NEW YORK — The world’s attention is now on President Barack Obama to see if he can rebuild America’s democratic and moral leadership in a world that “Bush America” has weakened. After World War II, under the United States-led occupation, Germany and Japan wholeheartedly embraced America’s tutelage on democratic reforms and the renouncement of jingoistic aggressions abroad.
America was rather free of war atrocities. Roosevelt-Truman’s America offered an attractive example of democracy. Germany has since continued to atone for its Nazi past and crimes. German schools continue to teach new generations so that Germany will not repeat the Nazi horrors. Accordingly, Germany has become a trusted member of the new Europe.
In the Asia-Pacific, however, Japan has for some time weakened her democracy and has abandoned atonement for World War II atrocities. The government has increasingly erased them from school textbooks so that, today, few Japanese under 40 years old even know about Japan’s Pacific war with the U.S. and Imperial Japan’s brutal occupations of China, Korea and other Asian neighbors. Japan’s Asian neighbors have become increasingly suspicious of an unrepentant Japan. This is hurting America’s diplomatic effort to confront North Korea’s nuclear threats.
To rebuild moral leadership in the world, “Obama America” is expected to properly acknowledge the illegal and immoral torture of prisoners of the “war on terror” that the Bush administration routinely committed inside and outside the U.S. and then lied about to the American public. If America doesn’t own up to its sordid violations of the Geneva Convention, the world will remain suspicious of America. Muslim and other anti-American forces will continue to have a field day with their anti-American propaganda.
Unfortunately, Obama hesitates to have an independent “truth commission” investigate the torture crimes of Bush America. “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past,” he declared. In reality, to investigate and acknowledge Bush America’s tortures is not to “lay blame for the past,” but to cleanse America’s conscience.
Obama’s demurrer has come on the heels of his lukewarm stance on the investigation of the Wall Street fiasco that has led to the global economic crisis. Obama is seen as succumbing to Wall Street’s desire to cover up its greed and fraud. Nothing less than American capitalism is on trial. In rebuilding both economic and political leadership in the world, Obama is repeating the folly of Prime Minister Taro Aso of Japan.
In mid-April, just prior to his visit to China to seek a joint solution to North Korea’s nuclear threats, Prime Minister Aso enraged China and South Korea by reminding them of Japan’s persistent denial of her World War II responsibilities and wartime atrocities. Ignoring Chinese and Korean demands to desist, Aso made an official offering of a “potted sacred tree” to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. In 1978, the Japanese government permitted the shrine to consecrate 14 “Class A” war criminals, including Hideki Tojo, who were executed by the Far East Tribunal conducted by U.S.-led occupation forces.
The consecration could be likened to a German Neo-Nazi group’s building a monument to Adolf Hitler and his henchmen with government assistance. Ever since then, Yasukuni Shrine has become a symbol of Japan’s denial of its wartime responsibilities and atrocities.
In 2001, President George W. Bush was eager to secure Japan’s complicity in invading Iraq and thus remained silent about then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s defiant, worshipful visit to the shrine. The ruling conservative party and its rightwing supporters have since become bolder in trying to publicly whitewash Imperial Japan’s war responsibilities and atrocities.
Japan has dismissed Asian neighbors’ protests by saying to the effect that “America has not complained.” This has hurt America’s moral leadership in the Asia-Pacific. President Bush’s wrecking of U.S. democracy and his unilateral invasion of Iraq and torture of prisoners have compounded America’s loss of moral and political influence in the world.
Last year, the U.S. regained the world’s trust by electing Obama as president. Including the democratic forces of Japan, the world expects Obama to make a clean break with the failed domestic and foreign policies of Bush America. They were particularly dismayed by the Bush administration’s acceptance of torture against war prisoners and conservative Japanese prime ministers’ increasingly bold denials of Japan’s World War II responsibilities and atrocities.
Yasukuni Shrine propagates the idea that Japan’s “Great East Asia War” was a war of self-defense that was necessary to secure its existence. Some ruling party politicians now defiantly reject the legitimacy of the Far East Tribunal, which was equivalent to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
It is the responsibility of Japan to continue acknowledging openly her wartime responsibilities and to atone for them to prevent future generations from repeating such folly.
Unfortunately for Japan, however, Prime Minister Aso’s self-serving amnesia is now fueled by President Obama’s apparent efforts to cover up Bush America’s war crimes.
Yoshi Tsurumi is professor of international business at Baruch College, the City University of New York.
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