Dear Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama,
You have repeatedly emphasized the need for the creation of an East Asian community. You wrote in the New York Times in August: “The East Asian region, which is showing increasing vitality, must be recognized as Japan’s basic sphere of being. So we must continue to build frameworks for stable economic cooperation and security across the region.”
While I could not agree more with your sentiments, all of us who are acquainted with Japan’s modern history are well aware of this country’s troubled past with its Asian neighbors, most especially China and Korea. You, of course, are well aware of this legacy, for you wrote: “Due to historical and cultural conflicts as well as conflicting national security interests, we must recognize that there are numerous difficult political issues.” However, you then added: “The more these problems are discussed bilaterally, the greater the risk that emotions become inflamed and nationalism intensified.”
Although intractable problems like territorial disputes may best be settled in a multinational framework, I suggest that some events in a nation’s history are so traumatic that they need to be addressed directly by the parties involved.
In Japan’s case, for example, the atomic bombings of two predominantly civilian-populated cities remain, 60 years later, seared in the nation’s memory. Those events were behind the widespread hope that U.S. President Barack Obama would visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki during his recent visit to Japan.
In China’s case there is one incident that, more than any other, symbolizes its unhappy relationship with Japan in the 20th century: That which the world knows as the December 1937 Rape of Nanjing.
Needless to say, the exact nature and scale of what occurred at Nanjing remains a matter of acrimonious debate, especially in Japan. Yet, when one reads the words of Commanding Gen.Iwane Matsui, spoken shortly before his execution as a war criminal, there can be no doubt that something horrific occurred. “I am deeply ashamed of the Nanjing Incident,” Iwane said. “I told (my staff) that the enhancement of Imperial prestige we had accomplished had been debased in a single stroke by the riotous conduct of the troops.”
No doubt some in Japan would claim there is no need to further address the past, pointing to the numerous statements of war apology made by Japan’s various postwar leaders, most especially that of former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on Aug. 15, 1995. Yet, only two years later, on Aug. 28, 1997, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto acknowledged: “We must continue our persistent efforts so that China and the other nations of Asia have no reason to doubt us.”
It is in this spirit that I ask you to consider making a personal trip to Nanjing to pay your respects, on behalf of the Japanese people, to those many Chinese who were so brutally and needlessly killed. The power of your physical presence will make a far more powerful statement than mere words can ever convey. Should there be any doubt, one only has to recall the impact made by then German Chancellor Willy Brandt when, during a 1970 visit to Poland, he silently knelt in front of the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943.
Finally, should you wonder why I, an American, make this proposal, the reason is that as a convert to the Soto Zen school of Buddhism, my spiritual life has been deeply enriched by a tradition that was born and nurtured in both China and Japan. Hence, acknowledging the debt of gratitude I owe both peoples, I cannot but wish for their mutual happiness and welfare. Questions of economic benefit notwithstanding, this cannot be accomplished in the absence of a heartfelt reconciliation between these two great peoples.
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