Hirohito’s blank check haunts us stillHistory undeniably records that the Empire of Japan was guilty of committing crimes against humanity by invading Asia as much as the Nazis with the atrocities against Jews. Asia in the 20th century shed blood and tears due to the military excesses of Japanese imperialism. If not for Japan’s militaristic and chauvinistic ambition, the Korean Peninsula would not have been bisected in half. Today, ours remains a land divided and we continue to live under a threat of war.
The innocent souls massacred by Japanese militarists throughout Asia still cannot rest in peace. That’s because even 70 years after the war, Japan refuses to genuinely show remorse and take responsibility for its imperialist past. Historical bitterness and resentment have resurfaced and flared up because of the nationalistic tone and gestures by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, cabinet members and politicians of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party. They have exposed their nationalistic colors, summoning the military imperialist ghost from the past. Their actions amount to a denial of history and a repetitive crime against humanity.
World leaders are partly to blame for Japan’s lack of shame or sense of guilt. Japan has never been thoroughly questioned and punished for its war crimes. Entering the 20th century, heads of state accused of causing invasions were brought to justice. Kaiser Wilhelm II ignited World War I by launching bellicose foreign campaigns in Europe. In a postwar treaty in Versailles, the allies named him as a war criminal to try him in a special tribunal. But the tribunal was not set up because Holland refused to extradite him. World leaders, nevertheless, publicly condemned and sought to prosecute him.
The states responsible for causing history’s deadliest conflict that devastated most of Europe and Asia were Germany, Italy and Japan. After they were defeated in 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide before being arrested and his body was burned. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was hunted and shot down by anti-fascists. His body and those of other fascists were publicly hung and stoned. Japanese war leader Emperor Hirohito was the only one who managed to escape blame and punishment.
As in Nuremberg, Japanese generals and politicians faced allied judges in special tribunals in Tokyo for crimes against humanity. Among the allies, the United Kingdom, Soviet Union and Australia demanded that the Japanese emperor be tried and prosecuted. But Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the allied powers, opposed it out of the conviction that the defeated Japan would better obey and cooperate with the allied forces with the emperor still a symbolic figurehead. The emperor could not sustain his deity-like influence over the Japanese people if he were convicted of war crimes. The U.S. president agreed to MacArthur’s plan and protected the emperor from conviction.
Twenty-eight other war leaders were brought before the court. Leading the “Class A” criminals was Gen. Hideki Tojo, a hard-line militarist who served as prime minister and headed most of the campaigns of aggression. Tojo and other commanders tried to protect their emperor from accountability as the United States wished. But the emperor is the constitution’s statutory head of the state - and chief commander. Japan could not have entered a war without an endorsement from the emperor. In 1941, the emperor signed an order to attack Pearl Harbor after the Imperial Conference sanctioned war against the United States.
Today, scholars in Korea, America, China and Japan criticize the emperor’s immunity from prosecution. Narahiko Toyoshita, a former law professor at Kyoto University who wrote “Hirohito and MacArthur,” said the Tokyo trials were a collaboration of the Americans and Japanese to dump the wartime onus on the Tojo clan to protect the real war heroes.
“Since then, it has become a taboo to associate war crimes with the Emperor,” he said.
Much would have been different if Emperor Hirohito was questioned and tried in the international tribunal. He could have acknowledged Japan’s militarist excess and left an apology in the historical record. If so, the descendants, including Abe, would not have had the audacity to deny the past. Traditionally, the emperor has been the center of Japan’s society and people. He has been looked up to as a deity-like and father-like figure. None of his people and children could deny something their deity admitted.
In 1995, then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologized for war aggression and Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Abe wants to revise the statement to make it less apologetic in tone. Abe can reinterpret what Murayama said, because they are of the same prime ministerial status. But he would not have dared to reverse the words of the emperor.
The Japanese military killed and burned the Korean queen. The infamous army unit 731 committed genocide against innocent citizens and prisoners. It conducted horrific biological and chemical experiments on living humans, describing them as maruta, or “logs.” They massacred thousands of Chinese in Nanjing and Singapore. More than a million Koreans and Chinese were recruited to forcibly serve in the Japanese army as well as labor and sex camps. As long as Asia exists, Japan’s war crimes cannot be erased and forgotten. The violated and wounded souls will haunt Japanese leaders until they sincerely admit to their past wrongdoing and repent.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin