JPRI Critique Vol. V No. 6 (July 1998)
The Rape of History
by Robert M. Orr, Jr.

I recently read a book that has caused quite a stir in the United States and the expected defensiveness on the part of Japanese government officials. The book is The Rape of Nanking, and the author is a young Chinese-American woman named Iris Chang. It is widely advertised as being the only English language book on this horrific chapter in Sino-Japan relations (although in 1997, Yale Divinity School published a compendium of eyewitness accounts by Christian missionaries).

Chang's book is not one to read if you have a weak stomach. Several times I had to stop reading the description of a seven week orgy of violence by the Japanese Imperial Army of an unspeakable magnitude. Even the Nazis based in Nanking were left aghast by the brutality they saw. Some estimates cite between 300,000 and 400,000 people killed, which is categorically denied by the Japanese government.

I do not intend either to review this book here or to describe the mass murder perpetrated by the Imperial Army. Rather I would like to address why Japan continues to be dismissive of its World War Two actions--an attitude that continues to cloud Tokyo's relations with its neighbors.

The Rape of Nanking itself is either flatly denied in Japan, in spite an abundance of clear cut evidence, or played down as insignificant. In 1986, the Minister of Education, Masayuki Fujio, declared that this sort of thing happens in war. His comment reflected the "boys will be boys" way of thinking about mass slaughter and rape prevalent in some Japanese rightist circles.

While there have been occasional lame demonstrations of contrition on the part of Japanese leaders, the fact is that the ruling LDP is a veritable rogue's gallery of politicians who see Japan as a World War Two liberator rather than as aggressor. In this argument rather than invading Asian countries for purposes of national aggrandizement the Japanese military was actually there to help them throw of the yoke of western imperialism. It is important to note that those whom Japan supposedly was rescuing reject this interpretation of history. This is precisely why no one in Asia is willing to just forget.

The continuing denial and even panegyric approach to Japanese war leaders is reflected in a new film being shown in Tokyo about the life of Premier Hideki Tojo (called Pride) which concludes that he was a pretty good guy after all. It is impossible to imagine a similar film being produced in Germany today by a main stream studio about Nazi wartime leaders. But the real question that remains is how all this could simply have been swept under the tatami. For that I believe the United States shoulders the lion's share of the blame.

At war's end the Truman Administration made the decision to allow the Emperor to remain on the throne so that the occupying authorities could rule through him and thereby hasten the return of a peaceful and prosperous Japan. No one can deny that this was a success, but there was a price attached. For the U.S. to exonerate Hirohito made it much more difficult for military leaders to conceive of their own guilt. Since the war was fought in the name of the Emperor, how could soldiers carrying out the will of the Emperor be guilty if the Emperor himself was innocent?

There was another factor. In contrast to Europe where the Third Reich came to an historical end, the Japanese regime officially continued. The reign of Nazi Germany's last official leader, Admiral Karl Doenitz, was over when the Four Power occupation commenced. The leader at the time of the Japanese surrender, Prime Minister Higashikuni, a member of the Imperial family, continued for a time during the U.S. Occupation. In the years ahead it would become clear that such a pre- and post- war link would make facing responsibility all that more difficult.

Within two years of Japan's surrender the contours of the Cold War were already becoming clear and complicating the picture. The United States now had to chart a policy between the Scylla of regional Communism and the Charydbis of possible Japanese revanchism. And they chose to take a chance on the latter. This put Washington in the position of freeing the very people from the prisons that had brought war to America's doorstep. It also helped to set in motion the mentality of denial that exists in Japan today.

Early in the Occupation the Supreme Command of the Allied Powers (SCAP) had intended to insert a clause in the final treaty returning Japan to sovereign status recognizing the perpetuity of the purges of Japan's prewar and wartime rightist leaders. When the 1952 U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty was signed that notion was dropped. On the day after Japan once again became a sovereign state Tokyo's leaders lifted the purge and allowed the right wingers to stream back into the government. Many went on to big things. In 1957, Nobusuke Kishi, a former Minister of Munitions who spent several years in Sugamo Prison as an indicted class A war criminal, became Prime Minister. At the time, his Nazi counterpart, Munitions Minister Albert Speer, still had nine years left on his 20-year term in Berlin's Spandau prison.

In the years that followed this shirking of official responsibility would be translated into an abundance of events and actions: textbooks that were so dramatically toned down by the Education Ministry it amounted to nothing less than rewriting history and in many cases outright censorship. On several occasions these actions created diplomatic rows with China and South Korea. On other occasions forthright views on Japanese wartime culpability could be dangerous to one's health. When Nagasaki Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima, a wartime soldier, stated that Emperor Hirohito had responsibility for the war, his own party, the LDP, discouraged prefectural political leaders from cooperating with him. And in January, 1989, the Mayor narrowly survived an assassination attempt by right wing hoodlums.

In some ways, the war has not truly ended for Japan. In an April, 1997, Associated Press story former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale said that Japan needed to face history "honestly and directly" and wished that Tokyo could make a full apology for its war crimes. Perhaps a younger leadership will one day be able to do this. But with the continued barrage of Education Ministry propaganda even they may have difficulty discerning reality. If that is the case Japan will continue to have this albatross around it's neck in dealing with Asia and the perversion of history will be complete.

ROBERT M. ORR, JR.'s career has spanned academia, business and government. He is currently Vice President of the American Chamber of Commerce Japan and a member of the JPRI Board. He holds a Ph.D. from Tokyo University.


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