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Sunday, Dec. 16, 2001

Film focuses again on Japan's war guilt

Japan's war guilt gets yet another airing in the Japanese-made film "Riben Guizi (Japanese Devils)" (reviewed on Dec. 5). The film provides on-camera interviews with 14 former Japanese soldiers who committed atrocities during the 1937-45 war with China. Its two hours of horror have an honesty that, like most evil, borders on the banal.

Some rightwing critics say that since the Japanese interviewees had all been in Chinese re-education camps after the war, they may have been brainwashed. That is nonsense. It was the hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers and others who served in China and who refused to admit to atrocities that were brainwashed. They could not free themselves from the shackles of a tightly groupist ethic that says the nation-tribe can admit no wrong.

The Chinese camps provided a debrainwashing process. They helped the prisoners recover their sense of conscience and humanity.

Each year, NHK marks the Aug. 15 anniversary of the end of World War II with a wartime retrospective. This year it was the diary of a former Japanese soldier in China saying much the same as in the film and complaining about having to bayonet babies because, unlike adults, their soft bodies tended to stick to the bayonets. Since the soldier died in action he can hardly have been brainwashed.

The rightwing reluctance to admit to atrocities and guilt in the war with China seems curious. It badly damages Japan's global image, where comparisons with Germany's willingness to atone for war guilt are endless. The damage to relations with Beijing is even greater. But could there be a rationale for the reluctance?

Recently I joined a Tokyo symposium where the calls for history textbook revision and anti-China remarks of a prominent rightwing commentator were strongly applauded by the large, fairly conservative audience. Afterward I tried to reason with him. I said I could understand the rightwing claim that in colonizing Taiwan, Korea and even Manchuria during the 1930s, and in launching the Pacific War in 1941, Japan was doing little more than respond to or imitate earlier aggressive behavior by the Western powers in Asia. But how could anyone justify Japan's 1937 invasion into a China that had never done Japan any harm?

His response is worth recording. He began with a spirited repeat of the widespread rightwing view that it was not Japan but a group of belligerent Chinese soldiers, possibly communists, who had initiated the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 1937 that launched the Japanese advance into China proper.

But in that case did Japan really have to invade all the way to southern China simply because of a small border incident, I asked?

Not normally, he said. No Japanese military leader had wanted war with China. They had wanted to attack the Soviet enemy instead. What changed things was the sight of the Western powers and Moscow rushing to aid embattled Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek.

For generations Japan had seen these powers push into Asia from the south, west and north. They had already made large inroads into a weakened China. Now they were using the excuse of hostilities with Japan to further consolidate their grip on China. Japan had had to respond.

Japan was, in his words, sucked into a war it did not want and did not need. Diversion of manpower and resources into China was a major reason why Japan eventually lost the Pacific War. But once the move had been made, Japan's weak decision-making process ruled out any compromise or change of course.

Nor did Japan want to make China its colony, he said. It simply wanted to install the intelligent and pro-Japan politician, Wang Ching-wei, as replacement for the corrupt and incompetent pro-Western puppet, Chiang Kai-shek. He then went on to rehash the familiar rightwing argument that says that in any case Japan's attacks into Asia had liberated Asians from the shackles of Western colonialism, and that by opposing Japan in China the anticommunist West had guaranteed the rise of the communist "menace" in Asia.

As for atrocities, they are part and parcel of every war.

Biased and self-serving? Maybe. But when one nation confronts another, rarely does either side get to know, let alone understand, the viewpoint of the other side. Certainly we in the West have long preferred to ignore the events that led to the Pearl Harbor attack (just as we ignore the events behind the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack). How many Westerners even know about Wang Ching-wei? Could we get it wrong when we accuse Japan of blatant and deliberate aggression in China?

At the very least, maybe we do need to take a much closer look at just how the Western colonial nations were behaving in Asia back in the 1930s, and how others saw them.

But Japanese claims that all wars involve atrocities miss the mark. The emotionalism that underlies Japanese culture, and that can make the Japanese people so kind and sensitive at times, can work in reverse in wartime to create a blind brutality rarely seen elsewhere. That is the message of "Riben Guizi," and Japan should never be allowed to forget it.

It was also the reason for imposing on Japan a postwar constitutional ban against ever having a military again. Here, unfortunately, not just Japan but the world generally has been allowed to forget it.

Gregory Clark is honorary president of Tama University, and a member of the "Private Discussion Committee" set up in September by the Foreign Minister, Makiko Tanaka, to discuss international affairs.

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