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Home arrow History arrow The History Problem : The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia


Beyond “Victor’s Justice”: Collectively Confronting the Imperial Past

One of the most problematic elements in the historical judgment of the Tokyo Trial concerns “war responsibility,” that is, responsibility for causing the Asia-Pacific War. The Tokyo Trial historical view blames Japan solely and entirely for the wars with China and the Allied powers between 1931 and 1945 and presents Japan’s actions as self-propelled by taking them out of their specific historical contexts. From a long-term perspective, however, Japan’s actions were deeply embedded in the historical context of the Western imperial domination of Asian countries. At the 1983 international symposium on the Tokyo Trial, for example, Yu Xinchun, a Chinese professor of Japanese history at Nankai University, argued, “From the Chinese perspective, the victor countries—Britain, the Netherlands, France, and the United States—are all ‘thieves,’ ” though he pointed out that Japan had been the most horrible thief from the 1920s onward. Yu was disappointed with the limited scope of the trial, but he was also certain that “in the long run, humankind will surely put colonialism on trial.”30 From a short-term historical perspective, too, the Japanese government had not planned to launch attacks on the Allied powers when it invaded Manchuria in 1931. Japan’s act of entering war with the Allied powers was contingent on a nonlinear sequence of decisions that the Japanese government took by responding to the Allied powers’ economic sanctions and the changing political and military situation in Europe.31 In this sense, agency for causing the war was distributed among multiple actors—Japan, the United States, Britain, and so on—even though Japan no doubt had the largest share in this collective agency.32

Yet, this collective distribution of agency vis-a-vis war responsibility was impossible because of the structure of the Tokyo Trial, whereby the victor countries prosecuted the vanquished. Collective distribution of the cause of the war would have risked allowing Japan to evade its responsibility and, more importantly, would have called into question the narrative of the “good war,” which created positive identity for the Allied powers, especially for the United States. According to Roling, “a trial in which vanquished and victors should both be held in judgment” was impossible, given geopolitics and international laws at the time.33 Indeed, legal mechanisms to authorize such a trial still do not exist today. In essence, then, the Tokyo Judgment was itself a nationalist commemoration that eliminated ambiguities of the past and legitimated the particular version of the past that favored the Allied powers.

It is thus hardly surprising that the Tokyo Trial historical view made the majority of Japanese citizens ambivalent and angered Japanese nationalists to brand the judgment as “victor’s justice.” In fact, participants in the trial knew that the trial was unfair. In May 1946, Ben Bruce Blakeney, a defense attorney for the Class A war crime suspects, questioned why killing in war by the Allied powers was considered legal, whereas the same act by Japan was prosecuted as criminal. He then brought up the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and argued that if the Japanese generals who had planned the attack on Pearl Harbor were to be prosecuted for murder, the chief of staff who had planned the atomic bombing of Japan and the pilot who had dropped the bomb should be prosecuted as well.34 This problem of victor’s justice was most forcefully criticized by the Indian judge Radhabinod Pal in his dissenting opinion: “If it is really law which is being applied I would like to see even the members of the victor nations being brought before such tribunals. I refuse to believe that had that been the law, none of the victors in any way violated the same and that the world is so depraved that no one even thinks of bringing such persons to book for their acts.”35 Even Roling, who disagreed with Pal and firmly believed that the trial was an important milestone in the development of international law, admitted that the trial had elements of victor’s justice: “Of course, in Japan we were all aware of the bombings and the burnings of Tokyo and Yokohama and other big cities. It was horrible that we went there for the purpose of vindicating the laws of war, and yet saw every day how the Allies had violated them dreadfully.”36

Nevertheless, the fact that the Tokyo Judgment had elements of victor’s justice does not justify the Japanese nationalist position that Japan, therefore, committed no war crimes.37 The two wrongs—the acts of aggression committed by Japan and the Allied powers—do not make a right. Instead, as philosopher Ashis Nandy pointed out, “Culpability, Pal sought to argue in his Tokyo judgment, could never be divisible and responsibility, even when individual, could paradoxically be fully individual only when seen as collective and, in fact, global.”38 But elements of victor’s justice prevented such articulation of Japan’s share of war responsibility with the actions of the Allied powers.

