Five decades after the end of World War II, a push for Japan to further acknowledge and pay for its wartime atrocities is gaining momentum.
Fueled by fresh documentation and revelations from long-silent witnesses, some 30 organizations are filing lawsuits and campaigning to get Japan to fully admit the extent of forced prostitution and alleged war crimes, such as medical experiments, committed against American, Asian, European, and other prisoners of war.
The issue takes on heightened geopolitical resonance today as Japan and China vie for dominance both in the region and beyond. Japan's ability to carve out a global leadership role in the future, some diplomats say, could be hampered by nagging doubts about its past.
Last week, the US Justice Department gave the effort an unexpected boost by barring 16 unnamed Japanese from entering the country for alleged war crimes. This is the first time Japanese have been placed on the "watchlist" created by congressional mandate in 1979 to keep out war criminals from Nazi Germany and its wartime allies.
"It's a step in the right direction," says Gilbert Hair, executive director of the Miami-based Center for Internee Rights, an organization representing civilian internees and military POWs. The group filed a lawsuit in Tokyo district court last year on behalf of thousands of US military POWs and civilian internees as well as British, Australian, and Dutch survivors.
Officials of the groups in the campaign say they have been supplying names and other information to the Justice Department investigation. According to the leader of one group who has been close touch with the Justice Department official in charge of the investigation, the move to list the Japanese was actively resisted by the State Department for the last eight years. Neither Justice nor State Department officials were willing to comment on this charge.
Mr. Hair told a conference at Stanford University here this past weekend that his center was working on a list of more than 200 Japanese alleged war criminals to turn over to the Justice Department early next year.
The sponsor of the conference, the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia, is an umbrella group for organizations, including Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the US; Koreans, Japanese, Americans and others who were interned or captured.
The often fiery discussion at the symposium covered Japanese activities during the occupation of China from 1931 to 1945 and plans for more lawsuits. It was less a scholarly exercise than the gathering of a political movement, dominated by ethnic Chinese and fueled by very contemporary Chinese nationalist hostility toward Japan and suspicions about the US.
"Japanese military-nationalism didn't die," Tsuin-Ho Kwoh, a Chinese author from Taiwan of numerous books on Japan, told the audience. "Instead, under American protection, it has begun to rise again."
The campaign to expose Japanese war crimes has scored some success in recent years. Last summer, in a written apology sent to several hundred women, the Japanese prime minister acknowledged the official involvement of the Japanese Imperial Army in the operation of forced sex centers, staffed by so-called "comfort women" taken from Asian countries. A fund has been set up to compensate those women.
Japanese denials of war crimes were shaken by the exposures of the activities of "Unit 731," an infamous army detachment in Manchuria that conducted inhumane and often lethal medical experiments, including vivisection, on captured prisoners and Chinese civilians. Last year, then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama made a historic statement officially apologizing for the suffering of all wartime victims.
Much of the movement results from information uncovered by Japanese researchers and activists like Eisuke Matsui, one of a group of Japanese who attended the conference. "As a Japanese, I have responsibility for the Japanese invasion of Asian countries during World War II," Dr. Matsui says. "I have to know myself the historical truth. And I have to let the Japanese younger generation know about the historical reality."
For Japan historian John Dower this is evidence that postwar Japan is not the same country that waged the Pacific war. "The outrage the Chinese and others feel is absolutely well-founded, but to say Japan has not changed does not reflect the serious debates and concerns that exist within the Japanese body politic and the Japanese public," says Mr. Dower, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
Still some Asians contrast Japan's behavior to that of Germany, which has paid reparations, mainly to Jewish victims, and has opened its archives more freely to researchers. The Japanese government says that the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty settled the issue of reparations. Japan paid compensation to POWs through the Red Cross and gave the US and other allies the right to dispose of its assets to settle claims of its wartime foes. In return, the allies waived the right to further reparations or further war-crimes charges. The US officially agrees that there is no legal basis to pursue further claims against Japan.
The activism surrounding Japan's war record also reflects contemporary nationalism, suggests Dower. There is growing tension between China and Japan as the two Asian powers compete for influence. Some of this seen among Chinese emigrs in the US, who are showing signs of growing political activism. Last summer, for example, some 20,000 Chinese emigrs held a protest in San Francisco over Japanese control of some disputed islands.
Anti-Japanese feelings are the one issue that unites an oft-divided Chinese community, says Ignatius Ding of the Bay Area-based Alliance for Preserving the Truth of the Sino-Japanese War. "This is something about which all Chinese will say - 'OK, I have no objection.' "