Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Living in the shadow of war crimes

Above: A Japanese soldier stands among bodies from the Nanking Massacre, one of the most atrocious war crimes of WWII, and one vehemently downplayed in Japanese society and literature

It's a conversation I've had before. Everybody loves Japanese things - pop music, anime, automobiles, clothing, etc. Few in Asia love the Japanese. Many Chinese and Korean grandparents are unable to even say the word without contempt, having experienced the horrors of WWII first-hand.

This is something that Westerners may find shocking, many of whom are smitten with Japan-o-philia. After all, the war was some sixty years ago! We blame the Nazis for their crimes in WWII, but we don't blame the Germans. Isn't bearing malice against a generation that doesn't have anything to do with those crimes simply racism? Well yes, it would be save for the fact that many Japanese today continue to deny the magnitude of their nation's crimes and extol those soldiers who took part in heinous crimes against humanity. In doing so, they form a bond between themselves and their fallen warriors, who rightly deserved contempt.

There is a difference here, and it's not subtle. The Germans recanted and bore the responsibility of their actions during the war. They had little choice, being the primary aggressor against the victorious powers such as the United States, Britain, and Russia. Even today, there is a lasting wariness and shame regarding Nazi aggression. The Nazi emblem of the swastika is banned in Germany - in German versions of WWII video games, the swastika has to be swapped out for another symbol.

The Japanese, on the other hand, have never needed to to take full responsibility for their actions in WWII. In fact, they have consistently downplayed their role and detached themselves from it. Their aggression was largely limited to Asia, and thus was not as tangible to those who emerged world powers at the end of the war. As a result, there was a lessened pressure to be held accountable. Instead, they were quickly rebuilt and cut deals.

Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, secretly granted immunity to all the physicians of Unit 731, an infamous covert biological weapons development unit responsible for unthinkable evils, in exchange for their research data on biological weapons.

The distance between Europe and Japan, combined with an ongoing collective guilt over the use of atomic weaponry on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, made it possible for the Japanese to largely forget their war crimes. In fact, they are often painted primarily as victims.

But why am I dragging this up today? Could I be just a bitter, racist Chinese Canadian condemning a people who had nothing to do with a war that I never lived through? This is not the case. I have no qualms with Japanese people - in fact, those that I have met are very nice, and I'm sure that many are. However, there are forces at work here, as there have been since the end of the war, spreading hate and lies and false history throughout Japan. They must be held accountable, lest in their arrogance history should repeat itself. At the very least, it continues to turn Asians against one another.

This topic has been dragged up from the depths of my heart today in response to a Toronto Star article on the front page of the World section. Here are some highlights:

This month, Gen. Toshio Tamogami was sacked from his position as air force chief after he took top prize in a contest in which he suggested Japan should cast off the widely held views of its World War II culpability – and "regain its glorious history."

The general asserted Japan was not an aggressor, Pearl Harbor was an American trap and Japan's brutal occupation of other Asian countries – which by some accounts claimed 20 million lives – wasn't really all that bad.

In fact, he wrote, "many" Asian nations reflect positively on it.

China was stunned by the statement – it had borne much of the brunt of that brutality.


Tamogami was sent packing, an investigation into military officers' training was launched and the dark and persistent forces of Japan's World War II revisionism were once again thrust into the spotlight.


[About Yushukan – the nation's most hallowed museum of militarism and a memorial to the nation's war dead]

Inside the museum, in film and state-of-the-art displays, are many solemn and uncontroversial commemorations in keeping with the museum's function of honouring those who died.

But there are also many of the very same ideas put forward by Tamogami in his controversial paper. And they're viewed by thousands here every day.

One film, We Won't Forget, presents a version of the war that few in the West would recognize. It emphasizes, as many of the displays do, that the Japanese tried every means to avoid war and ended up fighting only reluctantly and defensively, solely for their own survival.

As for the highly politicized Tokyo Trials, a narrator in the film explains, against a background of tasteful orchestral music, that charges against Japanese combatants were "groundless," the trials were based on "distorted history" and the only true hero was dissenting Indian judge Radhabinod Pal.

