Japan's other atrocities

ANNIVERSARIES, such as the 50th anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, offer an appropriate moment for reflection -- not to rekindle old anger or open aging wounds but to use our knowledge of history to look with increased understanding into the future.

Unfortunately, it is especially difficult for the Japanese to take such a look because Japan's educational system refuses to acknowledge the country's behavior in the years leading up to World War II. Absent is a record of the subjugation and slaughter of civilians in China and Korea. And, although the attack on Pearl Harbor is mentioned, the war that followed is covered scantily. Indeed, a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article reported the complaints of a Japanese high school teacher who had just introduced his students to the war with the United States. The first thing they asked was, "Who won?"


Clearly Japan suffered in the war that it began. And it is possible -- however such things are gauged -- that in human misery, the United States and Japan suffered equally.

But there is no such balance in Tokyo's relations with its Asian neighbors. The failure to acknowledge atrocities committed in China and Korea is a failure to treat these countries as equals whose suffering must be understood to ensure that it doesn't happen again.


Among the worst crimes committed by Japan during its invasion of China was the 1937 massacre in Nanjing. After routing Chiang Kai-shek's army, Japanese forces launched a systematic campaign against civilians. Thousands were rounded up, bound together and shot; young girls and old women were raped; small children were bayoneted to death. In all, more than 142,000 civilians were killed.

Japan's educational system, however, barely acknowledges this history. For example, a recent high school text explains that Japan's army "moved" into Shanghai in July 1937, and that a "strong faction" among politicians and the military advocated the use of "harsh methods." Then, almost incidentally, the text declares that Nanjing was "occupied" in December of 1937. End of subject.

In contrast, Germany's textbooks have long provided an accurate report of Nazi responsibility for starting World War II in Europe, and for the atrocities of the Holocaust. Photographs of the death camps and descriptions of the machinery of death carry the horrors of this national crime forward in the minds of the young.

In Japan, even some of the country's leaders deny the truth. In an October 1990 Playboy magazine interview, Shinataro Ishihara, the Japanese writer and politician who co-authored the controversial book, "The Japan That Can Say No," denied that any atrocity took place in Nanjing.

Similarly, Masayuki Fujio, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's education minister, has suggested that the rape of Nanjing wasn't such a big deal and that it did not violate international law: "It is not murder under international law to kill in war," he said. And, in 1988, another minister, Seisuke Okuno, denied that Japan had been the aggressor in the World War II and said that he wanted Japan "to stop being pulled around by the ghost of the occupation forces."

The time to correct this deception is now. Japan has become a great economic power and could play an important role in advancing the interests it shares with the United States in peace. But as long as Japan refuses to acknowledge its aggression against its Asian neighbors, its willingness to treat other nations with the same respect it expects of them will hang in doubt.

When Japan acknowledges the past as wrong, the world will know that Japan is ready to join the international community as a full and active member. Until then, the ghosts will continue to haunt.

Seth Cropsey is director of the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.