Mark Selden: Japanese and American War Atrocities, Historical Memory and Reconciliation

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mark Selden is a coordinator of Japan Focus and a research associate in the East Asia Program at Cornell University.]

The controversies that continue to swirl around the Nanjing Massacre, the military comfort women, Unit 731 and other Japanese military atrocities rooted in colonialism and the Asia Pacific War are critical not only to understanding the dynamics of war, peace, and terror in the long twentieth century. They are also vital for understanding war memory and denial, with implications for peace and regional accommodation in the Asia Pacific region and the US-Japan relationship.

This article offers a comparative framework for understanding war atrocities and the ways in which they are remembered, forgotten and memorialized. It examines a number of high profile atrocities in an effort to understand their character and the reasons why recognizing and accepting responsibility for their actions have been so difficult. Neither committing atrocities nor suppressing their memories is the exclusive property of a single nation. The issues examined here begin with atrocities committed during the Asia Pacific War and continue to the present.
What explains the fact that Japanese denial and refusal to provide compensation to victims has long been the subject of sharp domestic and international contention, while there has been relatively little analysis of United States atrocities, less criticism or recrimination for that nation’s commission and denial of atrocities, and still less demand for reparations? What are the consequences of this difference for the two nations and the contemporary international relations of the Asia Pacific?

Among the war crimes and atrocities committed in World War II, the Nanjing Massacre . . . or Rape of Nanjing, or Nankin Daigyakusatsu, or Nankin Jiken (Japanese) or Nanjing Datusha (Chinese) . . . remains the most controversial. These different names signal alternative Japanese, Chinese and international perceptions of the event: as “incident”, as “massacre”, as “rape”, as “massive butchery”.

The Nanjing Massacre is controversial not because the most basic facts are in doubt, although historians continue to contest the number of deaths and the interpretation of certain events. Rather it is controversial because of the shocking scale of the killing of Chinese civilians and prisoners of war in a single locale, because of the politics of denial, and because the relationship between the massacre and the character of the wider war remains little understood despite the outstanding research of Japanese and other scholars and journalists. [2]
Japanese neonationalists deny the very existence of a massacre and successive postwar Japanese goverrnments have refused to accept responsibility for either the massacre or the wider war of aggression in which ten to thirty million Chinese died, explaining why these issues remain controversial. To understand why the Japanese government continues to fight this and other war memory battles in ways that poison its relations not only with its Asian neighbors but also with the United States and European nations requires reconsideration not only of contemporary Japanese nationalism, but also of the Cold War power structure that the US set in place during the occupation.
The US insulated Japan from war responsibility, first by maintaining Hirohito on the throne and shielding him from war crimes charges, second by protecting the Japanese state from war reparations claims from victims of colonialism, invasion, and atrocities, and finally by using its troops and bases both to guarantee Japan’s defense and to isolate it from China, the Soviet Union, and other US rivals.

Before turning to this issue, one other question should be posed: more than six decades since Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War, by what right does an American critically address issues of the Nanjing Massacre and Japan’s wartime atrocities? Stated differently, in the course of those six decades US military forces have repeatedly violated international law and humanitarian ethics, notably in Korea, Indochina, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the course of those decades, Japan has never fought a war, although it has steadfastly backed the US in each of its wars. Yet Asian and global attention continues to focus on Japanese war atrocities and their denial, while paying little attention to those committed and denied by the United States.
Attempts to gauge war atrocities and to understand the ways in which they are remembered and suppressed, require the application of universal standards as articulated in the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials. In an age of nationalism, it is particularly important to apply such standards to the conduct of one’s own nation. The German case, to which I return below, is particularly instructive. Germany, like Japan, was defeated by a US-led coalition, and the US played a key role in shaping institutions, war memories, and responses to war atrocities in both Germany and Japan. [3] Nevertheless, the outcomes in the two nations in the form of historical memory and reconciliation in the wake of war atrocities have differed sharply.

To unravel the most contentious memory wars in the Asia Pacific, I begin by offering a comparative framework for assessing Japanese and American war atrocities. I examine Japan’s Nanjing Massacre and the American firebombing and atomic bombing of Japanese cities during World War II as each nation’s signature atrocities. In each instance, I cast the issues in relation to the wider conduct of the war, and in the American case consider the legacy of the bombing for subsequent wars down to the present. At the center of the analysis is the assessment of these examples in light of principles of international law developed over many decades from the late nineteenth century, notably those enshrined in the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials, and the Geneva Convention of 1949, that identify as acts of terrorism and crimes against humanity the slaughter of civilians and noncombatants by states and their militaries. [4] It is only by considering crimes by the victors as well as the vanquished in the Asia Pacific War and other wars that it is possible to lay to rest the ghosts of suppressed memories in order to build foundations for a peaceful cooperative order in the Asia Pacific.
But first, Nanjing....

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