Such distribution of war responsibility would also create a new set of challenges. To begin with, it would risk obscuring the legal and moral responsibility of Japan. This risk is compounded by the failure to adequately inform Japanese citizens of their country’s war crimes. During and after the Occupation, SCAP decided not to disseminate the trial proceedings widely, while Japanese newspapers focused on counterarguments that the defendants put forward.39 This allowed the majority of Japanese citizens to underestimate the extent of the suffering that Japan had inflicted upon people in the Asia-Pacific. As Totani Yuma pointed out, a large amount of the evidence for Japan’s wartime atrocities that prosecutors submitted to the tribunal still needs to be analyzed, and scholars have yet to tap into a vast corpus of “the records of national war crimes trials that individual Allied governments held in the Pacific region after the war. There were more than 2,200 trials against some 5,600 war crimes suspects at 51 locations in Australia, Burma, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and on other Pacific islands.”40 The idea of collective agency in causing the Asia-Pacific War thus risks letting Japan discount its war responsibility even further.

More importantly, collective distribution of war responsibility would challenge the former Allied powers to face up to their own history of imperialist aggression and colonial rule and to problematize their triumphant, nationalist commemorations. As John Dower and other historians have demonstrated, the Asia-Pacific War was a war between imperial powers embracing racist ideologies as well as between fascist and liberal-democratic countries.41 But it is difficult for the former Allied powers to admit the wrongs of their imperialist aggression because they have remained dominant over their former colonies since the war’s end. To be sure, at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in South Africa, some Western countries expressed “regret” for the fact that “colonialism has led to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that Africans and people of African descent, and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of colonialism and continue to be victims of its consequences.”42 However, the former imperial powers have yet to offer clear apologies and compensa?tion for their former colonial subjects who 1 ater formed their own independent nation-states.43 So long as the former Allied powers remain reluctant to fully confront their imperial past that contributed to an outbreak of the Asia-Pacific War, Japanese nationalists will continue to regard the Tokyo Judgment as victor’s justice, and the majority of Japanese citizens will likely retain their ambivalence toward it.

In fact, the Tokyo Trial’s failure to confront colonialism obstructed Japan’s commemoration of the suffering of Asians, most of whom had been colonial subjects in the first half of the twentieth century.44 As historian Awaya Kentaro has argued, since the Allied powers sought to maintain their colonial rule after the Asia-Pacific War, war crimes that Japan had committed against Koreans and other colonial subjects were not adequately prosecuted.45 As a result, many Japanese citizens forgot Japan’s prewar history as an imperial power vis-a-vis the wrongs that Japan had committed in the countries that it had invaded and occupied.46 This “amnesia” of Japan’s imperial past exacerbated the history problem because it prevented Japanese citizens from understanding the depth of anger that South Korean and Chinese citizens felt toward Japans past wrongdoings. Especially for South Koreans, Japan’s colonial rule is integral to their commemoration of the war. As Lee Jong Wong, a law professor at Rikkyo University, pointed out, “The history problem between the Korean Peninsula and Japan originates from the colonial rule, not from the war. This is one of the factors that has complicated the history problem between Japan and South Korea and delayed reconciliation—the question is whether or not colonial rule can become an object of compensation and apology.”47 China, too, suffered from imperialist aggressions by the West and Japan and, consequently, Chinese history education emphasizes the importance of building a strong Chinese nation in order to prevent another national humiliation.48 Put another way, the world-historical perspective on imperialism and colonialism is the key to helping Japanese citizens fully commemorate Japan’s past wrongdoings and understand South Korean and Chinese commemorations.

To effectively recontextualize Japan’s past aggression in the world history of imperialism and colonialism, I suggest that Japan’s official commemoration be revisited from its margins. Take, for example, Korean soldiers who fought in the Japanese military. After the war’s end, a total of 148 Koreans were prosecuted at war tribunals across the Asia-Pacific, and twenty- three of them were sentenced to death.49 When Japan regained independence in April 1952, twenty-nine Koreans were still serving their sentence at

Sugamo Prison, even though they had lost Japanese citizenship upon the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty.50 After release from prison, these Korean veterans formed an association to seek relief from the Japanese government: even though they had fought for Japan, they were ineligible for military pensions because they were no longer Japanese citizens.51 Similarly, bereaved families of Korean soldiers received no relief from the Japanese government.

