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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #117: December 4, 2003

Are The Injustices Of Post-Surrender Japan Being Repeated in Iraq?

John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)

The distinguished British journalist Robert Fisk, who writes for the UK's Independent, recently drew an interesting conclusion from the oft-invoked comparison between Japan and Iraq under occupation. U.S. President George W. Bush is one of the many who have tried to associate America's mission to "democratize" Iraq with the endeavor undertaken in Japan in 1945. At first glance, the challenge seems similar. The initial objectives outlined by the Truman administration in relation to Japan almost sixty years ago were to "demilitarize and democratize". Under Bush, the U.S. government proposed the same in its bid to occupy Iraq: rid Saddam Hussein of Weapons of Mass Destruction and construct a democratic government. Moreover, both heads of state repeatedly emphasized their will to rid the world of "evil" by eliminating Saddam Hussein, General Tojo Hideki and their respective regimes. Further links between these two periods in history were drawn when George W. Bush (re)introduced the "Axis of Evil" hypothesis in his 2002 State of the Union address, an obvious conceptual equivalent to the Axis powers configuration of World War II.

The usefulness of this analogy has been blown out of the water, however, when the obvious contradictions between the cases have been raised. Japan was at war with America and officially surrendered before being placed under occupation. Iraq, on the other hand, was not at war with the U.S. prior to invasion and upon occupation the governing regime did not surrender but rather shifted resistance to the underground; U.S. led occupiers are considered illegitimate in Iraq and violence continues, claiming thousands of lives, including both military and civilian casualties. In post-surrender Japan, the occupiers were accepted as legitimate and an inevitable outcome of Japan's lost war, consequently no military resistance was mounted; during World War II, the Axis powers were bound by a recognized Tripartite Agreement while Bush's modern day Axis has no such contract, in fact at least two of the three are sworn enemies (Iran and Iraq). As a consequence, most in the international community have shunned the notion; finally, the difference between an ethnically and religiously divided population in Iraq and a largely monolithic nation-state in Japan has posed additional challenges to this over used analogy. Nevertheless and despite its apparent futility, President Bush continues to insist on the comparison as a point of departure in order to maintain the campaign's legitimacy. This effort is being made increasingly difficult as a result of not being able to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the billions of reconstruction dollars being given away in non-competitive bids to corporations with close ties to the Bush administration.

Interestingly, as he watches the occupation evolve, Robert Fisk suggests that he has found some utility for the analogy. This link between Japan and Iraq was pinpointed in his article of November 29 entitled, "Tricky Stuff, Evil". There he argues that the similarities between the cases of Japan and Iraq are to be found not in the conditions prevailing at the outset of the conflicts but rather in their very outcomes. This may encourage American officials who would be happy to hear about a "new" Iraq emerging into an economic giant and as a "bulwark for democracy" in the Middle East, the prototype of Japan in East Asia. This may well turn out to be the case, however, Fisk's allusion does not point in this direction. In drawing the comparison, Fisk recalls a recent trip to Japan where he visited the Yasukuni shrine in central Tokyo where Japan's war dead and symbols of imperialism and repression are honored. Among the war dead include kamikaze suicide pilots whom Fisk relates to suicide bombers in Iraq and Class A war criminals. Fisk is appalled at the idea that Japan, now a friend of the U.S. and all Western democracies, honors these war dead and allows former soldiers who admit to taking part in the mass rape of Chinese girls, in addition to the "comfort women" from China and Korea, to remain free from prosecution. The journalist then poses the questions, "Didn't these men represent Evil? What is the difference between the young Japanese men honored for blowing themselves up against American aircraft carriers and the equally young men blowing themselves up against American bases in Iraq?" He then concludes that, "it's all a matter of who your friends are." Now that Japan is welcomed as a key U.S. ally, the West no longer presses it about such atrocities or responsibilities.

Fisk's prediction is that the outcome in Iraq will be similar, certain "Evils" will be ignored. Without much further explanation he states that, "as the Americans try ever more desperately to escape from Iraq, the thugs and assassins will become the good guys again and the men of Evil in Iraq will be working for us." Backing this up he concludes by mentioning that, "the occupation authorities have already admitted to re-hiring some of Saddam's evil secret policemen to hunt down the evil Saddam"

The journalist does have a point. Although a large number of the occupational reforms implemented in Japan prior to April 1947 (educational, land, constitutional, labor and political) made a positive impact on Japan and helped it develop into a democratic and peace loving state, certain perpetrators of "evil" were overlooked. Although plans for a limited war crimes prosecution and the preservation of Emperor Hirohito had been laid out by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and President Harry Truman in advance of Japan's surrender, a wide-scale pardon only became evident after the onset of the Cold War when the so-called "reverse course" became a matter of fact. This reverse course released thousands of purged politicians, bureaucrats, soldiers and business people from jail who had promoted and profited from aggression, some of whom deserved to be tried for war crimes. The U.S. government also absolved the Japanese government and members of the Imperial Army Unit 731 of any criminal investigation regarding its biological weapons experimentation on the Chinese people. In fact, a deal was struck to hand over all test results to the U.S. in exchange for impunity. Domestically, few were punished for the repression, arbitrary imprisonment and summary executions of those Japanese who showed the slightest leftist and/or pacific tendencies. Sadly, the list of pardoned evildoers is too long to describe here.

According to Robert Fisk, a comparable practice is starting to appear in Iraq. If this is indeed the case, it is disturbing to see images of Iraqi civilians digging up and removing the remains of their tortured and murdered relatives from the mass graves allegedly created by Saddam Hussein and his regime. Although such spontaneous reactions on the part of the victims is understandable from an emotional perspective, the failure of occupational authorities to prevent the disturbance of vital forensic material needed for criminal investigations could potentially destroy any hope of justice taking place and allow the perpetrators to get away with their "evil" deeds. Also troubling is the refusal of the U.S. government and military to allow for independent inquiries into civilian deaths and casualties caused as a result of the invasion and throughout the occupation. Dangerous precedents were set in occupied Japan and the occupation authority, governments, international organizations and civil society must do their utmost to prevent these from being repeated in Iraq. If what Fisk says is true, we need to act now.

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