Enough Apologies. We Need More Truth From Japan About WWII.

china focus

HONG KONG -- The 70th anniversary of the victory of the Allies over Japan in the Second World War is now upon us. It is at times like this that discussions of whether apologies by the Japanese government for the hardships, miseries and sufferings caused by the Japanese Army and the atrocities committed by it, especially to civilians, have been sufficiently contrite, sincere and from the heart.

This war created tens of millions of victims, perhaps even as many as a couple of hundreds of millions, in Asia. I was one of the victims of the war, but a relatively lucky one. My parents lived in Hong Kong before the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. They were fortunate enough to escape from Hong Kong after the Japanese Army invaded and occupied the city in 1941, to move back to Guilin, in the province of Guangxi.

Towards the end of 1944, in one of its last offensives, the Japanese Army made a big push for Guilin. My family became war refugees once again and tried to flee to Chongqing, the war-time capital of China, on land. My mother was pregnant with me then. We had to travel through the province of Guizhou first. We made a transit stop at Zunyi, a regional administrative center of Guizhou, when my mother could not go on any more. However, there was "no room at the inn," so I was born right in the Office of the Regional Administrator of Zunyi. I was very lucky indeed to have survived (I turned 70 last December).

japanese propaganda
A Japanese propaganda leaflet, 1941. (Government Records Service of Hong Kong)

Almost every Japanese prime minister since 1945 has apologized in some fashion or another. But these apologies seem to have never been deemed sufficient. Why? To be fair, the Japanese people also suffered greatly during the Second World War. Japan was the only nation that suffered the massive devastation of atomic bombs -- not one, but two -- and most unfortunately almost all of those who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilians. But just because everyone suffered from the war does not and should not eliminate the culpability and responsibility of those who started the war and committed atrocities, or allowed them to be committed.

However, I believe the time has come to call a halt to demands for further apologies from Japan. It is not apologies that the world needs, even if they are fully contrite, sincere, voluntary and heartfelt. After all, it makes no sense for someone to apologize on behalf of his or her grandparents, for what was done more than 70 years ago. Likewise, it also makes very little sense for someone to accept the apologies on behalf of his or her grandparents, who are long gone. Such apologies would not make any difference. What the world needs is a truthful account of what happened, a true history that has not been whitewashed, so that hopefully it would help to prevent a repetition of history in the future.

The German Example

In Germany, after the Second World War, the war-time atrocities committed by the Nazi government against the Jewish people and others were readily acknowledged by the (West) German government. Those responsible were prosecuted, tried, convicted and punished. The victims were compensated to the extent possible. There has been no attempt by the German government to cover up the true history. In fact, in some European countries today, it is even a criminal offense to deny that the Holocaust took place. No one, as far as I know, has called on the German government to apologize, certainly not for the last 50 or 60 years. Why? It is because Germany has dealt with its history forthrightly, truthfully and responsibly.

In contrast to Germany, Japan did not clean its political house, and many war criminals and suspected war criminals came back to serve in the post-war Japanese government.

Why is there such a difference between the behavior of the German and Japanese governments? One difference is that Germany (West Germany to be exact) cleaned its political house after 1945. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer basically made sure that no former Nazi would become a part of the German government. In contrast, Japan did not clean its political house, and many war criminals and suspected war criminals came back to serve in the post-war Japanese government.

The fault, however, does not lie entirely with Japan. The U.S., as the occupying power of both post-war (West) Germany and Japan, must bear a significant share of the responsibility. Had Japan clearly and forthrightly acknowledged its responsibilities for the war-time atrocities committed by its army and accepted the records as part of the historical accounts, as Germany did at the time, there would have been far fewer calls for more apologies, if any, today. The U.S., intentionally or unintentionally, missed an opportunity to help make things right.

Moving Forward

However, this is water under the bridge. How should we move forward? China, Japan, Korea and other East Asian nations can move forward together by trying to find and document the whole truth. They should gather together all the records that still exist, from all sources -- private, public and governmental, including information held by the intelligence agencies -- on that period. More than 70 years later, nothing needs to be held in secret any more. For example, on the question of whether the Nanking (current name is Nanjing) Massacre actually took place, in addition to the news reports, photographs, survivor diaries and reports, it is worth looking into the daily records and reports to the Tokyo headquarters by the commander and senior officers of the Japanese Army in Nanjing. Was there any mention of this event in the Japanese emperor's diaries? What did the representatives of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nanjing report? What did the other diplomatic missions in Nanjing report to their respective governments?

For another example, on the question of whether the Japanese Army performed experiments on human beings in its research on germ and chemical warfare in northeast China, one can look at the reports filed by the Japanese researchers involved to their superiors and to the Tokyo headquarters in addition to survivor accounts. For still another example, on the question of whether the "comfort women" volunteered, as claimed by some Japanese, or were forced into sexual slavery, no time should be wasted to interview the survivors, who must be already in their 90s, and their families, but also former Japanese soldiers, the recruiters of the "comfort women" for the Japanese Army, and the former members of the medical corps of the Japanese Army. The Japanese Army is well known for keeping good and complete records. These records would shed light on what happened, if they have not been destroyed already.

Just because everyone suffered from the war does not and should not eliminate the culpability and responsibility of those who started the war and committed, or allowed to be committed, the atrocities.

The objective of this exercise is not to assign blame, not to seek compensation and not to punish anyone. The objective is to simply discover the whole truth, and to record it in the history books of all the countries in the world, so that these atrocities will never happen again.

While a civilized nation may or may not be able to completely prevent its army from committing atrocities (the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq would come to mind), it would not shirk from the responsibility of confronting the facts no matter how painful, prosecuting those criminally responsible and trying to right the wrongs, as the United States did in both of the cases mentioned here. The U.S. is held in greater honor and respect in the world because it acknowledged its shortcomings instead of covering them up. I firmly believe that Japan can live up to the responsibilities of a civilized nation. The world, including Japan itself, does not need more apologies from Japan, just more truth.

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