The fuss surrounding a recent book by U.S. academic Herbert Bix, “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan,” said to detail for the first time the Showa Emperor’s allegedly close involvement in Japan’s past militarism, seems strange. The critics are making much of Japan’s lack of interest in these revelations.

But David Bergamini’s 1971 book, “Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy,” made many of the same points in great detail. It, too, was largely ignored in Japan.

Should the Japanese show interest when Westerners insist their former leaders were war criminals? The critics compare Japan’s reluctance to admit war guilt with Germany’s willingness to admit past Nazi crimes.

But as many Japanese see it, their nation was not Germany. Initially, Japan was simply trying to carve out an Asian colonial empire to match that of its aggressive Western rivals. Only by accident did it get sucked into China and the atrocities there. This led the United States and other Western powers jealous of Japan’s growing power to try to strangle Japan’s economy, which forced Tokyo into its Pearl Harbor and Pacific War counterattack.

Four years later, Japan surrendered, not because it had done wrong, but because the bravery and sacrifices of its people were no match for the material strength of the U.S.

The Hiroshima victim-complex and the bitterness toward Moscow’s 1945 attack on Japan reflect these attitudes. If, as Tokyo admits officially to pacify the critics, the war was aggressive, then Japan deserved to lose that war and anything done to end it quickly should be welcomed.

But welcome is not a word that comes easily to the lips of most Japanese, particularly where Moscow or Hiroshima are concerned.

But that aside, some Japanese also ask whether the Western critics who ignore not just prewar but even postwar aggression and atrocities by their own nations really have the right to criticize Japan. The Dutch in postwar Indonesia, the French in Indochina and Algeria, and the U.S. and Australia in Indochina all behaved as badly as Japan did in Southeast Asia. None of these governments has shown any great willingness to apologize or make amends. Many of their hardliners still try to justify those brutal involvements.

At the height of the Vietnam War, the then head of the LDP Policy Research Committee, Ohira Masayoshi, said the U.S. was making the same mistakes in Vietnam as Japan had made in China. At the time, Canberra was claiming strong Japanese and other Asian support for Australia’s intervention there, and I arranged for a parliamentary question on notice, quoting Ohira. The Australian government replied that Ohira was not a very important politician in Japan. Soon after he became prime minister, but don’t tell that to Canberra, which has yet to admit it was wrong over Vietnam, not to mention Ohira.

A recent, well-researched BBC documentary on U.S. involvement in El Salvador’s civil war gave irrefutable evidence of atrocities that for sheer horror exceed even what the Japanese military did in China. It seems that in the frequent massacres of El Salvadoran villages in guerrilla territory, it was decided belatedly to begin sparing the lives of very young children because they could be sold into adoption centers at good prices.

Now some U.S. families face the trauma of having to return adoptees claimed by the few surviving guerrilla parents.

The U.S. critics who fuss about alleged human-rights abuses in China or who fret over Japan’s wartime “comfort women” scandal seem about as interested in this story as they were for a long time about past U.S. involvements elsewhere in Latin America where the victims, many young and female, suffered far more than any “comfort woman” or Chinese dissident ever did.

The recent Kosovo elections saw a resounding victory for the moderate ethnic Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova, over the hardline Kosovo Liberation Army leader, Hashim Thaci. But none of our Western policymakers and critics has yet to admit the implications: that if from the start Rugova had not been dismissed by the West as an unrepresentative wimp willing to talk to the demons in Belgrade, a Kosovo compromise could easily have been reached which would have avoided NATO’s 1999 sadistic bombing of Serbia and the deep morass the NATO powers now face in Kosovo.

Life for these bomb-happy people means never having to say sorry, even when one’s side has got it hideously and immorally wrong. Sorry is something the other side has to say, repeatedly.

Japan, too, is still supposed to say sorry, as the Germans have done. But atrocities aside, Japan’s Pacific War was much more similar to Germany’s 1914-18 war than it was to Hitler’s war. And most objective historians now agree that the mistaken attempt to put all the blame on a defeated Germany led inexorably to the rise of Hitler and a nationalistic rightwing determined to get revenge. Could the same happen here?

Glance through the many small-circulation journals put out here by Japan’s noisy ultranationalists and you will find any amount of space devoted to predictable hatreds — China, North Korea, the progressive Japanese media and Japan’s dwindling socialists. But lately you will find almost equal space given to claims of Western iniquity in everything from prewar colonialism and the postwar trials of Japan’s wartime leaders to the recent Asian financial crisis, U.S. inroads to the Japanese economy and the never-ending bias and inaccuracies in U.S. and British media reporting of Japan.

Hiroshima, especially, is supposed to represent the ultimate in racist, white, Anglo-Saxon arrogance against Japan.

In the past, Japan’s ultranationalists were able to exploit real or imagined wrongs against the nation to move a fairly peaceful people into a vicious militarism. The recent scandal involving former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa should remind us again just how close the ultranationalists today are to the centers of conservative power here. More objectivity, by both sides, would seem needed.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.