Abe’s Japan Cannot Apologize for the Pacific War
Image Credit: Reuters/Toru Hanai

Abe’s Japan Cannot Apologize for the Pacific War


Japan faces the expectations of its friends and neighbors to express itself on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will formulate and express those words. In doing so, he faces a dilemma. The focus of that dilemma is Yasukuni Shrine and what it speaks to regarding Japan’s view of the Pacific War. Will Japan demonstrate contrition in seeking atonement, or does it aim for exoneration by rehabilitating its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere motivations for the Pacific War? Histories yet to be may hinge on that choice.

German Contrition, Atonement and Honor

The German nation trod the painful road of contrition to atonement and redemption. They acknowledged the inhumanity of the Nazis and faced the most horrific truths of their misdeeds with unflinching honesty. By these courageous actions and the heartfelt sentiment underpinning them, Germany stands as a respected member of the community of nations, its Nazi past firmly forsaken but never forgotten.

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Jennifer Lind explains the German path to atonement in its greater complexity. The contrition that marked Germany’s rehabilitation as a trusted and respected nation evolved over six decades. In the 1950s Chancellor Konrad Adenauer admitted the wrongdoings of the Nazis while emphasizing postwar accomplishments. A spirit of self-pity and vicitimization would only slowly yield to contrition. In the 1960s Germany stepped up its prosecutions of the perpetrators of genocidal murder. It greatly expanded payments to survivors, many billions of dollars reaching across continents. Intolerance of revisionist views among German scholars grew stronger into the 1980s.

After reunification, united Germany began observing Holocaust Remembrance Day. The memorial to slain Jews was erected in Berlin. In 2004 the former Allied powers invited German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to the observance of the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. There Schroeder expressed celebrating the anniversary of the beginning of Germany’s liberation from fascism. French press proclaimed the event and Schroeder’s words as marking, “the last day of World War II.” In Germany today, Chancellor Angela Merkel – arguably the most powerful woman in the world – humbly visits Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau and pays homage to those slain. Those actions transcend any words she may express. The German nation knows honor and the pain of earning it. This was their finest hour of the 20th century.

In 2014, Shinzo Abe rejected the idea of Japan emulating Germany’s actions, citing differing political contexts for postwar Europe versus Asia. He implied the quest for European unification somehow mandated the German approach. A divided and adversarial East Asia, it seems, made Japanese attempts at atonement futile or counterproductive. That argument may be made, but it skirts the core issue of Japan’s stance, more deeply dividing the region and entrenching adversarial national relationships. Abe and his advisors surely understand this. Japan’s ability to shape regional and world affairs, as it is fully capable of doing and aspires to do, hinges upon how it is perceived by the community of nations, especially those of East Asia. Abandoning the ideal of reconciliation over its wartime actions cannot be an option on the Japan table. What strategy for realizing their ambition is at work? It may not be contrition and atonement.

A Museum and Shrine

German artist Hans Haacke wrote, “Museums are managers of consciousness. They give us an interpretation of history, of how we view the world and locate ourselves in it. They are, if you want to put it in positive terms, great educational institutions. If you want to put it in negative terms, they are propaganda machines.” A museum and shrine in Tokyo may bring Abe’s strategic posture on reconciliation into sharper focus. Yushukan Museum stands on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine. Therein is locomotive C5631, identified as the first to trundle down the Thai-Burma rail line, where more than 100,000 forced laborers and prisoners of war died in its construction.

A memorial to Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal also stands on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine – a member of the International War Tribunal for the Far East panel of judges, he wrote of the Class A war criminals, I would hold that every one of the accused must be found not guilty of every one of the charges in the indictment and should be acquitted on all those charges.” Pal considered the Pacific War provoked by the Americans and the war tribunals a sham. He stood utterly alone in this dissent among his 11 peer judges, but Japanese nationalists hold his views as authoritative and see Pal as a heroic figure. In 1968, Japan secretly enshrined 1,068 executed war criminals at Yasukuni as divine martyrs. Like those who did not survive the war, the executed soldiers had nobly sacrificed their lives in defense of the Japanese motherland against European Imperialism. The museum explains this defensive nature of the Pacific War. Abe and many other prominent Japanese statesmen regularly pay homage to those men.

