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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #3: June 25, 2001

A Way To Ensure That History is Never Repeated

John de Boer (University of Tokyo)

I wish I could choose something more lighthearted, fun and cheerful to write about. Unfortunately, when it comes to Japan the foreign press has little praiseworthy to say. Perhaps this is endemic and a consequence of Japan's unforgiving past.

Over the past few months, there have been an overwhelming number of articles dealing with Japan's interpretation and reckoning with its 20th Century history of conquest and defeat. Howard W. French of the New York Times has been one of the most prolific writers on this subject. His most recent article entitled, "Specter of a Rearmed Japan Stirs Its Wartime Generation," (June 20th, NYT) illustrates a Japan that is about to engage in its first real passionate public debate on its wartime history. He quotes veterans who recall Japan's war as a pure loss and a colossal and misguided waste, with others claiming that there was justice in Japan's expansion in Asia and in its attempt to liberate fellow Asians from Western colonialism.

This controversy is located in a present reality that includes a Japan facing a region bristling with arms, a population that is tired of hosting U.S. soldiers, and outspoken political figures who are starting to seriously reconsider Japan's constitutional military limitations. However, Japan cannot begin its transformation without having an open public discussion about its wartime past thereby initiating a process of reconciliation.

Japan will encounter fierce resistance against constitutional amendment throughout Asia if it does not officially denounce attempts to celebrate its Imperial Army as a liberating force. The ghosts of its wartime past will never be put to rest unless Japan expresses official responsibility and apologizes for wartime atrocities including the Nanjing Massacre and the sexual enslavement of over 200,000 women.

At the same time, a public debate that recognizes war crimes committed against Japanese civilians should also be opened. By this I am specifically referring to actions undertaken by the United States particularly in relation to the fire bombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945 and regarding the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, in particular on Nagasaki.

The bombing of Tokyo was one of the worst attacks on a civilian population ever witnessed in war. Survivors have said that planes were just chasing people, there was no defense. In this attack, the U.S. first dropped oil gel, which set things on fire and then napalmed Tokyo. People jumping into ponds burned to death because of the napalm. It is estimated that somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000 people died as a result of this six hour bombing campaign. Much has been said about the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, however, the case of Nagasaki has rarely been debated and in reality it is difficult even to conceive of an argument that justifies its bombing.

People once at war must learn to mourn together. They need to recognize that a shared truth of mutual suffering exists. Independently of others accepting their share, Japan cannot hide behind the veil of denial that explains wartime atrocities as regrettable necessities or the result of wartime excesses. Japan's war crimes are a historical truth and accepting that truth as a nation goes beyond the process initiated at the Tokyo war crimes trials.

To start with, Tokyo's war crime trials have largely been viewed by Japanese as "victor's justice", a consequence of defeat and not a means for atonement. Similarly, the Nuremberg trial was the first step for Germans to confront their part in the Holocaust. Also important were the millions of visits by German school children to concentration camps, the publication of thousands of books and the constant public display of regret by its national leaders that made reconciliation possible.

As Japan engages in a process of political and constitutional change to meet the requirements of its immediate environment, so it must recognize that history was deliberate and confront its past. For confronting one's past is a way of ensuring that this history is never repeated.

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