A 16-year girl gangraped by Japanese in the Nanking massacre

Japan often tries to portray itself as a victim of the war, glossing over the fact it was an aggressor and committed atrocities. Ian Buruma, the author of “The Wages of Guilt”, said "In Japan the war is remembered much more as a misguided military conflict and not [in terms of] a nation responsible for a huge and horrendous crime."

The wounds of World War II have large been healed in Southeast Asia but not in Korea and China. Koreans feel that Japan needs to apologize for the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1912 to 1945 and the comfort women issue. Chinese feel the Japanese need to apologize for the Rape of Nanking and other atrocities committed in China. The wounds of World War II have largely been healed in Southeast Asia.

Buruma believes that "the atrocities committed by the Japanese army are not comparable to the premeditated, systematic killing of Jews in Germany" but "the Japanese compared with the West Germans, have paid less attention to the suffering they inflicted on others and shown greater inclination to shift the blame." In European countries it is a punishable offense to deny the Holocaust. One Japanese intellectual told Newsweek, "Of course we need to apologize more fully. But would the Germans have been able to apologize if France had continued to spout a steady stream of anti-German rhetoric. It takes two for real reconciliation."

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun poll taken in the mid 2000s, 81 percent of Japanese say that Japan apologies to the leaders of China and South Korean about World-War-II-related issues have been “sufficient.”

Japan's Feeble Apology Efforts

Miyazawa apologized, sort of
In 1991, on the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Prime Minister Kichi Miyazawa came close to apologizing for Japan's actions in World War II by expressing "deep remorse...that we inflicted an unbearable blow on the people of America and the Asian counties." Many Japanese considered it a formal apology while many Asian said it didn't go far enough and many Japanese nationalist thought it went too far.

In 1994, the Social Democratic Party of Japan (SDP, or the Socialists) and the New Party Sakigake came to power under Tomiichi Murayama. He made a statement expressing "deep remorse" over Japan's aggression in World War II. . At the end of 1994, Japan’s Foreign Ministry finally apologized that it had failed to notify Washington of its intention to wage war against the United States, the only problem was that it apologized to the Japanese people not the United States.

In November 1994, on the eve of 53rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan admitted it was "deeply regrettable" and "there can be no more excuse" for the fact that Japan failed to break off peace negotiations before it launched the attacks on the American navy base in Hawaii. The statement was not addressed to the U.S., it was "directed to the people of Japan."

In June 1995, Japanese Prime Minister Tomichi Murayama apologized for the atrocities committed by Japan in World War II with the statement: "I...express here once again my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology." But he was criticized for not saying that Japan was an "aggressor." In August 1995, he said "during a certain period of time in the not too distant past" Japan followed a "mistaken national policy" of "colonialism and aggression" that "caused suffering to the people of many countries. He expressed his "heartfelt apology" and promised to eradicate "self-righteous nationalism."

Murayama apologized a little better
In 1998, Japanese prime minister Keizo Obuchi apologized to South Korean president Kim Dae Jung for the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula. Both leaders declared the matter settled. After that business and culture exchanges between South Korea and Japan flourished. In October 2001, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi offered a "heartfelt apology" for atrocities committed by Japan in Korea. In April 2005, he expressed “deep remorse” and offered a heartfelt apology to Asia for Japan’s conduct in World War II.

In August 2005, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi offered an apology for Japan's actions in World War II, saying, “Our country has caused tremendous damage and pain to the people of many countries, especially in Asian countries, through colonial rule and invasion. Humbly acknowledging such facts of history, I once again reflect most deeply and offer apologies from heart." After saying this he prayed at a National Cemetery rather than Yasukina shrine and called on China, South Korea and Japan to work together “in maintaining peace and aiming at development in the region." These efforts did not draw nearly as much attention as his Yasukuni Shrine visits.

In a speech in August 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Abe reiterated his support for past official apologies for inflicting “immeasurable damage and suffering” on “innocent people,” adding “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.” Despite this many Abe and Japan critics felt the remarks fell short of sincere, unequivocal apology Japan needs to make.

