Home History The History Problem : The Politics of War Commemoration in East Asia
Beyond Victim Consciousness: Doubling Japan’s Identity as Perpetrator and Victim
Needless to say, Japan was a perpetrator in relation to South Korea and China. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians suffered from the fire bombings and the atomic bombings, and atrocities were also committed against Japanese civilians fleeing Manchukuo and other former colonies. Nearly six hundred thousand Japanese soldiers were also forced to work at labor camps in Siberia after the end of the Asia-Pacific War, and approximately sixty thousand died in the camps.62 Nonrecognition of these Japanese casualties breeds a sense of injustice among Japanese citizens. In 2007, for example, DPJ member Matsubara angrily reacted to US House of Representatives House Resolution 121, wherein American politicians asked the Japanese government to apologize to former comfort women. Matsubara argued, “The United States has never apologized for the atomic bombings and fire bombings of Tokyo, killing innocent civilians systematically. But they ask us to apologize to former comfort women. Is this not a contradiction?”63
Importantly, historians and educators in South Korea and China began to recognize Japan’s victimhood. A History to Open the Future, for example, included extensive descriptions of Japanese victims of the atomic bombings and other atrocities. This inclusion was a significant departure from mainstream history textbooks used in South Korea and China—none of the South Korean history textbooks prior to the 2000s had mentioned the atomic bombings, while some Chinese history textbooks had begun including only very short references to the events in the mid-1990s.64 The joint history textbook project therefore offered an important corrective to the nationalist commemorations in South Korea and China. Yao Bao, a history professor at Shanghai International Studies University, underscored the necessity of such a corrective: “When the victim accuses the perpetrator, the former should be careful not to exaggerate the latter’s guilt. . . . Many perpetrators are simultaneously victims. Those perpetrators sometimes suffer from more serious damages than some members of the victim country. . . . From the victim country’s perspective, this may serve justice. But, from the humanitarian perspective, members of the victim country should extend pity and empathy to the perpetrators to a certain extent.”65
This recognition of Japan’s victimhood was perhaps most clearly expressed by Park Yu Ha, a professor of Japanese studies at Sejong University. In her 2005 book, For Reconciliation, she critically examined the nature of solidarity between Japanese and South Korean NGOs over various issues, such as apology and compensation for South Korean victims and JSHTR’s history textbook. Park’s inquiry was motivated by her uneasiness with the way Japanese NGOs “turned a blind eye to Korean nationalism when co?operating with South Korean NGOs” and questioned whether Japanese NGOs in effect “helped Korean nationalism escalate and added fuel to the conflict by single-mindedly demanding Japan should apologize.”66 Specifically, she criticized the South Korean nationalist commemoration that dehumanized the Japanese other and pointed out the importance of recognizing how Japan, too, had suffered during the Asia-Pacific War:
The Soviet Army used more than 500,000 Japanese soldiers as forced laborers in Siberia after they had entered war with Japan at the final stage of World War II. The United States carried out the large-scale aerial bombing of Tokyo and killed 100,000 people over a single night. But these acts by the Allied powers were never officially prosecuted. In this regard, it is not surprising that many Japanese still believe that the Tokyo Trial was simply victor’s justice, and that Japan was a victim unfairly punished. A true critique must be based on universal values and therefore requires South Koreans to understand those feelings on Japan’s part.67
Here, I agree with Park that it is crucial for relevant political actors in the history problem, especially those in South Korea and China, to fully acknowledge the problematic nature of the historical judgment of the trial. Such acknowledgement is likely to ease ambivalence toward the trial among Japanese citizens and help them become more willing to accept Japan’s fair share of war responsibility.
