Historical Amnesia Bars Japan from Progress



IT IS often said that three times is a charm, and the Japanese public and its politicians may very well have been charmed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's recent visit to Tokyo's
Yasukuni Shrine for the third year in a row.

Like a batsman who has used up his three strikes, Mr Koizumi may be batting Japan out of the prospects of forging the kind of relations that North-east Asia has long been needing.
South Korea expressed 'anger and disappointment' and 'deep regret' at Mr Koizumi's visit. China's Foreign Ministry summoned Japan's ambassador in Beijing and issued a protest of
'strong dissatisfaction and indignation'. Both countries were occupied by Japan in the last century and regard the shrine, which is dedicated to its 2.5 million war dead, as a symbol of
Japanese militarism. Mr Koizumi said that he wanted 'to meditate on peace with a clear mind' and never again allow Japan to cause a war. Yet, it is easy to empathise with Chinese and
Korean distrust for his words when he chooses to conduct his meditation in a place built for remembering Class A war criminals.

Neither immediacies such as the current threat of North Korea, or even Japan's philanthropic provision of Overseas Direct Aid, or its development of extensive trade links and production
networks with China and South Korea can fight against the tide of history. This is not the history of Francis Fukuyama's complex abstraction of an evolutionary process
culminating in the grand triumph of liberal democracy. It is the history, which as Elsa Morante's History: A Novel tells us, that 'reaches the realm of ordinary people'. It is the pain of Japan's past transgressions of World War II which it chooses to deny that haunts the people of China, South Korea and much of Asia today. Historians estimate that 3.5 million people were enslaved or slaughtered by Japanese forces. Of these, 200,000 women were forced into sexual slavery. Countless people were butchered in biological and chemical warfare experiments and atrocities such as the 1937 Rape of Nanking.

Today, new horrors continue to be unveiled, from mass graves or 'people-reducing kilns' in Thailand and China.

It is hard for any of us to make sense of the barbarism that comes with war. Yet, while it is easy to forego such understanding in the pursuit of closure, it often cannot do without the act
of repentance and forgiveness.

There continues to be an expectation for Japan's Prime Minister to do what Mr Richard von Weizsacker did for Germany. As President of the Federal Republic from 1984 to 1994, he often
used his position to appeal to Germany's conscience on troublesome issues. In 1985, he made a famous speech challenging older German's assertions that they 'knew
nothing' about the Holocaust. According to Japan specialist John Dower, Mr Koizumi could have followed Mr von Weizsacker's example by using Yasukuni 'as an occasion to give a great
cathartic speech about what Japan did to its neighbours and people during World War II'. Instead, the Japanese Prime Minister reads a wooden statement of 'regret' for Japan's role in
the war every Aug 15 (the date of its surrender), while a procession of Cabinet ministers pay homage at the Yasukuni Shrine that honours ex-Prime Minister General Tojo and 13 convicted
war criminals.

The possibility of closure between Japan and its neighbours is becoming remote and not just because of Yasukuni.

First, Japan's post-war leaders created the impression that the country was deflecting the charges brought up by the Tokyo War Tribunals by appointing several Class A war criminals to
power 10 years after. Mr Kishi Nobusuke, minister of commerce and industry in Tojo's Cabinet, became Prime Minister in 1957. To many, this was as bizarre as a former Nazi luminary
becoming Chancellor in post-war Germany.

Second, nationalist religious groups such as the powerful Japan Association of the Bereaved Families of the War Dead belie Mr Koizumi's rhetoric. This lobby group has stated that to
describe the war as an aggressive act is tantamount to saying Japanese soldiers spilled their blood for nothing. Under Shinto belief, this would preclude their souls from resting in peace.

Third, the atheists among the growing Japanese right prefer 'historical amnesia'. Many of them argue for a 'correct' history: that Japan was never a colonial state; that the war was not
aggressive; that the mass enslavement of women and the 'great massacre' in Nanking cannot be proven.

Consequently, through the insistence of Japan's Ministry of Education on 'correct' history in the school curriculum, a generation of Japanese has grown up with a poor sense of the realities of
the war.

In truth, Japan must confront, interrogate, and resolve its past if it is to segue into the future. Otherwise, we can forget all that lies along this path: Sino-Japanese entente, Japan's forging
of closer ties with South Korea and the realisation of Japan's desire to do more than contribute financially to United Nations peacekeeping activities.

We can only hope that Japan has some charm left to do things differently for its future and ours.


The writer is a research associate at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies. He contributed this comment to The Straits Times.


See also this Working Paper of the issue of compensation for POWs of the Japanese.