Who's Sorry Now?

By Powell, Bill | Newsweek, July 24, 1995 | Go to article overview

Who's Sorry Now?


Powell, Bill, Newsweek


IN THE SLEEPY FISHING town north of Tokyo, they still don't know what got into their local city council. This spring, with the 50th anniversary of the Pacific war's end drawing near, some of the councilors in a town called Shiogama evidently thought it would be nice to issue a proclamation commemorating the date. And so they did. "What our government should do," it read in part, "is to make our responsibility for the war clear, and apologize and compensate those victims of the war inside and outside Japan." The council went on to demand that the national government issue a similar resolution.

Never mind that no government at any level in Japan had ever issued such a bracing statement of contrition for Tokyo's aggression in World War II. The motion passed without dissent. Indeed, it passed without several of the council's members even having read it. And that's when the trouble started. In Japan, a handful of right-wing, emperor-worshiping nationalists cruise about in menacing black "sound trucks," blaring patriotic anthems at earsplitting levels. Soon there were several of them parked outside Shiogama's little town hall, inquiring through their loudspeakers why the council had besmirched the memory of Japan's war dead. The council got the message. It formally withdrew the resolution and issued another: "Facing the historic 50th year since the end of the last war, we sincerely express our mourning and gratitude for the 3 million people who sacrificed their lives for the stability and peace of our country."

Fifty years later, Japan still flails about, trying to come to terms with its wartime past--and, in contrast to Germany, its Axis ally, never quite succeeding. To the rest of the world--and in particular to its neighbors in East Asia--there is much to atone for: the Nanking massacre; vicious medical experiments on POWs; the infamous Bataan death march. To this day Tokyo's reluctance to express remorse for the barbarity it inflicted on its neighbors sows mistrust throughout the region. A few weeks ago a senior member of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party called Japan's brutal occupation of Korea "peaceful"; in Seoul, students rioted and burned him in effigy. Last Thursday Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama tried to undo some of the damage, announcing that he was writing letters of contrition to all surviving "comfort women"--those Chinese and Koreans who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese Imperial Army during the war. Yet even that gesture drew heat from critics within his own government.

What is it with Japan? In any country, plainly, history can be divisive. Just ask the curators at the Smithsonian, who caved earlier this year to pressure from U.S. veterans and revamped an exhibit featuring the Enola Gay. But Japan is a society that values consensus above all, and that can make history more complicated still. What to say, think and teach about the war remains excruciatingly delicate--a battlefield still strewn with historical, political and cultural land mines. The rest of the world may not see them, but the Japanese know they're there. And they must step through them ever so gingerly, no matter how awkward they look in the process.

The desire for social harmony has circumscribed the debate about the war in Japan for decades. And it effectively concealed a basic fact: an awful lot of Japanese believe there are two versions of wartime history. The victor's version, now accepted throughout most of the world, and the loser's version--ignored, because the winner always get the final say. The versions differ mainly in nuance, in interpretation. But to the Japanese, the differences matter enormously. Thus, the attack on Pearl Harbor--an unforgivable "sneak attack," as most Americans would have it--was, to many Japanese, the only response possible to an Allied embargo that was cutting off the flow of oil.

In the victor's version of history, Japan's alliance with Germany forever lumps Imperial Japan with the Nazis, the 20th-century's Evil Inc. …

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