Abe with an old World-War-II-era Japanese flag

Jonathan Soble wrote in the New York Times: “Using the carefully chosen words that govern reckonings with Japan’s militarist past... Abe reiterated his country’s official remorse for the catastrophe of World War II. In a nationally televised address, Mr. Abe described feelings of “profound grief” and offered “eternal, sincere condolences” for the dead. He said Japan had inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering” when it “took the wrong course and advanced along the road to war.” But in a potentially contentious break with previous expressions of contrition by Japanese leaders, he did not offer a new apology of his own. [Source: Jonathan Soble, August 14, 2015]

“The decision, a product of months of deliberation, appeared calibrated to draw a line under what Mr. Abe and many Japanese see as an endless and enfeebling cycle of apologies for decades-old offenses. But Mr. Abe sought to do so while still addressing lingering resentment in China and South Korea, nations that bore the brunt of Japan’s often brutal empire building in the first half of the 20th century. “Japan has repeatedly expressed feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war,” Mr. Abe said. “Such positions articulated by previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future.” But, he added, there was a limit to the number of times Japan could apologize. “We must not let our children, grandchildren and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” he said. It is enough, he added, “to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.” ^|^

Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine (near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo) is memorial whose purpose is to honor and deify hundreds of thousands who died in World War II and other conflicts in the late 19th and early 20th century. In some ways it the Japanese equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery except no one is buried there.

Statement on the Rape of Nanking in Yushukan Museum

Yasukuni means “Peaceful Nation.” A book at the shrine lists 2.46 million war dead regarded as gods, including soldiers who died in the “Greater east Asian War” (World War II), participants Rape of Nanking, high school students who died defending Okinawa, nurses and engineers who died on the battlefield, and soldiers who were killed in the Russo-Japanese war but does not include civilians who died in Hiroshima, Nagasaki or the fire bombing raids.

The dead at Yasukuni were enshrined with a Shinto ceremony in which their names were written down on a scroll and then ceremoniously placed on a palanquin and carried into the shrine, essentially recognizing them as kami (“gods” or “spirits”). During the peak of fighting in World War II sometimes 30,000 people were enshrined in a single day.

Yasukuni became a center of controversy in the early 2000s when it was repeatedly visited by Japanese Prime Minister Juichiro Koizumi, a move that angered many, particularly Chinese and Koreans that suffered under Japanese rule before and during World War II. What makes the shrine so anger-provoking is the fact that it specifically honors 14 Class A war criminals, including Tojo and six others that were executed for their action in World War II after the war was over. On the shrine website it refers to all 1,068 those tried as war criminals during the 1946-48 Tokyo Trial as “Martyrs of Showa” who “were cruelly and unjustly tried as war criminals by a sham-like tribunal of the Allied forces. These martyrs are the kami of Yasukuni jinja.”

Comfort Women

Between 1932 and the end of World War II in 1945, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 women served as "comfort women" (sex slaves) for Japanese soldiers in huge Japanese-run brothels. The majority came from Korea. Most of the others came from the Philippines and China. The remainder came from Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand and Burma. Even some Dutch women in Indonesia were forced to participate. The Japanese claim there were fewer than 20,000 women in brothels used by Japanese soldiers. No definitive records have surfaced.

Comfort women is a euphemism for prostitutes enslaved to service members of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: The so-called “comfort women” (the term is a translation of a Japanese/Korean euphemism) were sexual slaves who were often recruited by trickery and forced to serve the Japanese military in the field in Asia and the Pacific during the Pacific War. These women were drawn from throughout the Japanese empire, though many were Korean. [Source:Asia for Educators Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Some 2,000 "comfort stations" were set up in Manchuria, Burma, Borneo and other places in Asia, where Japanese soldiers were stationed. Japan’s first comfort station, Dai Salon in Shanghai, was established in 1932. A typical “comfort station” serviced 10 to 100 soldiers a day. A typical room was simply furnished with a tatami mat, futon, a washbowl and plaques with the Japanese name given to the comfort woman kept there. Outside, welcome banners for soldiers were sometimes hung. Korean-born, New York-based Lee Chang-jin, creator of the “Comfort Women Wanted” art exhibit, said: “One of the women said they used to get raped by 50 soldiers a day.”

Anger Towards Japan in Korea

comfort girl

In June 1995, after Japanese Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe characterized the repressive and brutal Japanese occupation of Korea as "peaceful," students in Korea responded by rioting, burning effigies, throwing eggs at the Japanese embassy and hurling Molotov cocktails at the Japanese cultural center in Seoul, burning out the inside of the building.

In August 2001, a group of 20 young Koreans in Seoul protested the glossing over of Japanese war crimes in World War II in school textbooks and the visit by Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi to the Yasukuni War shrine by cutting off the tips of their little fingers while shouting, "Apologize! Apologize!." The wounds were bandaged with pieces of the Korean flag and the tips were collected and folded in another flag.

