Tag Archives: History Problem

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.

A Textbook Demonstration … In Japan

Japan’s history problem (歴史問題, rekishi mondai) is well-known in Asia, and it’s a common topic of discussion in Japanese political journals. Many are familiar with international criticism of Japan’s reckoning with its 20th century aggression, and the repeated approval by the Education Ministry of textbooks that underplay or gloss over the Nanjing Massacre and other incidents has been a cause for diplomatic and public protests in China since the 1980s.

Most recently, in April 2005, Beijing saw what media* reported to be the largest protest the city had seen since 1989. Anti-Japan demonstrations in 2005 began with an online petition against Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), but a quieter campaign was in the works calling for a boycott of Japanese businesses that they said supported a nationalist group in Japan known as the Committee to Make New History Textbooks (新しい歴史教科書を作る会, atarashii rekishi kyoukasho wo tsukuru kai)—Tsukurukai for short.

Then, a new edition of Tsukurukai‘s textbook was approved by the Education Ministry. This coincided with an shift in the rhetoric of both the Chinese government and demonstrators in Beijing and elsewhere. The highest estimates of how many attended the largest Beijing protest were around 20,000.

But, the Japanese textbook protest does not oppose denials of Japanese atrocities outside of Japan…

This week in Japan’s distant island prefecture of Okinawa, 110,000 people reportedly turned out to protest the removal of language from seven history textbooks. The passage in question has to do with whether a mass suicide by Okinawans occurred with “military coercion.” (Coercion is a key term these days in Japanese historical politics. Abe Shinzo tried to get himself out of trouble over his “comfort women” statements by squabbling over the definition of “coercion.”)

I have not studied the Okinawa incident in question, nor have I watched closely the politics behind this dispute, so I can’t speak to the facts. But here are some other places to look:

  • Ampontan has explored it at some length and his post includes background on the battle over the specific passages and language.
  • Shisaku has a comment (with photo) and links to a Canadian Press story
  • … which reports that this is the largest protest on Okinawa since the United States returned it to Japan in 1972. The runner up? “In 1995, 85,000 people took part in a rally following the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl there by three American servicemen, according to [Kyodo News].”

The size of demonstrations isn’t usually of great interest to me, but it certainly is useful to remember that Japanese textbooks don’t just rile Chinese and Koreans.

* This was mentioned in various places. Here’s one. Jiangtao Shi and Jane Cai, “Japanese Warned to Avoid Campuses; Embassy Urges Its Citizens to Stay Away after Call on Students to Protest in Beijing Today,” South China Morning Post, April 9, 2005.

Yasukuni in Context: Nationalism and History in Japan

Documents revealed in March that the Japanese government’s long-held position that it had nothing to do with the enshrinement of war criminals at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo wasn’t exactly, well, accurate. This week at Japan Focus, Akiko Takenaka has written a great update on these revelations. It’s published with an Asahi Shimbun editorial calling for the release of more documents and repeating its position that a secular memorial to war dead ought to be established—a position shared by an unlikely ally for the center-left daily, the center-right Yomiuri Shimbun. Japan Focus two years ago translated two editorials that represented an up-tick in momentum for that movement. It was significant to see the two largest newspapers in Japan (and in the world) agree for once on such a controversial issue.

I want to include an excerpt from Takenaka’s analysis, because it describes well why World War II reconciliation between Japan and its victims is so fraught. No single issue, not even Yasukuni, is the linchpin of tension over history.

Many, particularly international critics, have pointed out that the heart of the Yasukuni problem is the Japanese government’s glorification of its military past and reluctance to accept responsibility for its wartime deeds. State patronage of Yasukuni is intimately related to LDP efforts to revise the Constitution in order to strengthen Japan’s war-making powers. But simple removal of the physical structure of Yasukuni, or disenshrinement of the war criminals, will not resolve the Yasukuni problem. Let me explain. Many Japanese who are critical of the war and of Japanese war crimes, focus their criticisms on the shrine itself, including state involvement in the shrine, and the failure of the state to adequately provide apology and reparations to Asian victims of Japan’s wartime aggression and war crimes. In the process, like the new postwar generation of nationalists who currently lead the LDP, they fail to question the war responsibilities of the Japanese people, including their parents and grandparents – or, even themselves, for their reluctance to initiate a sincere dialogue on making amends. The ultimate solution to the problems associated with Yasukuni Shrine and crimes of war can only be resolved when both state and people accept responsibility and act to put the dark episodes of the war behind them through sincere apologies, reparations, and education of the next generations of Japanese.

The political hack in me wonders what kind of deal might be struck to satisfy some Japanese voters’ nationalist emotions while backing off of the rhetoric and actions that draw so much diplomatic criticism from China, South Korea, and other countries. If Japanese nationalists truly desire to make their nation a “normal country” in international affairs, perhaps they could lose some of the bravado displayed by implicit glorification of Japan’s aggressive past. Indeed, objectives such as gaining a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council might meet less opposition if, to paraphrase Chinese government statements in April 2005, Japan faced up to its history.

I’m not so naïve as to imagine such a compromise is a realistic possibility; nationalism in Japan, as anywhere, is not often so cold and calculated as to cede ground on issues of pride in favor of more concrete gains. And it’s not necessarily safe to assume China would stop opposing Japan in the UNSC example just because leaders shunned Yasukuni.

What emerges from this line of reasoning is the possibility that concrete political moves such as UNSC membership or Article 9 revision are fundamentally secondary to questions of national pride. Perhaps liberals in Japan could achieve some of their goals by wrapping pacifism in the flag. If only that could work in both Japan and the United States, we’d be in business.

Roh Lauds EU, Scolds Japan, and Calls for Regionalism

Japan Focus republished an April op-ed by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun today. Choice quotes:

  • “[T]he Europeans, befitting of a people who invented democracy based on rational thought, are writing a new history based on the lessons learned from their long string of wars. …”Many scholars define the 19th century as the Age of Europe, the 20th century the Age of the Atlantic, and predict the 21st century will be the Age of the Pacific or Northeast Asia. I do not agree with this description. While we have seen the gravity of economic and productive power shift from Europe toward the Atlantic, and more recently to Northeast Asia, such a shift does not necessarily put Northeast Asia at the heart of world civilization.

    “… I believe that the EU is still at the center of world civilization because it has been shaping an order of co-existence through peaceful and cooperative means.” (Emphasis mine.)

  • “I had hoped and believed that Japan would act decisively to resolve the burden of its wartime history through an appeal to its own conscience and rational wisdom. Thus, I chose not to raise this subject as an official agenda or issue during my earlier summit talks with my Japanese counterpart. My goodwill was not answered. On the contrary, Japan undertook a series of actions to justify its grim history of wartime aggression by paying tribute to the Yasukuni Shrine, distorting and airbrushing history textbooks, claiming territorial sovereignty over Korea’s Dokdo islets, and denying that the Japanese Imperial Army forced huge number of Asian women into sexual slavery during World War II.”
  • “Efforts need to be made to foster the creation of a regional community of peace and prosperity, outlined in the following:”First, we need to create a new regional order for economic cooperation and integration. Although economic interdependence among Korea, China and Japan has intensified in recent years, the countries have not been able to institutionalize economic integration, even in the most rudimentary form, namely, a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). …

    “Second, we need to forge a regime for multilateral security cooperation in Northeast Asia. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which helped bring down the Cold War wall of distrust and laid the foundation for an integrated Europe, provides a valuable lesson for multilateral security cooperation in this region.”

Fun With Abe-Bush Rhetoric

Shisaku has a snarky roundup of Abe Shinzo’s recent visit to the United States. Here’s the blog’s response to Abe’s hinting that maybe “the past is the past.”

“The 20th century was a century that human rights were violated in many parts of the world. So we have to make the 21st century a century — a wonderful century in which no human rights are violated. And I, myself, and Japan wish to make significant contributions to that end. And so I explained these thoughts to the President.”

First–uh, Abe-san, we are already six years into the 21st century. Believe me, rights have been violated.

Second–are you out of your freaking mind? Just because the date on Gregorian calendars start with a 2, we have to kiss off thinking about what happened in the past? (For all you on Jewish, Chinese or Hejirah calendars, you are not in the 21st century. You are on your own as to whether to violate or not violate human rights)