Image credit: @smdr.
Today marks the 75th Anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, in which upwards of 250,000 people, civilians and unarmed soldiers, were murdered by Imperial Japanese forces. If you spend any time on the Chinese internet around this time of year you will likely hear the oft-repeated complaint that Japan has “never apologised” for the massacre, or other atrocities committed against China and other East Asian countries during the Second World War. Minami Funakoshi over at Tea Leaf Nation has done a good job debunking these assertions.
As Funakoshi points out, Japan has officially apologised for war time atrocities, on numerous occasions. Funakoshi claims that many Japanese feel exhausted at what they view as China’s inability to move on from the past or accept any apology as sufficient penance. To a certain extent this is a fair point, the Chinese government does frequently use anti-Japanese sentiment to drum up nationalistic fervour for its own ends, and the constant “humiliation” of China by foreign powers before the Communists took power in 1949 has become the Party’s defining narrative since it abandoned classical communist revolutionary thought.
However, there is a wider and far more legitimate reason that many Chinese feel that Japan has not fully atoned for the sins of World War II, and this can be traced back to the end of the war and the difference in the treatment of Japan and the Imperial Japanese government, in comparison with their Nazi counterparts in post-war Europe.
American General Douglas MacArthur was placed in command of the Allied occupation forces in Japan after the war (ostensibly as part of a ruling committee, but MacArthur took the majority of decisions by himself). MacArthur was instrumental in pushing a piece of historical revisionism which asserted that Emperor Hirohito was a powerless figurehead, not responsible for the atrocities committed by Imperial Japanese forces. Though historians have long shown this to be untrue, and unearthed numerous examples of Hirohito taking an active role in the conduct of the war, MacArthur and his clique felt that post-war Japan would be easier to control if the occupation were seen to have the blessing of the Emperor.
Over the objections of a number of Allied political and military leaders, MacArthur agreed to grant the Emperor and the entire Imperial family full immunity from prosecution. According to historian Herbert Bix, the protection of the royals was such that occupational forces “allowed the major criminal suspects to coordinate their stories so that the emperor would be spared from indictment.” In the words of Judge Henri Bernard of France, Japan’s declaration of war “had a principal author who escaped all prosecution”. Prince Asaka, who commanded Japanese forces in Nanjing and allegedly issued the order to “kill all captives” which initiated the massacre, was also granted immunity.
This absolution of one of the country’s most senior war criminals, and a number of his subordinates with equally foul records, forever changed the manner in which both the war, and Japan’s responsibility for it, were viewed in the country. Bix again: “MacArthur’s truly extraordinary measures to save Hirohito from trial as a war criminal had a lasting and profoundly distorting impact on Japanese understanding of the lost war.”
Unlike in Germany, where neo-Nazis and revisionists are vilified and criminalised, it is not uncommon to find Japanese politicians and historians who deny Japanese responsibility for the atrocities of the Second World War. Given that the country, with the aid of the Allied occupiers, has been engaging in widespread historical revisionism since 1949, this is not surprising.
Hirohito’s death in 1989 provided an ideal opportunity for Japan to let go of the myth of his innocence. Instead, then Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita incurred international outrage by saying that the war “had broken out against [the emperor’s] wishes.” If anything, revisionist attitudes in Japan have become more mainstream in recent years. Former Governor of Toyko Shintaro Ishihara, whose attempt to buy the Diaoyu Islands caused an ongoing international incident, this year publicly denied that the Nanjing Massacre ever took place. Other leading Japanese politicians, including Shinzo Abe, who will likely be the country’s next Prime Minister, have continued to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, in which a number of Class A war criminals are interred. Abe has also frequently denied the (well documented) use of sex slaves or “comfort women” by Japanese forces during the war.
Returning to Funakoshi’s piece, she asserts that Sino-Japanese are more complex than most Chinese or Japanese people realise, a fair point. But she closes with the remarks “How many Chinese people know about Japan’s attempted apologies to China? […] How many Chinese people know about the US$40 billion that Japan has sent to China?”
While lack of information or the obfuscation of information about official Japanese apologies may be part of the problem, such apologies will always ring hollow in Chinese ears when a substantial proportion of Japanese society and political class do not accept or vociferously deny that the country was responsible for some of the worst crimes against humanity committed during a conflict that raised the bar for horror and suffering. It’s difficult to shake someone’s hand when they’re using their free hand to flip you off.