Prisoners of the Second World War still cannot forgive the Japanese
Questions of guilt and shame
Prisoners of the Second World War still cannot forgive the Japanese
John Stroud remembers the gangplank he walked in Niiagata, carrying buckets of coal 12 hours a day for 18 months, while his weight plunged from 165 to 79 lb. He remembers the worms that oozed from the orifices of his fellow prisoners of war and the terrible dysentery that ravaged the camp, killing more than half its inmates. Roger Sear cannot forget the hunger, the starvation diet of watery soup and boiled rice that was designed to kill by degrees—and did. Bill Lockwood still recalls saying memorial prayers for 350 POWs who died during a harrowing 75-day boat trip in Indonesia—their bodies unceremoniously thrown into the sea. Len Birchell, now 80 and living in Kingston, Ont., remembers being beaten every day for six months with rifles and kendo sticks. Winston Churchill called Birchell “the savior of Burma” because, as pilot on a reconnaissance mission, he warned the Allied Command of critical Japanese fleet movements in the Indian Ocean before he was shot down and captured. “There was one guy, he was the most vicious person I’ve ever met,” says Birchell. “He was a Japanese-Canadian who had left Canada before the internment and gone back to become a translator for the Imperial Army. He’d butt his cigarettes up your nose. I’d kill him now if I could find him.” Those searing memories and many more will be evoked this week, as the Western Allies mark the 50th anniversary of VJ-Day, victory over Japan in the Second World War. Elsewhere, the commemoration has stirred renewed debate about the atom bomb, the awesome weapon used to level Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to force Japan’s surrender by Emperor Hirohito on Aug. 15,1945.
But for Stroud, Sear, Lockwood, Birchell
and thousands of other veterans of the Pacific Theatre, the morality of U.S. president Harry Truman’s decision to drop the Bomb is not an issue. Without it, they firmly believe, the Allies would have had to mount a land invasion of Japan, an operation that would have prolonged the war and ultimately claimed even more lives. The POWs would have been the first to die, since orders had already been given to execute all prisoners the moment the Allies landed. ‘The Bomb was inhumane,” agrees Lockwood, 77, who this week is laying a wreath at ceremonies in Ottawa to honor those who served in the Pacific. “But war by definition is inhumane. To me, the Bomb was a lifesaver.”
Five decades later, however, the surviving remnant of 140,000 Allied soldiers taken prisoner by Japan—among them, an estimated 375 Canadians—are still waiting for an official and unqualified apology for atrocities committed against them. “It really pisses me off,” says Roger Sear, 73, a veteran of the Royal Rifles of Canada who was captured during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. “There we are, Canada, at the United Nations, trying to bring these Serbians to justice for crimes against humanity. And we can’t get our government to support our claim for reparations for what the Japanese did to us, dragging our human dignity through the mud.”
More galling for many was Ottawa’s decision in 1988 to pay $21,000 to 12,000 surviving Canadians of Japanese heritage who were summarily rounded up and interned
after Japan entered the war in 1941. “The government gave them the money,” says Birchell, an RCAF squadron leader shot down over the Indian Ocean in April, 1942, and imprisoned for the next three years. “It paid for lawyers to handle their case. It even sent a delegation to Japan to seek out other Japanese who might have been eligible for compensation. And we can’t get five cents. Bitter? Yes, I am.”
One group of veterans from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada has filed an action in Tokyo District Court, seeking a formal apology and compensation of $29,000 for each of 30,000 POWs. Many survivors were held in camps along the River Kwai where they helped construct the 420-km Burma-Siam (Thailand) railroad. Last week, in a rare public confession, a Japanese engineer who was in charge of the prison workforce at one of those camps, Songkrai, apologized to his British captives. “The prisoners were not treated as human beings,” Hiroshi Abe said. “They were not provided with the basic necessities of life. For my part in it—I’m a war criminal. I will never forget your suffering as you were burning and burying the bodies of your comrades.” Some 1,600 men entered Songkrai in 1942; 90 days later, 1,200 were dead.
Canadian veterans are also pursuing their case through the United Nations Human Rights Commission, invoking the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. A subcommittee is expected to review the dossier in October. The Canadian government, however, is not backing the appeal, insisting that the 1951 peace treaty Canada signed with Japan formally extinguished all claims.
But whatever Ottawa’s attitude, the
prospect of extracting a formal apology—to say nothing of reparations—from Japan anytime soon seems remote. In contrast to Germany, for example, where public atonement for the sins of Nazism is an old habit, the Japanese have been virtually silent. It is only in the past few years—since the 1993 collapse of the long-entrenched Liberal Democratic Party and the election of a new Socialist-led coalition—that the Japanese government has begun to acknowledge that the conduct of the Imperial Army was less than exemplary. Shortly after taking office, then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa issued a statement calling his country’s actions tantamount to “an aggressive war and a wrong war.”
Hosokawa was alluding not just to the Japanese raid on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and its aftermath—the sack-
ing of Manila; the enforced prostitution of 200,000 Asian “comfort women” for the enjoyment of Japanese troops; the Bataan Death March, which killed 33,000 POWs in the Philippines; and the lurid biological, chemical and medical experiments, including vivisection, carried out by Japan’s notorious Unit 731 in Manchuria. He was referring as well to earlier events—the 1931 annexation of Manchuria and the 1937 “Nanking Massacre,” a six-week pogrom during which thousands of women were raped and an estimated 150,000 Chinese were murdered. Archival film of the episode shows Japanese troops laughing at mass executions and, for sport, bayoneting infants thrown into the air.