August 2010 marked the 100th anniversary of the annexation of South Korea by Japan. A few days ahead of the anniversary, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan apologized to South Korea for the annexation, expressing “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology: for “the tremendous damage and suffering caused during the period of colonial rule”—the statement was similar to an apology made by in 1995 by Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama to all Asian nation.Kan then went a step further saying that the Korean people’s “ethnic pride was deeply scarred by the colonial rule which was imposed against there will” and then went on to say that the focus of the future should be on building good relations between South Korea and Japan. After making the statement Kan called South Korea President Lee Myung Pak to explain his statements.

At rallies in South Korea, protesters called on Japan to truely repent for what it had. Among those who not happy about what Japan had done so far was a 47-year-old traditional medicine shop owner that told Kyodo, “Japan’s apology is seen like a formality that comes out when the need arises.” An apology from Japan is “nothing but empty words” unless Japan relinquishes it claim to Dokdo islands and compensates former comfort women.

See Comfort Women Article

Anger Towards Japan in China

Many Chinese feel the Japanese need to apologize for the Rape of Nanking, Unit 731 and other atrocities committed in China. In 1970, Chinese textbook claimed that 10 million people died in China during World War II.The figure increased to 35 million in 2000.

The U.S. ambassador to China once said the Chinese "treat the Japanese like monsters.” Chinese television often features old film clips from the 1930s which show atrocities committed by the Japanese on television. The Chinese-made, Cannes-Prize winning film Devils on the Doorstep was banned in China because it treated the Japanese too sympathetically even though the term "devils" refers to Japanese. Some have said that the anger towards Japanese in China has been drummed up the Communist government to take attention off their own shortcomings yet the anti-Japanese outrage does seem to be genuine and deeply felt.

In the early 2000s, relations between China and Japan were strained over visits by Koizumi to a controversial Yasukuni shrine and the invasion of a Japanese embassy by Chinese police to haul away North Korean asylum seekers. After Koizumi insisted that he would continue the visits to Yasukina Shrine, Beijing warned: “Without a correct view on history, there is no guarantee to healthy and stable ties between China and Japan.”

Japanese conservatives claim there is a lack of proof for things like the Rape of Nanking, Unit 731 and comfort women, and claim the Japanese occupation brought progress and development to Korea, China and other nations. In the mid 2000s, Japanese began traveling to China on tours of sites were wartime atrocities and massacres occurred. Among the stops on a Manchuria tour were the remains of Unit 731.

Japanese Arguments for Not Apologizing More

Some Japanese feel that the Japanese did nothing wrong during World War II. Some believe that the attack on Pearl Harbor was not an aggressive surprise attack but rather a logical response to an Allied embargo on oil. Others feel it is ridiculous for Japanese to apologize for a war in which they were victims of atom bombs. For many Japanese the dropping of bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a far worse crime than the Rape of Nanking or the Bataan Death March. The Japanese government worries that an apology would give war victims the right to claim compensation from Japan.

Japanese revisionists at Yasukuni shrine

Many Japanese feel their actions in China, the Philippines and Southeast Asia were no worse than those committed by colonizing European nations such as Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, the U.S. and the Netherlands. Some Japanese feel it is unfair that they have to apologize while other colonizing nations do not. The Japanese can make a credible argument that Japan helped "liberate" Asian counties such as China, Burma and Indonesia from "white imperialism.” In Southeast Asia, the Allies were not fighting for freedom of countries like Burma and Malaysia they were fighting to keep them as colonial possession.

The Japanese cringe at the thought of being lumped together with the Nazis. Akiko Fukunaga of London's Lancaster University told Newsweek, "The Nazis tried to liquidate political opponents, several races, cultures and civilizations...The 'crimes' Japan committed were colonization, killing of civilians and ill treatment of POWs. Every country has at some time committed these 'crimes.' I have never heard of any country apologizing...except Japan."

There is also pressure from Japanese right-wing groups to consider. When a former prime mister apologized for Japan's war record in 1993, one right L.D.P. member told the Diet that anyone who made that kind of remark should be killed. In 1990, the mayor of Nagasaki was shot after he suggested that Emperor Hirohito should be partly blamed for World War II. The Japanese also believe that apologizing would cast shame on family members and ancestors who died fighting for Japan during World War II. A Japanese history professor told the New York Times, "Some Japanese feel that it would be sinful to apologize for World War II because they would be blaming their ancestors.”

