Japan's Sorry Failure to Own Up to Its History


As a 17-year-old military policeman in Occupied Japan, Ron Wulkan worked with Japanese police who had witnessed, if not participated in many Imperial war crimes. A few G.I.’s called him "a gook lover" because of his admiration for the people and their culture. He could not equate the decent Japanese he knew with the brutal war crimes of Imperial Japan.

Only after a career as a newspaperman, Army Reserve staff officer, corporate executive, ‘hired gun’ for the Robert Kennedy presidential primaries, and owner of a marketing firm did he resolve the dilemma. His novel, The Gook Lover, is the result.

For more information, the website is: ronwulkan.com/

"The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it," quipped Oscar Wilde, the cynical playwright whose epigrams mocked his nation’s pious-but-phony rationale for empire building.*

When facts haven’t faded or been accidentally twisted, students of history easily identify self-serving rewrites. What makes the Japanese Government’s denial of past imperial war crimes mendacious is that few victims and eye-witnesses are still alive. But time will correct this inconvenience.

Many courageous Japanese World War II veterans, historians, teachers, and others of moral conscience are frustrated and penalized when they attempt to inform an apathetic Japanese public. The official blanket of historical amnesia effectively smothers the memory of war crimes. Japanese born two generations after the crimes neither know nor care. Germany admitted its war guilt and painstakingly redeemed itself from its Nazi past by educating subsequent generations about its dark past. But Japan rejoined the victors without admission of guilt or remorse, and History's grim lessons are hidden from its people.

Truth's first victim of war is also its last. Historicity is denied with misleading terms and arithmetic amnesia that undercount the totals of tens of thousands of rape, torture and murder victims by simply dropping zeros. Current Japanese history texts sanitize the Rape of Nanking as a minor incident; the number of comfort women sex slaves are disputed; and the other horrific crimes of Japanese imperialism are omitted. With each new rewrite of high school and college history texts, the crimes are further blurred and lessened.

Does the Japanese Government intend to deny the documented war crimes until the last victims and witnesses finally die off? Yes, because the Japanese view themselves as innocent victims of WWII. Culturally, Japan believes that its victimhood is more relevant than the unpublicized evils inflicted upon millions who suffered under its cruel military rule.

Japan's response to the outraged cries of survivors and astonished historians echoes the comic’s retort when caught in the act: "Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?" But no laughs are found in this insult to truth.

The official spin is supported by the racial memory of U.S. atomic bombs exploding over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as Japan’s steadfast role as junior partner of the U.S. during the Cold War, the ancillary Korean Conflict and beyond. Unspoken but obvious at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is that Asians are the only victims of Caucasian nuclear weaponry used against civilian populations. And unknowing Japanese wonder why.

Japanese students don’t know that the Imperial Japanese military forces deliberately murdered countless more innocent Asian civilians than the combined death toll of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as all the other air raids. The decision to use atomic bombs continues to be debated because, unlike Japan’s denied war crimes, the facts about America’s war decisions are public record.

To deny the crimes of the imperial past is to dishonor the innocent Japanese of the present and future. No one should be held accountable for the sins of their grandfathers. But why keep Japan’s crimes out of the history texts studied by the next generation of Japanese leaders?

In her best-seller, The Rape of Nanking, the late Iris Chang subtitled her historical account, The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. And 'forgotten' is exactly what the current Japanese leadership wants as it continues its vital role as staunch ally, prosperous trading partner and America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier off the Chinese Mainland.

Readers of my newly published novel, The Gook Lover, frequently ask if the war crimes I described really happened. My response: "I wish it were fiction but it’s not."

I wrote The Gook Lover not only to honor the forgotten victims, but to show that the unintended consequences of old colonialism’s demise has made us, regardless of race and culture, who we are. In the words of the novel’s protagonist, Tomi Tomigawa: "If one is despised as a gook, then we are all gooks. The world’s future depends upon our mutual respect and compassion."

*Another Oscar -- Levant -- defined an epigram as "A wisecrack that played Carnegie Hall." To me, a successful epigram is an historical thought that fits on a bumper sticker such as "Don't Launder History."

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More Comments:

Fahrettin Tahir - 12/16/2007

John, I am not trying to point out that Japan's crimes were better than those of the English speaking powers. As crimes as defined by English law, they might have been worse. My point which you seem to confirm is that we are talking about comparable acts.

John Edward Philips - 12/15/2007

I've already explained more than one reason why Japan's aggression against China was worse than US aggression against Iraq. If you can't understand my point that's your problem. AAMOF, you have added another reason. The US did remove a brutal dictator, while Japan invaded an independent republic to impose their own dictatorship.

Further, in your original comment you implied that Japan had disputed "the English speaking countries god given right to dominate the world". In fact Japan was just another imperial power, allied with Nazi Germany and invading China, then the largest independent non-Western power in the world. Japan didn't attack the US until the US made clear that it would not stop sending aid to China. I think you should read up on the realities of WWII.

I am amused to find that I go farther in my criticism of the US invasion of Iraq than you would. Removing Saddam, however just or even necessary, was not the US's business. The invasion was wrong for many other reasons that I will not go into, but even the very brutal and illegal conduct of the war are not as evil as Japan's war.

