more honest debate, it is difficult to deny that Japan’s official impulse has been to look away from what is undesirable and unpleasant in its history.”

The effort on the part of the conservative ruling class to instill historical amnesia would not have been successful, however, were it not for the Occupation Government’s decision not to prosecute Emperor Hirohito, instead exculpating the head of the Japanese state of all responsibility in the interest of preserving political stability in the immediate post-war period.

As emperor, Hirohito approved the decision to go to war and all other key decisions the wartime government took. Indeed, General Tojo, the wartime prime minister, told the judges during the Tokyo Trials in 1946-48 that it was “inconceivable” for top civilian and military officials to take action that went against the wishes of the emperor. With the top war criminal enjoying immunity while his civilian and military accomplices were hanged, the Tokyo Trials became a mockery of justice. Yet, so intent were MacArthur and his subordinates on maintaining the myth of an innocent emperor in the service of pacification that they stage-managed a bogus retraction from Tojo before he was hanged.

Hirohito’s immunity, writes Robertson, “sent the indelible message that the nation itself was guiltless: subsequent generations felt no shame in having an executed war criminal in the family, and the Japanese government to this day refuses compensation for the victims of its atrocities.”

In a damning statement on the persistence of Japan’s refusal to come to terms with its past, the United Nations Human Rights Committee recently recorded that all reparation claims brought by the Imperial Army’s former sex slaves before Japanese courts have been dismissed, and all complaints seeking criminal investigations and prosecutions have been rejected on grounds of the statute of limitations.

Abe’s Grand Plan

What disturbs many in Asia today is that in contrast to the defensive posture of previous conservative governments, the Abe government has an offensive political stance. And historical amnesia has a critical role in Abe’s agenda. In his recent reversal of the so-called Kono statement of 1995 that acknowledged Japan’s mass kidnapping of Asian women to serve its troops’ sexual demands, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga said it was linked to efforts “to recover the honor and credibility of the country.”

He should have been more frank and asserted that it was also part of his boss Abe’s push to subvert the spirit of the famous Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution that renounced war as a “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” Abe has “reinterpreted” Article 9 to allow for the adoption of the policy of “collective defense,” which would enable Japan to deploy its military forces to engage in conflict in areas outside Japan even if Japanese territory is not under attack.

Abe is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, the wartime Minister of Munitions, who went from being a Class A war criminal to becoming prime minister in the 1950’s. Abe sees himself as furthering Kishi’s goal of making Japan a “normal nation,” that is, one that is more independent of Washington in its foreign relations and military strategy. Such a goal will entail, in the view of many analysts, the development and acquisition of nuclear weapons.

The Chinese and Koreans are aware of this, and they know that a reinterpretation of the past is necessary to build the popular base to support Abe’s grand plan. This is why they have strongly protested every attempt by Tokyo to prettify its World War II record, for they worry that each move is a step towards a nuclear-armed Japan. And that, as the writer Ian Buruma notes, is an outcome that many Asians see as more threatening than a Japan that is lashed to Washington’s defense umbrella. Those who do not remember the past, they fear, are condemned to repeat it.

*INQUIRER.net columnist Walden Bello is a member of the House of Representatives (Parliament) of the Republic of the Philippines and the author or co-author of 19 books. This column originally appeared in Telesur on October 30, 2014, and is reproduced with the permission of the agency.

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TAGS: Asian Countries, Eri Hotta, Japan, Rana Mitter, Second World War, shinzo abe, US President Barack Obama, Yoshihide Suga
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