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Japan Needs Deep Reflection on War Responsibility
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The question of war responsibility has been a subject of nationwide debate and controversy in Japan since the end of the World War II, 62 years ago this week.


The concept of war responsibility did not exist in Japan before the end of the war. Most Japanese simply did not think about it. According to popular belief, it was normal for the country to wage war on and colonize foreign lands.


The average Japanese actually became aware of the concept as a result of their country's defeat, and when the Allies formed a tribunal on Japan's war crimes, stripped the guilty of their right to hold public office and punished the country politically and administratively as well as legally. It did not take long for the concept to spread among and influence the Japanese population.


However, reaching a consensus on the concept of war responsibility was not simple. Japanese society has gone through several stages in its understanding of the subject.


The initial stage spans the first decade after the country's defeat, when debates about war responsibility had the nation's blood boiling.


Back then, the Japanese people learned for the first time about Japan's military's atrocities in Asia, including the Rape of Nanking (the Nanking Massacre) through the Tokyo War Tribunal and BC Class war criminal trials.


Believing the post-war rule in Japan and the ruling hierarchy was the continuation of that before the war, the leftwing forces represented by the Japanese Communist Party demanded the state and the decision-makers headed by the emperor be held totally responsible for war crime. The JCP also held the ruling hierarchy responsible for war crime legally as well as politically on the same standing as that of the Allied countries, whereas the average Japanese citizen had to deal with a dilemma when deciding who should bear the responsibility.


Meanwhile, the country's liberal intellectuals who, having felt depressed by the military rule during the war, found the post-war Western humanitarianism refreshing and accepted the prevailing philosophy of the occupation forces in holding Japan responsible for the war.


However, they also felt the occupation forces' presence hurt the Japanese people's feelings and therefore found it hard to accept the particular way they and the leftwing pursued Japan over war responsibility.


This sentiment led to their halfhearted attitude toward identifying who should assume war responsibility. But, following the prevailing Western philosophy, they were able to reflect on the sorry fact that the Japanese people, they themselves included, lacked spontaneity during the war in discussing the responsibility issue from a national, ethical point of view.



In the mid-1950s, the activities in the outside world to pursue Japan for its war responsibility basically ended. Those inside Japan thus entered the second decade. The characteristics of this stage lie in the emergence of the theory of holding the principle parties responsible for the war.


By that time, those sent to battle as army cadets during the final years of the war had become the mainstay of Japanese society. They had unforgettable firsthand experiences of the war, while some of them came across Marxism and liberalism in the early years of the post-war era.


They therefore found themselves torn between the nation's war experience and its war responsibility and gave rise to a fresh round of nationwide debates on this dividing issue. A host of books published in that decade exposed to the average Japanese war atrocities committed by the Japanese military in Asia, especially in China.


The Japanese reflections on war responsibility during that period were mostly based on an inward and ethical point of view, including discussions on why the average Japanese was reluctant to verify war responsibility and what was preventing them from digging deep into this issue.


The third stage of Japan's war responsibility debate began in the mid-1960s, when the inquisitive minds bore into the war responsibility of the nation as well as of the emperor. Even the religious circle and those still in elementary school, sometimes referred to as "underage citizens" during the war, were engulfed by the nationwide soul-searching tide.


During this period, the criticism of the emperor and the state found its place on the political agenda as a result of parliamentary debate over the Yasukuni national war shrine management bill.


The generation whose education was swiftly switched to democratic values after the war began to develop a strong distrust for their educators and parents along with the militarist teachings they had been subjected to during the war and think about the war responsibility issue based on their own war experience.


At the same time, the United States' bombardment of Vietnam and the escalation of the Vietnam War as well as the growing anti-war movement in Japan also lent energy to the drive to fault Japan for its colonial rule and war crimes. Needless to say, the indiscriminate bombing of Japanese cities and atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US also came under pursuit as war crimes.


The year 1982 saw busy hammering of Japan's war responsibility by native and foreign voices triggered by the way the officially revised history textbooks for secondary schools avoided the word aggression in their chapters on the war.


Against this backdrop, some Japanese intellectuals conducted in-depth research into such sensitive subjects as the Rape of Nanking and the Tokyo Trial. Apparently this kind of affirmative research into these new areas brought a greater sense of moral conscientiousness to the brainstorming about Japan's war responsibility. And the nation's recognition of war responsibility and its subjects both expanded in this period.


With the end of the Cold War as a turning point, the Japanese brainstorming over war responsibility swept into the fourth stage, when the war-victimized countries let out their cry of injustice, which had been muffled by the ideological duel between East and West, over Japan's attempts to shirk war responsibility.


Their collective anger also resonated through the activities in Japan to find those responsible for the war of aggression. The war victims' voices from overseas helped increase exchanges between the Japanese people and their foreign counterparts as well enriched the knowledge about war responsibility available in Japan.


During the Cold War, the dominant rightwing conservatives successfully silenced the discussion about war responsibility by labeling it an ideological taboo and calling those who openly question the official denial "brainwashed" by the Communist Party.


When the Cold War ended, however, the issue of human rights violations came out in full force. One example of addressing the war responsibility issue from that standpoint can be found in the personal damage cases filed by wartime forced prostitution victims known as "comfort women".


Some legal experts began working on litigations for war reparation in addition to helping former "comfort women" suing the Japanese government for compensation, both on the grounds of human rights violations.


The public pursuit of those responsible for the war of aggression took on different shapes at different stages and on different grounds.


However, we should take note of the fact that there were two different views, or stands, over the concept of war responsibility in Japan.


One is to pursue Japan for its war crimes from the point of view of the Allied countries and those victimized by the war of aggression. In this respect, the pursuance of war responsibility was aimed at Japan as a whole. Without question, China, the Republic of Korea and most of the Asian countries that suffered at the hands of Japanese aggressors held Japan responsible for the war from this point of view.


But, regardless of which view the Japanese understanding of war responsibility was based on, compared with that of victimized nations, there has also been a peculiar Japanese view that pitted the common Japanese against the state and the state leaders, namely the Japanese government, military and political functionaries such as institutions responsible for war propaganda and even the media.


In this scenario, the Japanese people, as subjects "deceived" by state leaders who led the nation to its defeat, pursued whoever they believed was responsible for waging and expanding the war for their criminal responsibility, though not without some sort of a "dilemma" every now and then during the process.


For instance, the Yomiuri Shimbun last year published a book Who Was Responsible? From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor. Its war responsibility verification is basically of the latter view, or stand.


These two concepts of war responsibility are different: Though the view that the Japanese were also victims is not entirely at odds with the other view on Japan's war responsibility, their difference is quite obvious. More than a few people in Asian countries have to question whether some in Japan try to shy away from the war responsibilities by placing too much emphasis on the Japanese as victims.


However, we must recognize the courage with which many Japanese intellectuals transcend the neo-nationalism to reexamine history and pinpoint those who were responsible for the war. Although we may not fully agree with their conclusions and may point out their emotional obstacles, we must still delve into the past to explore the events that shape their thinking.


The author is director of the Institute of Modern History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The original article is a review of the Chinese version of the book "Who Was Responsible? From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor," which was published by Xinhua Publishing House. The original was written and published by Japan's leading daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun last year.


(China Daily August 14, 2007)

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