Selden: How can the U.S. criticize Japanese atrocities?

Mark Selden, coordinator of Japan Focus, asks:

[M]ore than six decades since Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War, by what right does an American critically address issues of the Nanjing Massacre and Japan’s wartime atrocities? Stated differently, in the course of those six decades US military forces have repeatedly violated international law and humanitarian ethics, notably in Korea, Indochina, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the course of those decades, Japan has never fought a war, although it has steadfastly backed the US in each of its wars

In “Japanese and American War Atrocities, Historical Memory and Reconciliation,” Selden attempts to lay out a comparative framework to examine Japanese and U.S. atrocities and trace their significance to today. As implied in the quote above, condemnation hasn’t necessarily been going around in proportion to atrocity. The article begins by taking up the Nanjing Massacre.

Selden outlines quickly what happened, and emphasizes that not only do the events at Nanjing constitute an atrocity, but those events were a beginning of a longer string of atrocities that would last until the end of the war. He writes, “In short, the anarchy first seen at Nanjing paved the way for more systematic policies of slaughter carried out by the Japanese military throughout the countryside. … Nanjing then is less a typical atrocity than a key event that shaped the everyday structure of Japanese atrocities over eight years of war.”

He goes on to address U.S. actions, noting the U.S. “has never been required to change the fundamental character of the wars it wages, to engage in self-criticism at the level of state or people, or to pay reparations to other nations or to individual victims of war atrocities.”

The article takes on the bombing of cities, culminating in the firebombing of Tokyo and the nuclear bombings. He questions the U.S. and Japanese number for casualties in the Tokyo bombings:

An estimated 1.5 million people lived in the burned out areas. Given a near total inability to fight fires of the magnitude and speed produced by the bombs, casualties could have been several times higher than these estimates. The figure of 100,000 deaths in Tokyo may be compared with total US casualties in the four years of the Pacific War—103,000—and Japanese war casualties of more than three million.

Selden also alludes to wars in Korea, Indochina, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq, focusing not on the big name atrocities but on “foundational practices that systematically violate international law provisions.” He lists what apologies or acknowledgements he can find from the United States, but doesn’t find many.

I think an important if not entirely new point in the essay is that the Tokyo Tribunal was a starting point for a sort of two-tiered system, in which Germans would make amends, Japanese would give concessions to their U.S. occupiers, and the United States would begin what is now more than 60 years of life outside international law. I won’t say that international law is widely followed, but this is something to think about:

Only by engaging the issues raised by such a reexamination [of the bombing of Japanese cities]—from which Americans were explicitly shielded by judges during the Tokyo Tribunals—is it possible to begin to approach the Nuremberg ideal, which holds victors as well as vanquished to the same standard with respect to crimes against humanity, or the yardstick of the 1949 Geneva Accord, which mandates the protection of all civilians in time of war. This is the principle of universality proclaimed at Nuremberg and violated in practice by the US ever since.





One response to “Selden: How can the U.S. criticize Japanese atrocities?”

  1. s. sapin Avatar
    s. sapin

    Is this Selden guy historically illiterate, or just willfully blind?

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