Japan Teeters Between Apology and Denial

Many Japanese today choose to insulate themselves from the brutalities inflicted by their fathers, husbands, and brothers during World War II. Some resent that their country is being asked to apologize, insisting that the military did no wrong. Others 'fight the lonely struggle' to tell what really happened more than 50 years ago.

FOR most countries involved in World War II, this 50th anniversary year has been a time of reverence and commemoration. Heroes have been remembered and sacrifices honored.

For the Japanese, 1995 has been something different - perhaps not a Year of Shame, but certainly a year of being made to feel extremely uncomfortable.

Since 1990, people who were abused and degraded by the Japanese military in Asia during World War II have been filing lawsuits here demanding contrition and compensation. The 50th anniversary of the war's end has provided them with an opportunity to reiterate these claims and initiate new ones.

In court hearings and in front of the media, these victims of the Japanese war effort have unearthed grim memories. A British veteran has described his time as a prisoner of the Japanese: pitiful rations, unrelenting labor, and beatings with hammers. A group of Chinese sent to Japan as forced laborers has recounted how more than 100 of their countrymen were starved to death after their rebellion.

Korean women coerced by the military into sexual servitude have unveiled their humiliations.

At least 24 lawsuits are pending in Japanese courts, and lawyers report that more are on the way.

The claimants confront a country steeped in a lingering sense of irresolution about the war. Writers and academics have debated the issue of "war responsibility" for decades, but to no firm conclusions. Japanese still disagree about the historical record, about why the country went to war, even about what the war should be called.

Many Japanese have insulated themselves from the brutalities inflicted by their fathers, husbands, and brothers, not wanting to dishonor their memory. Others resent being asked to apologize, arguing that other nations have committed crimes for which they have not been called upon to repent. Still others insist the military did no wrong.

These forces of denial are strong, but they do not go unchallenged.

Some Japanese - war veterans, writers, ordinary people - are educating themselves and others about the realities of this nation's war record. These individuals are "fighting a lonely struggle," as one playwright puts it. But thanks to their efforts and to the recently

publicized accounts of the war victims, more and more Japanese are learning a history of the war that diverges from the once-over-lightly version taught in Japanese schools.

Says Hitotsubashi University's Hiroshi Tanaka, "An increasing number of Japanese have come to understand the facts."

Even the government, in this anniversary year, is sounding more respectful of the claims of the war victims. One example is a document issued last month asking Japanese to contribute to a government-sponsored atonement fund to benefit former sex slaves: "No manner of apology can ever completely heal the deep wound inflicted on these women both emotionally and physically," concluded the prominent private citizens who are the fund's directors. "Yet we should, by whatever means, do our best to appreciate their pain and make the greatest possible effort to salve their suffering in any way we can.

"We believe the obligation to do so hangs heavy over Japan, the country that inflicted the suffering."

This appeal comes from a government that until 1992 denied that the military had ever maintained brothels or coerced women into prostitution.

The debate over war responsibility and compensation is, of course, in large measure about history. But it is also about what sort of a nation Japan will become. Many thinkers and politicians proclaim that the Japanese must recast their nation and break out of the postwar mind-set of the past 50 years.

This argument is intertwined with questions about the power that Japan should wield in the world. Should it have a military commensurate with its economic might and conduct foreign policy, as so many other nations do, backed by bombers and aircraft carriers?

Or should it construct a unique identity as a "peace" nation, a country that truly renounces force as a means of resolving international problems? Right now the country is engaged in a massive sleight-of-hand on this issue. The government funds a large, albeit defensive, military even though its "peace" Constitution says that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained."

In order to resolve these contradictions and define the nation's future, many argue that Japan must understand its past with less historical fuzziness and ideological discord.

Real clarity and resolution may forever elude the Japanese, whose language is so full of ambiguity. But some people here are examining Japan's role in World War II and the preceding years of colonization and conflict. It seems they will not rest until they understand it with painful precision.

The veteran

"I want to forget my experiences," says Hiromichi Nagatomi, an elderly man with a fringe of white hair and a full-jawed face that looks simultaneously benevolent and burdened. And yet he does not forget.

Mr. Nagatomi served as an intelligence officer in the Japanese Imperial Army. He spent five years in China, which Japan had begun to occupy in 1931, establishing a puppet state in Manchuria. In 1937, open war broke out between the Chinese and their invaders.

