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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (August 23, 2005)

Japan's Post-War Amnesia

Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

The 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Asia on August 15 was marked in Hong Kong by some 200 protesters who marched to the Japanese consulate, demanding a full apology from Tokyo for war atrocities and compensation for the victims. Otherwise, it passed relatively quietly, with few editorials in local papers.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi issued an apology, which the Foreign Ministry took note of, but its spokesman declared that China hoped Japanese leaders would translate their words into action.

Mr Koizumi did acknowledge that "our country has caused tremendous damage and pain to the peoples of many countries - especially Asian countries - through colonial rule and invasion", and also offered "apologies from my heart" and "condolences to all the victims of the last major war".

However, much of the statement was puzzling and appeared not to depict Japan as an aggressor. Thus, the Japanese leader said that "the peace and prosperity" enjoyed now by Japan "was achieved on the noble sacrifices of many who lost their lives against their will in the war".

This is strange because it suggests that Japanese soldiers died defending their country, not invading and occupying their neighbours. If Japan had not attacked those countries, its soldiers would not have "died in distant foreign lands".

Moreover, the words suggest that Japan's current prosperity is attributable to the war, in which millions of Japanese soldiers gave their lives. Thus, instead of a condemnation of the war, the statement can be read as a justification of it.

Inevitably, Mr Koizumi's statement has been compared to that made by his socialist predecessor, prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, 10 years ago. Mr Murayama acknowledged without ambiguity that Japan had been guilty of "following a mistaken national policy". But this sentiment is missing from Mr Koizumi's statement.

Moreover, under Mr Koizumi, nationalistic textbooks gloss over atrocities committed by the Japanese. These books attempt to de-emphasise the dark side of national history, while promoting a "positive view" by playing down such things as the Japanese authorities turning thousands of Asian women into sex slaves to service their soldiers.

And officials now routinely pay tribute to class A war criminals with visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. Mr Koizumi himself has gone to the shrine every year since he became prime minister. On August 15, while he stayed away, his cabinet members and the acting secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party visited the shrine.

What is striking about the Asian commemoration, compared to the way Europe marked the end of the war three months ago, was that in Europe, Germany took part in commemorative events alongside its wartime enemies. In Asia, Japan was excluded from events held by its neighbours, showing that wounds have not healed and that there is no common understanding of the war.

It is also notable that while post-war Germany co-operated in the arrest of German war criminals to bring them to justice, post-war Japan never did anything remotely similar.

On the positive side, it should be acknowledged that Japan has been generous in offering official development assistance, with China alone receiving about US$25 billion.

Sadly, Japan is now increasingly nationalistic - to some extent a result of encouragement by the US to assume a larger role in Asia.

If Japan continues to move in this direction, it will not come to terms with its past, making reconciliation with the countries it invaded in the 1930s and 1940s highly improbable.

(Originally appeared in the August 23, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications