Sunday, March 18, 2007

Should they or shouldn't they?

It seems to be a universal truth of the study of Japanese history and the Japanese people that they refuse to acknowledge their role in world war 2, that they refuse to apologise to their neighbours or victims of the war, and that young people do not understand the war, its causes or their country's responsibility for it. This belief is reflected most clearly in the annual visits by the last prime minister, Koizumi Junichiro, to the Yasukunji Jinja, where 14 Class A war criminals are honoured. This rightly offends the victims of the war in neighbouring countries, and of course is taken by foreigners generally to represent the overall opinion of Japanese people, since everyone knows those inscrutable Eastern types all think the same.

This has recently been reflected in one of those periodic calls for an apology from the Japanese government for one of its many crimes of the time, on this occasion from the US Senate, for the Comfort Women issue. Comfort Women are prostitutes who served the troops at the frontline in world war 2, and it is generally believed that they were forcibly recruited, by some accounts even abducted and forced to serve at gunpoint.

So how do I see this while I live here? When I came here on holiday I visited the Yushukan, the museum attached to the Yasukuni Jinja, and I will post the email I sent at the time, as a reminder of the conservative view of the war. However, the Yushukan does not seem to reflect the view of most Japanese people, which from my conversations with young people in Tottori and Matsue I would characterise as something like this: Japan behaved badly before the war, the foreign powers did some things to force the issue, but ultimately Japan was wrong to start the war and it was a tragedy for everyone involved. Further, no-one in Japan seems to harbour ill-will towards the victorious powers, except that some have a bit of resentment towards the US over the fire bombings and nuclear attacks (a picture of the former heads this post). In fact, I have never met a Japanese person who had any opinion of Australia except that it is a wonderful place.

So how does this sit with the view that Japan has never apologised for the war, that it's young people know nothing about it, and that the Japanese cannot comfortably reenter international political life until they give this acknowledgement? I would say, it doesn't. And the reason it is thoroughly inconsistent with this assessment of Japan's remorse for the war is that the assessment is, like most views of Japan from outside, completely wrong.

Maybe I am silly to think this, since the prevailing view (except among academics of Japanese history) seems to be the opposite. So I shall defend my claim, and I shall start by characterising an apology. If a country were to start an aggressive war with a manufactured incident, in order to defend a political policy subsequently shown to be wrong, leading to the deaths of millions and the destructions of whole countries, how would that nation behave after its defeat? Would it

  1. rewrite its constitution so as to be unable to wage any form of aggressive war
  2. allow its victors to establish bases on its soil
  3. pay reparations
  4. Give aid and loans to nations it had previously occupied
  5. Make 40 apologies for its errors
Or would it alternatively
  1. continue to maintain the war was just
  2. claim it only lost because it was stabbed in the back by domestic political forces
  3. refuse to admit the war was a mistake
  4. refuse to publicly acknowledge or apologise for the destruction caused
  5. maintain trade embargoes against its previous foes
  6. build the worlds most powerful military and use it in subsequent reckless adventurism
The latter constitutes the US response to the tragedy of Vietnam (which we must recall included the destruction of much of Cambodia and Laos and is credited with creating the conditions for the appearance of the Khmer Rouge). The former represents Japan's approach to its war responsibilities. In fact I would say that, as far as international acceptance of guilt for past crimes goes, Japan's acknowledgement of its role in the war is a sterling example. The UK has not apologised for its air war in Iraq in the 20s- in fact most children in the UK never learn about this crime, and I know I certainly didn't. John Howard refuses to acknowledge that the Vietnam war was bad, and the US still has difficulty even discussing the Vietnam war properly. So who should be lecturing who about the credibility of their response to past war crimes?

As for the Comfort Women issue, there is evidence that some women were paid to do the work, and strong evidence that the army turned a blind eye to the methods used to recruit them. Early in the war most of the Comfort Women were Japanese but later they were recruited mostly from foreigners. They were not recruited directly by the army, so it is likely they were strong armed into it by contractors and handed over to the army. Certain egregious instances of western women being abducted and treated harshly were determined after the war (at the Batavia trials) to have been isolated incidents unrelated to the Comfort Women program. There is evidence that the Army directly press-ganged women or at least tricked them and in many cases hired women whose families were in debt (a time-honoured means of getting third world women into this line of work). There is certainly evidence that a lot of the sex workers were left broke and destitute in foreign countries, since although they were paid 10 times what the front line soldiers were paid, they were paid in war bonds that became worthless after Japan surrendered. It is also the case that Japan has apologised for this activity, and established a (private sector) fund to offer compensation to those women affected. To my mind this is probably an exceptional example of restitution for the mistreatment of women in wartime. Although there is debate about the significance of the apology and the fund, I somehow doubt that the victims of Serbian agression, or those prostitutes who served US soldiers in Vietnam, or the women abused by German soldiers in Russia, have ever received quite the same kindness from their defeated foes.

One should ask oneself, how many times will the Japanese continue to hear these claims of their lack of remorse before they give up saying sorry to people who obviously are not interested in acknowledging the gesture? Certainly it is convenient for the current crop of politicians, born after the war and trying to harness Japanese conservatism to their cause, to point to the rest of the world's continuing refusal to credit Japan's strict post-war measures as a perfectly good reason to avoid further apologies or even to rewrite past concessions - which is exactly what Shinzo Abe, the current prime minister, seems to want to do with this issue. Perhaps it would be better, if someone apologises, to thank them for their graciousness rather than wait a year or two and demand another...


Post a Comment

<< Home