Finally, regarding the whitewashing of history, if you had read Japanese and US history textbooks, as I have, you would know that the criticism of the American past in US history textbooks is much greater than that of Japanese government approved textbooks. Japanese historians to whom I have shown US history textbooks have been shocked. Read an American history textbook and you will find debates about Hiroshima, accounts of the Trail of Tears, discussions of the legality of the Mexican War and the Vietnam War, portrayals of the reality of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, and many other controversial topics.

But the worst crimes against history have probably been those committed by the Hindutva fanatics in India when they rewrote the history of India. This is a problem faced by historians around the world, in Arab countries and Israel as well as in the US, China and Japan, and pretending that every government is equally bad won't solve the problem.

Fahrettin Tahir - 12/14/2007

I am not defending Japans invasion of anything just trying to point out the fact that the winners whitewash themselves and their enemies were the devil..The article complains that the Japanese do not admit their crimes, and I was pointing out that they were in good company.

1. There were about 600 Million Chinese in 1940 and 23 Million Iraqis so you are bound to kill more if you attack them.

2. The Brian Kellog pact meant that the people who had divided up the world were legally entited to keep it. As a basis for lagality in international law, this is a joke.

3. Japan used aerial bombardment against civilians? So did the British in Iraq in the 1920ies, where they were the occupying force and the US against her enemies, in almost every war they fought. In 1945 Dresden and Wurzburg were bombed to kill civilians after the war was practically finished. I am not commenting morality. Just that it is a glass house.

4. I not commenting on whether is was wrong to invade Iraq, but the tactics used in that war. The bottom line is the US is losing the war because of her brutality and not because it was wrong to hang the likes of Saddam.

John Edward Philips - 12/13/2007

I'm not defending the invasion of Iraq, so please don't try to imply that I am. I've been against it from the start and in terms of relevant international law it is similar to Japan's aggression. Let me try to (re)make several points here:

1. I believe in lesser evilism. It's something I got from Islamic law. You should look into it. There are greater and lesser evils. Even in terms of the number of deaths, Japan's invasion of China was the greater evil in your comparison. Don't try to defend it.

2. Waging aggressive war was legal until the Kellog-Briand Pact (I assumed people on a history site would know about that). That's what makes Japan's aggression in the 1930s and 1940s (but not its taking of Taiwan and Korea) more illegal than the US's taking the Philippines. Maybe not more immoral but certainly more illegal. That should be one of the bases of war crimes prosecution against Bush, but your saying Bush was wrong doesn't make Japanese invasion of China (not any western power at all, but China) legal. International law has changed. Japan was involved in making that law, as a Permanent Council Member of the League of Nations and a Mandatory Power ruling former German colonies, not to mention a signatory to the Washington Naval Convention.

3. The world was shocked when Japan used aerial bombardments against Chinese civilians. You apparently don't even realize that that happened. Everything the US has been accused of in Iraq, the Japanese did in China, and then some. Abu Ghraib has parallels in Japanese treatment of prisoners. AFAIK, there is no parallel to Japan's Unit 731 in Iraq.

4. To go on to some of your questions, I have no idea why Bush invaded Iraq. Maybe he thought he could grab the oil (pointless in this day of GATT and the WTO) or maybe he wanted revenge for the attempts on his father's life. Maybe he really thought (or was convinced) that one could impose democracy. The most logical reason would be that without removing the threat of Saddam Hussein US troops could not be safely pulled out of Saudi Arabia, and the US military presence in the "Arab Island" was casus belli to al-Qa'ida. I don't know. Go ask him yourself. Helen Thomas did but couldn't get a coherent answer out of him.

AAMOF = as a matter of fact
AFAIK = as far as I know

Fahrettin Tahir - 12/13/2007

In a world, where you had to have an empire to be somebody Japan was trying to build an empire. The rule was made by the English, French, Russians and Americans. This rule led to the two world wars. After the second the USA changed the rules of the game, but when Japan attacked they were still valid.

Perhaps the Japanese were killing with their bare hands and the USAF from far away, you see no blood, think it is computer game... is it better then vivisection?

In Iraq, the economic embargo led to 500 000 deaths, the occupation was calculated last year to have cost 655 000 lives.

Also, the Japanese were fighting for an Empire, which they felt they had to have. What is the US fighting for in Iraq?

You people should stop throwing stones from your glass house.

nb: what is an AAMOF?

John Edward Philips - 12/11/2007

Japan invaded China to strike a blow against Anglo-American imperialism? Please, get serious. Japan was just another imperial power like any other. The militarists wanted to dominate all Asia. Japan invaded China to increase the size of the Japanese Empire. As an unintended consequence, all the Empires of that age fell, starting with the Italian, going through the Japanese, finally ending with the Portuguese in the 1970s.

And yes, AAMOF, the Japanese Army in China was more brutal than the US Army in Iraq. Where have the Americans even been accused of conducting vivisection or other biological experiments? Both militaries conducted torture, but the Japanese military went even farther.

Fahrettin Tahir - 12/10/2007

So just tell me why Japanese victims in China and USAF victims in Japan are treated unequally by American historiography? Because the Japanese commited the crime of disputing the English speaking countries god given right to dominate the world? Was the Japanese Army in China really more brutal than the US Army in Iraq?