Two Lenses of History

The museum and shrine express both explicitly and in spirit this Japanese nationalist view of the Pacific War. That view is essentially that first expressed for their vision of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in 1940 by Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke – a noble effort to liberate fellow East Asians from European and American colonial imperialists. In this light, the locomotive, the shrine to the dissenting tribunal judge, and the reverent homage paid by Japanese statesmen all become perfectly rational, reasonable and honorable actions. More important, apology or atonement by Japan does not stand to reason or justice in this view. This lens represents the battle of ideas being fought by Japan’s nationalists. As expressed by Haacke, Yushukan and Yasukuni offer an interpretation of history orienting the Japanese nation in the present. That view exonerates rather than atones.

The expression of apology and contrition by Abe would fly in the face of that interpretation and orientation. In so doing he would effectively discard that lens of the Pacific War and face having to accept another – Imperial Japan as a fascist, racist and militaristic nation that sought colonial domination over all of East Asia, and behaved with epic inhumanity in doing so. Through that lens, Yasukuni Shrine affronts the truth of responsibility and the dignity and honor of the millions of innocents slain by the men memorialized there. The spirit of the shrine becomes as morally odious as a shrine in Berlin honoring the Nazis – which absolutely cannot exist by virtue of the German view of itself in World War II. Contrition and atonement versus exoneration and rehabilitation set modern Germany and Japan apart by a vast moral difference.

There is no rational means of somehow reconciling the two views of Imperial Japan in the Pacific War. Both refer to the same historical events and cast the Imperial Japanese at diametrically opposed poles of morality and nobility. Getting at the nut of this problem lies in asking this question: Were the Imperial Japanese and the Nazis moral equals in the eyes of humanity? This addresses the question of whose historic lens is more true to what actually occurred, and, more to the practical point, how the community of nations perceives Japan today and its imperial militaristic past. The Japanese nationalist lens demands we respect their war dead as they do, martyred champions of liberty. The other lens sees the Imperial Japanese as racist murderers very much in the same moral box as their Nazi friends and requiring the same historical treatment. The exoneration and rehabilitation brought to focus in one lens is simply impossible through the other.

The dichotomy of the two lenses of course oversimplifies. Reality is more complex, and history is unavoidably subjective. The best we can hope for is a rational weighing of evidence in choosing which lens better approximates a reality present only in our recall of it. The dichotomy serves as a tool in striving to place truthful history at some point between the two lenses, rather than asserting ownership of absolute truth through one or the other. Each is inherently imperfect and flawed, but if both cannot be accepted, which one is more flawed? This is an exercise known to scientists as hypothesis testing, where conflicting ideas are examined by the weight of objective evidence.

Aggression and Murder

The documented evidence of the Pacific War bodes poorly for the lens of Abe and his fellow nationalists. The Imperial Japanese colonized the Korean Peninsula in 1910. They occupied Manchuria in 1931. They invaded China in 1937. They attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Their armies poured into Southeast Asia in 1942. The only argument on these facts is Japanese motivation for doing so – self-defense and liberation, or militaristic hegemony and empire building.

The period encompassing all of these conquests saw no European, American or Chinese effort, plan or hope to conquer the Japanese motherland. The assault on Japan began only after that Empire annihilated their defensively positioned and obsoletely outfitted forces throughout the East Asian sphere. No shred of evidence suggests the Europeans or Americans in Asia, or their Chinese allies, provoked the Japanese to these actions. Western trade sanctions on strategic commodities – so often invoked as a provocation against Japan – came only after the invasion of China. Denying a nation the raw materials needed for the military subjugation of another sovereign nation is no provocation. Launching armed forces into the realm of another nation is. The notion of Japan having fought a defensive war must be rejected.

More than 20 million Asians, most of them Chinese and Indonesian, did not survive their “liberation” by the Imperial Japanese. The Japanese nationalists view these losses as simply the collateral damage of a nation at legitimate war, no different from those slaughtered by the Allied bombing campaigns in Europe and Japan. However, the record of the actions of the invading armies firmly dismisses benign collateral manslaughter while in pursuit of military objectives. On Java in Netherlands East Indies, for example, 4 million perished where hardly a shot was fired in combat after a pathetic defense of just nine days. Most of those losses occurred among the romusha (laborers) conscripted by the Japanese for labor. Those people died in Japanese custody, of complete neglect of their basic human needs and by summary execution for insubordination, theft, or attempted escape. The treatment of these romusha reveals the view of them by their captors as valueless and disposable.

