Step up the pressure until Japan confronts its past

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 August, 2006, 12:00am

Those among Japan's conservative elite believing objections to their denial of the nation's war record will simply go away need only look at a court ruling in Nanjing yesterday: even symbolic victories are considered worth fighting for by the victims of atrocities committed in the first half of the past century by Japanese soldiers.

In itself, this may not be a wake-up call to the Japanese who do not understand why their nation's paying of billions of dollars in development aid to China, South Korea and other countries invaded is not enough. They must realise that until they stop glossing over Japan's past, the challenges will get louder and more determined.

Nanking massacre survivor Xia Shuqin took her case against two Japanese historians who claimed she made up her account of the slaughter to a court in the city and predictably won. The damages she was awarded are unlikely to be forthcoming and if the ruling is to have any substance, the case will have to be fought in a Japanese court.

Therein lies another problem: of the almost 100 cases for apologies and compensation brought in Japan's courts since the mid-1990s by victims of Japanese aggression, only one succeeded beyond appeal. That case was brought against the same historians by another Chinese woman.

There is no guarantee that Ms Xia will succeed in Japanese courts as that country's judges have found a multitude of reasons as to why they should not rule in favour of plaintiffs.

Consistency has been lacking in the rulings, which have generally made a mockery of Japan's claims to have a judiciary independent of the government and respectful of the rule of law. Judges' occasional suggestions that the government apologise to victims have been ignored.

Nationalist politicians like outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who steadfastly ignores protests against books whitewashing Japan's war history and his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine where soldiers convicted of war crimes are remembered, have no reason to listen. His ruling Liberal Democratic Party has held power uninterrupted for five decades and, due to gerrymandering of political boundaries, is unlikely to lose its grip any time soon.

His successor seems certain to share his views, as the only opposing voice so far in the running, Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, lags far behind in opinion polls. Such objectors are not rare, though - liberals, mindful of the damage being done to Japan's foreign relations, are increasingly seeking to be heard above the nationalist rhetoric.

Japan has to eventually turn to the example set by Germany after the second world war and compensate victims, shun war criminals and confront its past. Until then, Ms Xia, others like her and Japanese shameful of what their leaders are doing must heighten pressure for justice.