Taro Aso has a history problem with Australia

by Robyn Lim

When Foreign Minister Taro Aso visited Australia recently, did he know that the father of the Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, had been a Japanese prisoner of war in the notorious Changi jail in Singapore? And if Alexander Downer Sr. had been sent to a certain camp in Kyushu, as some 200 other Australian POWs were, he might have become a slave laborer in the Aso family coal mine.

Aso was in Australia for security talks with his American and Australian counterparts. But can Japan really expect Australia to be a partner in constraining Chinese ambition if Australians think that Japan is becoming more part of the problem than the solution?

Like Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Aso appears to believe that Japan’s history problem is only with China and South Korea. That is untrue. Japan’s history problem is also with other U.S. allies such as Australia and Singapore. And Aso has special problems, since his family has never acknowledged what it did, let alone offered restitution.

The Aso family coal mine enslaved 197 Australian, 101 British and two Dutch POWs. And there were 10,000 Koreans there as well, treated appallingly. If readers wish to see a photograph of Fukuoka POW Branch Camp No 26 at Keisen, which serviced the Aso Kogyo Co.’s Yoshikuma mine, it can be found on the Internet.

Like Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, Aso also has visited Yasukuni Shrine, which served as a spiritual apparatus for Japan’s war mobilization. At the Yushukan there, renovated in 2002, sits one of the engines of the Thai-Burma railway. That is an insult to every Australian.

The death rate among Australians captured by the Japanese was about 30 percent, in comparison with about 2 percent for those captured by Nazi Germany. And in the litany of atrocities inflicted on Australian POWs, the Thai-Burma Railway is almost as notorious as the Sandakan death march of 2,400 Australian prisoners in Sandakan, Borneo, only six survived (because they escaped). None of the 750 British prisoners survived. And one of the Australian victims at Sandakan was the uncle of Paul Keating, Australian prime minister from 1992 to 1996.

Moreover, it is not only Australians who should be outraged by the presence of that engine at Yasukuni. There were more than 600 Americans enslaved on the Thai-Burma railway. They were mostly survivors of the USS Houston, sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942, and an artillery battalion of the Texas National Guard that had been captured in Java.

That might be of considerable interest to the current American ambassador to Japan, who is from Texas. Perhaps Ambassador Tom Schieffer should spend a few hours at Yasukuni with a translator/interpreter. The Yushukan preaches that Japan was “lured into war” by the United States. And that America imposed “victor’s justice” on Japan in 1945. So how can the U.S. hope to build a “normal alliance,” of the kind it has with Britain and Australia, if Japan turns to leaders who subscribe to such views? So far Abe has been able to avoid all questions as to his attitudes. The notorious “kisha” clubs protect him in Japan, and even in the U.S. he has been protected from tough questions.

But in Australia, a rising generation is reading about the Pacific War. For example, a spate of new books has been published on the Kokoda Track, in which raw Australian conscripts fought the cream of the Imperial Japanese Army in New Guinea. So a new generation is reading about the atrocities inflicted on Australian soldiers and civilians, including children and missionaries. Yet at Yasukuni, there is a memorial to the “brave Japanese soldiers” who fought “to the north of Australia.”

Aso and Abe are both contenders to succeed Koizumi, although Abe is much more likely to win. But if either becomes prime minister, and continues to visit Yasukuni, he should not be surprised if Japan starts to have a big “history problem” with Australia. The Cold War is over. Australians no longer need to turn a blind eye to the fact that Japan has, unlike Germany, proved unable to settle the issues of World War II. So the LDP should think very carefully indeed when it decides on Koizumi’s successor.