The Japan Bereaved Families Association, which claims one million households as members, is against any form apology about Japanese aggression in World War II. Chihito Hosoa, a political science professor at the International University of Japan told Time, the group hopes to turn a $120 million war museum in Tokyo into a "museum to justify the war" and "show it was inevitable for Japan to go to war" and they have "no intention of describing Japan's responsibility,"

Apologies by Ordinary Japanese and Insensitive Statements by Japanese Officials

The majority of Japanese would like to see their government apologize for its country's actions in World War II, but conservatives in the Liberal Democratic Part kept this from occurring for a long time. In a 1995 poll, 58 percent of Japanese favored an outright apology, while 70 percent of the members of the Liberal Democrats Party that ruled at that timed opposed apologizing.

Anti-Yasakuni shrine protest

To marked the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the small fishing town of Shiogama issued a statement, saying "our government should...take responsibility for the war clearly, and apologize and compensate those victims of the war inside and outside Japan." The town ended up recanting the statement after it was hounded by right-wing extremists in black "sound trucks" with loudspeakers blasting patriotic anthems.

Referring to the Japanese government, Hiroshima survivor Hiroto Kuboaura told Newsweek, "I don't think they have done enough. The government does not face its own responsibility for the war. In order to part from the past we have to admit it and apologize. Let's face it. We are all victims of this war."

In May, 1994 the 71-year-old Japanese Justice Minister Sheihgeto Nagano lost his job for saying that Rape of Nanking was a "fabrication."In August 1994, the director of the Japanese Environmental Agency Shin Sakurai was fired after he said that he thought that Japan's aggression in World War II actually helped Asia. In November, 1995, cabinet minister, Takami Eto, was forced to quit after saying "Japan did some good things" in Korea.

In August 1995, Education Minister Yoshinobu Simamura said that World War II in the Pacific was not a war of aggression and Japan had nothing to apologize for. Another Education Minister, Masayuki Fujio, lost his job in 1986 for saying that Japan had the right to annex Korea.

Tokyo University education professor Nobukatsi Fujioka has asserted that the Japanese were "brainwashed" by the U.S. to accept the "Tokyo War Crimes View of History;" that fewer people were slaughtered during the Rape of Nanking than has been claimed; and that the so called "comfort women" were not sex slaves but ordinary prostitutes.

Japanese Textbooks, World War II and War Crimes

Controversial Japanese middle school textbook

In Japanese textbooks from the 1980s the only reference to the "Rape of Nanking" was a footnote that called it the "Nanking Incident." In the same textbooks the eight year occupation of China was referred to as the "China Incident," and characterized by skirmishes with Communists and "bandits." Modern textbooks did not report how many comfort women there were. Nor do they say much about kamikaze pilots or discuss the role of Emperor Hirohito in directing the war.

In the 1990s, North Korea condemned the book and Li Peng, the No. 2 leader in China, presented a list of changes. Despite objections the government refused to do anything. South Koreans were particularly outraged by the textbook. Dozens of exchanges between South Korea and Japan — ranging from visits by Korean sumo wrestlers to official visits by top-level politicians — were canceled. South Korean hackers disrupted the websites of the Japanese Education Ministry and Japan's ruling political party. A South Korean rock group shredded a Japanese flag during a performance in Japan. There were worries the protest might endanger the World Cup soccer tournament, cohosted in 2002 by South Korea and Japan.

Textbook manuscripts have to be screened and approved before publication by the Education Ministry, which has traditionally been under the control of some of the most conservative politicians and bureaucrats in Japan. A system was set up during the American occupation to keep militaristic sentiments out of school textbooks. After the Americans left a new system was set up to water down passages that dealt with war crimes and atrocities committed by Japan in World War II.

In Japan's defense, textbooks in China, South Korea and other Asian often put a nationalist, sometimes inaccurate, spin on their history. Chinese textbook claim's of the number of war dead in China during World War II has changed from 10 million in 1970 to 35 million in 2000.

Conservatives in Japan have been outraged by efforts to include more references to war crimes committed by the Japanese in school textbooks. Nearly 100 politicians, historians and business leaders demanded that references to "comfort women" sex slaves and Unit 731 be removed. One legislator said that the textbooks would make students hate their own country. The Education Ministry responded to the criticism by deleting some of the passages that outraged the conservatives. In August 1997, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that the Education Ministry acted illegally when it removed references of the Japanese atrocities from a proposed history textbook.

