LONDON — I regard myself as a friend of Japan, not least because I have many Japanese friends and appreciate Japanese arts and culture, but this does not mean that I can look at Japanese history through rose-tinted spectacles.
Arguments about the role of the Showa Emperor in World War II will continue. Was he, as some honestly believe, attempting to act as a constitutional monarch and thus did not feel able to take steps to prevent the war or end it earlier than August 1945? Or was he, as others allege, a willing accomplice in the launching of an aggressive war who condoned atrocities committed in his name?
I don’t think the evidence of his responsibility is conclusive. Perhaps if he had been a more decisive character, the outcome might have been different, but it could also be argued that if he had attempted to stop the militarists he would have been quietly removed and a more amenable monarch installed.
The controversy over the Emperor’s role is, however, quite different from the attempts of Japanese revisionists (I won’t dignify them with the title of historians) to deny facts of modern history. There can be arguments over the number of victims of the Nanjing massacre, but there is overwhelming evidence — not merely from Chinese sources — that atrocities were committed by Japanese forces when the city was taken.
There can be arguments about the events that led up to the Japanese occupation of Korea, but the misgovernment of the Korean kingdom before the Japanese takeover was not a sufficient excuse for the Japanese to turn a country with a long history and unique culture into a Japanese colony.
There can still be debate about the events leading up to the Japanese takeover of Manchuria, but the suggestion apparently made recently by a senior Japanese politician at Oxford that the Japanese occupation responded to the wishes of the people of Manchuria is not in accordance with the known facts.
The argument that Japanese aggression in Southeast Asia was justified by the fact that the Japanese occupation facilitated the end of Western colonialism is at best an extraordinary oversimplification and disguises some terrible episodes. When the Japanese occupied Singapore in early 1942, Japanese armed forces not only humiliated the British but committed a series of atrocities on the Chinese population that, as I know from being in Singapore after the war’s end, led to very strong anti-Japanese feelings. I will not comment on what happened in the Philippines and in Indonesia.
I welcome the steps that have been taken toward reconciliation through such organizations as the Burma Campaign Fellowship and realize that few events can be interpreted in black and white. Of course, many members of the Japanese forces behaved well and honorably, but the memories of the sufferings of prisoners of war held by the Japanese have not been erased in Britain. The vast majority of former POWs are now at least 80 or have passed away. The revisionist claim that the war crimes trials in Singapore, Manila and elsewhere produced “victors’ justice” does not reflect the actual evidence against Japanese accused of war crimes.
To allege that “comfort women” provided for Japanese forces were voluntary prostitutes is a perversion of the facts. To deny that biological experiments were conducted on prisoners on the grounds that those responsible were not brought to trial is wishful thinking.
No one with any knowledge of history in Britain would deny that appalling atrocities were committed against the Chinese people by the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong, whose monstrous cruelty has increasingly been revealed, but these do not justify Japanese wartime actions in China.
It is against this background that we need to look at the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. We need to consider these visits in light of the history and nature of the shrine.
A recent article by John Breen, a scholar of Japanese religions at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) entitled “Yasukuni Shrine Ritual and Memory” (Znet and Japan Focus) provides a valuable summary. We need to bear in mind that Yasukuni has close Imperial connections and was a key element in State Shinto, a situation that provided much of the ethos for prewar Japanese militarism. The shrine is not just a memorial to the war dead including those condemned in the controversial Tokyo war-crimes trials. It also houses a war museum, the Yushukan, which is an integral part of the shrine.
There is, of course, no reason why Japan should not have a war museum as other countries (victors and vanquished do), but the Yushukan is rather different from, for instance, the Imperial War Museum in London in that it does not contain anything about Japan’s enemies. The steam engine at the entrance to the museum was used on the Burma-Siam railway, and the plaque notes that “the building of the railway was difficult in the extreme.” As Breen points out, nothing is said of the fact that building the railway entailed the deaths of some 90,000 prisoners of war and local laborers, as well as many Japanese. Nothing indeed is said of the peoples conquered in the war; the picture is instead of a “glorious war of liberation.”
According to Breen, the only part of Yasukuni dedicated to all the war dead regardless of nationality is a small za (seat for kami) within the Chinreisha (spirit pacifying shrine), which was built within the precincts of Yasukuni in 1965 but which is secluded from view by a steel fence. Although I lived for many years not far from Yasukuni and used to walk there frequently, I was unaware of the existence of the Chinreisha until I read Breen’s article.
Koizumi and other nationalists in the Liberal Democratic Party would be wise to disassociate themselves from Japanese revisionists who are trying to pervert facts of history and instead concentrate on the real contribution that Japan can make to peace and prosperity in Asia and the rest of the world. If Koizumi is not prepared to lose face by stopping his provocative visits to Yasukuni, why does he not call publicly at the za in the Chinreisha and offer a prayer for the souls of the war dead of other countries, too?
Why also does he not challenge Yasukuni authorities to ensure that the Yushukan gives an objective picture of the war that caused such untold suffering in Asia and Japan? Where are Japan’s innumerable civilian casualties commemorated? Surely he should pray for them as well as for those who died fighting? Their sacrifice and sufferings were just as significant.