Of course, recognition of Japan’s victimhood is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it presents the risk of allowing Japan to evade its war responsibility. Many Japanese citizens actually did indulge in their own victimhood to discount the suffering that they inflicted on foreign others. On the other hand, recognition of Japan’s victimhood has the potential to not only help Japanese citizens lower their ambivalence toward the Tokyo Trial, but also allow them to mobilize their victim identity as a powerful psychological mechanism to generalize their experience and fully empathize with foreign victims. As former Hiroshima City mayor Hiraoka Takashi observed, the commemoration of the atomic bombings expresses the “human, primordial outcry” (ningenteki na kongenteki na sakebi) against the nationstate threatening to control commemorations in nationalist terms.68
Indeed, the history of Japanese commemoration of the atomic bombings demonstrates the potential of victim identity to facilitate cosmopolitan commemoration of foreign victims of Japan’s past wrongdoings. At the very beginning, people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had the tendency to dwell on their own victimhood, and their attempts to commemorate the atomic bombings expressed an imperfect, self-serving kind of cosmopolitanism. But, at the same time, their commemorations already contained the seeds of genuine cosmopolitanism. A case in point was the “epitaph dispute” that occurred in 1952, when Radhabinod Pal, a former judge at the Tokyo Trial, visited the newly founded monument in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The epitaph of the monument read, “Let all the souls here rest in peace; for we shall not repeat the evil.”69 After his visit, Pal remarked that while “we” apparently referred to the Japanese, the evil by those who had dropped the atomic bomb—Americans—was yet to be atoned. In response, Hiroshima City mayor Hamai Shinzo and the epitaph author, Saiga Tadayo- shi, argued that “we” should include anyone praying in front of the monument, and therefore refer to the whole of humanity, in promising to renounce war and strive for world peace.70 As Hamai later recounted, Pal then agreed with him about the intention of the epitaph. According to Hamai, Pal stated, “I was just worried that Japanese citizens accepted the atrocious act by the United States, as Indians accepted violence and crimes by the British. But, if the evil refers to war, and if the epitaph expresses determination not to wage war again, that is a wonderful message.”71 Thus, both Hamai and Pal agreed that both Japan’s aggression and the atomic bombings by the United States were morally wrong.72 This univer- salistic impulse later allowed Japanese A-bomb victims to spearhead the efforts to commemorate South Korean and Chinese victims of Japan’s past wrongdoings.
Moreover, at its best, the commemoration of the atomic bombings articulates cosmopolitanism with world peace by rejecting war itself. As political scientist Fujiwara Kiichi argued, “Memory of the Holocaust raises a question about responsibility for standing up against murderers and destroyers. Memory of Hiroshima ethically questions war and demands absolute peace. The two episodes of wartime violence thus left two differ ent lessons: responsibility for fighting a war and responsibility for eliminating a war.”73 The commemoration of the atomic bombings thus embraces the ethics of no war, as opposed to just war, by recognizing that even perpetrators can suffer because they are also humans. In this respect, the commemoration of the atomic bombings is radically cosmopolitan and demands that any critical reassessment of the Tokyo Trial ultimately question the very existence of a war tribunal itself. This is why sociologist Ueno Chizuko, speaking at the symposium on “Hiroshima from the Feminist Perspective” in 2001, cautioned against being trapped by the concept of war crime: “When we define what a war crime is, we simultaneously define what is not a war crime. . . . I am concerned that prosecution of war crimes can justify some wars as legal.”74 For Ueno, the commemoration of the atomic bombings embodied the radical moral commitment to define war itself as a crime.
In summary, the failure of the Tokyo Trial to prosecute war crimes of the Allied powers contributed to the history problem. While nonrecognition of Japanese victims prompted many Japanese citizens to reclaim their own victimhood, this diverted their attention from foreign victims of Japan’s past wrongdoings and suppressed the potential of Japan’s victim- hood as a common denominator for extending empathy and solidarity to foreign others. In turn, the lack of recognition of Japanese victimhood at the trial facilitated nationalist commemorations in South Korea and China by depriving citizens in the two countries of opportunities to notice the complexity of the Asia-Pacific War, empathize with Japanese victims, and understand why Japanese citizens refused to see their country as the absolute perpetrator.
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