Ben Hills

That these falsehoods about Japan’s wartime role persist can be blamed on the lamentable state of historical scholarship. Fifty years on, Japan still lives in a fantasy world of denial and disbelief about its past, raising doubts that it is ready to deal with the future, writes Ben Hills in Tokyo. 

Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present.

Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to risks of new infection.” Thus the West German President, Mr Richard von Weizsacker, in his historic speech to the Bundestag in 1985, acknowledged Germany’s war guilt and begged forgiveness for the millions killed in World War II.

For almost half a century, beginning with the catharsis of the Nuremberg war crimes trials, Germany has been remembering, apologising to and compensating those who died on the battlefields, in air raids on civilian cities, and in the death ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

But imagine a country equally responsible for a war in which upwards of 20 million people were killed, whose armies committed atrocities of the nature of Hitler’s “final solution” – and yet which 50 years on is still living in a fantasy world of denial and disbelief.

Imagine a country where Adolf Hitler never died, but lived on to a ripe old age, stripped of his absolute powers but still worshipped by his people.

Imagine a country where schoolchildren still line up each morning to salute the swastika, and sing the anthem of the Hitler Youth. Imagine a country where Government ministers regularly pronounce that Auschwitz never happened, and the invasion of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Holland and France was really aimed at “liberating” those countries.

Unimaginably monstrous? On the other side of the globe from Germany exists just such a country. Its name is Japan, and the time is 1994.

Substitute the wartime Emperor Hirohito for Hitler, the rising sun flag for the swastika, and the kimigayo (literally “his majesty’s reign”) anthem and you have the imperial symbols of the Japanese Reich in whose name the war was fought. Nearly 50 years after Germany purged itself of Nazism, the “Emperor System”, as its critics call it, is alive and well in Japan.

Liberation mythology? In August, a senior minister in the Murayama Cabinet was sacked after claiming Japan invaded its Asian neighbors only to free them from colonial rule. This came as a considerable surprise to the citizens of Korea, among other countries, who were not aware of having been anyone’s colony until the Japanese arrived.

Auschwitz? Just three months earlier, another minister was booted out for declaring that the Rape of Nanking was a “fabrication”. It was, in fact, as every non-Japanese history book records, Japan’s most terrible wartime atrocity, in which, according to the Allied War Crimes Tribunal, 200,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed in a systematic, cold-blooded, massacre that lasted several weeks from December 1937.

These are not isolated incidents involving ultranationalist loony loudmouths with little public credibility. Both ex-ministers are mainstream conservatives from the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan for most of its postwar history.

The views they were foolish enough to pronounce aloud are merely those privately held by many Japanese. From the ornate chambers of the Diet (Parliament) to museum collections, from kamikaze-idolising movies to high-school history texts and the shrines of the Shinto religion which sanctified the war, Japan still suffers from a collective self- delusion about its role in the “Great East Asia War” of 1931-1945.

Now, with the 50th anniversary of Japan’s defeat approaching, is an appropriate time to ask whether a country that refuses to acknowledge its past is ready for the international responsibilities of the future which its bureaucrats crave.

This anniversary coincides with Japan seeking a seat on the United Nations Security Council and with its mighty military flexing its muscles on its first overseas missions since the war.

Ian Buruma, author of The Wages of Guilt – Memories of War in Germany and Japan, attempts to explain this enigma – Japan’s denial, Germany’s atonement for its war guilt – by searching for the causes deep within the countries’ psyches. In the process he embarks on a deeply disturbing journey from Auschwitz to Nanking, from Nuremberg to Hiroshima.

The similarities between the two nations at war are striking.

Both were possessed of a sense of their racial superiority, divine mission and military invincibility. Both were led by military dictators who dreamt of global empire.

The differences between the two countries at peace are equally dramatic, due initially (Mr Buruma argues) to the vastly different way in which the Allies treated their vanquished foes. In Germany, those judged war criminals were executed or jailed in their hundreds, the great wartime corporations were dismantled, public office was purged in a ruthless de-Nazification drive.

In Japan, the Americans, fearful of social collapse and anxious to build a bulwark against the advances of communism on the Asian mainland, made a decision that would have been unthinkable in Europe – to restore to his throne the man in whose name the war had been fought.

It was a decision that was vigorously opposed by the Australians, who were aware more than most of the horrors of Changi, Sandakan and the Burma Railway; and it is a decision the subsequent 50 years have failed to clearly vindicate. Many argue that the world’s war wounds would have healed more quickly and more cleanly if Hirohito had been made to accept his moral responsibility and commit seppuku (ritual suicide) like so many of his soldiers or, at the very least, resign.

