Sixty years after Japan’s late emperor Hirohito exhorted his subjects to “bear the unbearable” by accepting defeat, bitter memories of the war that killed millions in Asia and devastated
Japan haunt ties between Tokyo and its Asian neighbours.
The occasion inspired a rare joint commemoration between North and South Korea on Sunday, and spurred protesters in
Hong Kong to burn Japan’s flag and march on Tokyo’s consulate chanting “Down with Japanese imperialism!”
In the Philippines, now-elderly women – once forced to act as sex slaves known as “comfort women” for Imperial Army troops – renewed demands for compensation and apologies, while former Australian prisoners of war returned to the Thai jungles where they laboured under the blazing sun to build the notorious Death Railway.
China called on Tokyo to face up to its past and exhorted Chinese citizens to remember Tokyo’s surrender on 15 August 1945, with “a fresh wave of patriotism”, as state-run media whipped up memories of Japanese atrocities.
But Beijing also stepped up security outside the Japanese ambassador’s residence on Monday, the scene of violent anti-Japan protests earlier this year.
An exhibit of a Zero fighter jet is
The outpouring of emotion reveals unhealed wounds in Asia 60 years after Hirohito conceded defeat in a radio broadcast, days after US bombers incinerated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs.
Japan’s relations with its neighbours are in their most frayed condition in decades, amid complaints that Tokyo has not yet properly atoned for brutally colonising much of the region in the 1930s and 40s.
“I can accept the fact that the young generation of Japanese is not to blame. It was their fathers and grandfathers. But until they own up, they’ll always be a pariah nation,” said 84-year-old Baden Jones.
The Australian former PoW was honouring fallen comrades on Sunday at ceremonies in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, where many of the 12,000 PoWs who died building Japan’s jungle railway were laid to rest.
Japan’s Imperial Army forced some 60,000 Allied soldiers captured on Southeast Asian battlefields and 200,000 Asian forced labourers to build a 415-km railway between its garrisons in Thailand and Myanmar – then called Burma – through some of the world’s most inhospitable, disease-ridden terrain.
“You have to move on. I’ve been to Japan, had a Japanese student stay at my house. I drive a Japanese car. But what gets my goat is that they don’t recognise what they did. They just butchered people without any apparent reason”
Harry Barker, 85,
Dysentery, beriberi, cholera, malaria, malnutrition, executions and Allied bombing took a terrible toll.
“You have to move on. I’ve been to Japan, had a Japanese student stay at my house. I drive a Japanese car,” said 85-year-old Harry Barker on Sunday. “But what gets my goat is that they don’t recognise what they did. They just butchered people without any apparent reason.”
Another comrade, Bobby Landers, was less forgiving: “Oh, no. I’ll never forget or forgive those bastards. They killed too many of my mates.”
Bitterness runs especially deep in China, where nationwide riots erupted earlier this year over Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni war shrine – which honours Japan’s 2.5 million war dead, including convicted war criminals – and Tokyo’s approval of history textbooks, which critics say gloss over wartime atrocities.
Taku Yamasaki, former vice-president of Koizumi’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said on Sunday that he did not think Koizumi would risk angering Japan’s Asian neighbours and visit the shrine on the sensitive 15 August date.
“More people are realising the importance of good diplomatic relations with our neighbouring countries,” he said.
Trade Minister Shoichi Nakagawa
But at least two Japanese cabinet ministers – Health Minister Hidehisa Otsuji and Environment Minister Yuriko Koike – were set to mark the 60th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the second world war with visits to the shrine.
Other ministers, including Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Shoichi Nakagawa, visited on Sunday.
Opinion polls also show the Japanese public is divided on whether Koizumi should keep visiting Yasukuni, seen by some as a solemn memorial to those who died for their country.
“Because my grandfather fought we have what we have now, I come every year to give thanks,” said 16-year-old student Shotaro Ottata, wearing a rising sun headband.
Ottata said, however, that his mother opposed his visits. “She says this place beautifies the war.”
A pilgrimage to Yasukuni by the prime minister could also spark a fierce debate among the Japanese public ahead of an 11 September election that Koizumi has said he wants to make a referendum on his reform agenda.
