Japan's Troubled Moral Stature

WHEN I was a high school junior in Tokyo, our literature teacher gave the class a theme for a composition.Its title: hansei, or self-reflection. The term was translated as "remorse" when the Japanese foreign minister and then the prime minister referred to the attack on Pearl Harbor. I don't remember what I wrote, or what grade I received. Self-reflection, in the Japanese context, is usually over mistakes one may have committed - a retracing of one's footsteps, an effort to discover what went wrong and what one might do about it. "Deep self-reflection," the term the Japanese leaders used, has a sense stronger than mere regret and probably comes close to remorse. The Pearl Harbor anniversary has come and gone. Americans debated whether or not the expressions used by Japan's leaders constitute a proper apology. The Japanese are very sensitive to these questions. They seem far less sensitive to similar questions directed at them from their Asian neighbors. But without a proper evaluation of the history leading to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, self-reflection and remorse are meaningless. So far in Japan too much attention has been paid to whether or not the American atom bomb attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki morally cancels out the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and far too little attention to the history leading to the Pacific war, especially Japan's actions toward its Asian neighbors. In 1905, Japan's victory in its war against Tsarist Russia was greeted with enthusiasm in many parts of Asia. For the first time, an Asian country had defeated a major Western power. Yet a close look at that war hardly shows Japan as a champion of Asia. Rather, Tokyo fought Russia over spheres of influence in Manchuria, a part of China. As a direct consequence of its 1905 victory, Japan established a protectorate over Korea and a dominant position in Southern Manchuria. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea and in 1915 thrust the Twenty-One Demands on China. Following the collapse of Tsarist Russia, Japan sent troops into the Soviet Far East, withdrawing them only after Anglo-American pressure. Tokyo could accuse the British of colonialism in India and the Americans of similar behavior in the Philippines, but its own actions in Asia reflect a moral myopia. After a democratic interlude during the l920s, Japan resumed its expansionist course in Asia in the 1930s, invading Manchuria in 1931, and striking deep into China's interior in 1937. There was little dome stic opposition to this course. International opposition was more organized, as shown in a League of Nations vote condemning Japanese actions in Manchuria, but it was not effective. Japan's takeover of French Indochina, the American oil embargo against Japan, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor took place against this background. Immediately after Japan's surrender in 1945, the first postwar prime minister, Prince Higashikuni, called for "general repentance by 100 million Japanese." Since most Japanese did not feel personally responsible for the war, the phrase was unpopular and soon dropped. Any Japanese sense of guilt over Pearl Harbor was erased by the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But to this date, the Japanese as a nation have never properly faced up to their betrayal of Asian hopes and aspirations in the years leading up to and including World War II. They are still mired in controversies over textbooks refusing to acknowledge Japanese actions against China as "aggression." Meanwhile new questions exist. Do the Japanese care about human rights in China or Burma? How did they react to the plight of Vietnamese boat people, or other refugees? Could a Japanese judge issue an injunction forbidding the government from sending back Chinese economic refugees, as a United States judge restrained the US government from sending back Haitian refugees? As noisy as the trade dispute between Japan and the US is, it is essentially a quarrel between two of the world's wealthiest nations. Japan's behavior toward its Asian neighbors has important economic aspects. But it also has a moral dimension neglected only at the expense of diminishing Japan's world stature.

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