"The world remembers ... but when will Japan?" By Dr Takamitsu Muraoka. TODAYonline, Monday, 24 Oct 2005. The writer is retired. This is an abridged version of a speech delivered at the Trinity Theological College.
SOME years ago, a South Korean businessman was sent by his company to Kyushu, Japan. His son attended a local primary school and the teacher announced that on sports day, the flags of the world would be put up in the playground. Later, the boy was shocked not to see a single South Korean flag.
This still is, to a large extent, typical of the attitude of the average Japanese towards its Asian neighbours.
About 150 years ago Japan was determined to catch up with the west. In Japan, there are far more universities and colleges which offer courses in English, French, and German, than those where you can learn Korean or Chinese as a modern living language.
The average Japanese suffers from an inferiority complex towards the West — but has a strong sense of superiority and contempt towards Japan's Asian neighbours. This is truly amazing considering how deeply Japan is indebted to them. One of the two major religions of Japan, Buddhism, reached Japan in the sixth century via Korea. Until that time, Japan had no means of committing its own language to writing — the the entire Chinese writing system was adopted.
In 1964, I left Japan at age 26 to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Later, I taught for 10 years at Manchester University in the United Kingdom.
Every year, on Remembrance Sunday, when the British soldiers fallen in the two world wars are honoured — we were treated, courtesy of the BBC, to the film The Bridge over the River Kwai, about the building of the Death Railway through the jungles of Thailand and Burma.
We also witnessed ugly scenes when the Emperor Hirohito came to England on a state visit.
Subsequently, when we were in Melbourne, the Emperor died, which occasioned a heated debate about who, if anyone, was to represent Australia at his funeral.
In the summer of 1991, when I arrived in the Netherlands to take up the Hebrew chair at Leiden University, a wreath of flowers laid by the Japanese Prime Minister at the Indisch Monument in The Hague, found its way into the waters nearby. I was annoyed when I could not locate a single mention of the incident in two leading Japanese dailies.
Each of these three countries, my wife and I were to discover, retains bitter memories of what many of its nationals went through during the Pacific War at the hands of Japanese military.
In 2000, my wife, myself and Dutch and Japanese friends organised a conference to which we invited about 60 Dutch returnees from Indonesia, their relatives and friends, and about 20 Japanese residents of Holland to face our shared history.
What happened in Indonesia and during the laying of the Death Railway was news to Japanese like us. We were taught about such things at school — though we learned about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and civilian casualties of the carpet-bombing of Japanese cities towards the end of the war.
Some years ago, it dawned on us that there are some important aspects of our recent national history that call for our attention. As my wife and I prepared for our visit to Singapore this month, I studied several books and articles on the three-and-a-half year Japanese occupation of Singapore and its neighbouring lands.
One was by a Japanese historian on the trials of war criminals. I will mention just one case, brought before a court held in Ipoh. It concerned a Eurasian woman arrested by the Japanese kempeitai (military police) on the suspicion that she had been offering medical assistance to local anti-Japanese resistance fighters.
I cannot bear to describe here in detail what revolting and protracted tortures she was subjected to. When they could not get out of her what they wanted to hear, they brought in her seven-year-old daughter, hanging her from a wooden post with a fire under her. The mother was tied to another post and whipped.
The girl tried to comfort her mother by shouting: "Mum, I'm okay. Don't you worry about me."
A total of 304 cases involving 919 witnesses were brought before the British war-crimes courts in South-east Asia. It is generally agreed, however, that these figures represent only the tip of the iceberg.
Confronted with this history, we asked ourselves: Where do we stand as Japanese nationals and Japanese Christians?
In his famous speech to the German Parliament on the 40th anniversary of Germany's defeat on May 8, 1945, the then Federal President, Mr Richard von Weizsacker, said: "Most of our German citizens today were either children or not yet born during the war.
They cannot confess sins they did not commit personally. Nobody with an ordinary human sensibility could expect you to wear tattered sackcloth and sit in ashes just because you happen to be German."
I agree. When the Pacific War ended, I was seven years old. Even if I had waved a Japanese flag to men departing for the frontline, it would be unfair for me to be accused of complicity in our war of aggression.
The former German president went on to say: "Our forefathers left us a stupendous legacy. Guilty or not guilty, young or old, we all Germans must accept this past history. We are responsible for what we make of this legacy and how we relate to it ... He who refuses to register in memory past acts of inhumanity run the risk of becoming infected again by the same disease."
Here, also, I concur. History, even painful history, needs to be remembered, not only by those who caused such pain, but also by those who suffered it.
It is human nature for us to want to sweep our past failures and hardships under the carpet and forget.
It is no easy task for me, the son of an officer of the Imperial Army, to speak critically and in public of the Pacific War.
It must be awfully painful to admit that your husband, father, brother or son died in a war that cannot be ethically defended.
However, unless we learn, and have the courage to distinguish between persons and deeds, we will not be free of the delusion that those war dead are beckoning us to pay our respect at the Yasukuni Shrine — which is how Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi justifies his visits to the shrine.
And we will keep justifying our military aggression.
As a Japanese virtually of the post-war generation, I admit that during the first half of the last century, my country inflicted an inestimable amount of loss, destruction and suffering, not only on the allied forces but also on the lands and peoples of Asia.
I am deeply concerned that my country, its successive postwar leaders and the great majority of the population, have not yet faced the modern history of Japan honestly. I feel responsible for this situation.
And I shall not sit idle on the sidelines.
There is a Dutch foundation called "Penance and Reconciliation" that aims to repair relationships with those wronged by Dutch Christians throughout the centuries: Jews, Muslims, peoples of their former colonies. I find the name of the foundation instructive — not just reconciliation but penance first.
In March 2003, I retired from Leiden University. My wife and I decided to spend five weeks every year, as long as I am mentally and physically fit, sharing my knowledge with scholars and students of Asian countries that suffered under Japanese imperialism, and teaching those subjects at universities and theological seminaries as a volunteer, without honorarium.
In 2003, I taught for five weeks in South Korea. Last year, we were in Indonesia. This year, I have come to Singapore.
We have lived abroad for over 41 years. We are sometimes asked whether we have Dutch citizenship. Until a while ago, I would routinely reply that I wouldn't do that so long as my parents are alive.
Now, I have an added argument: I am determined to remain Japanese until my country resolves squarely to face this past legacy of ours and begins to translate this resolution into tangible deeds.
I hope the day will come, in my lifetime, when I can produce my Japanese passport and wave it proudly.
The writer is retired. This is an abridged version of a speech delivered at the Trinity Theological College.
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