Curing Japan's collective amnesia for its war crimes

Exit polls during the recent Tokyo governor election showed rising support for the right wing among the young in Japan.

In a stump speech, novelist Naoki Hyakuta, a friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, publicly denied the Rape of Nanjing ever happened.

Speaking for a right-wing candidate favoured by the young, he called it mere "propaganda", and said: "There was no such thing".

While government spokesman and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga dismissed Mr Hyakuta's claims as "personal", China denounced them as "a barefaced challenge to international justice and human conscience".

Indeed, no mainstream historian denies it took place. It is well documented in books like The Rape Of Nanking: An Undeniable History In Photographs by James Yin, Young Shi and Ron Dorfman (1997), for example.

But it was the late journalist Iris Chang who researched and wrote The Rape Of Nanking (1997) who brought the massacre to popular knowledge: Some 260,000 people were killed in the Chinese city of Nanjing over a period of six weeks from December 1937. (Nanjing is hanyu pinyin for Nanking).

Between 20,000 and 80,000 were raped, including those in late pregnancy, the elderly and young girls.

There were live burials, cutting off body parts, freezing people to death or setting attack dogs on them. Babies were impaled on bayonets. Japanese soldiers left food tainted with typhoid and paratyphoid bacteria out in the open for the hungry to eat. They also gave children in Nanjing anthrax-filled chocolates.

Nanjing was no aberration either.

According to another non-fiction book, Death By Government, by Rudolph J. Rummel (1994), more than 2.85 million Chinese civilians died in the war at the hands of Japan's sanko seisaku, or "three-all" policy - kill all, burn all, destroy all. And not one province in China was spared.

Yet, many Japanese today do not seem able to face up to their country's atrocious militarist war record. Mr Abe even wants to rescind past war apologies that his predecessors made.

Whence comes this mindset?

The first reason stems from the fact that many still believe that Japan's soldiers were tried unfairly at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.

In a 2002 Berkeley Journal of International Law study, University of Tokyo law professor Yasuaki Onuma noted that the Tokyo Trials, as they were commonly called, were "not perceived as legitimate among many ordinary Japanese people (because of) the unfair composition of the tribunal and the atomic bombings by the US..."

The Japanese say it was victors' justice dispensed during the occupation under one man, supreme commander of the Allied powers, General Douglas MacArthur, who ruled Japan at the time.

Sitting from May 1946 to November 1948, the Tokyo Trials found 1,068 of Japan's soldiers guilty of war crimes. In 1951, the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed, returning sovereignty to Japan.

The new government was required to execute all its war criminals. But deeply moved by two publications, millions of Japanese petitioned against the executions.

One was a five-volume, pocket-book series called Records Of Historical Truth: The War Trials. Prepared by the prisoners themselves, they detailed illegalities in the trials and alleged that they had been tortured in jail.

The other was Testaments For The Century, a compilation of last wills written by the condemned. This focused on shortcomings in the trial proceedings as well.

Those petitions impelled Tokyo to renegotiate with the Allies and, in August 1953, the Diet, or Japanese Parliament, unanimously amended the law to recognise those who had been executed after the trials as war casualties, not war criminals.

Further amendments in 1954 and 1955 would allow jail time in Allied-controlled prisons to be recognised as time served performing official duties.

Next, all major (Class A) war criminals who were still being held were released in March 1956, while all minor (Class B and Class C) war criminals were freed in May 1958. These revisions confirmed in the popular imagination that the trials did mete out a victor's justice, and that the nation had not really been guilty of war crimes.

The second reason for the failure of many citizens to acknowledge the atrocities committed by Japanese troops is the fact that the trials did not lead to any national introspection.

This primarily had to do with the US' calculated decision to exempt Emperor Hirohito from prosecution. According to historian Herbert Bix's Hirohito And The Making Of Modern Japan, this was to ensure a trouble-free occupation.

In Shinto, Japan's folk religion, the imperial institution sat at the core of a nation regarded as one family (kokotai), with the emperor being divine and infallible.

Holding the emperor responsible for war crimes would deny that divinity. It would also mean that the people who worshipped him had failed to see his fallibility, and so were themselves also responsible.

Thus, to criticise Hirohito would have been to question everyone's self-identity, which Gen MacArthur feared might provoke mass resistance to the occupation.

Excluding Hirohito from liability, on the other hand, would exclude the people from responsibility too. Blame was instead imputed exclusively to Japan's military leaders, headed by General Hideki Tojo, a view that came to be widely accepted.

Hirohito was even made out to be a pacifist coerced by "militarists" to support the war who, eventually, acted heroically on his own to end it all. (After his death, scholarly research proved conclusively that Hirohito had been very intimately involved in war decisions.)

Thus, when the Japanese recall the war years today, what they recall is the people's powerlessness before a government led by militarists. The people were also victims, they feel, embroiled in a war by militarist leaders. So, they think their people were never complicit in any war crime.

A third reason why Japan was not made to confront its war guilt squarely was the US decision, as the Cold War intensified, that Japan was to become an Asian bulwark against communism.

But it was hard to transform Japan into such an ally if investigations and prosecutions of its war crimes were ongoing. Thus, the trials were not allowed to put the full record before the people.

The Rape of Nanjing, biowarfare experimentation in China, vivisection of Filipino prisoners of war and the comfort women issue were all excluded from the evidence. The records of these war crimes exist to this day.

In 1949, Gen MacArthur halted all prosecutions, so the national soul searching which similar trials led to in West Germany failed to happen in Japan.

An amnesia about and denial of its appalling record of war crimes characterise Japan's collective memory.

To cure this malady, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, like that in post-apartheid South Africa, is needed to set the record straight for the Japanese people nearly 70 years after the war ended.

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