[VIEWPOINT]The apology Tokyo must offerThere is nothing in international law or in any peace treaty which precludes the offer of an apology. While Americans sentimentalize over “the Greatest Generation,” including construction of a memorial fifty-nine years after the end of World War II, the Japanese corporations involved in slave labor of war prisoners stubbornly refuse to offer any expression of remorse. It is time, before the last of these prisoners of war, who have suffered so much, pass away into history, to offer them the apology they have requested.
Americans, however, were not the only victims of Japanese militarism. The agony of Japan’s neighbors, in both length of duration and scale of suffering, would make the American experience pale by comparison.
The Korean people not only endured a formal occupation of thirty-five years but a systematic attempt to wipe out their culture, language and their very identity as a people. Koreans were subjected to one of the world’s most brutal colonial experiences, with tens of thousands transported as slave laborers to Japan and Manchuria.
The most reprehensible colonial policy of all, however, was the sexual enslavement of between 100,000 and 200,000 Korean young schoolgirls and women as “comfort women” for the Japanese Imperial Army’s combat troops (lesser numbers of Chinese, Filipina, Taiwanese and Dutch women from Indonesia were also so enslaved).
The “comfort women” issue should be a subject of concern for the U.S. government, which, over the last decade, has made the “trafficking in persons” issue a top foreign affairs priority. It would seem impossible, then, to ignore an unresolved issue which involves the most extensive case of government-organized trafficking in women in the entire 20th century.
That injustice is compounded by the Japanese government’s continued insistence that the trafficking was carried out by private contractors without the specific sanction of the Japanese Imperial Army. The continuing refusal to offer apologies, or to compensate the now elderly victims, should be a source of national shame.
The Japanese public is rightly concerned about the abductions of its citizens by agents of the North Korean regime a number of years ago, including a young girl. The abduction of other young, Korean girls many years ago, now grown old, should be a cause for equal concern.
Some in Washington are dreaming an impossible dream. They wish for Japan to become the Great Britain of Asia, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a partner of the United States in securing the peace in Asia and beyond. We Americans, at least, would like to see this happen.
But without an honest accounting of its history, as was done in Europe, Japan can never become a Great Britain. Japan, despite its immense generosity in the funding of international organizations, can never secure a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Japan will be excluded and marginalized unless Tokyo makes some great historic expression of remorse, like that of German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1971 kneeling at a memorial in Poland to the victims of the Nazis. Without such a sincere act of contrition, there is very little Washington can do to help Tokyo achieve its diplomatic goals. For Japan must first help itself.
Confession, as the Catholic Church teaches, is good for the soul. But a true confession requires both contrition and penance toward those who were offended. Only then can historic sins finally be forgiven.
Those who contend that the discussion of historic legacy issues regarding Japan’s role in World War II is simply manipulation by hostile neighboring governments, or an expression of fanatics who will never be appeased, demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of the perceptions of the peoples of East Asia.
I have lived among the Korean people for eleven years and the Chinese people for four years. Their feelings about what happened to their people are deep and genuine. Americans have proclaimed that we will not forget what happened on September 11, 2001, presumably not even after sixty years have passed. How can we then ask others to be less true to their historic national tragedies than we ourselves are?
In this sixtieth commemorative year of the Second World War, Japanese government officials and Diet members who go to the Yasukuni Shrine to pay homage to the memory of war criminals hurt the feelings of the families of their victims. If the Yasukuni Shrine is to be a national memorial to a nation’s war dead, like Arlington Cemetery, then the spirit tablets of Tojo and the other Class A war criminals should be removed.
The message is simple and direct to anyone willing to listen in Tokyo: “Don’t bow before the convicted war criminal Hideki Tojo. We well remember Pearl Harbor, even if some Americans have historic amnesia.” To conclude with a quote from the title of Senator Barack Obama’s autobiography, this paper, in reality, represents dreams from my father.
* The writer is a member of the East Asian Affairs staff of the U.S. House of Representatives’ International Relations Committee. This column is an excerpt from a May 19 speech at a seminar in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Institute for Corean-American Studies.
by Dennis P. Halpin
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