Japan war past felt in present Historians, lawsuits raise tough questions

November 01, 1998|By Hal Piper

"The past isn't over and done with. The past isn't even past."

-- William Faulkner A great cliche holds that whereas Germany has forthrightly confronted its war guilt, Japan has not. Perhaps like many cliches, this one at one time carried some truth. But 53 years after the end of World War II, the past is catching up with Japan.

Some 40 private lawsuits, filed by foreigners claiming compensation from the Japanese government, are working their way through the Japanese courts. Writers and historians are inquiring into the factors that turned polite young men into brutal soldiers. And a complex politics of apology animates diplomatic relations between Japan and its Asian neighbors.

The latest apology came two weeks ago in a formal diplomatic communique signed by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korea's Prime Minister Kim Dae Jung:

"Obuchi, looking back on the relations between Korea and Japan in this century, humbly accepted the historical fact that the Japanese colonial rule inflicted unbearable damage and pain on Korean people and expressed remorseful repentance and heartfelt apology for the ordeal."

Obuchi was 8 when Japan's 35-year occupation of Korea ended in 1945. His remorse, however personally expressed, is a derivative remorse on behalf of the Japanese people, most of whom were born some years after Japan's grip on Korea was broken.

Obuchi's apology was not Japan's - nor even Obuchi's - first acknowledgment of war guilt. He had been prime minister less than a month last summer when the annual Aug. 15 Surrender Day ceremonies came around.

"That war caused tremendous pain and sorrow, particularly to neighboring Asian countries," Obuchi told a gathering that included the emperor and empress of Japan and 6,800 relatives of Japanese soldiers and civilians who died in World War II. "We would like to express our deep regret and condolences to them sincerely."

It was the sixth consecutive year that a Japanese prime minister took the occasion of the surrender anniversary to express "remorse" toward the victims of the war in other parts of Asia, where 20 million lives were lost.

Rival ceremonies

But that weekend, 13 members of Obuchi's Cabinet were attending rival ceremonies at Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japanese war dead. Pundits, with Kremlinological zeal, noted that last year, under a different prime minister, only 12 Cabinet ministers went to Yasukuni.

Obuchi was absent, apparently because just two years ago his predecessor, Ryutaro Hashimoto, had visited the shrine and touched off Chinese grumbling about resurgent Japanese militarism.

Obuchi's absence infuriated the Association to Respond to the War Dead, whose head, Masao Honda, said: "A prime minister who cannot officially visit the shrine has no right to be the nation's leader."

He was seconded by, among others, Isao Nakamura, a businessman who backed a new movie portraying Japan's wartime leader, Hideki Tojo, as a patriot.

Japan was not the only country to have done cruel acts during the war, Nakamura said. "I have doubts about Japan's history textbooks, which can cite only the negative aspects of the nation's history," he said. "Schools should teach more about Japan's glorious history so young people can feel proud of their own country."

On the contrary, argues Saburo Ienaga, "glorious history" is exactly what Japan's school texts are all about. The historian, 83, has spent 32 years fighting in Japan's courts for the right to tell the truth, as he sees it, about Japan's war history.

His legal battle began in 1965, when the Education Ministry ordered him to revise numerous passages in his high school textbook "New History of Japan," because it showed some Japanese actions in an unfavorable light.

Over the years, Ienaga's challenges forced the Education Ministry to accept some of his views on atrocities, such as the Nanking Massacre. That was a 1937 assault on the then-Chinese capital, in which tens of thousands of Chinese civilians were raped and massacred by Japanese soldiers.

1993 ruling

Ienaga got Japan's High Court to rule in 1993 that military censors illegally ordered him to insert words into his text tending to exonerate the Japanese Army by asserting that the massacre occurred "amid confusion," and to delete references to Japanese soldiers committing wholesale rape.

Ienaga won another semantic victory in 1982, when the Japanese government was forced to apologize for describing Japan's wartime movements as "an advance" into Asia, rather than occupation of several Asian countries.

In these legal battles, Ienaga was supported by many of Japan's Asian neighbors. Thus, Japan's apologies are as much a matter of diplomatic maneuver as of historical truth-telling.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.