Commentary / Japan

Japan's war crimes, colonialism and apologies

by Kumiharu Shigehara

Contributing Writer

In a recent exchange of opinions that I had with friends that was spurred by the latest developments in Japan-South Korea relations and a recent news report that an attempt by Emperor Showa’s to officially express in 1952 his remorse and regret over World War II was prevented by Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, a Westerner observed that historically Japan has lacked critical self-reflection on its society.

He considered that even the concept of hansei (self-reflection) was about putting all responsibility for an error or incident on one’s self, without even considering and reviewing external factors. He thought that this feature of Japanese culture contributed in no small extent to Japan’s adamant reticence to admit any wrongdoing.

He concluded that this should not stop Westerners from “pushing and prodding” the Japanese into further reflection and that if the Japanese managed to integrate critical thinking on a systemic level into their culture, as a result of Western influence, that would be a very good thing in the long run.

I responded by arguing that Westerners’ pushing and prodding could be counterproductive because it runs the risk of a strong response from Japanese nationalists who not only defend Japan but are also quick to point out the injustice of Western imperialism, and the double standards and inconsistencies in regard to the punishment of war criminals in World War II as well as in subsequent wars and military conflicts.

Westerners’ reflection on their countries’ histories of colonial domination and their apologies for the atrocities committed by the commanders and soldiers of their military forces in WWII and in more recent international conflicts could encourage the Japanese to reflect on Japan’s modern history, which was marred by atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army and colonialism.

I also suggested that not only Japanese people but also Westerners should learn from Allan A. Ryan’s book “Yamashita’s Ghost: War Crimes, MacArthur’s Justice and Command Accountability” (University Press of Kansas, 2012).

Ryan critically examined Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s targeting of a Japanese general after WWII using a hand-picked military commission and disregarding customary rules of evidence to send him to the gallows. The verdict, ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, found Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita accountable for atrocities committed in the Philippines during the closing months of the Pacific War simply because the Japanese troops were nominally under his command.

In his book, Ryan argued that there was no evidence that Yamashita committed crimes or ordered others to do so, was in a position to prevent them or even suspected they were about to happen. This set a far-reaching precedent for command responsibility that has never been undone. American generals, however, were not held to this standard in subsequent wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

While agreeing with the main points of my observations, a German friend of mine argued that an objective and impartial scrutiny of a nation’s past behavior is a sign of national maturity. It should be done independently, regardless of whether other nations do so. When such scrutiny reveals past crimes and atrocities, an unconditional admission and an expression of regret or perhaps an apology could set an example for how to assume responsibility for a nation’s past.

Actually, at the 50th memorial ceremony for the war dead on Aug. 15, 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama stated, “Upon this historic occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end, we should bear in mind that we must look into the past to learn from the lessons of history, and ensure that we do not stray from the path to the peace and prosperity of human society in the future. Building from our deep remorse on this occasion of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, Japan must eliminate self-righteous nationalism, promote international coordination as a responsible member of the international community and, thereby, advance the principles of peace and democracy.”

However, attempts to shy away the spirit of the Murayama Statement have been made strenuously by right-wing political groups with strong influence over a number of Japanese politicians, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This can be clearly detected in the phraseology used in the prime minister’s speeches at the annual memorial ceremonies for the war dead in recent years.

These speeches mark a stark contrast with those of German political leaders. For example, in a speech delivered at the event commemorating the Warsaw Uprising on Aug. 1, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted: “We do not only owe it to the dead to address the past honestly. We also owe it to ourselves, as only by remembering the past together can we pave the way to a future together. That’s why we want to do more to raise awareness in Germany about the Polish victims of the war and to remedy the fact that the Warsaw Uprising is still discussed far too little, particularly in Germany.”

Teaching the correct history of the war and having Japanese people, both young and old, reflect on and understand the atrocities committed by Japan is a basic factor needed to achieve a lasting reconciliation between Japan and the countries where the atrocities were committed.

Likewise, an undertaking of an objective and impartial scrutiny in South Korea of the nation’s past should also help improve the now-difficult relationship between Tokyo and Seoul.

A book titled “Anti-Japanese tribalism: the Root of the Korean Crisis” reportedly became a best-seller in South Korea recently. Authored by South Koreans, including retired Seoul National University economics professor Lee Young-hoon, the book is said to offer alternative explanations about Japan’s colonial rule, and the treatment of wartime laborers and Korean “comfort women” to those that currently prevail in South Korea.

Both Japan and South Korea must aim for objectivity and impartiality in their grasp of their history. As Maas put it, this is the only way to pave the way toward a future together, and there is much more that unites than divides us in this uncertain world.

Kumiharu Shigehara is a former deputy secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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