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Five issues that feed the WWII debate in Japan

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Five issues that feed the WWII debate in Japan


WWII is far from being a closed chapter in the Land of the Rising Sun. If Germany seems to have come to terms with its historical responsibilities, Japan, the other major defeated Axis power, still struggles with its past. The battle over the historical memory, that some consider even as a war on truth, is far from being over in the country that was the last to have put an end to WWII.

‘Comfort women’: Japan’s ambiguous “I’m sorry”

It is considered to be the issue vehemently confronting Japan with regards to the legacy of its WWII past. The two words euphemistically point to the women who were forced into sexual slavery by and for the Japanese military between 1932 and 1945. Their exact number is still being researched and vividly debated. Campaigners estimate it somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000. It is considered to be one of the world’s biggest case of institutionalised human trafficking.

Photo: A young ethnic Chinese woman who was in one of the Imperial Japanese Army’s “comfort battalions” is interviewed by an Allied officer in Rangoon, Burma, on August 8, 1945.

All across East Asia and the Pacific Islands, the Japanese army set up numerous “comfort stations”, a wartime network of brothels that provided sex for the military and its contractors. Annexed by Japan from 1910 to 1945, South Korea was purportedly the source of the majority of the trafficked comfort women. The issue continues to plague Tokyo’s relations with Seoul.

The last few surviving victims are still waiting for justice, mainly what they call “a sincere” apology and compensation directly from the Japanese government. But Japan has thus far refused to compensate the women directly, saying all claims were settled by post-war peace treaties.

Photo: Claire Solery – Comfort women rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, August 2011.

As for the apology, it depends on who runs Japan. The current conservative government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denies that imperial Japan ran a system of human trafficking and coerced prostitution, stating that comfort women were simply camp-following prostitutes. In June 2014, Abe’s government published a reviewed, diluted version of the 1993 Kono Statement , the Japanese government’s first formal acknowledgement of, and apology for the wartime network of brothels.

Nippon Kaigi: The powerful revisionist lobby

Nothing reflects more the rift left inside Japan by the country’s past militaristic legacy than the neo-nationalist movement Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference). Established in 1997, this non-partisan organisation counts approximately 35,000 members, has more than 250 offices around the country and holds dominant positions in the legislative and executive powers. The Nippon Kaigi Discussion Group of the Diet has 289 members (of the Diet’s total 480 members), mostly conservatives from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The current conservative Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and 15 of the 18 members of his cabinet are among those affiliated. Abe’s revisionist stance has had pacifists worrying since 2012. Certain pundits point out that some of the leading figures in the lobby belong to political dynasties that were directly involved in war crimes, and that this can be a source of motivation in their quest for historical revisionism. Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi – a former Prime Minister between 1957 and 1960 – was jailed between 1945 and 1948 as a Class-A war crime suspect.

Openly revisionist, Nippon Kaigi embraces many of the tenets of pre-WWII Japan: the restoration of monarchy – i.e. the divine right of the Emperor and his reinstatement as the executive of Japan; and State Shinto, which was the official ideology of Imperial Japan (1868-1945). Japan’s current Constitution rejects these views and separates the political and religious realms. Nippon Kaigi also negates Japanese war crimes and recommends the revision of the Constitution and school textbooks, as well as support for prime ministers’ official visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

Yasukuni Shrine: The Ghosts of the past

This Japanese Shinto temple is dedicated to the souls of those who died serving the Emperor of Japan in the wars between 1867 and 1951. Established in 1869 by Emperor Meiji, the Yasukuni Shrine lists the names, origins, birthdates, and places of death of over 2.4 million of Japan’s war-dead men, women and children. A symbol of dedication to the Emperor, enshrinement at Yasukuni signified meaning and nobility to those who died for their country. While the majority of those commemorated weren’t even members of the Japanese military, 1,068 of them are war criminals, 14 of whom are considered prominent, Class-A war criminals.

The 14 include the prime ministers and top generals from the WWII era. Their enshrinement was enacted in a secret ceremony in 1978 by the then-head priest Nagayoshi Matsudaira, who rejected the Tokyo war crimes tribunal’s verdicts. No wonder, then, that China, South Korea, and Taiwan consider the Yasukuni Shrine – which is a religious institution independent of the Japanese government – as being revisionist and unapologetic about the events of World War II.

