It's like clockwork. Every six months or so someone somewhere has a go at Japan for not apologising for its involvement in World War II. We are angry that Japanese school history textbooks cover up their military atrocities, and every time a politician goes to the Yasukuni Shrine and honours Japanese war dead, we are reminded yet again of Japan's recalcitrance in this area.
But should we? There are some very important things we need to take note of before we reach any conclusion.
The first thing to look at is whether or not Japan has apologised. The Wikipedia article on the subject is very detailed - since 1972, Japanese politicians and leaders have made public statements that explicitly admit that Japan's imperialism before and during the war was wrong. If you examine the text of these statements, a clear picture emerges - they have apologised for their actions, and they have not attempted to deny or minimise what they did.
What is important to note is the fact that the Japanese Diet has not made any formal apology. This has not, however, due to any lack of trying on behalf of many Japanese politicians. The fact is, however, that past Prime Ministers and other politicians have admitted guilt. Is there the need for an "official" apology by the diet? Let's leave that thought hanging.
The second problem concerns the textbooks. We'd like to think that Japan's school system is monolithic and has only one history textbook that everyone has to use. Nothing is further from the truth. The wikipedia article on the subject shows that there are many different history texts that are used by Japanese schools - each from a different publisher and each competing against the other for market share.
Controversy arose when, in 1997, a textbook written by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform was published. The society is essentially a right-wing populist organisation that is seeking to glorify Japan's role in the war. The result was massive protests across Asia against such a biased view of history.
But remember that this textbook, published by Fusosha, had to compete against others from other publishing companies. The statistics show that hardly any Fusosha textbooks were used. A paltry 625 were used in Japanese schools in 2002, making it the 8th most popular - the bottom of the list. At no. 7 was the Nihon Bunkyo Shuppan history text, with over 31,000 being used.
But what of these other textbooks? As far as I can tell, there were no protests about the other textbooks used. There is a Wikipedia article which contains quotes from the Tokyo Shoseki textbook, the most popular Japanese textbook in 2002 with 40% of the market and over 688,000 copies in schools. If you examine the quotes, you will notice that Japan's role in the war is not covered up at all. Japan is clearly portrayed as the aggressor, and wartime atrocities are explained well.
At this point my research into Japanese history textbooks comes to an end. I can't vouch for the other 60% of the 2002 history textbook marketplace, but I have yet to see any complaints beyond the Fusosha text.
So what do we learn about Japanese history textbooks? We learn that any concerns about revisionist texts are over-exaggerations. Completely pro-Japan texts have made no inroads into Japanese history teaching at all. Moreover, the most popular textbook appears to approach Japan's wartime involvement from a factual, objective stance.
The third problem concerns the Yasukuni Shrine. Why is it so controversial for Japanese politicians (including the current prime minister) to visit and pay homage?
The shrine honours the Japanese war dead, and has been operating in that capacity since 1869. Yes, that's 1869 - the nineteenth century. The names of 2,466,532 Japanese and colonial soldiers who were killed in war are written into the shrine's Book of Souls.
The problem is that the book lists 14 Japanese Class A War Criminals, as well as over 1000 others executed for war crimes. This means that anyone who goes to the shrine to pay homage to the war dead also pay homage to these war criminals. As far as I know, there are no other Shinto shrines where the war dead are remembered.
While I naturally believe that Japan's military expansion prior to, and during, the Second World War was completely wrong, I do not for one minute believe that every single soldier who died is some form of war criminal. Moreover, while I think that Australia's involvement in Vietnam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq was completely wrong and unjustified, I cannot refuse to celebrate the memory of those Australians who died during those conflicts.
And, of course, there are problems with Australian soldiers as well. Some were obviously war criminals too. Does that mean that I celebrate the memory of war criminals whenever I visit the Australian War Memorial? Of course not.
We need to remember that Japan lost the war. Moreover, they lost approximately 2,172,000 soldiers and civilians during the war. This compares favourably with Australia's 40,101, Britain's 495,700 and America's 413,000. When we consider the forces arrayed against Japan during the Second World War, it is incredible that the allies lost so few men - especially when you remember that the death figures just quoted for Australia, Britain and America include the war in Europe.
China, however, lost 17,500,000 during the war - due almost exclusively to Japanese actions. Moreover, 15 million were civilians. China suffered the most from Japan's actions, and Japan has not covered up this fact.
But I will say it again - Japan lost the war. They paid for their military folly with the lives of over 2 million of their people. They also had their industrial power ripped apart by allied air raids, and three cities - Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki - were totally and completely destroyed. The nation was humiliated.
Japan, like Germany, made an effort to repair much of the damage that they had caused. The Wikipedia article on the subject gives some interesting details, including the long term strategy of investing in the development of Asian nations like Taiwan and Korea.
Racism on our part
When I was at University a few years ago, I did a study of World War II propaganda. It was interesting to compare the anti-German propaganda to the anti-Japan propaganda. In almost every case, Germany was portrayed as Hitler or one of his cronies. This meant that the hatred was not projected towards Germany as a nation, but to its figurehead. I even remember one propaganda poster that showed the German nation as unwilling slaves under the control of Hitler and the Nazi party. The result was that the German people were never seen as the enemy to hate - they were merely deluded by the spell of Hitler.
By contrast, the anti-Japanese propaganda focused exclusively upon racial characteristics. Although the emperor was occasionally shown, the Japanese enemy was almost always portrayed as a semi-human monster, uncivilised and driven by animal instincts. It was a far more racist image, drawn from our deep-seated fear of physical differences between Europeans and Asians. Germans were not subjected to such fear, mainly because they looked like us and came from a more similar culture.
This racism, unfortunately, continues. We in the West keep demanding that Japan apologise and make amends for the war, while at the same time not demanding the same from Germany.
Don't get me wrong - Japan still has problems coming to terms with their war guilt. It is a political and cultural "hot potato" that is unique amongst the former Axis countries. The problem is that we have assumed too much without checking the facts: Japanese politicians have admitted guilt and formally apologised for the war; Japanese history textbooks are nowhere near as biased as many think; people who honour the dead at the Yasukuni Shrine are unlikely to be justifying Japanese war crimes.
Japan has also "made amends" for the war: they lost. Millions dead. That was the price that they had to pay. Moreover, since 1945 they have done nothing but benefit the world - albeit in an Adam Smith sort of way. Japanese imperialism is dead - they do not threaten any of their neighbours any more and their constitution explicitly prevents any such action from occurring. They have provided a strong economic centre in Asia to ensure that the region has remained stable and prosperous since the war.
We need to recognise and respect Japan and its people - mutual respect is always a good thing. With such respect in place, Japan may find it easier to come to terms with their past, and heal their own self-inflicted wounds.
So I end with the title of this peice - how often does Japan have to say sorry?
From the One Salient Overlord Department
© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.