The Asia-Pacific war began in 1937. It became part of World War II, as Japan was Nazi Germany’s ally. In Asia, Japan was the aggressor and China the initial battlefield.
The Japanese leaders believed that Japanese were superior to other races and sought hegemony in Asia. Genocide was not one of their war aims. But the brutalities committed by members of the Imperial Japanese armed forces in China and Southeast Asia as well as against Allied prisoners of war were horrific war crimes. Japanese attacks on the Americans at Pearl Harbor and on the British in Malaya were carried out without warning before war was declared. They were seen in America especially as Japanese treachery.
The fight against Japanese aggression was a just war for many other cogent reasons. The facts about the conduct of Imperial Japanese armed forces in China are set out objectively on the basis of detailed research in “China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: the Struggle for Survival,” by Rana Mitter, director of the China Institute at Oxford.
Mitter is critical of both the Chinese Nationalists and Communists as well as of the Americans and the British in China, but he describes Japanese behavior as “inexcusable” not only in the Nanjing massacre but also in many other incidents in Japanese-occupied China. He notes that the relentless Japanese air attacks on Chonqing led to an appalling loss of life and long predated the Allied use of saturation bombing of civilian targets in Japan.
Anyone who doubts the extent of war crimes committed in China by members of the Imperial Japanese armed forces should also read “Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice” by Barak Kushner, an American historian working at Cambridge University
The Communist regime in China suppresses democratic movements, flouts human rights and has been responsible for countless deaths through persecution and famine. These facts in no way justify war crimes by members of the Imperial Japanese armed forces, as some Japanese historical revisionists seem to argue. Two wrongs do not make a right.
The crimes committed in Manchuria by Unit 731 can never be forgotten, even if, with the connivance of American authorities, who wanted to get their hands on the results, the crimes committed went largely unpunished. Unit 731 was a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army, which undertook lethal human experiments amounting to heinous crimes.
In the territories, which they occupied in Southeast Asia, the Japanese government claimed that it was “liberating” the colonies of European imperialist powers in the name of the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” This was a charade and the occupied territories found that they were exchanging one form of imperialism for another, which was more oppressive and ruthless.
In Japanese-occupied Singapore and other territories, the Military Police Corps (Kempeitai), with the approval of the high command, behaved with particular brutality to the indigenous populations. Some 60,000 British and Australian prisoners of war, together with about 180,000 indigenous forced laborers, were compelled to work in appalling conditions to build the Burma-Siam Railway. Some of the guards (Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese) treated the workers with sadistic brutality.
Americans cannot forget the Bataan Death March of 1942, during which over 10,000 American and many thousand Filipino prisoners of war died. Nor will the population of the Philippines ever erase from their memories the Japanese massacre of civilians in Manila in 1945.
I realize that for many Japanese the events that I have briefly cited are overlaid by their memories of the death and destruction caused in Japan by the United State’s saturation bombing of Japanese cities, and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some see Japan as victims rather than guilty of war crimes.
The Japanese people did become victims, but the responsibility for this rests on the shoulders of Japan’s war leaders. It was clear to former Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe in January 1945 that Japan could not win the war. The Japanese leaders had miscalculated American resolve. The battle for Okinawa had been brutal, and for many Japanese and Okinawans suicidal. If similar battles were to be fought for Kyushu and Honshu Japan would be reduced to rubble and many millions of Japanese and Allied personnel would die.
The Allies, fearful of the huge casualties that would be involved, and believing that an attack on Kyushu or Honshu would trigger a Japanese massacre of Allied prisoners of war who were being forced to work in Japanese mines, hoped that Allied bombing would force Japanese leaders to admit that their gamble on victory had failed.
Unfortunately for Japan, none of Japan’s military commanders had the courage to confess that they had failed. Only after the atomic bombs had been dropped and the number of Japanese dead had escalated was the Emperor and those around him able to force acceptance of Allied terms.
Inability to accept responsibility for failure and an unjustified belief in Japanese uniqueness are sadly qualities that can still be seen in some Japanese people.
I do not defend everything that the Allies did in the war against Japan but I do think that it was a just war.
Japan, having adopted a new democratic Constitution upholding human rights, is a totally different society from that which existed in 1941. Japan has made and will, I hope, continue to make, a significant contribution to culture, science and technology. Japan has established close and friendly relations with Britain and other former enemies.
As we approach the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in East Asia, I hope that the Japanese government, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in particular, will not do anything that might jeopardize these good relationships. Reconciliation efforts have borne fruit, but memories not only in my generation, which is passing away, live on and could easily be reawakened by a Japanese misstatement.
In its Jan. 29 editorial “Tinkering with the War Apology,” The Japan Times urged that Japan uphold the 1995 Murayama statement, pointing out that this “served as the foundation of its postwar relations with other countries.” Yes, indeed.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.