International ties

Japan's repentance for war crimes insincere

By Huang Xiangyang (
Updated: 2010-08-17 18:44
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As people around the world marked the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, Japan's relations with its neighbors, whom it victimized during that war, once again came to limelight.

History remains a source of bitterness and mistrust. As always, the argument is whether Japan has apologized enough for its wartime atrocities.

On the surface, the answer may be yes.

In a memorial ceremony on Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan admitted that Japan "caused great damage and suffering to many nations during the war, especially to the people of Asia." He offered "deep regret" and "sincere feelings of condolence" to those who suffered and their families.

The words came just days after Kan apologized to South Korea for Japan's past colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. In a statement, Kan expressed "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" for Japan's colonial rule.

If all these can be taken as a Japanese war apology, the list stretches across the decades. It was epitomized by former prime minister Tomiichi Murayama's 1995 statement, in which he admitted "irrefutable facts of history" of Japan's colonial rule and aggression, and expressed his feelings of "deep remorse" and "heartfelt apology." Many Japanese leaders' war apologies have been based on the spirit of that speech.

It is really thought-provoking that more than six decades after the war, while Germany has long been spared from being called on to apologize, Japan still remains the target of resentment by so many Chinese and Koreans.

It is not that Japan's Asian neighbors are too demanding. The sense of distrust stems from within Japan itself.

On the same day of Kan making his statement of apology, members of the now-opposition Liberal Democratic Party made a point by paying pilgrimage to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals such as Japan's wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo were honored.

Among those who visited was former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who previously made a similar war apology as Kan's when he was in office. It was Abe who apologized and expressed sympathy for the "hardships" the so called comfort women suffered after he first denied Japanese governmental responsibility for the forced coercion of women into a system of sexual slavery that involved up to 200,000 victims who were raised throughout Asia.

After witnessing the brazen acts of duplicity, which have been staged from time to time, how could any people of any intelligence and good-will give any credence to any words of apology made by Japanese politicians?

So the gist of the problem is not whether Japan has apologized enough. It is that "we do not believe that your apologies are sincere."

And in Japan, insincerity in its repentance of war misdeeds is expressed in many ways. Take the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where war criminals are enshrined and worshipped like god.

It is an act that Iris Chang, writer of "the Rape of Nanking" labeled as "politically equivalent to erecting a cathedral for Hitler in the middle of Berlin." Any promise of not visiting the shrine in office by Japanese leaders is tooted as a political virtue. It is as absurd as giving a pat on the back to anyone who does not worship Hitler.

Bill Emmott, editor-in-chief of the Economist, observed after he visited the museum in the grounds of Yasukuni, the Yushukan: "Its story is highly selective. There is no mention of Unit 731 or of bacteriological warfare. The atrocities in Nanking are mentioned but not as anything particularly severe…. If fact, blame for the spreading of the conflict is attributed to the Chinese." If that is the way the Japanese perceive their war past, how could anger over Japan's war past be allayed and real reconciliation achieved between Japan and its wartime victims?

The obstinate refusal by Japan to repent their past sins may have stemmed from its culture. In her book "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," Ruth Benedict points to Japan's shame culture, which she says "does not provide for confessions, even to the god."

The Japanese believe that so long as a man's "bad behavior does not get out into the world, he need not be troubled and confession appears to him merely as a way of courting trouble," she writes.

This psychology could be seen in some of Japanese rightists who opposed Kan making any further apology. They argue that confession of Japan's past sins would only elicit more trouble, such as demand of compensation from the "comfort women."

This is sad. After all its economic miracles that made it a global manufacturing and financial powerhouse, Japan remains a dwarf psychologically, shy to face square up to its past from the bottom of its heart.

As Iris Chang put it: Japanese culture will not move forward until it admits, not only to the world -- but to itself -- how improper were its past actions.