CRIMINAL RECORDS: A collection of documents containing evidence of Japan's war crimes in China during the 1930s to 40s are displayed by the provincial archives of northeast China's Jilin Province (XINHUA)
Among the certainties of history, there is the case of Iwane Matsu, the Japanese general held responsible for the Rape of Nanjing and hanged as a Class-A war criminal in 1948. But among the less certain narratives, the following has been recorded: It is said that after the Rape, he retreated to his hometown, ashamed. He helped erect a large statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, facing Nanjing.
With tensions in East Asia related to longstanding territorial and wartime injustice claims, Europe, and particularly Germany, it is said, offer positive historical examples of accepting responsibility for crimes committed, the restoration of a lasting peace, and in time, the emergence of increasing political and economic integration in the form of the EU. The suggested subtext is that Japan should learn Germany's lesson. It is not a new idea, but it is one that can be considered anew, particularly in light of ongoing developments and the fact that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I (WWI).
The centennial has been on the minds of many Europeans of late. I recently spent two months in Germany as a visiting scholar and noticed the various books, magazines and other forms of media reflecting on the war. It was, after all, a catastrophe that helped spawn future catastrophes, including World War II (WWII) and the Cold War. The scars of those encounters are still present in German memory, and perhaps more so than elsewhere. Although there have been major and arguably successful efforts to redevelop the formerly desolate areas surrounding the Berlin Wall since its fall, the physical traces remain, whether as empty spaces that seem perilously illogical or through various memorials erected to recall, precisely, what should not be forgotten. Of course, German reunification began in 1990, which means it's a living memory for most. With that in mind, there are many who are still alive in China today with either first or secondhand knowledge of Japanese atrocities. For many of those, no apology is sufficient, but the belief that one has not been truly offered and sustained remains a major aggravation.
But should we compare Germany and Japan, these two co-belligerents of WWII who likewise have a connection from WWI, when the German concession of Shandong Province was passed to Japanese control during the Treaty of Versailles? It is not proper to recall the Treaty insomuch as it set the stage in part for the emergence of Nazism and simultaneously provided Japan another foothold on the Chinese mainland? Because of deep historical linkages, such comparing of Germany and Japan is unavoidable; but one must reflect carefully on the sorts of lessons might be drawn when doing so. First, however, it is necessary to answer a number of Western pundits who have taken advantage of WWI's centennial to promote grossly ahistorical comparisons between the past and present. The most egregious among these is the assertion that the world today is on the precipice of another world war, with conditions recalling those in the run-up to WWI. In particular, they point the finger at Asia, at China's rise, as well as various treaties existing between the United States, Japan, South Korea, and China's Taiwan.
To be sure, there are tensions in East Asia and they must be handled very carefully. However, we should not conflate the cause of WWI with today's problems. Furthermore, we should not forget how European powers set in motion many of the problems that Asia is trying to sort through today. And we should not neglect the most important fact that today's disagreements are not rooted in a Chinese attempt to establish the sort of imperial domination practiced by the European powers at that time. With this in mind it is also important to note that it remains farfetched to assume that the desire to push back against American hegemony is tantamount to trying to take America's position as the same. This sort of fear mongering has only served the purpose of justifying the so-called American "pivot" toward Asia in the aftermath of its terrible campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unsubstantiated threat of a new but unlikely hegemony is being used to justify and continue an old one.
Without question, many positive outcomes emerged from Germany's defeat in WWII, although it would be a terrible mistake to suggest that these were so thoroughgoing or without serious defects. That said, Germany's defeat and occupation do not compare with Japan's: the former was split into two separate countries and dominated by opposing international forces; the latter was occupied primarily by the United States, which not only crafted the postwar immunity for many of Japan's wartime instigators, it also quickly turned its attention to focusing on new enemies in China and North Korea, and found in Japan a common cause and alliance. This is to say, therefore, that the Japanese defeat was not as thorough or long-lasting at the one experienced in Germany, although the experiences of nuclear war at Hiroshima and Nagasaki tend to obscure this point for many.
The division and occupation of Germany, the relatively thorough accounting of war crimes and the meting out of punishments, the various efforts to come to terms with certain atrocities, like the Holocaust, and so on, can all be counted as important steps that have taken place in Germany and that have few comparable examples in Japan. To make matters worse, some perceive Japan as actually moving in the opposite direction, even today. The continuing practice of Japanese leaders visiting shrines that include the remains of executed war criminals, the charges that Japanese textbooks continue to whitewash Japanese culpability for atrocities, the continuing equivocations over whether Japan forced Korean women to serve as sex slaves, and the denial of responsibility for forced-labor in China and elsewhere continue to be indefensibly provocative for many.
There are those who believe that human progress is impossible and others who believe it is inevitable. A more reasonable position is to hold that progress is possible through sustained, positive efforts, particularly efforts to rectify injustices. It might well be the case the some injustices are so grave that a full rectification is impossible. It might also be the case that those who have been harmed must allow or even help create reasonable openings for justice to occur, and to do so without exploiting the past in ways that do little more than perpetuate old problems or create new ones.
Perhaps wary of the subtext of Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent trip to Europe, Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, has made a special point of visiting Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam, paying homage to her suffering under the Nazis. In part, this visit was a direct response to the vandalism of some 300 copies of Frank's autobiography in Tokyo libraries, but it should also be read in the context of tensions in Asia. Perhaps in the future Abe and other Japanese leaders instead should consider coupling their visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine with visits to memorials honoring those who were harmed by Japanese aggression. Many such memorials exist throughout Asia, and many more, like Iwane Matsu's Kannon, should be built in Japan itself. More fundamentally, a fuller accounting of the past remains vitally necessary.
The author is an associate professor of politics at East China Normal University; research fellow with the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Fudan University; and assistant editor of U.S.-based Journal of Chinese Political Science