Among the hundreds of thoroughly documented events of cold-blooded slaughter of noncombatants, perhaps none is more revealing of Imperial Japanese intent and behavior than the exploits of their Unit 731. This unit was a vast network of medical research activities that harnessed the best and brightest medical and scientific minds in Japan. Their work is very thoroughly documented because the record of it became the instrument of liberty for those who carried it out – they bartered those records of biological weaponry experiments with the Americans, who gave them immunity from prosecution and cash in return. Unit 731 scientists conducted the most macabre and sadistic experiments on human beings in the known history of medicine or warfare. Thousands died at their massive laboratory at Pingfang near Harbin, China. Tens of thousands died in their field experiments, including the dropping of canisters containing plague-carrying fleas onto uncontested Chinese towns and villages. They exposed subjects to deadly infections, and then surgically observed the course of infection without anesthesia. These people, their subjects, were not human in the eyes of the scientists, but laboratory guinea pigs. Their treatment reveals the Imperial Japanese view of the lives of the peoples they had conquered – valueless.

This view is corroborated over and over again by records from across the range of the Japanese Empire of 1937-1945 – at Nanking, Singapore, the Bataan Peninsula, Manila, Borneo, Java, Sumatra, and New Guinea. The Japanese army and navy murdered unarmed civilians and prisoners of war by the many tens of thousands. At least several million romusha slaves (Indonesians, Malaysians, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Chinese) did not survive captivity. The Imperial Japanese enslaved and slaughtered the peoples of their seized domains. The notion of beneficence for their neighboring nations in conducting the war must be rejected.

Japanese nationalists rationalize that they were at war, during which wretched and immoral killing is simply a matter of course. The romusha slaves died because of the strategic imperative of their labors and their logistical limitations in caring for them – all driven by the Allies executing a war against their noble efforts. This is the same argument made as late as the 1970s by German intellectuals – genocide and warfare being necessitated by Soviet aggression against them. Those Germans were discredited by their own peers – Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and the consequences of that action falls onto the moral shoulders of Germany. The Imperial Japanese launched the Pacific War and bear direct moral responsibility for its many consequences. They did so in order to elevate the Japanese as the colonial masters of East Asia and must now account to those victimized in that effort.

Contrition or Exoneration

The reverence shown the memory of the men who carried out that war, especially those convicted of the most horrific atrocities, can only be seen as an epic injustice to the truth and its victims. Western media often characterizes the anger of formerly occupied nations at high-level visits to Yasukuni Shrine as born of the perception of “insufficient remorse.” Expressing the act of honoring the executioners of millions in such petty terms belies a fundamental and dangerous misunderstanding of the act of projecting nobility upon some of the most odious and prolific murderers in human history.

On very many fronts Japanese nationalists rally to protect their vision of history against this realization by their own nation and others. In education, the arts, media, and certainly politics, they gloss over, manipulate, discard, and suppress the truth. Their stridency in doing so, remarkably, compelled Abe himself to brazenly object to content in American textbooks of history. The strategy at work within the Japanese government indeed seems to aim not at contrition and atonement, but at exoneration and rehabilitation of Imperial Japan’s Pacific War by validating the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere as embodying the truth of their motivations in carrying it out.

In Europe, the battle of ideas in World War II ended when Schroeder stood at Normandy among his former enemies to celebrate the liberation of Germany from fascism. The battle of ideas in the Pacific War rages on, and dangerously so. Abe’s Japan still fights the Pacific War, and an apology that strips that war of Japanese nobility would amount to capitulation in the war of ideas that armed struggle embodied. In this sense, Japan remains a belligerent pitted against its neighbors and humanity for ownership of a particular history. Ultimately, what the prime minister says is far less important than what he does. The South Korean Foreign Minister Noh Kwang-il put it like this, “Japanese political leaders should realise that showing admiration and gratitude to such a shrine [Yasukuni] is tantamount to negating the premise under which Japan has returned to the international community.”

Kwang-il speaks to the absence of contrition and the odor of exoneration at Yasukuni Shrine. No expression of words will negate the demonstrations of reverence and honor afforded the men who murdered millions of defenseless noncombatants. The act desecrates the honor and dignity of those murdered. If Shinzo Abe and his government cannot shun Yasukuni Shrine, they cannot apologize, no matter what words they speak.

J. Kevin Baird served 22 years on active duty in US Navy Medical Service Corps, much of that in the Asia-Pacific. He is Professor of Malariology at Oxford University, United Kingdom, and resides in Jakarta, Indonesia. He is co-author of War Crimes in Japan-Occupied Indonesia: A Case of Murder by Medicine (Potomac Books, 2015)

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