Opposition parties noticed this problem and occasionally pressed the government to provide pensions and other relief for former military-related personnel and their bereaved families, irrespective of citizenship. During the 1962 Diet session, for example, Ukeda Shinkichi of the Democratic Socialist Party argued, “Bereaved families of Japanese war gods receive relief from the government. Speaking of Koreans who fought and died as Japanese soldiers, by contrast, their parents, wives, and children who live in Japan receive no relief or pensions. I think this is a very serious problem.”52 Eventually, in June 2000, the Japanese government provided one-time condolence money for Korean veterans and bereaved families who had become permanent residents in Japan: 2.6 million yen for a bereaved family and four million yen for a severely injured veteran.53 The government, however, maintained that all issues of compensation had been resolved upon the 1965 Basic Treaty. Condolence money was therefore offered on the “humanitarian ground in light of the plight of aging Koreans who served in the Japanese imperial military.”54

While the Japanese government treated South Korean veterans and bereaved families differently from their Japanese counterparts, the Yasukuni Shrine treated them as the same by honoring 21,181 Koreans as war gods.55 This angered South Korean bereaved families. In April 1978, a South Korean resident in Tokyo protested against the shrine, arguing, “My brother went to war only reluctantly. Even after South Korea became independent, my brother is still enshrined as a war god at Yasukuni. This does not let my brother rest in peace.”56 In response, the Yasukuni Shrine insisted that it was impossible to nullify the enshrinement: “When they died, they were Japanese. It is impossible for them to cease to be Japanese after they died. Since they fought and died, hoping that they would be honored at the Yasukuni Shrine, we cannot de-enshrine them simply upon requests from their bereaved families. It is also only natural to enshrine them because they willingly cooperated with the war effort and wanted to fight as Japanese.”57 JSP member Hirota Koichi clearly saw the contradiction in this: “These Koreans . . .

followed orders of the Japanese government and died in fighting. They are enshrined at the Yasukuni Shrine. . . . But their families have received no compensation whatsoever because the Japanese government says they are not Japanese.”58 The government, however, continued to argue that the citizenship requirement made it impossible to apply the Military Pension Act and the Act on Relief for the Injured Veterans and Bereaved Families to foreign veterans and bereaved families.59

This contradiction in Japan’s nationalist commemoration has been increasingly exposed in recent years. After Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine in August 2001, bereaved families and war victims from both inside and outside Japan filed five different lawsuits to challenge the constitutionality of the prime minister’s visit. The lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court, for example, included 724 South Koreans as plaintiffs.60 At one of the court hearings, in February 2003, Kim Gyeong Suk, a former forced laborer and chairman of the Association of South Korean Victims and Bereaved Families of the Pacific War, forcefully criticized the contradiction: while the Japanese government offered no compensation for South Korean bereaved families, “the Yasukuni Shrine honors Korean war dead without asking permissions from their bereaved families. . . . Does Japan want to keep forcibly drafting our relatives even after their death?”61

Here, the focus on these South Korean veterans, bereaved families, and other marginalized victims can illuminate the real extent to which the Japanese government failed to recognize the suffering of foreign victims and, more importantly, how this failure angered the victims. It is difficult, however, to make Japanese citizens fully confront Japan’s imperialist past simply by collectively distributing the responsibility for the Asia-Pacific War between Japan and the Allied powers in light of the world-historical context of imperialism and colonialism. To be sure, such distribution of war responsibility can reduce the resentment toward victor’s justice among Japanese nationalists and ease the ambivalence among the majority of Japanese citizens. But the resentment and ambivalence runs deeper, for the elements of victor’s justice in the Tokyo Trial were reinforced by the failure to prosecute atrocities that the Allied powers had committed against Japan.

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