Japan dodges mention of its actions in World War II

December 24, 1990|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- What happened in Nanjing, China, Dec. 13, 1937?

If you rely on high school textbooks approved by Japan's Ministry of Education, that was the day the Japanese army punished insolent provocations from China's government, then under Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, by "entering" Nanjing, then the country's capital.

If you rely on virtually every historian who has written on the subject outside Japan, that was the first day of "the Rape of Nanjing," a weekslong rampage in which armed Japanese soldiers -- enraged by days of bloody resistance that Chinese troops put up for the first time after years of easy surrenders -- killed tens of thousands of civilians, raped thousands of women and looted thousands of shops.

If you rely on Shintaro Ishihara, a popular right-wing congressman and former movie actor who co-wrote the controversial best-seller "The Japan That Can Say No," it was all "anti-Japan propaganda" that was "made up by the Chinese."

Mr. Ishihara made that assertion last month in a U.S. magazine.

Half a century later, Japan as a society has yet to come to grips with what it did in World War II.

This fall, newspapers gave front-page display to newly available monologues portraying the late Emperor Hirohito as having been deeply opposed to the war.

A few weeks later, virtually all Tokyo newspapers gave inside-page treatment to an article from Germany by reporters for Kyodo, the Japanese news service, reporting that newly available records, long held secret by the former East German government, included a series of dispatches in which diplomats from Japan's soon-to-be partners in the Axis gave detailed descriptions of the Nanjing massacre.

The Kyodo report quoted the German dispatches as describing bodies in civilian clothing piled in various parts of Nanjing.

Although critical of the Nationalist government for fleeing the capital without calling its troops to orderly retreat, thereby touching off a preliminary rampage by China's own soldiers, the German diplomats reported that the Japanese atrocities were on a scale likely to play into the hands of the Communist Party.

"The oddity in the treatment of the Hirohito monologues is not only the display they got," said Ben-ami Shillony, a Hebrew University historian doing research in Japan.

"If you read the monologues, what they prove is that Hirohito was trying to explain, years later, why he chose not to try to rally the country against the war -- but the idea that he was conscious that he had another choice, that is not dealt with in the Japanese press as even a possible interpretation."

This recurring eagerness for good news from World War II archives, and playing down of any bad news they contain, repeatedly leads Japan into embarrassment, not only in politicians' offhand remarks but in its relations with Asian neighbors that still find it difficult to trust Japan.

Foreign scholars and some Japanese historians say Japan's inability to dissect its own past stands in stark contrast to both Germany's and Italy's detailed national debates on their fascist years and to the continuing anguish in the United States over Vietnam.

The national failure to examine the realities of Japan's occupation of China's heartland in the 1930s -- and of most of Southeast Asia during World War II -- is widely attributed to the determined vigilance of conservative bureaucrats who censor textbooks for the education ministry.

But it also has roots deep in Japanese culture.

"We've already apologized officially," Kenzo Nakajima, an art gallery owner, said last week during a dinner party attended by Japanese and Americans.

Mr. Nakajima and three other Japanese at the table were puzzled that events of 53 years ago were still being discussed even after several rounds of Japanese apologies to governments of the countries involved.

Except for their Asian neighbors' most-repeated stories, such as the Nanjing massacre, the Japanese displayed little knowledge of the war.

All seemed genuinely surprised when told that for about three years Japanese airplanes bombed Chongqing -- where the Nationalists made a temporary capital after losing Nanjing -- virtually every time the city's frequent cloud formations opened up to permit aerial navigation.

The attacks on Chongqing, described in scores of accounts by foreign journalists and in most histories of the period, are famous as one of the world's pioneering experiments in systematic bombing of cities.

They go unmentioned in textbooks approved by the Education Ministry.

"That's precisely the point," a senior diplomat from a Malay country, said when told of Mr. Nakajima's mention of Japan's apologies.

"Japanese apologize reflexively, all day, about anything that even might be unpleasant. Many people in Asia still want to see the Japanese really sincerely debate World War II, and not just treat it at this symbolic level with empty apologies as if they did no more than delay an elevator or spill a cocktail."

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