Will Japan be able to Truly Embark on the Path Toward Reconciliation with Its Neighbors?

By: Zahid Hussain

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Japan and Germany, which victimized and caused devastating damage to┬átheir neighboring countries during World War ?, have taken two distinct paths. Germany’s cordial apology and conciliatory gesture toward its neighbors enabled the country to rise as a leading player in integrating the EU. Contrastingly, Japan, though it has made great strides in economic development, is still in conflict with its neighbors over territorial disputes and past war crimes. Such long-running conflicts are attributable to Japan’s lack of contrition for the dreadful atrocities that it committed against its neighbors, which resulted in the denial of its past war crimes, and distorted perception of viewing itself as a victim of the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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Following the victory at the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, Japan put the Korean peninsula under its colonial rule and committed a massacre against hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians during its occupation of Nanjing in 1937. In addition, during the Pacific War triggered by the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a large number of Japanese as well as civilians from various Asian countries were conscripted into the Japanese Armed Forces and more than three million people lost their lives. Japan stripped these countries of enormous amounts of materials and resources in preparation for the war.

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In particular, it is highly reprehensible that approximately 200 thousand women were forced into prostitution at comfort stations in 22 nations including China and Southeast Asian countries to satisfy the sexual cravings of Japanese soldiers. Among other nations, Korea suffered the most as the largest number of women was compulsorily mobilized as sex slaves. Only 60 women out of tens of thousands of victims are still alive and have been staging demonstrations in front of the Japanese Embassy in Korea every Wednesday, demanding an unfeigned apology and legal compensation from the Japanese government. Their demonstration, which has been held more than 1,000 times, reflects bitter resentment and searing pains they feel deep in their hearts.

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Regarding this issue, the Japanese government admitted to its Armed Forces’ involvement in the establishment of comfort stations, forcible mobilization, management, transfer of sex slaves and expressed repentance through a statement by Chief of Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono on August 4, 1993 based on 20 month-long investigation.

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However, faced with territorial disputes with its neighbors, Japan began showing signs of denying that it had compulsorily mobilized sex slaves. Speaking to the upper house of the legislature, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said there were no documents which confirmed that the Japanese military had forced Korean women into sexual slavery, disclaiming government’s involvement. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also said, “If I become the nation’s leader again, I will revise the Kono statement.” Again, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto stated that there was no evidence that Korean women were assaulted or threatened by the Japanese military to serve as sex slaves. Such series of flaming remarks intended to contradict its own official statement issued in the past demonstrate duplicitous attitude that Japan is taking, consequently creating great indignation in neighboring countries. This recent phenomenon is becoming increasingly visible in the political scene of Japan in what seems to be Japanese politicians’ hurried race toward the denial of the Kono statement made public 20 years ago. Such actions represent a symptom typical of a self-denial largely drawn from the absence of remorse for the pains that it had inflicted on its neighboring nations as well as a distorted sense of pride in the legacy of the imperialism that has continuously empowered them to rationalize its wars of aggression. Irrational attempts of the politicians to justify its past wrongdoings have reached such a level where even a mainstream news outlet stated in its editorial that their arguments were tantamount to failing to see the trunk for the branches, a view that calls for self-reflection on Japan’s recent trend of populism leaning toward extreme right.

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The forcibly recruited victims of Japanese sex slavery included women from countries Japan occupied, e.g. Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, as well as Dutch women living in Indonesia. The US House of Representatives demanded that the Japanese government apologize for this blatant crime against humanity by passing a resolution stating that the comfort women system of forced military prostitution by the Government of Japan, considered unprecedented in its cruelty and magnitude, is one of the largest cases of human trafficking in the 20th century. Such interest and support within the US led to the erection of the Comfort Women Monument in New Jersey in October 2010.

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In December 2011, a Korean NGO erected a monument to the women forced into sexual slavery, calling for a sincere apology from the Japanese government. The so-called Peace Monument consists of a statue of a teenage Korean girl in traditional costume seated next to an empty chair. Regretfully, a Japanese rightist placed a stake claiming Dokdo as Japanese territory beside the commemorative statue in the middle of the night and later exhibited his “achievements” on the website of YouTube. Former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara made a ludicrous statement that “prostitution was a very good way of making a living at that time.” This is a bitter reminder of the twisted face of chauvinism that has permeated all levels of Japanese society.

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The Kono Statement was at first seen as an attempt by the Japanese government to issue an apology and provide compensation for its atrocities. However, a large number of the victims, who are mostly in their 80s and 90s, refused to accept the compensation because it was discovered that it was collected from contributions made by the public. The Japanese government rejected direct funding because such an act would effectively demonstrate the government’s acknowledgement of its past wrongdoings.

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In contrast, the image of German Chancellor Willy Brandt dropping to his knees before the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto in Warsaw, Poland, in repentance has become a symbol of Germany possessing the moral courage to accept its past and seek for reconciliation. If Japan does not extend a sincere apology and genuinely repent to these elderly women before they pass away, Japan will forever be branded a craven miscreant.

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After being defeated in World War II, the Japanese Emperor was not prosecuted for his war crimes despite being supremely guilty for Japan’s invasion of its neighbors. The Japanese were unable to sever their ties with militarism because it never liquidated its past crimes. Its alliance with the US made it possible for the Japanese economy to capitalize on the Korean War and the Vietnam War in the 1950′s. The resulting economic boom propelled the country to the top ranks of economically developed countries. On the other hand, though Korea gained independence after 36 years of Japanese colonialization, it was immediately divided into two separate countries as a result of the Cold War.

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Japan has succeeded in establishing itself as a leader in the international community by virtue of its economic development. Nonetheless, it has been hesitant about depicting past misdeeds, including the pain it inflicted on neighboring countries through wars of aggression, in its history textbooks. Furthermore, Japan is now in serious territorial disputes with its neighbors, including the ROK, Russia, and China, which have laid claim over Dokdo, the Kuril Islands, and Diaoyudao, respectively. Japan illegally incorporated Dokdo (known as Takeshima in Japan) into its own territory in 1905 for military reasons as part of its plans to forcibly annex Korea. Even after Korea gained its independence in 1945, Japan’s claims over the island persisted and have caused discord between the two neighbors.

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Will Japan be able to truly embark on the path toward reconciliation with its neighbors and regain its lost confidence in its morality as a global leader through sincere apology and repentance as Germany did? Its lip-deep apology and insincere remorse never succeeded in gaining sympathy of surrounding countries because what Japan was only interested in was denying rather than facing up to its past wrongdoings. As a result, its gesture has been viewed as “Tatemae” (superficial measures taken as needed) not “Honne” (sincerity).

If Japan hopes to build harmonious and mutually beneficial relations with East Asian countries, it should acknowledge its shameful past and face its moral obligations. If Japan refuses to discontinue these acts of self-denial, it will discover itself in a difficult diplomatic situation. It is our sincere advice for Japan to thoroughly reflect upon itself and act accordingly, by resolving problems that it created, and be free from its past wrongdoings it has been denying.

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