How Japanese 'Reflect,' Not Apologize, on WWII

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

LAST week, the lower house of Japan's parliament passed a resolution promising national self-reflection about the country's war record - avoiding a direct apology.

So how come the top three fiction bestsellers at a leading Tokyo bookstore are military novels about victorious Japanese troops? And how come 17 of the country's 47 prefectural assemblies have passed resolutions that nobly eulogize Japan's war dead? And what is Japan's version of Oliver Stone going to come up with to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II?

The easiest question to answer is the last. No filmmaker here makes mass-market movies about war that plow through the national conscience in the way that Mr. Stone's "Platoon" exhumed the American experience in Vietnam. The first two questions are a little trickier, because they address Japan's difficulty in what is known here as "facing history."

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Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama claimed victory when the resolution passed on Friday, but it may well cause more problems than it solves. For one thing, the maneuvering around the resolution's passage has been embarrassingly controversial - opposition politicians yesterday introduced a no-confidence measure over the issue, although analysts did not expect it to topple the government.

Even Mr. Murayama's coalition government was divided over the issue, because the coalition includes conservatives who refuse to sanction any official apology for the war. Their objection stems from two considerations: One is that many Japanese feel an apology would dishonor the country's war dead, whose survivors have organized into a powerful political lobby.

The other is that government officials argue that a formal apology would have given momentum to those who demand that the Japanese government pay individual compensation to the war's victims. These claimants include women in South Korea and the Philippines forced into military brothels and British prisoners of war brutally treated by their Japanese captors.

Some want to atone

On the other side of the issue are politicians symbolized by Murayama, liberals who want to use the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war's end to atone publicly and to win the confidence of Japan's neighbors. There are some moral reasons for this stance - many Japanese are genuinely disgusted with what the country did from the early 1930s until 1945 - as well as political and practical motives.

Murayama is facing some key elections in the months ahead and his Social Democratic Party needs to win political points. And many analysts argue that Japan, in an increasingly interdependent world, should do all it can to win friends abroad.

But the divisions resulted in a vaguely worded compromise measure that was forced through parliament with vast numbers of legislators boycotting the decisionmaking session. In the end, it passed with 230 legislators standing in support - out of a body of 511. Officials and commentators in China and South Korea, two of Japan's most important trading partners, scorned the tepid language of the document.

And just as conservative opponents feared, some key supporters of official compensation to war victims took the resolution in stride, saying it was the best that could be achieved under the circumstances and that it served their cause. "I personally think the government should pay direct compensation to the victims of the war," says Mutsuko Miki, the influential widow of former Prime Minister Takeo Miki. That, she adds, is the "next step."

The resolution bypassed some straightforward Japanese words that mean apology or remorse and said instead that the nation would engage in fukai hansei, which might be best translated as "especially sincere self-reflection bordering on contrition." Takeo Yamauchi, a veteran who fought on the Pacific island of Saipan and who surrendered to United States forces, notes that Japanese say "excuse me" - sumimasen - countless times a day. As with the resolution, he adds, "it's not a sincere expression of repentance."

Little public remorse

Indeed, in the culture at large, there seems to be very little in the way of widespread fukai hansei. Most of the compelling cultural works about the war focus on the Japanese as victims - either of enemy attacks or of the country's own militarism. But rarely has there been a mass-market exploration of what Japanese troops did on foreign soil.

There is even evidence to suggest that some Japanese are anything but remorseful. Some of the works of fiction now topping the charts at a bookstore at Tokyo's Toranomon intersection, in the city's bureaucratic quarter, fantasize about Japanese victories over US forces.

The resolutions passed in prefectural assemblies - the equivalent of US state houses - emphasize Japanese sacrifices, not atrocities. "We must never forget," says a motion recently passed by the assembly of Ehime prefecture, "that the peace and prosperity now enjoyed by this country is at the vast expense of the 3 million Japanese war dead, including 44,000 victims from this prefecture, and of war sufferers, as well as of the peoples concerned."

Some frank assessments

But all this is not to say that Japan is devoid of fukai hansei. In 1983, for instance, a group of college students started the "Peace Boat," an educational cruise ship offering vacation tours that include frank assessments of Japan's history. Now a nonprofit organization still staffed largely by young people, the Peace Boat has turned into a self-sustaining venture. Some 8,000 Japanese have cruised on the boat since the project was founded, according to organizer Chinatsu Baba.

Activists like Mrs. Miki also demonstrate fukai hansei, as do plenty of less august Japanese. Fumiko Sakamoto, an environmental and urban activist involved in Tokyo politics, sounds particularly frustrated over the parliament's attempt to apologize for the war. "I was extremely dissatisfied because that resolution doesn't clearly show who invaded other countries - it was Japan."

She says some of this year's movies have gone a little further toward showing an accurate version of World War II, but maintains that too many books and movies have presented the Japanese as victims of the enemy or their own government.

Mr. Yamauchi, the veteran of Saipan, thought for a moment when he was asked to name a movie that accurately depicts war. Then he said: Oliver Stone's "Platoon."

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