What we choose to remember and how we choose to remember it often describes the present more accurately than the past.
Asia today is rife with disputes about “history.” Japan’s ruling party is led by a cohort of politicians who are dissatisfied with how the “Great War in the Pacific” (as they call it) is remembered, particularly in Korea and China.
Curiously, considering the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government is silent on this “history question” and dismissive of the animosities it is generating in Asia. As one U.S. regional expert put it, “Americans…don’t understand why 70 years after the end of World War II they should be as problematic as [these animosities] are.” Perhaps we should try. The Abe government’s efforts to alter Japanese perceptions of World War II, particularly through solemn remembrances of Japanese veterans at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, are at the center of a rising tide of regional nationalism that could create a whole new generation of Asian war veterans.
Armistice Day Became Veterans’ Day
November 11 used to be Armistice Day. It commemorated the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 when at the 11th hour the horrible fighting of World War I—the “war to end all wars”—finally came to an end. This “Great War” was not officially over until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles seven months later. What we chose to remember then was the cessation of violence, not the war itself, or victory, or the treaty that ended it. In a 1926 concurrent resolution marking the end of WW I Congress noted,
“the 11th of November 1918 marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals…it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”
Armistice Day became a national holiday in 1938. But in 1954 the name was changed to Veterans Day. President Eisenhower’s proclamation announcing the change stated that it was necessary,
“in order to expand the significance of that commemoration in order that a grateful nation might pay appropriate homage to the veterans of all its wars who have contributed so much to the preservation of this nation” and to “solemnly remember all of those who fought so valiantly on the seas in the air and on foreign shores to preserve our heritage of freedom.”
November 11 was no longer a celebration of the cessation of violence. We remember the day now to commemorate sacrifice and soldiering.
Honoring Japanese Soldiers at the Yasukuni Shrine
Perhaps this is why, despite Pearl Harbor, Americans seem to have surprisingly little problem with the Japanese leadership’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which was established in 1869 “to commemorate and honor the achievement of those who dedicated their precious lives for their country.” But Americans might think differently if they visited the shrine themselves. It depicts Japan as a victim of U.S. aggression, threatened by a U.S. policy of containment, that was forced to attack the United States in order to preserve its right to develop its economy. These are the same complaints China levels at the United States today. One of the reasons there are heightened concerns about China among Japan’s current leaders may be that when they listen to their Chinese counterparts they hear an historical echo of their own voices.
The continuing sensitivity of these historical issues was demonstrated earlier this year when the government of Germany took the highly unusual step of denying Chinese President Xi Jinping’s request to pay an official visit to Holocaust museum in Berlin. Chinese leaders often draw parallels between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, which, according to the judgement of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, was guilty of the “organized and wholesale murder” of 200,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war during the first six weeks of the Japanese occupation of Nanjing in 1937, as well as a host of other war crimes, including torture, rape, vivisection and cannibalism.
Many Koreans, as well as the Chinese, are frustrated by the Japanese leadership’s unwillingness to acknowledge these atrocities. And they are angry that the Japanese Prime Minister and many officials of his government pay homage to the Japanese military veterans who were responsible, and at the way the Yasukuni museum portrays them. For example, an exhibit honoring these men for their service to their country displays quotes from the dissenting opinion of Radha Binod Pal, who wrote that “each and everyone of the accused must be found not guilty of each and every one of the charges in the indictment.” Pal argued the alleged crimes were defined by ex post-facto laws and that the Tribunal was “really an appeal to the political power of the victor nations with a pretense of legal justice.” He argued that the Tribunal’s conviction of the accused amounted to “piecing up want of legality with matter of convenience.”
Despite how they are used in the Yasukuni museum, Pal’s opinions were actually not intended as a defense of, or an excuse for the abhorrent behavior of the Japanese veterans on trial, but a consequence of his belief that the method used to defeat Japan—a strategic bombing campaign that leveled 67 Japanese cities and indiscriminately killed millions of Japanese civilians—deserved moral scrutiny as well. The Indian jurist was especially concerned about the U.S. decision to use the atomic bomb. He argued that instead of focusing on retribution “the real question” facing both the victors and the vanquished in the wake of the war should be “can mankind grow up quickly enough to win the race between civilization and disaster?”
A Prospect for Reconciliation
During a recent visit to Hiroshima, a Japanese colleague lamented that the U.S. decision to use the atomic bomb inhibited the Japanese public from undergoing the same kind of soul searching that the Germans did at the end of World War II. The shock and horror of the experience commemorated in the Hiroshima museum, which left me so physically ill I nearly fainted, was so overwhelming that it may be responsible, at least in part, for Japan’s troubling lack of retrospection about its role in World War II. If so, it is a consequence of the U.S. decision to use the bomb that may still exercise a profound influence on the prospects for peace in Asia today.
As President Obama’s tenure comes to a close some speculate that his legacies in foreign policy will be the renewed U.S. focus on its role in Asia and his effort to move the U. S. government towards accepting the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. In that context Japanese of all political persuasions are united in the hope that the President will visit Hiroshima before his term expires. Should he find the courage to consider a visit many American veterans and their families might find deeply disturbing, speaking about the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war at the site of the bombing may encourage Japan’s political leaders, and the people who support them, to reconsider the humanitarian consequences of their own behavior during the war. If they did it would go a long way towards easing the fears and tensions that threaten Asia today.