[VIEWPOINT]A Collaborator Culture Lingers in Japan

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[VIEWPOINT]A Collaborator Culture Lingers in Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's recent participation in a Shinto-officiated prayer for the Imperial War Dead memorialized at Yasukuni Shrine has opened old wounds and angered many people across Asia. The United States, perhaps the only country with the clout to influence Japan on this issue, has been notably silent. When asked about Koizumi's controversial visit, the State Department spokes-man said, "I don't have any comment on that. I don't believe we've ever had in the past, either."

Despite the breezy attitude of the Bush administration, the narrow memorializing of only those faithful to the emperor on the part of Japan's unrepentant political elite has baffled and upset many Japanese as well. The elderly in Japan today are the last remnants of the generation of farmers and housewives and boy soldiers and prostitutes and tireless laborers who were made to serve the reckless Imperial Army. Those lucky enough to survive lost friends and family. Some were brutalized, some became brutal. Then a prosperous, peaceful postwar era followed, in which the children and grandchildren of the tight-lipped veterans heard a fairy tale view of their own history in school, skipping over the atrocities in Asia, emoting over Hiroshima.

After the war there was a clever top-down movement to spread the blame around evenly, the so-called repentance of 100 million souls. But the war that proved so disastrous to Japan's closest neighbors and so harrowing for Japan itself was not started by 100 million well-informed co-conspirators. The Tokyo Tribunal which sentenced Hideki Tojo and dozens of other Class A war criminals to death was marred by a miscarriage of justice that is barely permissible to discuss in Japan today. Once the Machiavellian U.S. occupation authorities led by General Douglas MacArthur determined to exonerate War Criminal Number One for purposes of control and continuity, injustice and confusion inevitably followed.

To this day, the jointly scripted U.S.-Japanese mythology of a benign emperor puts altogether too much blame on Tojo and other official scapegoats of the period. Furthermore, the tendency for the heavily-scripted Tokyo trials to go after individuals linked to attacks on American targets in the Pacific, while letting crimes against humanity go unpunished, had the effect of denigrating the importance, indeed the very reality, of mainland Asia's incomparably greater suffering.

Chinese and Koreans continue to cry out for justice because justice has not been served. Not only did the "doctors" from the torture and vivisection labs of Manchuri-an Unit 731 get off lightly in return for "medical" data, but documented opium dealers, gangsters and known purveyors of atrocity in China and Southeast Asia such as Masanobu Tsuji, Ryoichi Sasa-gawa, and Yoshio Kodama were let off the hook and eventually honored for their contributions to the anti-communist cause.

In the culture of sacrifice, where countless young men threw away their lives as human bombs or fighting machines for the Imperial Cause, it was widely assumed that the emperor and his top men would follow suit in the face of defeat. War veteran Kiyoshi Watanabe, writing about the emperor's visit to Yasukuni Shrine just after the war, concluded that there were no veteran souls truly interred there, for if there had been they would have killed the emperor with their curses. Likewise, survivors of kamikaze pilot corps, have long been among the Showa emperor's harshest critics.

The Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan almost as long as the Communist Party has ruled China, is supported by a complex, contradictory pork-barrel coalition of construction companies, farmers, trade associations and, at the core of it, veteran remembrance groups - which is why Koizumi had to go to the shrine. Thus some of the most powerful people in Japan are still tainted by their historic links to the military-industrial elite who oversaw the rape and pillage of Korea, China and Southeast Asia, and then reinvented themselves as pro-American anti-communists. Japan's Socialist and Communist Parties, more skeptical about the United States and more sympathetic to Asia, were marginalized by the politics of the Cold War and left dangling in the wind.

Japan today still has a whiff of collaborator's culture, built on selective historic amnesia, lip-service to American values and unrepentant condescension toward former victims in Asia, both entire countries and individual comfort women. Though given a new lease on life by Koizumi's maverick image-making, Japan's ruling party has been consistently unconvincing in its feeble and insincere attempts to purge itself of an ugly past, and continues to sit on a volcano of unacknowledged guilt.


The writer is an American journalist based in Bangkok.

by Philip Cunningham

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