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
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
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
'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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.