Nagatomi says he killed at least 100 Chinese. "I killed them with pistols, rifles, and sometimes by putting them in a house and burning it," he explains. He acknowledges often killing out of irritation and frustration rather than in response to any military imperative. In many cases, he says, "I didn't have any special orders. I just wanted to kill them.... I needed some outlet.

"I never felt guilty," he adds. "I thought it was good for the Emperor. I was loyal."

Nagatomi arrived in Nanjing in mid-December 1937, a few days after Japanese troops had captured the city, which had been the capital of the Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek. What happened at Nanjing remains subject to a debate corrupted by nationalism and revisionism.

Some Chinese accounts say Japanese soldiers slaughtered 300,000 people, many of them women and children. Independent historians say the Japanese killed somewhere between 35,000 and 70,000 people, including civilians and unarmed, fleeing soldiers.

In 1975, working from photographs and historical accounts, a pair of Japanese artists, Iri and Toshi Maruki, created a mural the size of a billboard depicting the massacre. Near the center a soldier uses a sword to behead a captured Chinese. Recently Toshi Maruki recalled the reaction of a man with right-wing, conservative sympathies as he stood in the couple's gallery. "It is a lie," the man said. This attitude persists.

Last year a Cabinet minister was forced to resign for saying the "Rape of Nanking," as the incident is known, was a "fabrication."

Nagatomi says otherwise. "I think I arrived after most of the killing, but I saw thousands of corpses, perhaps tens of thousands, lying near the river. There were too many to count. They were frozen and piled up in mounds."

Convicted of war crimes by a Chinese tribunal, he spent 13 years in prison in China beginning in 1950.

These are the things that Nagatomi does not want to remember.

"But," he adds, "I thought I had to speak out for the future of Japan and for the young people of this country."

Since appearing in a 1989 documentary, a repentant Nagatomi continues to give speeches about the war. "Japanese people are not well-educated about Nanjing," the veteran says. He is trying to change that.

The housewife

Sitting in one of Tokyo's ubiquitous coffee shops, a talkative woman named Hideko Nomura extricates from a small plastic shopping bag a sepia-toned photograph of herself and her father.

In the picture, probably taken in 1940, she is a tiny girl, dressed in a kimono and holding a rising sun flag.

Next to her is her young father, wearing the uniform of the Imperial Army and holding a larger version of the flag with noticeably less enthusiasm.

"My father died on a battlefield in New Guinea in 1943," says Ms. Nomura, a homemaker who lives just outside Tokyo.

She never really knew him, except through a few pictures, and until recently never sought to learn about the circumstances of his death.

Her formal education included little about the war or why Japan fought in the South Pacific, but a few years ago she was intrigued by a lecture she attended on her country's Constitution. As a result, she joined a citizens' group that met to discuss the war and Japan's subsequent role as a peaceful nation. This summer she got more serious about her re-education.

Nomura took a cruise run by a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization called the Peace Boat. Since it was started in 1982 by college students dissatisfied with the teaching of history in Japanese schools, Peace Boat cruises have combined tourism with self-critical explorations of Japan's past. Thinking of her father, Nomura chose a voyage to the South Pacific.

"I learned," she says, "that my father died a useless death." Drawing on what she learned on the ship and what a friend of her father's had told her mother, she concludes that her father's last days were spent, like many Japanese soldiers, in desperate hunger, chewing on belts and shoe leather to stay alive.

She remembers telling an older man on the Peace Boat that she thought her father had died like a dog and that the Japanese should have stopped their government from pursuing a futile conflict.

He reproached her, saying she did not understand the repressive dynamics of the time.

"If I had been one of those people, I would have refused to support the war," she told the man. Switching her focus from the past to the future, she vows: "If my son is ever called to a battlefield, I will stop it.

The professor

Comparisons to the postwar behavior of Germany are inevitable in Japan. The example of former Chancellor Willy Brandt, who knelt in the Warsaw Ghetto out of contrition for Nazi horrors, is sometimes held up to show what the Japanese have not done.

But Professor Hiroshi Tanaka of Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo prefers to examine the domestic context to illustrate his nation's omissions.

In a book published this year the historian and sociologist calculates how much money Japan has paid in the form of reparations and compensation to the nations it fought, occupied, or colonized. For good measure he includes the value of the assets the Imperial Army left behind in some of those countries.

During the period from 1952 to 1977, when the relevant agreements and treaties were concluded, he estimates that Japan disbursed almost 1 trillion yen.

