Two unrelated news stories that have been gathering momentum in the United States in the past few weeks have focused attention all over again on the touchy issue of old crimes and delayed punishments. The conflicts involved are not novel — they surfaced as recently as last year, when Spain attempted to extradite former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet and in the ongoing debate over whether to prosecute ex-Khmer Rouge guerrillas for crimes against humanity — but every new story puts its own twist on them. Is justice sometimes better served by forgiveness than retribution? When is it fitting to remember, and when is it better to forget? One of the stories, moreover, brings these issues sharply home to Japan.

The first concerns the controversy provoked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ stated intention of presenting a special Oscar this month to the ailing 89-year-old film director Elia Kazan “for his body of work.” Nobody denies that Mr. Kazan’s work, which includes the classics “On the Waterfront” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” warrants such an honor. Many, however, object to the planned accolade on the grounds of Mr. Kazan’s cooperation with the McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee, to which, in 1952, he denounced eight of his colleagues as one-time Communists. Mr. Kazan has long refused to apologize to those who were blacklisted and saw their careers derailed at least partly on the basis of his testimony. For this reason, as much as anything, he has consistently been denied the industry honors that would otherwise have gone long ago to a filmmaker of his stature.

The other story concerns some old men in Japan whom the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations has been trying to confirm as war criminals for two years now — stymied, it says, by the Japanese government’s failure to provide or even corroborate information. In line with its longtime policy of identifying Nazi war criminals so as to bar their entry to the U.S., in 1996 the OSI added to its list the names of scores of Japanese suspected of participating in atrocities during World War II (but why did it wait so long?). Last December, OSI Director Eli Rosenbaum publicly vented his frustration over Japan’s refusal to cooperate, even to the limited and routine extent of confirming birth dates, and compared this country’s attitude unfavorably to that of Germany.

The Japanese government has not responded directly to Mr. Rosenbaum’s charges, which he repeated last month, although it has never challenged America’s right to trace or bar suspected war criminals. However, government officials have reportedly expressed concern about the adequacy of extant documents as a basis for determining guilt and about the government’s legal liability if privacy rights are violated. The U.S. media are having none of that. The dispute has only added to the perception (fueled separately by Ms. Iris Chang’s best-selling 1997 book “The Rape of Nanking”) that Japan remains unrepentant and evasive about its wartime past under pressure from rightwing militarists. Such suspicions are the last thing this country needs, given the extent to which its recent record of apologies, textbook revisions and privately funded compensation programs has been underreported and its motives consistently impugned overseas. But that does not mean it is necessarily wrong to resist the U.S. requests.

The key question here is the same as in the case of Mr. Kazan’s Oscar (although the offenses involved are not remotely equivalent). What good is served by linking the present treatment of individuals to deeds committed half a century ago, far too late to redeem? Mr. Kazan’s case is relatively straightforward. He is not being rewarded for ratting on his friends; he is being rewarded, despite having ratted on his friends, for making great films. To ignore his achievements at this late date redresses no wrongs and perpetuates ancient antagonisms. The matter of Japan’s war criminals is more complicated, because the deeds are so much more heinous, but again it is fair to ask: What is the point of tracking people down unless there is a chance of trying them, as in the cases of Spain and Gen. Pinochet or a world court and the Khmer Rouge? In view of the ill will already generated, it might be politic for the Japanese government to cooperate in the OSI’s quest, but by the same token it might be politic for the OSI to simply drop it.

These are old men. They will soon be dead. In the meantime, they must live with themselves. One former Japanese soldier who admitted murdering over 100 Chinese civilians during the war told an interviewer in 1997, “I may try to forget, but what I did is so horrible. Inside, we can’t forget.” Those who hunger to name names and exact extrajudicial punishment perhaps forget the punishing power of bad dreams.

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