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Home > Opinion > Japan's war guilt revisited

Japan's war guilt revisited

It is our obligation as Japan's most influential newspaper to tell our readers who was responsible for starting the Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War."

So writes Tsuneo Watanabe, editor-in-chief of Japan's (and the world's) most widely circulated newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, in the introduction to the book, "From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor: Who Was Responsible".

Watanabe, who is now in his eighties and served in the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII, was bothered by the way unfinished business concerning the war continued to hinder Japan's progress. As a remedy, he set up a War Responsibility Re-examination Committee at his newspaper to undertake a 14-month investigation into the causes of Japan's Pacific War.

Watanabe tells us the Committee concluded that, "not only high-ranking government leaders, but generals and admirals should shoulder the blame". According to the Committee, "field officers were often more influential than even the emperor, war ministers and chiefs-of-staff in making decisions to go to and escalate the wars, and were responsible for many atrocities".

It has never been easy for a nation to face up honestly to the bitter fact of having committed war crimes, genocide, unjustified foreign aggression, or having mistreated and killed its own people. Japan is no exception. Although there have been numerous initiatives to investigate its war guilt, especially its occupation of China, there has not yet been an official effort comparable to what the Germans undertook to take collective responsibility for their war crimes.

While Yomiuri's unique public effort is not a government initiative, it comes as close as Japan will probably ever get to conducting an acceptable "official" inquiry and offering an adequate apology. Its style is almost scientific - factual, staccato-like, and unemotional - and it goes a long way toward meeting China's demand for a convincing investigation and act of contrition that might allow the bitter and still poisonous past to be overcome.

Watanabe laments the fact that after Japanese war criminals were tried by the Tokyo Tribunal of 1951, "No efforts were made in the name of Japan or the Japanese people to look into where responsibility for the war rested". As a result, "there can be no genuinely honest and friendly dialogue with those countries that suffered considerable damage and casualties in the wars with Japan". Indeed, Yomiuri's report may well have helped convince Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to go to China immediately after being elected to seek better bilateral relations.

China's leaders seem to have taken note of this moment of Japanese remorse. This implies a ray of hope for a bilateral relationship - the most important in Asia - that over the past two decades has been battered by Japan's reluctance to face its past, which has become a lightning rod for over-heated nationalist sentiment on both sides.

But does the Yomiuri study go far enough? While it assigns responsibility to Japan for WWII, and even unflinchingly names the political and military leaders who bear responsibility, one can still detect a whiff of reluctance in its failure to fully describe some of Japan's war-time actions. For example, the horrors of the Nanjing Massacre in 1937, when Japanese soldiers killed 45,000-250,000 Chinese - many of whom were civilians - are given little more than a brief mention.

But it would be a pity if China's leaders did not endorse this acknowledgement of Japanese guilt as a manifestation of Japan's willingness to repent. The damaged bilateral relationship has only made China's desire for a "peaceful rise" more uncertain. At the same time, it has left Japan's long sought transcendence of its war guilt and quasi-pariah status incomplete. Watanabe and Yomiuri Shimbun have provided a rare opportunity that should be seized for the greater good of China and Japan and the world.

Of course, it is always easier to export blame than to shoulder it. And, true, no Japanese prime minister has yet fallen to his knees in Nanjing the way Chancellor Willy Brandt did on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, where he apologised for the crimes of Germany by saying, "No people can escape from their history".

But that was in 1970, when memories of the war's ravages were fresh. Now, over half a century has elapsed. "If things are left as they are," writes Watanabe, "a skewed perception of history - without knowledge of the horrors of the war - will be handed down to future generations." It would be an immensely encouraging sign of China's growing maturity if its leaders used this moment to look beyond the bitter past toward a new future with Japan.

Orville Schell

Orville Schell is a renowned expert on China and is dean of the School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley.

Copyright: Project Syndicate. 

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