Tanaka also scrutinizes the money that the Japanese government has paid to its own - veterans and families of soldiers who died in the war. These sums include pensions as well as condolence payments to the bereaved, expenditures that continue to this day. He tabulates that so far almost 40 trillion yen has been paid to these Japanese. Dollar conversion is almost impossible, given the fluctuation of exchange rates, but for Tanaka the important thing is the ratio of 40 to 1 when compared with funds given to non-Japanese victims.

For context, one can consider another calculus. Some 3 million Japanese were killed during the conflicts of the 1930s and 1940s, including soldiers and civilians. By contrast, historians estimate that Japan caused the deaths of 20 million people in Asia.

In this 50th anniversary year the government will offer bonds worth 400,000 yen ($4,545) to each of the 1.51 million war-bereaved families and living veterans who sustained injuries during the war - a $6.8 billion gesture. Once a decade since 1965 the government has offered such benefits to the survivors.

Tanaka says the plight of South Korean conscripts, forced to fight for Japan, motivated him to do the research. They have received nothing from the Japanese government in the years since the war, he explains.

Asked why he has publicized these apparent inequities, he quotes three versions of the old maxim about people ignoring history at their peril: one from the US Congress in granting compensation to the Japanese-Americans the US government interned during World War II, a second from former German President Richard Von Wiezsacker, and a third from the late Chinese leader Chou En-Lai.

He says he uses the same lines to persuade his students to examine their country's past critically. The historical chauvinists are shortsighted, the professor concludes: "Japan must realize that it is a part of an increasingly interdependent world, and become more aware of that interdependence."

The playwright

Kai Kimura runs a small, Tokyo-based theater company that is now touring a play he wrote called "Japanese Folks!" There is much humor in the drama, but it serves a didactic purpose: Mr. Kimura wants to show his audience the way to "internationalization."

For Kimura's lead character, a young woman working in Indonesia in the Japanese version of the Peace Corps, this process means confronting the past. She meets a Japanese veteran who comes to Indonesia to fulfill a promise to a wartime colleague. Through him, she learns about the war's effects.

"She used to think," Kimura says of his character, "that it was the responsibility of the state or of the older generation to account for the war. But she realizes that she must become personally involved."

Kimura wants his audiences to do the same, but the theatrical world presents challenges. "It's difficult to get people to come," he says. Like many Japanese who call the war a horrible mistake that demands apology and atonement, Kimura is pessimistic about the country embracing his views.

He says his troupe, which presents plays in Japanese, gets more attention from the English-language Japan Times daily than from the Japanese press.

It remains difficult for Japanese to be publicly critical of the war, partly because of the risk involved. In December 1988 the then-mayor of Nagasaki, Hitoshi Motoshima, said that the late Emperor Hirohito bore responsibility for the war. Mr. Motoshima was later shot and wounded by an imperial supporter.

But the major difficulty seems to come from feeling alone, and from not having a mainstream forum - such as the educational system or the media - in which to air their views and receive support. Motoshima's comments brought a flood of letters from Japanese who wrote that they admired his courage. But many of the letter-writers furtively and shamefully said they would have been afraid to do the same.

THIS process of historical reexamination that Nagatomi, Tanaka, and others are advocating is, perhaps, overdue. But the delays were not entirely made in Japan. Some expedient decisions of the past 50 years have made an accurate understanding of the war more difficult. The best example is the US decision not to hold Emperor Hirohito responsible for the war in exchange for Hirohito's tacit support of the US occupation.

This meant that the sacred figure for whom millions of Japanese had been taught to kill and die was incomprehensibly and suddenly portrayed as a kindly man who had been removed from the decisionmaking that led to the war. Hirohito, who died in 1989, never took it upon himself to apologize to his people for his role, whatever it might have been.

"Emperor Hirohito was at the center of the evil," says Takeo Yamauchi, a Japanese soldier on Saipan during the war who is now a peace activist. He regrets that Hirohito was not convicted of war crimes and hanged, as other Japanese leaders were.

The US occupation authorities reinforced the idea that Japanese citizens were oppressed by the militarists who allegedly had manipulated Hirohito. Observers such as Yasuaki Onuma, who teaches international law at Tokyo University, have argued that ordinary Japanese were made to feel the victims of the militarists.

"All of us have held a very strong sense of victimization," he says, noting that the leadership in China has differentiated between prewar and postwar Japanese, allowing the latter to think they could ignore the war.

Professor Onuma has repeatedly urged Japan to apologize to its Asian neighbors, with the expectation that his country would then be able to ask other world powers to atone for their acts of imperialism. "I say why don't we apologize first and then quietly ask them to do the same," he says.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Japan Teeters Between Apology and Denial
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today