A textbook, “New History Textbook”, approved in 2001 by the Ministry of Education contained no references to comfort women and forced laborers, glossed over atrocities like Unit 731 and the Nanking massacre, and asserted that World War II helped Asian countries achieve independence. The textbooks were largely written by the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, a controversial right wing group of revisionist historians, who said the were interested in engendering national pride. Local school districts overwhelmingly refused to use the controversial textbook. Bookstores, however, had trouble keeping the books in stock.

Anti-textbook protest in China

In August 2005, the Tokyo Education Ministry approved a new edition of a history textbook written by nationalist scholars that critics said whitewashes Japan’s militaristic past, downplaying or ignoring the Rape of Nanking and the system of sex slaves. South Korea and China both lodged complaints about the texts. Controversial textbooks have only been adopted by 0.4 percent of Japanese schools.

New high school history textbooks issued in 2007 modified previous passages about the Battle of Okinawa, saying that Okinawan residents were “driven to mass suicide: without saying anything about the army’s role.” To play down the role of the Imperial Army in the mass suicides on the island the textbooks eliminated statements like the residents of Okinawa were “forced by the Japanese military” into committing mass suicide. There were descriptions of comfort women mo mention that there were coerced b the Japanese military. Screeners with the Education, Science and technology Ministry all want to make adjustments on the numbers listed in the Rape of Nanking. The new Japanese history textbooks were blasted for inflaming jingoism among students and glossing over Japan's occupation of Korea and China.

Compensation by Japan for World War II

The 1951 US-Japan peace treaty “recognized that the resources of Japan are not presently sufficient, if it is to maintain a viable economy, to make complete reparations.” The Japanese have argued that this and other provisions in peace treaties closed the door on reparations and compensation claims made by prisoners of war, comfort women and victims of Japanese actions in World War II.

In March 2003, a Niigata District Court ordered the state and a Japanese company to pay ¥88 million (about $800,000) in compensation Chinese who were forced to labor in Japan during World War II. In July 2005, a Tokyo court ruled that the Japanese government was responsible for paying damages to China for atrocities carried out by the notorious germ warfare unit in World War II. The suit was brought by 180 Chinese plaintiffs. Japan has ever acknowledged the unit, known as Unit 731.

In December 1999, German companies agreed pay $5.2 billion to Nazi-era forced laborers. Some lawyers have said if similar compensation was offered by Japanese companies the claims could exceed $30 billion. Americans who were save laborers would like to be compensated by Japanese companies in the same way that forced laborers in Europe were compensated by German companies. Thus far these efforts have been thwarted by a clause in a 1951 U.S.-Japan treaty that waived all future restitution claims. So far the U.S. State and Justice Departments have taken the side of Japanese companies so as not to disturb the relationship with an important ally.

Forced laborers from China, Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries also tried to win compensation from Japanese companies through lawsuits filed in the United States. Some legal experts say they have a better chance to collect because their countries are not bound by American-Japanese treaties.

signing of the US-Japan Security treaty in 1951

In April 2007, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that the 1972 Japan China Joint Communique prevented Chinese individuals from seeking war compensation through the Japanese courts and dismissed claims by Chinese who were forced to work as laborers for a Japanese firm during World War II. The decision overturned a lower court ruling that said that Japan was required to pay war compensation. The ruling also affected claims by comfort women. A Nagasaki court dismissed a suit filed by a group of Chinese forced to work in Japanese mines in World War II. The plaintiffs had sought $1,69 million in compensation.

The first Interred Japanese-Americans were released in January 1945 months before the war ended. They were given $25 and a bus ticket to anywhere in the United States. Most had nowhere to go because their homes and property had been seized. Many stayed in the camps until they were kicked out after the war, . About $28 million was paid to Japanese-Americans as part of the 1948 American Evacuations Claims Act. Between 1988 and 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Redress Administration (ORA) awarded payments of $20,000 or more to 81,800 Japanese-Americans. Each payment was accompanied by an official letter of apology from the United States president, something that was much more important to many of the victims than the money. In 2006, $38 million was authorized to preserve the internment camps.

Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; textbook: Japan Focus; textbook protest: Xinhua

Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, “Eyewitness to History “, edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, “History of Warfare “ by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, “The Good War An Oral History of World War II” by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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