At the dawn of the new millennium, many nations continue to grapple with the historic and moral implications of World War II. In Berlin, the German government broke ground for a new Holocaust Memorial, and in Stockholm 40 heads of state joined with historians, educators and Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide in an unprecedented display of international solidarity against Nazism and Holocaust denial. Clearly, there is a growing consensus that the civilization of the 21st century can only avoid repeating past errors by confronting history, not burying it. Sadly, there is a different picture as concerns Japanese war crimes of the 1930s and 1940s. Instead of measured and serious historic review, near hysteria is sweeping the ongoing debate over this issue.
Following a period of relative quiet, the subject exploded as a result of several developments, especially Iris Chang’s “The Rape of Nanking,” a book that captured the reading public’s imagination and became an international best seller. But in Japan, nationalists deny that events such as the Nanjing Massacre ever took place, or minimize their horrors to make them appear inconsequential. Others seek to resurrect the reputation of the Showa Emperor and put a rosy gloss on the “liberation” of millions of Asians as a result of Japanese conquest and military occupation. A popular movie proclaims the virtues of Gen. Hideki Tojo. Even ordinary Japanese who are neither rightists nor leftists inadvertently aid the revisionist cause by seeing Japan only as the victim of a nuclear holocaust and not as an aggressor.
In the United States, a recently retired Japanese ambassador added to the controversy. Making himself a partner in the debate over Chang’s book, he let slip that he had contemplated launching a lawsuit, revealing just how little he understood about the country in which he was serving — a country where the First Amendment culture precludes lawsuits over books and ideas.
By contrast, voices raised in moral indignation are heard in the U.S., China and Korea demanding that Japan apologize for its war crimes, asserting that whatever apologies Japan has so far offered are insincere and insufficient. Some of these same voices seek the rewriting of Japanese textbooks to reflect the horrors inflicted on innocent civilians by Imperial Japan’s military government, arguing that information currently available to the Japanese people is inadequate and too vague to be of any value as a moral compass for future generations.
While many thoughtful Japanese grapple with this troubling legacy, others in Japan and beyond seem only too happy to add fuel to the fires of controversy. China all too often uses Nanjing for propaganda value, offending the memory of those who were massacred there as much as do Japanese rightists who deny that Nanjing ever occurred. In a rather sinister development, the former Japanese ambassador to the U.S. points the finger at a Jewish organization for organizing or serving as a catalyst for the various efforts on the part of Chinese and Koreans. The ambassador has asserted that a particular Jewish organization, namely, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is advocating financial restitution for the crimes of Unit 731 when in fact it has sought nothing of the kind.
Others have gone further, alleging the existence of a Jewish conspiracy to attack and humiliate Japan. They argue that now that the Holocaust is history and there are no more Nazis to bring to justice, Jewish organizations need a reason for existing and, therefore, have turned on Japan. The proof for this assertion, they contend, is to be found in the fact that Jews did not until very recently get involved in this fight.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, headquartered in Los Angeles, California, is the only major Jewish organization located on the Pacific Rim. It is also among the largest Jewish membership organization in the world. For the last 15 years, the Wiesenthal Center has been involved in Japan, first, to combat the great number of anti-Jewish books sold there by educating the Japanese public about the perils of antisemitism, and, second, to correct untruths that appear in the Japanese media with regard to the Nazi Holocaust and other aspects of Jewish history. There is a third reason for its involvement, namely, the fight for historic truth and the value of memory.
Other organizations and groups have their reasons, rightly or wrongly, for seeking to call Japan to account, including those that seek monetary reparations for Japan’s World War II-era victims. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has sympathy for some of these groups, but it does not control or seek to control, organize or script their actions. Furthermore, it certainly does not sanction those who, without foundation in history, make claims about Japan’s behavior in WWII or who seek to offend or disparage Japan, the Japanese people or the U.S.-Japan alliance. Its focus is separate and distinct from all the rest: The Simon Wiesenthal Center believes that only full access to all documents from WWII can establish the historic truth and lay the foundation for reconciliation between Japan and its neighbors.
This is the issue that the Simon Wiesenthal Center seeks to bring to the attention of Japan and the U.S.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center advocates the release of all those documents currently in the archives of Japan, the U.S., China and Russia to a panel of distinguished historians assembled in Tokyo with one goal in mind: depoliticizing the search for historic truth. Once this commission completes its work and makes it public, the findings will serve as the basis for new generations to learn the lessons of the past.
The center’s commitment to full historic disclosure also extends to Washington where, in meetings with Attorney General Janet Reno and the Pentagon, it has pressed for the release of all documents relative to war crimes in the Pacific. Among other things, this includes the amnesties granted to Japanese war criminals by U.S. authorities in the postwar years in return for data compiled through heinous and gruesome medical experiments on innocent people. Amnesty was an egregious mistake by the U.S. Historians and the public need to know why amnesty was granted and by whom just as much as they need information about Unit 731 and other facilities that perverted science to engage in experiments on living human beings.
Japanese officials deny that such documents even exist (including protestations that they cannot find people involved in Unit 731), while Washington is slow to act. But too much is at stake to accept these responses. The Jewish experience teaches that memory is the root of redemption, and that forgetfulness is the root of destruction. Memory is beyond politics. The treaty ending hostilities between the U.S and Japan is political. It addresses the question of Japan’s sovereignty, not its responsibility. Memory is the foundation of genuine trust, a question of the future relations of peoples and nations. In the 21st century, thoughtful Japanese of all points of view have two competing models to guide their relations with the Asia-Pacific world.
The first is the German-Jewish model of the postwar era. Germany’s acceptance of moral responsibility for its past slowly but steadily succeeded in normalizing relations with the Jewish world. The other model is characterized by the unresolved tensions between the Turks and Armenians over tragic events that took place in 1915, a relationship that has never healed.
As experts in memory, not conspiracy, the Simon Wiesenthal Center implores Japan to adopt the first model. By moving to heal the wounds that continue to fester among the people of the Asia-Pacific region, Japan will put an end to suspicion and doubt, adding the quality of trust to its other magnificent accomplishments in the postwar world.
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