Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire: Unknown Histories, edited by Paul Kratoksa. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2006, 440 pp., $35 (paper)

The Japanese and Chinese governments have announced plans to come up with a mutually acceptable shared history. Prime Minister Shintaro Abe recognizes that the bilateral relationship is far too important to hold hostage to history, and is eager to climb out of the deep hole his predecessor dug at Yasukuni. He hopes that this initiative will finally enable Japan to bury a past that remains divisive both in the region and at home.

Alas, Japan still has so much to come to terms with that the 2008 deadline is hardly encouraging. Yet again, Japan seems to want to hastily bury an under-examined past, ensuring that its first half of the 20th century will remain polarizing in the 21st century. The road map to historical reconciliation can not be drawn according to politically driven timetables.

For a majority of Japanese, owning up to the atrocities and excesses of Imperial Japan is not a problem. Unfortunately, Japan’s conservative leaders and Dr. Feelgoods of history have made this a problem by justifying, denying, minimizing, mitigating or otherwise shifting responsibility for a past they find inconvenient and shameful. In their view, the purpose of history is to instill a pride in nation, meaning that the bad bits must be sanitized or airbrushed out of the narrative.

Many Japanese believe that such a dumbing-down of history only compounds Japan’s shame, prevents reconciliation with victims of Japanese aggression and deprives students the opportunity to learn the lessons of history and folly of untethered patriotism.

The myth of Pan Asian solidarity linking Japan and its fellow Asians is demolished by the 17 essays in this volume. Japanese conservatives often invoke a romanticized version of Pan Asian liberation in order to portray the 1931-1945 rampage through Asia as a selfless and noble effort to lift the yoke of Western imperialism.

This vindicating narrative of Pan Asian liberation is a cruel joke. Here we listen to the voices of the enslaved, starved, tortured and imprisoned who came to work for the Japanese as they tried to build their empire. The archival details, diaries and interviews present a grim and compelling story demonstrating that Japan was unsurpassed by the colonial powers in brutality, hubris and world-class bungling.

Knowledge among Japanese about wartime forced labor is sketchy and thus it might come as some surprise that there are five chapters on Indonesia. Shigeru Sato estimates that between 1942-45 as many as 10 million Javanese worked under dreadful conditions as romusha (Indonesian forced laborers) throughout the archipelago. Many, probably over 1 million and perhaps as many as 2 million, died of disease, malnutrition, brutal work and limited medical care.

Of the 300,000 romusha sent overseas, the death rate was 75 percent. Sato and his colleagues demonstrate that so much was sacrificed for so little, as the various projects employing the romusha were poorly planned and woefully implemented by Japanese officers who proved more incompetent than cruel. Remco Raben writes, “The years of Japanese rule in Indonesia are primarily remembered as a time of massive enslavement and hardship.”

Hisako Naitou examines Korean forced labor and the conditions and policies that compelled so many to work in Japanese mines and factories. She relates an incident where Koreans refused to work, complaining that they did not have enough to eat. All of them were savagely beaten to death with batons and boots. At the end of the war, very few of the companies that had used conscripted labor from Korea provided help with repatriation and many did not pay wages owed. Such abandonment was the norm throughout Asia.

Kaori Maekawa explains the need to mobilize Asian workers, “As a result of the prolonged Sino-Japanese War and the extension of the conflict to Southeast Asia, as many as 7 million men had been mobilized to serve in the Japanese army, a figure that exceeded the number considered sustainable given the concurrent need for manpower to serve in defense industries and to produce consumer goods.” However, Japan was unable to mobilize sufficient labor and wasted much of it through gross inefficiency.

Although Japan promoted its nascent empire as a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, Shigeru Sato argues that blunders and military setbacks ensured that “the co-prosperity sphere was a co-misery sphere.” Japan’s invasion of colonized Southeast Asia devastated local economies and disrupted essential supply and transportation networks, predictable consequences for which there had been no planning.

The system of military sexual slavery involving some 200,000 young women, mostly Koreans, further demonstrates the Imperial armed forces’ callous disregard for fellow Asians. Here Chin-Sung Chung examines this unresolved legacy in terms of gender, race and class discrimination, expressing pessimism about the prospects for resolution.

This is an important book with excellent chapters on Manchuria and North China that merit careful study by the Sino-Japanese panels charged with creating a history that will promote reconciliation.

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