A dozen times since I have been in Japan, people of that war-time generation have justified anything, and everything, done during the war by saying: “How can you say Japan did wrong? It was all done in the Emperor’s name, and he was not punished. We just obeyed his orders.” Nor were significant numbers of Hirohito’s generals and ministers convicted at the Tokyo war-crimes trials. Twenty-eight “class A” war criminals were eventually placed on trial, and just seven of them were hanged at Sugamo Jail.

There can be no more poignant irony than the fact that at precisely the time, in 1960, that Adolf Eichmann was in the dock in Jerusalem for the crimes for which he was subsequently executed, a man called Nobusuke Kishi was serving as Prime Minister of Japan. Kishi, a wartime vice-minister of munitions, was arrested as a class A war criminal, but released after just a couple of years in prison.

As with the politicians, so with the bureaucrats and the businessmen.

Sheldon Harris, the author of Factories of Death – Japanese Biological Warfare 1932-1945 and the American Cover-Up, has described the deal with the devil that the Americans did after the war to protect the perpetrators of Unit 731, the horrific death factory in Manchuria where Japanese doctors murdered thousands of Chinese civilians in germ-warfare experiments.

In exchange for the records of these experiments the Americans agreed to indemnify the commander, General Shiro Ishii, against prosecution.

The records turned up recently in US archives in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

That these falsehoods and fantasies about Japan’s wartime role persist down to the third postwar generation can also be blamed on the lamentable state of historical scholarship in Japan. History is not highly regarded in academic circles and is rigorously bowdlerised by Education Ministry bureaucrats, whose red pencils turn atrocities into “incidents”, invasions into “advances”.

Sometimes, these attempts by the goyo gakusha (“official scholars”) to sanitise the war degenerate into farce. Just last year, for instance, while a senior official of the Foreign Affairs Department was hotly denying that there was any evidence that Unit 731 had even existed, an exhibition showing photographs, models, and official records was being conducted around Japan by several veterans of the unit.

Adding immensely to the secrecy that still surrounds the war is the fact that so much of the evidence was destroyed. What little survived is hidden in Government archives, presumably forever. In popular culture, as well, there is a pervasive sanitisation that rarely allows even a pale pastiche of the truth to escape.

The images of war that generations of Japanese have been brought up on are those of the heroic young pilot, ready to fall like a cherry blossom in the service of his emperor.

They do not, as a rule, show scenes such as the “terror bombing” of Shanghai, the first time outside Europe that a civilian population had been attacked from the air.

As for Japan’s politicians, at the pace things are moving it could well be the 100th anniversary of the end of the war, rather than the 50th, before the Diet is ready to listen to a speech such as that by Mr von Weizsacker, pass a resolution atoning for its wartime actions, and compensate the surviving victims.

It was only last year, 48 years after the end of the war, that Mr Morihiro Hosokawa became the first Japanese Prime Minister to apologise for the “war of aggression and a wrong war”. A right-wing activist later tried to shoot him for this obvious statement.

Compensation, which long ago ceased to be an issue for the Germans, still embroils Japan all around Asia. The survivors of millions of civilians enslaved, transported, robbed, raped and killed by the Japanese are still being rebuffed in their demands for old wrongs to be righted.

Officially, the Japanese Government says it settled all outstanding claims with reparations agreed to under the Treaty of San Francisco.

In private, Japanese sources say, absurdly, that the Health and Welfare Ministry does not have enough money to satisfy all the claims that might be made. One indignantly told me “They (the slave prostitutes) got paid once – now they want us to pay them a second time.” The comparison between Germany’s war reparations and Japan’s looks like a fair measure of the degree of responsibility accepted. Germany has already paid out $A92 billion in compensation, with another $A36 billion to come in pensions and the like. Japan’s victims received one 40th of this amount, $A3.3 billion – and no one gets a pension.

Even 50 years after the war it would be unthinkable for Japanese soldiers to be allowed to march through Tiananmen Square – as German soldiers drove down the Champs Elysees last summer in commemoration of France’s liberation.

A few nights ago, on television, I watched some young German soldiers laying wreaths at Auschwitz. Some of them were openly weeping as they stood in front of the “death wall” where so many innocent civilians, a million and a half of them, were put to death.

I wondered as I watched this whether Japan would be truly trusted again, would be ready to play a part in the security and governance of the world commensurate with its economic might, until some young Japanese soldiers – and politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen – lay wreaths and weep at the memorials to the dead of Nanking.

Publishing Info

Pub: The Age
Pub date: Tuesday 4 October 1994
Edition: Late
Section: News
Sub section: Features
Page: 13
Word count: 2079
Keywords: World War 2 book review
The Wages of Guilt – Memories of War in Germany and Japan, by Ian Buruma, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Factories of Death – Japanese biological warfare 1932-1945 and the American cover-up, by Sheldon Harris, published by Routledge.