The Magazine


Mar 8, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 24 • By CHARLES HORNER
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In particular, by decision of the United States, the emperor on high was absolved of responsibility for any sordid thing that went on during his long reign (Hirohito had ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1926), the better to retain him as the symbol of the state. And by implication, the Japanese people as a whole were found fit for self-government and voluntary membership in the anti-Soviet coalition of democratic states. Yet Japan was, after all, an advanced country, which meant that it had intellectuals. For them, responsibility for Japan's crimes had to lie in the larger "society," the better to justify a fundamental reshaping of it. In the view of Japan's left-leaning intelligentsia, the tribunal's verdict was too narrow: It dealt only with a handful of fascists, whereas fascism as such, in the guise of an essentially one-party, hopelessly corrupt, zaibatsudominated, ersatz parliamentary system, lived on.

Yet another exculpatory view was shared by both the Right and the Left, namely that the verdict against Japan was not only "victors" justice" but also a falsification of the facts. Japan was but defending itself against white imperialists who could not abide the rise of a yellow power. In their cynical conspiracy against Japan, and in their punishment of it for mass murder, hypocritical Americans allied themselves with the likes of Joseph Stalin, who sent a judge to sit on the Tokyo tribunal. This view of the war allows Japan's old guard of the right to enjoy a rare moment of high political correctness, for the international Left and the American Left still love to criticize the United States for its use of atomic bombs. Thus, most of the world still sees the Hiroshima Maidens, not General Matsaharu Homma, as the face of the Great Pacific War.

Meanwhile, many Americans, bent on promoting war guilt at home in order to constrain American power abroad, have staged exhibitions and commemorations designed to encourage us to think that the war began with the internment of the Japanese-Americans and ended with the incineration of Nagasaki.

Yet there remains the problem of what happened in between. Even in the United States, far away from, and relatively untouched by, the conflict in Asia, there are reminders. The Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, which keeps a "Watch list" of suspected Nazi criminals barred from entering the United States, began adding Japanese to the list in late 1996. There are now about thirty-five. In part a response to feminists' interest in the fate of "comfort women" -- some 200,000 Asian women of different nationalities conscripted into brothels run by Japanese field armies -- this Justice Department action also reflected exasperation over persistent Japanese stonewalling on many related matters. The Japanese Foreign Ministry called the watch list "a new experience."

In truth, episodes like these are now part of a well-established ritual. The prime minister of Japan visits the national shrine to Japan's war dead, as Prime Minister Hashimoto did two years ago, and China, South Korea, Singapore, and the Philippines file official protests. The Japanese government then offers an impenetrable response. Or the emperor himself travels overseas and makes some reference to events that occurred during his father's reign. Such statements, as in China in 1992 and in Britain early in 1998, satisfy no one, and instead set off yet another round of debate both inside and outside Japan. Or Japan's cultural alliance of Left and Right senses an opportunity and reopens the larger discussion about "history."

Last May, another round of rethinking was occasioned by the release of the film Pride: A Moment in Time. It focuses on the "human side" of Hideki Tojo (1885-1948), wartime prime minister and archetypal war criminal who was hanged in 1948. The film offered the Right a critique of the fundamental unfairness of the Tokyo tribunal, and offered the Left the notion that the emperor himself should have been a defendant, the better for his soldiers to have pled loyalty to him. Japan's former enemies in Asia lodged protests.