Japan strives to cope with its wartime past

May 27, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Japan's militarism during the 1930s and 1940s is one of those issues that won't go away -- especially when Japan unwittingly does everything possible to keep it alive.

Only a few days ago, the country's justice minister was forced to resign for denying that Japanese troops committed "the Rape of Nanking," one of the most notorious massacres of World War II.

Yesterday two new events focused attention on Japanese confusion on how to deal with their country's actions in the war.

First, the government confirmed that Emperor Akihito canceled tentative plans to stop at Pearl Harbor during a forthcoming goodwill trip to the United States. Japan's surprise air strike against the U.S. Navy base in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, prompted the United States' entrance into World War II.

Instead, the government announced that the emperor would pay a visit to Arlington National Cemetery during his stay in Washington.

Best-selling author

At the same time, a conservative member of the Diet, Japan's parliament, and best-selling author weighed in with his own controversial views on Nanking, Pearl Harbor, and the "inconvenient" truth of Hitler's real feelings toward the extermination of Jews.

Shintaro Ishihara became internationally famous in 1989 as co-author of the best-selling "The Japan That Can Say No," a nationalistic essay urging Japan to be tougher and more self-interested in dealing with the United States.

Yesterday, in a speech to the foreign press, his candid toughness was once again evident.

The emperor, he said, should not go to Pearl Harbor and should, along with the rest of the imperial family, avoid diplomacy "that would spoil their symbolic value," and instead "remain a mysterious presence."

The view is likely to be received poorly in many Asian countries victimized by Japan during World War II. The military acted in the name of the emperor, who thus came to symbolize brutality and colonial imperialism.

Mr. Ishihara linked the emperor's unwillingness to visit Pearl Harbor with the fact that no U.S. president has visited Hiroshima to view the remains of the victims of the 1945 atomic bombing, though he added that the issues surrounding each event were quite different.

Turning to Nanking, Mr. Ishihara said the now-ousted Justice Minister Shigeto Nagano had failed to make clear that the error in accounts of Nanking has been the size of the massacre, not whether the massacreexisted, as Mr. Nagano contended.

"What should be done here is verify the numbers involved because that seems to be where the controversy is," Mr. Ishihara said.

Four years ago, however, Mr. Ishihara was quoted calling the Nanking massacre a lie that "the Chinese made up."

The commonly cited number for the dead, 300,000, was almost 100,000 larger than the city's population at the time, thus "physically impossible," Mr. Ishihara said.

However, during postwar trials, Western missionaries who witnessed the massacre said the central China city was swollen with refugees, making 300,000 deaths possible.

Blames U.S. for toll

Mr. Ishihara also attributed the origin of the death toll as an attempt by the United States to justify its own guilt over the approximately 300,000 people that died as a result of nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"The most barbaric act," he said, "is to tamper with history for political purposes. That is something that should be avoided at any cost."

Japan's responsibility for Nanking was further minimized, he added, because the event was precipitated by a commander on the scene and not sanctioned by the state, as was the Nazi extermination of Jews, Poles and Gypsies, he said.

The Holocaust, he suggested, had been misreported, with Hitler having reservations about the extermination plan that was conceived by other Nazi officials.

Almost every recognized history of the Holocaust, however, shows that Hitler and other top-ranking Nazis were informed about the Holocaust.

Mr. Ishihara's views on the war are shared by many in Japan, though not a majority.

Earlier in the week, there were reports of protests in downtown Tokyo against statements made about Nanking by Japanese officials.

Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata has condemned remarks minimizing Nanking, but he has been far less visible on the subject than his predecessor, Morihiro Hosokawa, who drew global attention by apologizing and accepting responsibility for the tremendous damage caused by Japan during the war.

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