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Beyond the Government-Centered View of War Responsibility

Addressing only the aforementioned two problems in the Tokyo Trial— failing to collectively distribute war responsibility among the imperial powers that participated in the Asia-Pacific War, and subjecting the Allied powers to the same standard of criminal justice and thereby recognize Japan’s victimhood—is, however, insufficient to move the relevant political actors toward resolving the history probl em. Another major probl em with the trial was the government-centered view of war responsibility that inhibited the active participation of Japanese citizens in discussion of Japan’s responsibility for foreign victims. By not indicting Emperor Hirohito, the symbol of the Japanese nation, the trial legitimated the historical view that only a small number of government leaders were responsible for Japan’s wrongful acts.75 Although some of the Allied powers, such as Australia, were initially keen to prosecute Hirohito, SCAP was opposed to it because it wanted to exploit the emperor’s symbolic authority to stabilize Japanese society while implementing reforms during the Occupation. In the end, the Allied powers agreed to suspend prosecution of the emperor and, as a result, the judges, prosecutors, and defendants framed trial proceedings to shield the emperor from war responsibility.76 Here, exemption of the emperor from war responsibility had an important symbolic ramification: the innocence of the Japanese people, victimized by militarist leaders, was projected onto the innocent body of the emperor as a symbol of the Japanese nation.77

This government-centered view of Japan’s war responsibility persisted throughout the entire postwar period. When South Korea and China criticized Japanese prime ministers’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, they tended to target the Class A war criminals rather than Japanese citizens. This distinction between the guilty government and the innocent Japanese people facilitated normalization of Japan’s relations with neighboring countries in the short run, but it also ended up preventing the majority of Japanese citizens from critically reflecting on their own share of war responsibility. In reality, government officials had the power to start the war, but many Japanese citizens were also complicit in Japan’s aggression, albeit to different degrees, because they supported the government one way or another.

What is needed here is a concerted effort to carefully investigate and delineate shares of war responsibility among different groups of the Japanese, ranging from government officials to ordinary citizens. As Ienaga Saburo emphasized, “Documenting war responsibilities of ordinary Japanese citizens by making precise distinctions between differ ent types of participation . . . is indispensable for preventing confusion and distortion in discussion of war responsibility.”78 Even though prewar Japan was not fully democratic, the Japanese government could not have carried out its imperial aggression without support from the majority of Japanese citizens. In this respect, the promoters of the Asian Women’s Fund took the right direction when they tried to justify the call for atonement money by stating, “Japan is not a country owned solely by the government but a country created by every citizen who inherits the past, lives in the present, and envisions the future.”79

The very fate of the Asian Women’s Fund, however, shows how difficult it is to go beyond the government-centered view of Japan’s war responsibility. By collecting atonement money equally and voluntarily from all groups of Japanese citizens, the promoters ended up obscuring whether those who had a larger share of responsibility—contractors who had recruited comfort women, military officials who had helped manage the comfort women system, and soldiers who had used comfort stations—contributed atonement money. In a way, the promoters unwittingly reproduced the slogan of “repentance by all one hundred million” (ichioku sozange). This slogan was originally advocated by Higashikuninomiya Naruhiko, the first postwar prime minister, who argued, “Of course, the government made policy mistakes, but the declining morality among citizens also contributed [to the defeat]. . . . I believe repentance by all Japanese citizens is the first step in reconstructing our country.”80 Such a slogan was problematic because it distributed responsibility for Japan’s past wrongdoings equally among Japanese citizens, shielding relevant actors from their share of guilt.

In turn, NGOs supporting former comfort women continued to regard the Japanese government as the sole author of the military comfort women system. Take, for example, the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery in December 2000. This tribunal was organized by the Violence Against Women in War Network Japan in cooperation with NGOs from six Asian countries: the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery (South Korea), the Asian Center for Women’s Human Rights (the Philippines), the Shanghai Comfort Women Research Center (China), the Taipei Fund for Women’s Relief and Welfare (Taiwan), the Military Comfort Women Compensation Committee (North Korea), and the Indonesian Women’s Federation (Indonesia). The tribunal comprised four judges, from the United States, Argentina, Britain, and Kenya. During the five-day tribunal, former comfort women and Japanese soldiers were called upon to give testimony. The tribunal judged Emperor Hirohito, Tojo Hideki, and other Japanese government leaders guilty of crimes against humanity such as rape and sexual slavery. The tribunal also called for the Japanese government to offer sincere apologies and compensation to former comfort women, fully investigate historical facts about the comfort-women system, and establish memorials, museums, and educational programs, among other things.81 Although the tribunal was an important achievement in exposing Japan’s past wrongdoings, it ended up reinforcing the government-centered view of war responsibility because it did not question Japanese citizens’ responsibility in the war crimes, not to mention local Korean complicity.82

The government-centered view of war responsibility persists because the national government continues to play a central role in organizing commemorations and other social activities for citizens. For example, after his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine caused an international controversy in 2001, Koizumi created the Commission on Memorial and Other Facilities for Mourning War Dead and Praying for Peace (Tsuito Heiwa Kinen no tameno

Kinenhito Shisetsu no Arikata wo Kangaeru Konshinkai) to explore “possible memorials and facilities where anyone can pray for war dead and peace without causing any controversy.”83 In its final report, the commission recommended the creation of a new, nonreligious site of commemoration separate from both the Yasukuni Shrine and Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, and argued that such a nonreligious site should permit people to pray for both military and civilian war dead, as well as for both Japanese and foreign victims of the past wars in which Japan had been involved.84 As critics pointed out, however, such a new site of commemoration, no matter how cosmopolitan it may be, would reproduce the government-centered war commemoration: “A new national memorial is expected to be non-religious, but its essence would be exactly the same as the Yasukuni Shrine’s. The creation of a new memorial by the government means that meaning of ‘life and death’ will continue to be defined by the government.”85 Here, the critics articulated the exact opposite of government-centered commemoration— namely, individual-based commemoration, where individuals as human beings would take the initiative to commemorate war dead, irrespective of nationality, as well as independent of governments. This may be the ultimate form of cosmopolitan commemoration, but such individual-based commemoration risks denying the historical fact that government leaders did bear the largest share of war responsibility. Moreover, East Asia’s history problem continues to be centered on Japan’s official commemoration, defined by the Japanese government. It is therefore neither desirable nor possible to make a complete break with the government-centered view of Japan’s war responsibility.

Thus, for relevant political actors in the history problem to go beyond the government-centered view of Japan’s war responsibility, they have to walk a fine line, distributing war responsibility among citizens without obscuring each citizen’s fair share. But walking this fine line is extremely difficult, and the failure to do so prevented Japanese citizens, especially those who had lived through the war, from discussing how they contributed to the actions of the prewar Japanese government. Since a large number of Japanese citizens did not accept their share of war responsibility, the mobilizing structures for cosmopolitan commemoration never became large enough to institutionalize a high level of cosmopolitanism in Japan’s official commemoration. But if they had done so, they could have contributed not only to making Japan’s official commemoration more cosmopolitan but also to convincing South Korea and China of the depth and breadth of cosmopolitan contrition on Japan’s part.

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