Exhibit on Holocaust opens new era in Japan

May 11, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Days after Japan's justice minister was forced to resign for denying Japanese wartime acts of aggression and barbarism, an exhibit opened yesterday in Tokyo memorializing another tragic aspect of World War II, the Holocaust.

While it was Germany and not Japan that was responsible for the slaughter of the Jews, the prominent setting -- City Hall -- and the attendance of numerous officials underscores what organizers describe as a new willingness by Japan to acknowledge the suffering of the Jews during a war that many here have yet fully come to grips with.

Not that getting permission for the display was easy.

"We had six years of hitting our heads against the wall," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which put the exhibition together. "Even two years ago, there would not have been a chance."

Attitudes, Rabbi Cooper said, changed dramatically during the last18 months, particularly in government, but also among Japanese companies that began to step away from a strict adherence to the Arab boycott of Israel, and among Japanese citizens.

The shift, he added, comes as the fear of oil shortages dating back to the 1970s has finally begun to ebb. The prior stance, said Rabbi Cooper, "wasn't philosophic. It was based fully on pragmatism."

For many, the new attitude toward the war became visible only last summer when then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa broke with tradition and accepted responsibility for the pain caused by his country during and before the war.

U.S. Ambassador Walter F. Mondale, who spoke at yesterday's opening, said the movement begun by Mr. Hosokawa and endorsed by the current prime minister, Tsutomu Hata, had begun to develop deep roots, with the exhibition and its symbolic location providing a vivid example.

A special corner of the exhibit is devoted to Chiune Sujihara, a Japanese wartime diplomat in Poland who provided 4,000 transit visas toJews, opening an escape route out of their country through Russia and Japan to the west.

"What I did might have been wrong for a diplomat," he wrote

during the war. "But I could not ignore the fate of thousands of people who came to me for help. This was the right course of action. History will surely condone what I did."

His acts derailed his career, and during his lifetime drew more derision than praise in Japan; but his reputation has been revised posthumously in light of the popularity of the movie "Schindler's List," about a German industrialist who used his factory to save over 1,000 Jewish slave laborers.

The exhibit includes previously undisplayed letters by Anne Frank, whose diary is extraordinarily popular in Japan. Other items include a gas canister from Auschwitz, a leather whip from another concentration camp and 200 photographs.

One shows a German SS trooper shooting a mother and child in Warsaw during 1941, another an emaciated man being loaded into a crematorium. There is a picture of children showing their camp identification numbers, tattooed on their arms, one of Jews being hanged, of Jewish women in Latvia being forced to undress before their execution, of young men aged so prematurely as to be effectively dead.

Such images, common in America, are rarely seen in Japan. Side by side with Anne Frank's diary, major bookstores often stock best-selling anti-Semitic tracts describing global Jewish conspiracies.

"It isn't classic anti-Semitism," said Alfred Balitzer, a political scientist at California's Claremont McKenna College. "It couldn't be. In Japan there are no Jews."

But, he added, it is still dangerous -- particularly because of the strong role Japan plays throughout Asia.

The popularity of the anti-Semitic books has, however, begun to decline, and a different curiosity has begun to grow. "Schindler's List" has played to packed theaters, and more than 400,000 copies of a new, unabridged edition of "The Diary of Anne Frank" were sold last month, according to Rabbi Cooper.

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