Since taking office in 2001, the Japanese leader has made annual pilgrimages to the Shinto shrine, but he has yet to keep a pledge to do so on the anniversary of the war’s end.
Koizumi, who says he visits Yasukuni to mourn the war dead and pray for peace, last visited the shrine on 1 January 2004.
On Monday morning, Hundreds of Japanese children and adults mingled with elderly, dark suited veterans at the massive Yasukuni complex as police stood by, ready for possible clashes between right-wing groups and anti-Yasukuni demonstrators.
Hundreds visited Yasukuni to
The domestic debate over Yasukuni mirrors a lack of consensus among Japanese over how to assess the war.
Forty-three per cent of respondents to a weekend survey by Mainichi newspaper said Japan’s war against China and the United States was wrong, while 29% said it was unavoidable.
Another 26% were undecided and 2% gave no reply.
Three quarters said there had not been enough debate on
responsibility for the conflict in Japan after the war.
On Monday, Koizumi apologised for Tokyo’s wartime colonisation and invasions in Asia, pledging that Japan would never forget the “terrible lessons” of the war.
Koizumi, in a written statement marking his second apology for the war this year, expressed his “deep reflections and heartfelt” sorrow for the damages caused by Japan during its conquests in the region.
The statement, however, mirrored the apology issued in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the war’s end by then-prime minister Tomiichi Murayama.
That statement was criticised as insufficient by critics in Asia who say Japan has not atoned enough for the war.
Words not enough
Chinese media said Koizumi’s past visits to Yasukuni and the fact the cabinet ministers would go showed Tokyo’s disregard for its wartime foes.
“Koizumi stubbornly persists in his efforts to please Japan’s
right-wingers, who insist on the belief that sweeping the dirt
under the carpet is the only action they need to take,” the China Daily said in an editorial.
The commentary also dismissed Japan’s repeated apologies for
its past wartime atrocities.
“Actions surely speak louder than words … His (Koizumi’s) words appeared faint, and his sincerity is also in doubt,” it said.
“Because my grandfather fought we have what we have now, I come every year to give thanks”
Shotaro Ottata, 16-year-old student at Yasukuni shrine
On Sunday, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the Marco Polo Bridge, the site of one of the war’s best-known battles, where he said that while keeping history in mind, China would focus on the future, Xinhua news agency reported.
The sense of victims’ solidarity extended across the Cold War’s last frontier as a delegation of about 200 North Koreans arrived in Seoul to pay a first-ever visit to a cemetery in the South where Korean war dead are buried.
Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910. While the war’s end brought liberation, it also led to the peninsula’s division.
Emperor seeks peace
On Monday, Emperor Akihito, son of Hirohito, expressed hope that Japan would never return to war.
Akihito led some 7000 people at the Budokan hall next to his palace in a moment of silence for the war dead.
“In view of history, I sincerely wish that the ravages of war will never be repeated. With all the Japanese public, I mourn for those who perished in battles and lost their lives in the horrors of war,” Akihito said.
Hirohito was considered a demigod during the war and the public never heard his voice until he went on the radio to surrender on 15 August 1945.
Japan now considers the emperor a symbol of the nation with no political role.
Thousands of miles away in the Philippines, Lili-Pilipina, a group of women allegedly forced into prostitution by Imperial Army troops, demanded that Tokyo compensate them.
“In view of history, I sincerely wish that the ravages of war will never be repeated. With all the Japanese public, I mourn for those who perished in battles and lost their lives in the horrors of war”
Japanese Emperor Akihito
Tokyo has generally refused to pay damages to individuals for the war, saying the issue was settled between governments in post-war treaties. Japanese courts have rejected a number of lawsuits brought by former sex slaves.
In China’s anniversary events, national religious associations plan rites condemning aggression and praying for peace, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Japan invaded China in 1931. Its troops massacred hundreds of thousands in what is known as the Rape of Nanjing in December 1937, and Japanese scientists performed germ warfare experiments on Chinese prisoners.
China says as many as 300,000 Chinese men, women and children were slaughtered in Nanjing. The 1948 Tokyo war crimes tribunal found Japanese troops killed 155,000 people, mainly women and children.