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Japan needs to say sorry

By Gary Brown - posted Thursday, 21 April 2005

Recent disorders at Japanese diplomatic missions in China express continuing Chinese discontent over Japan's attitude to its wartime past, which is replete with major crimes. We in Australia still recall the treatment meted out to our POWs when in Japanese hands at Changi (Singapore) and on the notorious Burma-Thailand railway. The British and Americans unlucky enough to be captured shared this treatment.

Many in the west therefore have good reason to be unhappy with Japan's handling of this issue, but it needs to be understood that whereas we recall a four-year conflict (1941-5) the Chinese endured nearly fifteen years of war with Japan. Much of China was occupied, cities destroyed and large-scale atrocities committed by the Japanese military against the Chinese civilian population. The rape of Nanking (Nanjing) in 1937 cost tens of thousands of lives. Other Asian countries also endured the brutality and exploitation of Japanese occupation when the tide of conquest swept over South-East Asia in 1941-2.

Ever since 1945 Japan has refused to come to terms with its criminal history. This latest outburst in China was triggered by Japan's endorsement of a school history text which, Beijing alleges, brushes over the criminal past. I have not seen the text in question but, as this is not the first time Japanese texts have been challenged in this way, the Chinese charges are in all probability substantially correct. At no time have the Japanese ever faced up to their criminal legacy and sought closure, as did the Germans, whose burden of wartime horrors was certainly the equal of Japan's.


For a long time I thought that this reluctance was at least partly due to a desire to protect the reputation of the then Emperor Hirohito, who narrowly escaped prosecution as a war criminal in 1946. But Hirohito died in January 1989, and still Japan's attitude remained unaltered. Then I thought that perhaps some war criminals remained in influential positions and were able to influence policy in their own favour.

But this is 2005, nearly 50 years after the end of the war. All senior war criminals, German and Japanese alike, are long dead. Perhaps a few aged foot soldiers of atrocity still survive, but protection no longer explains Japanese conduct. Clearly something much more fundamental drives Japan's attitude to this issue, and this latest in a series of "textbook controversies" shows that the driver is still powerful.

This is especially so when one considers the costs that come with Japan's intransigence. Relations with the West were not truly normalised for perhaps 20 years after 1945. (I recall the days when Japanese-make cars were unwelcome and unsafe in carparks outside some RSL clubs, and the hatred expressed by many who had suffered Japanese captivity or lost family members to it.) In Asia, the legacy has proven more enduring still. North and South Korea alike share Chinese outrage at Japanese whitewashing. Countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are less outspoken but no less uneasy.

The contrast with Germany could hardly be greater. The recent commemorations (attended by the German Chancellor) of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by the Soviets reveal the extent to which modern Germany has addressed its past, put it behind and thereby won a kind of broad acceptance which neither money, military power nor political influence can compel. Though there are indeed active neo-Nazi and racist groups in modern Germany, their marginalisation is complete and (in the sense of a revived fascist regime in Germany) they pose no threat to Europe. They can safely be watched, prosecuted if they break laws, and on the broad political stage, ignored.

One would like to be able to say the same about Japan, but one cannot. Extreme nationalism is still important in Japan, to the extent that the Prime Minister feels compelled to officially visit the Yasukuni Shrine which commemorates Japanese war dead, specifically inclusive of war criminals hanged by the Allies after the war. Continued refusal to acknowledge the realities of the past, by way of proper apologies, amended official textbooks, museum exhibits and the like, likewise sends uncomfortable signals to the region and the world.

Japan will continue to pay a price for taking this position. Its relations with China and the Koreas in particular will never be entirely normal until the wartime crimes are acknowledged and addressed. Even less directly involved observers must entertain doubts about the long-term immunity of the Japanese polity from the poison of ultranationalism, racism and militarism. All of this amounts to a wariness, perhaps approaching suspicion, which lurks beneath the surface of apparently smooth political relations only to bubble up whenever occasions facilitate. It is no accident that this latest flare-up coincides with Sino-Japanese rivalry over drilling concessions in disputed China Sea locations.


Given the evident strength of those in Japan who refuse to acknowledge the past, it will take a leader of some stature and courage to bite this particular bullet. But until Japan follows the German example it will continue to carry this monkey on its back to its own detriment and that of harmonious regional relations. But far from addressing the real issue, Japan has seen fit to demand an apology from China for damage done to diplomatic premises. To Beijing, this must be ironic and offensive indeed, as it is unquestionably owed a far more important apology by Tokyo.

The recalcitrants in Tokyo should also consider that when Japan seeks a permanent seat at the UN Security Council it will need to avoid a Chinese veto. It is high time that Japan did what is necessary to bury its wartime criminal legacy for once and for all. Until then, it will never be entirely trusted or accepted as an equal member of the community of civilised nations.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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