Both the current prime minister, Tomiichi Murayama, and the new Emperor, Akihito, have delivered equally well-crafted statements of regret. But in a compromise resolu-
tion passed in June, the lower House of the Diet carefully avoided use of the word “apology,” and instead expressed only deep remorse for “acts of aggression and colonial rule, carried out by our country in the past.” Japanese aggression is rarely mentioned in educational texts. On the contrary, when most Japanese citizens remember the Pacific War, it is in the context of the thermonuclear horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed some 200,000 people. This year as every year, the theme of commemorative ceremonies on Aug. 15 will be Japan as victim, not as perpetrator. Some of its most powerful politicians still make annual pilgrimages to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the war dead—including many who were hanged for committing war crimes. Among the old Liberal Democratic guard and some revisionist historians, Japan’s military actions in the 1930s and ’40s liberated Asia from the oppressive yoke of Western colonial rule. The Japan War Bereaved Families Association this year collected a petition signed by 4.5 million people opposing any government statement of contrition for its prosecution of the war.
In the 1946 book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, American anthropologist Ruth Benedict drew a distinction between a Christian culture of guilt, such as Germany’s, and a Confucian culture of shame, such as Japan’s. Torn by their guilt as architects of the Holocaust, the Germans confess repeatedly, seeking forgiveness. The Japanese, on the other hand, feel shame—and with it, the urge to suppress. “The Japanese wish to remain silent,” wrote Ian Buruma in The Wages of Guilt, his 1994 book on how Germany and Japan have dealt with the legacy of the Second World War. “And above all, [they] wish others to remain silent, too. The point is not guilt in the eyes of God, but public shame, embarrassment, face.”
Others view the Japanese reluctance to confront their past through the prism of postwar events. Occupied by American troops until 1952—the first occupation in its history—Japan was very quickly co-opted into the West’s broader Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union and, after 1949, with Chinese communism. Although war-crime trials were conducted in Tokyo, and thousands of military men were executed or imprisoned, Japan’s ruling elite remained almost untouched. ‘The whole bureaucracy, the power structure, was left intact,” says Mitchell Bernard, who teaches Japanese politics at Toronto’s York University. “It was part of [then-U.S. secretary of state] John Foster Dulles’s plan to create a different vision of Asia, to keep China and Japan divid-
ed. There was never any ability to have a great debate about the conduct of the war.” But the root of Japanese war denial, many believe, is the nature of the society itself—insular and fundamentally different from other Asian communities. “The Japanese don’t believe in equality,” says Canadian historian Desmond Morton, now teaching at McGill University in Montreal. “You’re either better or worse than they are. We were better in 1945. As of 1970, it changed. They feel racially superior. They talk about the Koreans the way my grandfather might have talked about ‘niggers.’ Why should you apologize to people you regard as barely sensate?” Even now, notes Bernard, Japanese resentment about foreign workers in their country—mostly other Asians—is far out of proportion to the actual numbers. “They fear the potential ‘pollution’ of Japanese society. They fear crime. It’s astonishing that an entire culture could feel under siege with the influx of a few thousand foreigners, but there’s a huge debate about whether Japan should be open or closed.”
Such rationales mean little to Canadian POWs or others tortured by the Japanese. “I can’t help it,” says Harry Atkinson, 73, a Winnipeg Grenadier captured in the Battle of Hong Kong; he spent 18 months in the shipyard at Niiagata, working as a stevedore. “I still have feelings about the Japanese people. All those companies we relish doing business with today—they used slave labor during the war.” Over the years, some veterans have managed to come to terms with their resentment. ‘There’s no use carrying that bitterness around with you,” says Bill Lockwood. “I don’t harbor a lot of hatred. It doesn’t do anybody any good.” But among the Canadians, at least, that seems to be a minority opinion. To this day, most refuse to own a Japanese automobile. “Are you kidding?” asks Atkinson. “I wouldn’t buy a Japanese pencil.” The notion of forgiveness seldom crosses their minds. Says Len Birchell: “I can’t forgive someone for something they won’t even admit they did in the first place.”
For Japanese-Canadians, the anniversary of VJ-Day takes on a quite different character, reflecting their forced internment during the war. With anti-Japanese sentiment running rampant, the Liberal government of Mackenzie King confined 21,000 JapaneseCanadians from British Columbia—many of them Canadian citizens—in makeshift labor camps and expropriated their property. “People sometimes say to me, ‘Look what your country did to us,’ ” says Art Miki, former president of the Association of JapaneseCanadians. “But my country is Canada. And the Canadian government destroyed our community.” Miki regards the 1988 settlement as a major step forward for Canada in the human rights arena. He applauds Ottawa
for seeking out those Japanese-Canadians exiled to Japan during the war. Japanese officials were quite impressed by this gesture, Miki recalls. “One of them told me, ‘It takes a mature country to do what Canada is doing. Japan is technologically far ahead, but in terms of human rights, we’re not there.’ ”
At a news conference in Tokyo this past spring, three men who had worked with the infamous Unit 731 said they were ashamed that Japan could still be debating its conduct of the war, given the gruesome experiments on human subjects they and others had carried out in the name of scientific research. “The Japanese were under mind control,” insisted Ken Yuasa. “That’s why we came to the conclusion that the Chinese were subhuman, and the Koreans were even below that.” Historians are often tempted to draw
lessons from the past. But Desmond Morton, for one, thinks it is “a hopeless task.” On this issue, he says, “the best you can do is try to understand where the Japanese are. Understand and move on. We’re not going to change their attitudes.” The other common tendency is to polarize issues—the Bomb as an instrument of evil, evidence of Western racism, or the Bomb as an instrument of good, saving lives on both sides of the war; the Japanese as victims or the Japanese as aggressors. “Neither extreme is terribly helpful,” says York’s Bernard. ‘War is not just good or evil. Why does it have to be one way or the other? Why can’t we just live with the ambiguity?”
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