On the other hand, in wall displays, Japan's massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanjing in 1937 is vaguely touched upon but not explicitly dealt with in detail. One display refers to "confused battles."

Historians say those "confused battles" were actually a rampage that left between 100,000 and 300,000 Chinese civilians dead.


They're not happy that Tamogami is able to walk away with his $725,000 pension. "It's not a proper dismissal if he's still going to receive his 60 million yen," said 61-year-old Mari Sagara. "This is taxpayers' money. I can't tolerate it. They should have just let him go."

The general's essay not only caused an international embarrassment, but brazenly contradicted official government policy.

In both 1995 and 2005, Japan formally announced its remorse for its wartime conduct and apologized.

But speaking before Parliament earlier this month, Tamogami was unbowed.

He said he did not "see anything wrong in what I wrote."

"I was fired after saying Japan is a good country," he told Parliament. "It seems a bit strange."

It makes me sad. Sad that some Japanese today can still trivialize their country's conduct during the Second World War. The mass killings, rape, eviscerations, biological weapons testing... Prisoners were dissected out alive without anaesthesia at university departments of anatomy. Yet the culprits walked free. The nation forgot. The nation forgot, but their victims did not. And so we stand here still, living in the shadow of these war crimes.


Teddy said...

[This comment was moved from Lessons in Cookery - I]

This may surprises you. I managed to read your article on Japanese War Crimes in World War II just before you removed it. I hope you are just saving it for a future blog, and not removing it because you feel you may offend some people. It was a good article.

Sadly, most Canada-born-Chinese (CBC) don't know about the atrocities committed by the WW2 Japanese Imperial Army. In fact, when I told a friend (a CBC) about the Nanking Massacre, he thought I made it up. I'm quite impressed that you know the details and dug deeper than most people.

And I agree that most Westerners have absolutely no idea what the WW2 Japanese forces did in Asia. When they hear Chinese people in China riot on these issues, some Westerners actually think the Chinese are just being unreasonable and barbaric. I don't blame them though, because China doesn't really conjure a positive image or appeal to Western society - its communism roots, oppression of its people, etc.

You may have heard of Japan's controversial shrine -Yasukuni Shrine, already. It's not even a memorial. It's where they worship Class A War Criminals. High-ranking government officials like cabinet ministers, and even their Prime Minister, still went and worshiped the war criminals in this shrine. How outrageous is that?

That is analogous to openly worshiping Hitler. In Germany and in many other countries, that would be a serious hate crime, and there would definitely be a public outcry.

I think Japan has managed to dodge WW2 responsibilities for so long because many of the affected countries like China and S. Korea have not rise to prominence on international stage until now. Like you said, Japan successfully painted herself as a victim of the war, often through the Hiroshima Atomic Bombing, to separate itself from the former Imperial past. And that's what they write in their textbooks. They do not mention the atrocities the Imperial Army committed, and sometimes twist the details, and played with words to justify and glorify what they did in WW2.

In the end, it's all just a game of politics. Like you mentioned, some WW2 Japanese scientists probably escaped war trials by exchanging important research findings. In fact in recent years, the Chinese government has actually tried to play down the WW2 issues because of its increasing economic business/ trading ties with Japan. Certainly, people should look forward and not become trapped in the past, but this piece of history needs to be addressed; otherwise, how do we give justice to those who died and how would we know whether they have really moved on from their militaristic past.

You wrote a good article and I do hope you post it up in the future.

yubin said...

I have to admit...
I thought that the Koreans were the main victims of war crime by the Japanese.. but I was very wrong!
I guess I feel a sense of... how would you say it..... comfort? ..
not that the Chinese people had to suffer as well!! but that... we were not alone.
But a lot more than that..I am more outraged and disgusted that the Japanese carried out such horrendous acts on a greater scale than I previously knew!!!

I once read a book about a girl during WWII and during the Japanese invasion of Korea.. and I remember being OUTRAGED by the events that happened to the Korean women. I will not mention exactly what they did because it will just make me more angry.

I truly believe that it is our responsibility and our right to remember the victims and to bring to light the unspoken and forgotten war crimes that had such a terrible impact on our nation.

Thank you so much for this article.