Photo: Yasukuni Shrine, Tokyo

No Japanese emperor has visited the Yasukuni Shrine since 1978, but certain members of the Japanese Government and of the Diet have chosen to pay official and unofficial visits. These acts are perceived as particularly insensitive by Japan’s neighbours, as they consider the shrine to be a glorification of Japan’s past military aggression. In 1985, Yasuhiro Nakasone became the first post-war prime minister to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in his official capacity. The visit gave birth to domestic and international protests and was considered as a great insult to all WWII victims.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was one of the most controversial visitors. On October 17, 2005, Koizumi visited the shrine for the fifth time since taking office. Although he claimed that his visit was a private affair, it came only days before a scheduled visit to Beijing of the Japanese Foreign Minister. China responded by cancelling the visit. During the 2005 APEC summit in Busan, South Korea, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing likened Koizumi’s visits to “German leaders visiting memorials related to Hitler and Nazis.”

The atomic bombs: WWII ugliest scars

The ethical justification and the role of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allies are still debated by historians. What’s less debated is the trace left in the Japanese collective consciousness by the “rain of ruin from the air” – to quote Truman’s pre-bombing warnings – dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and on Nagasaki on August 9.

Photo: Hiroshima aftermath

The cataclysmic devastation inflicted by “Little Boy” – the uranium gun-type atomic bomb – and by “Fat Man” – the plutonium implosion-type bomb – stands, for many Japanese and non-Japanese alike, as the epitome of the suffering and destruction that war brings. By the end of 1945, the atomic bomb had claimed the lives of 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki. To the present day, the health legacy of the bombs continues to inflict death and suffering on the surviving victims, the approximately 450,000 hibakusha.

One of the most profound effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs is that Japan is, by-and-large, a very pacifistic society and one of the few that has outlawed war. Though it is subject to revision by conservatory political forces – who point to the dangers Japan faces from North Korea or China – Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution prohibits the Japanese government from declaring war.

Moreover, Japan has adopted a nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation policy comprised of four main pillars. The second pillar, comprising the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles”, is a parliamentary resolution adopted in 1968 by the Japanese Diet, stating Japan’s pledges not to manufacture, possess, or permit the introduction of nuclear weapons onto Japanese soil.

The Fukushima disaster in 2011 renewed the deeply-ingrained threat of nuclear devastation in Japan and started to change attitudes towards the country’s once-vaunted nuclear energy technology.

Japanese post-war Constitution: to amend or not to amend?

Enacted on May 3, 1947 and never revised since, Japan’s so-called Peace Constitution is a direct reflection of the country’s status at the end of WWII. Drafted by the United States – the victor power which occupied the Nippon archipelago from the end of the war until 1952 – the ground law imposed defeated Japan to renounce its sovereign right to resort to war as a means of settling international disputes with other countries. It also forbade the country from maintaining armed forces.

Photo: Emperor Hirohito and U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, at their first meeting, at the U.S. Embassy, Tokyo, 27 September, 194. Announced on August 15, 1945, the Empire of Japan formally signed its surrender on September 2, 1945.

Yet, the “Renunciation of War” clause has not completely tied Japan’s hands since 1952. To overcome its constraints, Japan has used Article 51 of the UN charter, which recognises the right of self-defence as an inherent right of every nation, thus naming its armed forces Japan Self-Defense Forces. Nevertheless, Article 9 has a wide impact on Japan’s defence and security policies: arms exports and related technology are banned; defence spending is capped at 1% of GDP; Japan has pledged to obey three non-nuclear principles.

But the pro-revision lobby is back in business! Japan’s conservative ruling party is pushing to achieve its long-sought goal of revising the Constitution. Its first challenge is winning over a divided Japanese public. That’s because, according to Article 96 of the ground law, amending the Constitution requires changes to be approved by two-thirds of the members of each chamber of the Diet and a majority of voters, in a special public referendum. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has resumed meetings of its Constitution reform panel after a two-year recess, starting with the distribution of a cartoon pamphlet to drum up public support.

Article 9 would be revised to recognize Japan’s right to maintain “National Defense Forces, for the purpose of protecting Japan’s peace and independence and the safety of its people, as well as contribute to international peace and safety”. The military would be empowered to maintain “public order”. Japan would still renounce the right to make war. Abe’s ruling coalition controls two-thirds of the lower house and hopes to do the same in the upper house by winning elections in summer 2016.

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