Japan must give the world a truthful account of what happened in the second world war, not more apologies

Lawrence Lau says what the world needs from Japan is not an apology, but an honest account of the war

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 September, 2015, 5:50pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 5:21pm

The 70th anniversary of the victory of the Allies over Japan in the second world war is upon us. This war created tens of millions of victims, perhaps even hundreds of millions, in Asia. I was one of those victims, but a relatively lucky one. My parents lived in Hong Kong before the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. They were fortunate enough to escape after the Japanese army invaded and occupied Hong Kong in 1941, to move back to Guilin , in Guangxi .

Towards the end of 1944, in one of its last offensives, the Japanese army made a big push for Guilin. My family became war refugees once again and tried to flee to Chongqing , the wartime capital of China, on land. My mother was pregnant with me then. We had to travel through Guizhou first and stopped in Zunyi , a regional administrative centre, when my mother could not go on any more. However, with no place to stay, I was born in the Zunyi regional administrator's office. I was very lucky to have survived. That was why my Chinese name is Zunyi.

In the mid-1950s, it became known that in 1935, Mao Zedong had consolidated his leadership of the Chinese Communist Party at the critical Zunyi Conference. Zunyi has since become, like Yanan , a mandatory stop on every Red tourism itinerary. But at the time I was born, very few people knew about the Zunyi Conference.

It is at times like this that discussions emerge about whether apologies by the Japanese government for the hardships, miseries and suffering caused by the Japanese army and the atrocities committed, especially to civilians, during the war have been sufficiently contrite and from the heart. Almost every Japanese prime minister since 1945 has apologised in some fashion or another. But these apologies never seem to have been deemed sufficient. Why?

I firmly believe Japan can live up to the responsibilities of a civilised nation

To be fair, the Japanese people also suffered greatly during the second world war. Japan was the only nation that suffered the massive devastation of atomic bombs - not one, but two - and, most unfortunately, almost all those who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilians. But just because everyone suffered does not and should not eliminate the culpability and responsibility of those who started the war and committed atrocities, or allowed them to be committed.

However, the time has come to call a halt to demands for further apologies from Japan. It is not apologies that the world needs, even if they are fully contrite, sincere and voluntary. After all, it makes no sense for someone to apologise on behalf of his or her grandparents, for what was done more than 70 years ago. Likewise, it makes little sense for someone to accept the apologies on behalf of his or her grandparents, who are long gone. Such apologies would not make any difference.

What the world needs is a truthful account of what happened, a true history that has not been whitewashed, so that hopefully it would help to prevent a repetition of the history in the future.

In Germany, after the second world war, the atrocities committed by the Nazi government against the Jewish people and others were readily acknowledged by the (West) German government. Those responsible were prosecuted, tried, convicted and punished. The victims were compensated to the extent possible. There has been no attempt by the German government to cover up the true history. In fact, in some European countries today, it is even a criminal offence to deny that the Holocaust took place. No one, as far as I know, has called on the German government to apologise, certainly not for the past 50 or 60 years. Why? Because Germany has dealt with its history forthrightly, truthfully and responsibly.

Why is there such a difference between the behaviour of the German and Japanese governments? One reason is that Germany (West Germany to be exact) cleaned its political house after 1945. Then chancellor Konrad Adenauer basically made sure that no former Nazi would become part of the government. In contrast, Japan failed to do the same, and many war criminals and suspected war criminals came back to serve in the post-war government.

The fault, however, does not lie entirely with Japan. The US, as the occupying power of both post-war Germany and Japan, must bear a significant share of the responsibility. Had Japan forthrightly acknowledged its responsibilities for the wartime atrocities committed by its army and accepted the records as part of the historical accounts, as Germany did at the time, there would have been far fewer calls for more apologies, if any, today. The US, intentionally or otherwise, missed an opportunity to help make things right.

However, this is water under the bridge. How should we move forward? China, Japan, Korea and other East Asian nations can move forward together by trying to find and document the whole truth. They should gather all the records that still exist, from all sources - private, public and governmental, including information held by the intelligence agencies. For example, on the question of whether the Nanking Massacre actually took place, in addition to the news reports, photographs, survivor diaries and reports, it is worth looking into the daily records and reports to the Tokyo headquarters by the commander and senior officers of the Japanese army in the city. Was there any mention of this event in the Japanese emperor's diaries? What did the representatives of the Japanese foreign ministry in Nanking report? What did the other diplomatic missions there report to their governments?

For another example, on the question of whether the Japanese army performed experiments on people in northeast China, as part of research into germ and chemical warfare, one can look at the reports filed by the Japanese researchers involved to their superiors and to the Tokyo headquarters, in addition to survivor accounts.

For still another example, on the question of whether the "comfort women" volunteered, as claimed by some Japanese, or were forced into sexual slavery, no time should be spared to interview the survivors, who must already be in their 90s, and their families, but also former Japanese soldiers, the recruiters of the "comfort women" for the Japanese army, and the former members of the army's medical corps. The Japanese army is well known for keeping good records. These would shed light on what happened, if they have not already been destroyed.

The objective of this exercise is not to assign blame, seek compensation or punish anyone. It is to simply discover the whole truth, and to record it in the history books of all the countries of the world, so that these atrocities will never happen again.

While a civilised nation may not always be able to completely prevent its army from committing atrocities (the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the Abu Ghraib prison torture and abuse in Iraq come to mind), it should not shirk from the responsibility of confronting the facts, no matter how painful, prosecuting those criminally responsible, and trying to right the wrongs - as the US did in both of the cases mentioned here. The US is held in greater honour and respect in the world because it acknowledged its shortcomings instead of covering them up. I firmly believe Japan can live up to the responsibilities of a civilised nation. The world, including Japan itself, does not need more apologies from Japan, just more truth.

Lawrence J. Lau is Ralph and Claire Landau Professor of Economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Kwoh-Ting Li Professor in Economic Development, Emeritus, at Stanford University. All opinions expressed herein are the author's own