Friday, August 31, 2012
Japan's problem over the past By Bethan Jinkinson
Japan's problem over the past
By Bethan Jinkinson
Japan's actions still cast a shadow over the region
As Japan marks the 60th anniversary of its surrender in World War II, its handling of the past still rankles in some parts of Asia.
Unlike the reconciliation in Europe of former foes like Britain and Germany, relations between Japan and her Asian neighbours, particularly China, remain very strained.
Japan's imperial army, which annexed Korea as a colony in 1910, later seized control of large parts of China and South East Asia as the war dragged on.
Its methods were often brutal. Following the 1937 capture of the Chinese city of Nanjing, Japanese troops killed up to 300,000 civilians and raped tens of thousands of Chinese women, historians estimate.
The Japanese soldiers were plunging their bayonets into everybody
Japanese atrocities are well documented in many other parts of Asia too.
Xiao Wenhu was a young Chinese boy living in Malaysia when Japanese soldiers came to his village in 1942.
"We were terrified, people were so scared. We all fell to our knees. We called out to them to spare our lives. The Japanese soldiers were plunging their bayonets into everybody, stabbing again and again. By around 6pm all became quiet. Everyone was dead," he said.
All this was going on at the same time that the German chancellor Adolf Hitler was executing his final solution, murdering millions of people from Europe's Jewish, gypsy and gay communities.
But since the end of the war, Germany and the countries it fought have become allies. The holocaust is taught in detail in German schools.
Japanese-born Keiko Holmes runs a charity which helps promote reconciliation between Japan and her former enemies.
"The German people are very transparent, they acknowledge what they have done wrong and they have apologised - and they are teaching at school what they have done, in order that the same sort of thing doesn't happen again," Mrs Holmes said.
The majority of our people believe that Japan was forced into war by the United States
But while Japan's government and businesses have invested heavily in East Asia's economies since the end of the war, there has been no real political rapprochement.
And unlike Germany, Japan has been equivocal about its apologies and the way it teaches its young people about what happened.
Although there are exceptions, Japanese school textbooks tend to skate over atrocities committed by their troops - a fact which prompts its neighbours to say Japan's apologies are insincere.
The Japanese nationalist author Hideaki Kase is adamant that Japan should not shoulder the blame for the war.
"The majority of our people believe that Japan was forced into war by the United States. America was making unreasonable demands upon us. So we were fighting a war of national self-defence," Mr Kase said.
Although that represents the hard-line end of Japanese nationalism, his sentiments are tacitly accepted by many Japanese.
This may explain why several high-profile Japanese politicians, including current Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, feel able to regularly pay their respects at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, which along with other Japanese war dead honours 14 Class A war criminals.
Built in 1869 to honour victims of the Boshin Civil War
Now venerates the souls of 2.5m of Japan's war dead
Those enshrined include 14 Class A war criminals
Japan's controversial shrine
Keiko Holmes believes that Japanese politicians have behaved irresponsibly.
"The Japanese government has not recognised it and apologised properly, because they don't want to let the Japanese people know the truth," she said.
Mr Koizumi's shrine visits, the controversy over history textbooks and an increasingly nationalistic tone in some parts of the Japanese press have contributed to a serious deterioration in ties with China, and widespread anti-Japanese sentiment in China and Korea.
But is there any hope of future reconciliation between Japan and its neighbours, especially China?
Keiko Holmes visited Nanjing last year, and apologised for the pain that her countrymen had inflicted on China.
"I think the wound is very deep," she said. "I think it is very difficult to really reconcile. But nothing is impossible. If we try hard, if we become really sincere, I am optimistic, I am hoping that things will turn. "
Although people like Keiko Holmes are trying to bring about understanding on a personal basis, there will have to be big changes - among Japanese politicians and its education system - before true reconciliation takes place.
Japan's controversial shrine
The shrine venerates the souls of Japan's war dead
Yasukuni Shrine - the name means 'peaceful country' - was founded in 1869 on the orders of Emperor Meiji.
It is dedicated to the souls of about 2.5 million Japanese men, women and children who died in the name of their country since that time.
They include soldiers, war-time nurses, students who entered into battle, and those who committed suicide in shame at the end of World War II.
At the centre of the shrine's controversy is the fact that those venerated include 14 convicted class A war criminals, including Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo.
Within the shrine, the souls of the dead are worshipped rather than just remembered.
According to Japan's national Shinto religion, humans are transformed into "kami" or deities when they die, and as such are worshipped by their descendants. The kami of remarkable people are enshrined.
Surrounded by war banners and military regalia, the Yasukuni kami are venerated by hundreds of thousands of visitors who attend the shrine each year.
Compared with most Shinto shrines, which were founded hundreds of years ago, the dedication of the Yasukuni shrine was a relatively recent affair.
Analysts say that because the main wars it commemorates are those with China and the US, it appears to the political left to symbolise foreign invasions.
To the right, it is a symbol of patriotism.
The shrine is frequently at the centre of political storms. There have been several parliamentary debates aimed at removing General Tojo's kami, but these have been blocked every time by nationalists.
The debate intensifies in the lead up to 15 August - the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.
Several cabinet ministers pay their respects at the shrine each year, but only one Prime Minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1985, has made an official visit since the war.
Former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto made what he said was a private visit, on his birthday in July 1996.
Mr Koizumi has visited the shrine six times as prime minister
Current Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has made six visits to Yasukuni since he took office in 2001. Arguments have ensued over whether these were made in a private or official capacity, although Mr Koizumi has denied such a distinction can exist for a country's leader.
"I'm both a public and private person," he has said.
Mr Koizumi has repeatedly argued that his visits are to pray for peace and that Japan should never go to war again.
But the visits have angered Japan's Asian neighbours, especially China and Korea, who were victims of the country's military aggression in the first half of the 20th century.