Author: Nicole Dahlstrom
Did Japan really apologize for the horrible atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II? International headlines of Asians still demanding apologies from Japan’s current Prime Minister have many people across different age groups and backgrounds asking this question. If you’re wondering what some of those atrocities were, you are not alone. Little is taught to Western youth about the Pacific side of World War II. Almost anyone you ask can tell you about the Holocaust and Germany’s repentance since, but very few Westerners can answer the question of Japan’s apology to it’s victims in the Pacific Region.
In order to answer this question, we need to first understand who those victims were.
“R. J. Rummel, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, estimates that between 1937 and 1945, the Japanese military murdered from nearly 3 to over 10 million people, most likely 6 million Chinese, Taiwanese, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos and Indochinese, among others, including Western prisoners of war.”
The Imperial Japanese Army’s merciless massacres of civilians and prisoners of war is the reason for much of the controversy surrounding its role in Pacific World War II. Their gruesome resume includes atrocities such as; human experimentation(learn more here), biological warfare, use of chemical weapons, torture of prisoners of war, forced labor, sexual slavery, and perfidy.
The ‘Tokyo Trials’
The majority of these war crimes and their perpetrators were tried under The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which was formed to try accused people in Japan itself. These trials were known as the ‘Tokyo Trials,’ and they primarily tried class A war criminals. The ‘Tokyo Trials’ represent the first major setback for Japan on the road to an effective apology. Although the trials saw 920 war criminals executed, 475 receive life sentences, and 2,944 receive some prison time, they failed to indict Emperor Hirohito and allowed many other accused right-winged war criminals to serve in post-war Japanese governments. This failure has had multiple ramifications on how Japan, along with the rest of the world, understand the war.
Japanese leaders were able to escape blame swiftly because of the international pressures of the Cold War. Former enemies of Japan embraced the nation as a new ally in the Pacific. Dr. Shiro Isshi, the leader of Japan’s biochemical weapons program, and his staff were actually able to trade the information obtained from their experiments in return for immunity in the Tokyo Trials. This type of pardon would be almost unfathomable for their German counterparts who caused the same kind of suffering through inhumane human experiments.
For a comprehensive list of apologies issued by Japan please see this List of war apology statements.
Over the past 75 years, Japan’s leaders and people have taken many opportunities to offer their sincere condolences and remorse to the victims made to suffer by the Imperial Japanese Army. These attempts, although not meaningless, have failed on a large scale due to the perceptions of the victims, as well as Japan’s own sentiment towards the war.
Some of the most infamous victims of the Imperial Japanese Army include the euphemistically termed, ‘Comfort Women.’ Chinese experts estimate that around 200,000 women, mainly from Korea and China, were captured and coerced into providing sexual services before and during the war. Very few survivors of the ‘Comfort Women’ system are left alive today. In fact, the last Chinese ‘Comfort Women’ passed away this November 2015.
The struggle ‘Comfort Women’ have faced in receiving the apology they call for outlines the struggles of many victims of Japanese wartime atrocities. Apologies have been insincere and inconsistent. What these victims are really seeking is not just any apology from Japan - they recognize there have been attempts made in the past. They are seeking a legislative apology put into motion and agreed upon by a majority of the Diet. This type of apology would be binding unlike those official statements that have come from Japanese leaders in the past.
So, although there is a long list of official and unofficial apologies that have been issued, all have fallen short of what is actually desired by many victims.
Revisionism and Whitewashing
The final element in this complex issue reflects a notorious problem in history education and media. In many nations, including Japan, the history taught to youth is whitewashed or revised in order to create a better image for the nation and instill national pride. This problem presents itself in American school classes in regards to subjects like Native American history and the history of American slavery.
The version of Pacific World War II history taught to Japanese youth is not spared this nationalist treatment. Widely accepted facts about atrocities are denied and parts of history are glossed over. This whitewashing and revising in education, paired with outright public denial of certain widely accepted facts, like those about the ‘Comfort Women’ system, has led many to question Japan’s sincerity when it comes to apologizing.
So, did Japan Really Apologize for WWII?
Officially, yes, Japanese leaders have issued countless statements of apology and remorse for the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII. Whether it be pride, ignorance, or political gain, there are many reasons as to why these apologies have not fully healed the wound that was left. One thing that continues to hold true is this: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”
The best apology to the victims of any atrocity is to not forget them and their story.
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Growing up as a child in Hong Kong, I heard much about the terrors that my grandparents on both sides of the family had endured under the rule of the Japanese during their invasions in Pacific East Asia. While these tales horrified me as a child, it sparked an interest in me and set me on the path of getting my bachelor’s degree in history at the University of San Francisco. I was so intrigued by the subject that by the time I was fourteen, I had read Iris Chang’s award winning book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, which was a gift from my grandfather, who insisted that this portion of history can never be forgotten.
As I grew up, I soon realize that most people in the world, even my peers in Hong Kong, were either indifferent or ignorant of the subject. Whilst I was disappointed by this realization, it continues provide me with the motivation and drive to spread the knowledge of this largely forgotten past; as the age-old expression goes: those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.
Nicole Dahlstrom is a non-profit marketing specialist with a history of coordinating marketing efforts for non-profit start-ups. She began her career while still in college when she interned at a local non-profit start-up called Spread the Care. After receiving a B.A. in Marketing, Nicole spent a year as an employment specialist with the national volunteer program, AmeriCorps. During her term of service, she aided a diverse set of clients with anything from learning to speak English to writing a business plan. Since finishing her term of service in September of 2014, Nicole has pursued a freelance writing career while studying online marketing for non-profits. She currently works as the Development Coordinator for the growing San Francisco based non-profit, Pacific Atrocities Education.