Japanese Emperor's plan to visit China stirs furor 1937 war atrocities could be laid bare

September 27, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Skin-headed, right-wing extremists and long-haired, left-wing politicians both rail against the same evil here these days.

Almost 2,000 years after the first recorded exchanges between the Chrysenthemum Throne and the Middle Kingdom, they say it's still not time -- and it's probably illegal -- for the emperor of Japan to make his first state visit to China.

One right-winger demonstrated his sentiments on the subject last month by ritually stabbing himself in the belly in front of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's private home. Another did so by setting fire to a truck in front of the prime minister's official residence.

Left-wingers crisscross Japan to harangue anyone who will listen.

They object to the prospect that the emperorship itself, which they despise as a remnant of Japan's militaristic past, is being strengthened by steadily increasing use of the youthful and vigorous Emperor Akihito on high-visibility, quasi-diplomatic missions.

Both sides argue that the Japanese Constitution specifies 10 duties for the emperor and that none of those duties involves representing the country overseas.

But Mr. Miyazawa decided last month that the time was right. From Oct. 23 to Oct. 29, Emperor Akihito will become the first Japanese monarch to visit the immense mainland neighbor from which this country borrowed its writing, religion, architecture and ancient government forms.

Ever since Deng Xiaoping, China's top politician, proposed the visit in 1979, powerful, right-wing nationalists in the prime minister's governing Liberal Democratic Party had blocked any attempt to accept the invitation.

What the rightists feared was that an imperial visit to China, where the late Emperor Hirohito's armies committed some of their worst atrocities in the years before and during World War II, could bring Japan face to face with a history it has systematically evaded for more than four decades.

It might even lead to an apology.

"China is only one of the neighboring Asian countries where middle-aged and older people fly into a rage if you even say the word 'Japan,' " Professor Ben-Ami Shillony, an Israeli historian, said during a recent research trip here. "What they hate is that the Japanese refuse to look objectively at what they did and refuse to teach it to their children as a negative example. This country seems culturally incapable of the kind of deep and objective self-examination by which Germany rehabilitated itself with its European neighbors."

Denials stripped away

But these have been difficult times for Japanese who are dedicated to keeping those memories under wraps.

Early this year, a lone academic stripped away decades of official government denials and forced Mr. Miyazawa to admit that thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of Asian females were rounded up and turned into sex slaves for Imperial Army soldiers.

Called "comfort women" in the official euphemism, most were Korean, but hundreds and possibly thousands were Chinese.

The potential of even more hideous revelations seems to be lurking here in Tokyo. Bones of dozens of humans -- apparently victims of Imperial Army medical experiments -- were unearthed recently during a construction project.

The government still refuses to investigate the bones, many of which apparently are those of people brought here from northeastern China, which Japan colonized as "Manchukuo" as World War II approached.

To each revelation, Japan's government response is based not on resolve to get at the facts but on fear of the political fallout at home.

Mr. Miyazawa spoke implicitly of these fears as he pressed his case in the days before he announced the trip.

The emperor's words in China "must be acceptable to all Japanese people," he said, an obvious attempt to reassure hawks in his party who were still afraid the trip might lead to a politically explosive apology.

Mr. Miyazawa's timing is shrewd in many ways.

What the prime minister understood was that China's current government is in no condition to demand an apology.

The Chinese Communist Party is just emerging from three years of international scorn after the Beijing massacre of 1989. It struggles every day to sustain its legitimacy with its people. A visit from a high-visibility foreigner is one of the Beijing regime's favorite rehabilitation tools. The last thing the Chinese rulers want is discord that might undermine those ambitions.

Japan, the prime minister argued, may never again find China in a position where its government cannot afford to press Tokyo to own upto history.

Those were among the points Mr. Miyazawa made, Diet members of his party say, as he maneuvered to neutralize his party's right wing.

Symbolism to be avoided

He pointed out that China had made clear that there need be no equivalent of the powerful symbolism Germany's leaders created visiting scenes of some of the Hitler era's worst atrocities.

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